Boys on a car on Easter in Chicago
Boys on Car on Easter. Southside, Chicago, Illinois, 1941. Russell Lee. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. Now on view in The Negro Motorist Green Book at the Heinz History Center.

In 2019, “Green Book” won the best picture Oscar at the 91st Academy Awards. Along with scoring the best original screenplay Oscar, the Jim Crow era drama also won best supporting actor for Mahershala Ali, who portrayed the acclaimed Black classical music pianist and composer Don Shirley.

Viggo Mortensen, who was nominated for best actor in “Green Book” for his portrayal of Shirley’s white chauffeur, Tony “The Lip” Vallelonga, didn’t win that night; had he done so, we’d be up to our necks in white savior civil rights films by now. 

The movie deals with the inconveniences of segregation as the two men — a Black man from New York’s cultural elite and a working-class Italian — traverse the Deep South from gig to gig at a time of maximum danger for Black people in the early 1960s.

Though the “Green Book,” an annually updated list of businesses and services friendly to Black people during Jim Crow, is referred to in the title, it plays no central role in the film, which is curious in itself.

Thanks to the fine performances of its two leads, “Green Book” has more going for it than the 1990 Oscar-winning film “Driving Miss Daisy,” another movie about an unlikely interracial friendship in the 1960s. Both films struck more than a few critics as failed attempts at explaining America’s tortured racial past by drilling down on the experiences of white protagonists who never suffered the daily humiliations of Jim Crow.

By failing to explore the importance of the “Green Book” as the primary tool Black Americans used to navigate huge swaths of the American South that remained segregated in the 1960s, a chance to illuminate a little-known aspect of our history was lost. 

Four young women standing beside a convertible automobile, ca. 1958
Four young women standing beside a convertible automobile, ca. 1958. Courtesy WANN Radio Station Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

In my May 23 column, I wrote about the new “Pittsburgh and the Great Migration: Black Mobility and the Automobile” exhibition at The Frick’s Pittsburgh’s Car and Carnegie Museum. 

The importance of the “Green Book” as a guide to Black folks navigating this country’s highways, towns, big cities and backwoods during the Great Migration is touched upon in that exhibition, but there’s another exhibit across town that centers the “Green Book” as the most crucial artifact besides the automobile itself for Black liberation during the Jim Crow era.

The Negro Motorist Green Book exhibition, now on display at the Senator John Heinz History Center through Aug. 13, is a stunning, immersive multimedia exploration of this annual guide that helped millions evade the potholes of American segregation when it came to traveling. 

If you were Black and needed to know which towns were best to be out of “by sundown,” then the “Green Book” was as essential as having a fast car.

The “Green Book” was the brainchild of Victor Green, a Harlem mailman who created and first published a directory of Negro-friendly businesses, hotels, restaurants and gas stations in 1936. Green had experienced and was tired of the routine humiliations Black people suffered while traveling across the country.

The exhibit shows the history of how the “Green Book” became an indispensable guide to navigating Jim Crow. Along with the photographs of Pittsburgh Courier photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris, there are equally brilliant photos by his contemporaries across the country chronicling Black life. 

Green figured out that it was easier to list the businesses that welcomed Black commerce than the hundreds of thousands of businesses that didn’t because there was no more ubiquitous sign in America than Whites Only!

Leaving for Camp, July 3, 1958. Photo: Ross Pearsons from The State Newspaper Photograph Archive Richland Library, Columbia, S.C., [state_015_0061]. Courtesy of Richland Library, Columbia, S.C. 

There are reproductions of pages from the book that list the businesses and hotels that catered to Black travelers navigating through Pittsburgh on their way to or from the South. Many of the places were among the casualties of the urban renewal of the 1950s and ‘60s that saw the demolishment of the Lower Hill to build the Civic Arena.

Developed in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, “The Negro Motorist Green Book” has a mostly national orientation in its use of archival images and artifacts. Still, the Pittsburgh slice of the narrative fits nicely and advances the story impressively thanks to the Teenie Harris photos.

