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jennifer graham

Civil-rights heroes in searchable database

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IF YOU’RE white and younger than 50, odds are you’ve never heard of the Negro Motorist Green Book. For African-Americans in the 1940s and ’50s, the Green Book was as ubiquitous and necessary as the Bible.

Published by a New York mail carrier named Victor H. Green, the publication was similar to the American Automobile Association TourBook. When the Green Book debuted in 1936, the AAA had been producing lodging guides and personalized trip planners for years. But those products were useful primarily for white motorists, for whom the experience of travel had far less stress.

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Whites worried they might run out of gas, not that they might run out of gas with no nearby gas station that would serve them. Whites needed only to find a hotel with vacancies, not a hotel with vacancies that allowed blacks. And whites never feared being caught in a “sundowner town” where blacks were not allowed after dark. Mark Twain said travel is fatal to prejudice, but in Jim Crow America, prejudice could make travel fatal.

But this was before the Green Book, an information superhighway that operated underground to help the black traveler “keep from running into difficulties and embarrassments.” Green started it because his own “oftentime painful embarrassments” led him to compile a listing of service stations, restaurants, and lodging where civility and safety was assured. Within a year, what started as a local venture went national and became an important part of African-American life, necessarily off the radar screen of most whites. (Eventually, it was renamed the Negro Travelers’ Green Book.)

It ceased publication in 1966, two years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the hundreds of thousands of copies, triumphantly unnecessary, vanished into landfills and attics. But a 1949 edition is available digitally through the University of Michigan, and the 20th-anniversary issue, from 1956, through the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina. They are worth a look as President Obama exhorts the nation to “pay tribute to the heroes, sung and unsung, of African-American history” in February.

Sometimes these heroes aren’t people, but businesses. One is Esso, now ExxonMobil. To an unforgiving many, Exxon is an environmental villain, tainted by the Valdez oil spill in 1989. But in the 1950s and ’60s, Esso was a hero. The oil company had African-American franchisees , and its stations even helped to distribute the Green Books.

Then there are the individual establishments listed, which included the Lucille Hotel in Boston, the Clipper Cabins in Wareham, and the Cinderella Cottage in Oak Bluffs in Martha’s Vineyard. The three are among 38 establishments listed in Massachusetts on USC’s nifty searchable database. “Most of them don’t exist anymore, so it’s really neat to have this resource,” Craig Keeney, a librarian at the South Caroliniana Library told me.

In the Jim Crow era, the Green Book was essential for black travelers: a listing of service stations, restaurants, and lodging where safety was assured.

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Most don’t exist, but some do, including the Cinderella Cottage, which is still a rental on Martha’s Vineyard. It is a gingerbread-laced Victorian managed by Karen M. Overtoom, who didn’t know of the property’s illustrious past. The cottage’s listing promises “old world charm with all of today’s necessities” that will “transport you to another era.” Thankfully, the stains of that other era have been largely erased.

That such a book was necessary a mere five or six decades ago evokes incredulity, even among those of us whose formative images of racial injustice came from the 1977 miniseries “Roots,” not the Oscar nominee “12 Years a Slave.” Recent works — from the film about Solomon Northup’s kidnapping and incarceration to Sue Monk Kidd’s new novel, “The Invention of Wings” — continue to emphasize the evils of slavery, an institution abolished before any American now alive was born. Prejudice, however, seems a sly, immortal thing, always searching for a host. The Green Books, still useful on their digital shelves, continue to offer advice: To that visitor, bar the door.

Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe.
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