Navigating Race: Route 66 and the Green Book

22, September 2016
1949 edition of the Green Book“Carry your Green Book with you—you may need it,” advises the cover of the 1949 edition. Under that, a quote from Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice.” Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The words welcoming and friendly are often used when describing Route 66, but for African American travelers, cruising Route 66 could be an ordeal. They were regularly turned down when requesting a place to sleep, eat, fix their cars, or answer nature’s call. Families heading out on Route 66 would pack food, toilet paper, jugs of water, and car-repair tools, because chances were good they’d find themselves on their own even in the middle of a town.

African American travelers weren’t on their own if they had Victor Green’s Negro Motorist Green Book (commonly referred to as the Green Book). Green was a Harlem postal worker and activist who first came up with the idea of an African American travel guide in 1932. His first guide listed roadside establishments across the country that welcomed African Americans during the decades when segregation and Jim Crow laws made travel difficult.

Photo of the site of the Old Boulevard Beauty ParlorThe building at 1023 N. Grand Avenue once housed the Boulevard Beauty Parlor, which was listed in the Green Book in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

Selling more than 15,000 annual copies in its peak years, the Green Book was a necessary part of travel for many families. It was also a work-in-progress, ever expanding as users submitted the new places they found. Early editions listed just a few business types—hotels, restaurants, and service stations—but by the late 1940s, the Green Book included barbershops, beauty salons, drugstores, and night clubs.

St. Louis was one of the few places anywhere on Route 66 that provided African American travelers with options, but most of these listings were in north city or Mill Creek Valley, which meant travelers had to venture far off the Mother Road. Making things even trickier, the Green Book sometimes provided only a rough address. Restaurants could be in alleys or church basements, and many lodging listings were simply spare beds in private homes. But these clues were all travelers had.

Black-and-white photo of Alberta's HotelAlberta's Hotel, late 1950s. Image courtesy of Irv Logan.

Beyond St. Louis, the options for African Americans fell away almost immediately. In 1954, at the height of Route 66’s popularity, Springfield and Joplin were the only other Missouri Route 66 cities even listed in the Green Book. Springfield had just one location, but it was one many African American travelers at the time knew well: Alberta’s Hotel on North Benton Avenue.

Alberta Ellis turned Springfield’s old city hospital into a hotel for African Americans in the years following World War II. Her hotel, staffed by her entire family, hosted not only tourists but also prominent African American entertainers and musicians, including Nat King Cole, Louis Jordan, Stevie Wonder, and the Harlem Globetrotters. How’d she do it? She advertised by word of mouth and in African American newspapers up and down Route 66.

Black-and-white photo of Nat King ColeEven celebrities stayed at Alberta's Hotel, including Nat King Cole. Photo by William P. Gottlieb. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Ellis also operated a 10-acre property known as The Farm, where she grew produce for her hotel's dining room and allowed overflow guests to stay and camp. The Farm became a central gathering spot along Route 66, where big barbeques were held with visitors from California to Illinois. They traded stories with other travelers of what was to come and where help could be found along the way.

In one edition of the Green Book, Victor Green wrote: “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal rights and privileges in the United States." Green passed away in 1960, so he didn’t live to see the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made it illegal to refuse service based on race. His family kept the book going until 1966, when the last edition was published.

—Andrew Wanko, Public Historian

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