Reproductions and photographs of business signs for Black-owned or Black-friendly hotels, coffee shops and beach resorts remind the viewer that there was a time when apartheid was a legally sanctioned reality in American life and commerce. And Black folks had to develop separate institutional resources just to survive with a modicum of dignity.

For those who want to see one of the most popular cars driven by Black folks in those days close up, the exhibit includes a 1940 Plymouth Road King. As big as it is, it is hard to imagine entire families piling into one with all of the necessities for the road included. Black-owned cars were more like a Noah’s Ark than status symbols.

But this is not an exhibit that feels joyless or woe-is-me. It is life-affirming to see photos of Black folks managing to laugh and exist despite severely circumscribed access to the American dream. Armed with the knowledge of the dangers on the roads before them, Black folks were confident they could navigate whatever came their way.

There is also an interactive video that walks visitors through the process of packing the car trunk with all the necessities needed for travel including food, campfire gear, portable potties, road repair tools, spare clothes and medical first aid kits. 

These items were assembled with the assumption that until arriving at a Negro-friendly garage, hotel or hospital, the driver and passengers were on their own. 

1940 Plymouth Road King
1940 Plymouth Road King was a popular car for long-distance driving and a typical model used in the World War II era. Photo courtesy of The William E. Swigart Jr. Automobile Museum.

Jim Crow laws and mores made serving Black people problematic for white institutions and businesses even if individuals in those institutions and businesses were sympathetic. Because white cops were openly hostile to Blacks everywhere, the fewer times Black people stopped to load up on supplies, the better. Minimizing contact with the police or gangs of white racist hooligans was a priority.

That’s why cars driven by Blacks had to be everything from a restaurant on wheels to a rolling garage with all of its own resources to repair minor and major automotive problems. Getting a flat in a “sundown town” was an invitation to a lynching or a jail cell.

There’s an interactive display in the exhibit that invites visitors to choose between trying to patronage a “Green Book”-verified establishment and other businesses not listed in the book.

The presentation of this brilliant exhibition is sleek and deceptively beautiful given the subject matter. The placards tell the “Green Book” story well with catchy headlines and informative texts. 

I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but one of the effects of this show was to make me nostalgic for a time when ingenuity in the Black community burst at the seams at every level. 

The “Green Book” proves that there were parallel institutions and services for everything imaginable from upscale beaches to clubs to sports franchises. Integration had the ironic effect of smothering a lot of that entrepreneurial energy. Most of the businesses represented in the exhibit that weren’t killed by urban renewal were eventually closed because Black customers could patronize what was once off-limits after the civil rights gains of the mid-1960s.

After spending close to two hours at “The Negro Motorist Green Book” exhibition, it feels like most of the big questions folks walk through the door with are answered, though the essential mystery of how Jim Crow was able to hang on for nearly a century in America after slavery ended lingers like a ghost.

Upcoming programs affiliated with The Negro Motorist Green Book exhibition include Crossroads of the World: The Impact of Urban Renewal Then and Now, a panel discussion on how redevelopment shaped Black life in Pittsburgh, taking place on Tuesday, June 27, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Panelists include moderator Miracle Jones of 1Hood Media, Bonnie Young-Laing of the Hill District and a faculty member at PennWest University, the Rev. Dale B. Snyder, Sr., pastor of Bethel AME Church, and Carl Redwood Jr., community organizer and chairperson of the Hill District Consensus Group. The event is free, but pre-registration is required.

At a screening of the documentary “The Green Book: Guide to Freedom” on July 14 from 6:30-8:30 p.m. director Yoruba Richen will answer audience questions. The screening is free but requires pre-registration.

Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.

Award-winning writer Tony Norman tells the untold stories of Pittsburgh’s Black communities in a weekly column for NEXT. The longtime columnist and editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and an adjunct journalism professor at Chatham University. He is the current chair of the International Free Expression Project.