The “Driving the Green Book” podcast will be available on all streaming platforms Tuesday. (Photo: Macmillan Podcasts)
The idea of giving someone a ride home after a meeting doesn’t seem like a daunting feat. But if you were driving while Black in the 1950s and ’60s, it certainly could be.
Jim Crow segregation and intimidation by the Ku Klux Klan and other groups often led to tense encounters for Black travelers or even life-or-death situations. Many relied on Victor Hugo Green’s “The Negro Motorist’s Green Book”, a travel guide for African Americans, to help them avoid risk.
One night sometime in the 1960s, Hank Sanders, now a 77-year old Alabama senator, offered to drop a white woman off on his way home from a meeting. As they were driving down a dark road in Alabama, a truck began to tail him.
“He knew it was the kind of truck that would have a gun in the back,” said Alvin Hall, 68, an award-winning broadcaster who talked to Sanders for a new Macmillan Podcast series, “Driving the Green Book,” which launched Tuesday on platforms including Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Stitcher.
Table of Contents
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Eventually, the truck pulled up alongside Sanders’ vehicle. “He fully expected there was going to be a gunshot, he kept his eyes forward but was watching out of the corner of his eye,” Hall explained. Finally, the truck pulled ahead and drove off.
“That’s almost like a bad horror movie and that story stays with me a lot,” Hall said. “Many people don’t realize how capricious it was back then, how truly capricious it was that in the sense that for Black people just being behind the wheel of a car was (an affront) to white supremacy.”
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As host of the 10-week podcast series, which drops every Tuesday through mid-November, Hall aims to use stories of tense moments like this one – as well as happy memories – to resurface the history and value of the Green Book. His idea for the podcast came about three years ago.
“So many Black people and white people I knew did not know about the Green Book. I would go to cocktail parties… I was talking about the Green Book and only a few people knew about it – this was before the movie,” he said, referencing the 2019 Oscar-winning film.
He decided more people needed to know. He had already done an audio documentary on the Green Book with the BBC, but it never aired in the U.S. So, he teamed up with Janée Woods Weber, 44, the podcast’s associate producer, social justice activist, and embarked on a 12-day, 2,021-mile journey that started in Detroit and ended in New Orleans, visiting cities and places listed in the guide.
“Our show evolved from being a road trip, a journey along a path, into a journey into the memories and emotions of the people along that path and they would often in a moment connect the events they were talking about to today,” Hall said.
“(The interview subjects) offer incredible insights and meaningful perspective into what travel was like for Black people during this era,” Kathy Doyle, the vice president of Macmillan Podcasts, told USA TODAY. “Some of them are shocking, while others are incredibly inspiring, so the series evokes a wide range of emotions while truly giving the listener a deep understanding of the issues and challenges faced during this time.”
Alvin Hall and Janée Woods Weber at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans. (Photo: Janée Woods Weber)
Originally published in 1936, the Green Book served as a guide for African American travelers to the restaurants, hotels, gas stations and other places that would serve them in a segregated era. It became a prudent resource to find Black-friendly businesses and services and even included essays about recommended behavior on the road.
Hall and Woods Weber explored some of the Green Book’s listings such as Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Many establishments no longer exist, including the Summers Hotel which is now a vacant lot.
They spent time with local activists, former Motown musicians, historians, entrepreneurs, professors and politicians. Many shared personal stories proving the value of the travel guide.
The stories vary, Hall explained: Some are inspiring, some are disturbing, some are funny or amusing.
William Williams, a professor of architecture at the University of Cincinnati, told Hall his family refused to travel without a copy of the Green Book – it was akin to a Bible. While the travel guide is praised today as innovative, it was, unfortunately, necessary to navigate local expectations, he said. Jim Crow laws varied by state: In some, Black people could not walk on the same sidewalk as white people and were expected to move out of a white person’s way.
“Any white person could stop any Black person and make demands,” Hall said, noting that during segregation a Black person had no rights.
Hall heard stories from Black people who had to wait at gas stations for every white person to finish their business before they could get what they needed. “(If the traveler) looked at the person the wrong way – the gas station attendant – they just might pull out a gun,” Hall said.
And while things have changed since last century’s Great Migration period when the book was often used, the possibility of violent encounters is still a reason for Black drivers to be nervous on the road. In fact, Woods Weber’s heart fluttered while making their journey, more than 90 years after the Green Book was first published.
“While (we) were driving on some of the very roads that necessitated the Green Book be created, it was unnerving to think that even now, 50 years later, my heart would still flutter when we would drive past a police cruiser,” Woods Weber said. “I thought, ‘wow if I feel this nervous what did that feel like 50 years ago?'”
But at times there were sweeter memories. Frank Figgers, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, reflected on his youth in Jackson, Mississippi, where he met his wife. He told Hall about their nights out, many of which took place at the Summers Hotel. His wife, a churchgoer and morning person, would venture out to experience nightlife with him though it was opposite her nature – out of love for him.
“So those types of stories that are personal, about love about emotion, that’s what these places represented to people,” Hall said. “The places where they went to have a good time, where they went to let go of the burdens of the world and were not subjected to the white gaze.”
After Green died in 1960, his wife Alma S. Duke, managed the publication, later passing it on to two men. There were new iterations of the Green Book published through 1966. Often, they were released yearly, with exceptions during tumultuous periods including World War II, said Maira Liriano, the associate chief librarian at the Schomburg Center, a division of the New York Public Library which holds an extensive collection of Green Books.
“(The podcast is) making a connection between the past and the present,” Liriano said. “So, if you’re talking to people today that remember using the Green Books or other travel guides like this (who are) describing what their experiences were, I think that just brings home how discrimination from the past still lives with us today.”
And that connection Liriano said, is clear: Driving while Black is still an issue.
“If you think about how many killings have happened recently with Black motorists – so many of the police shootings have been associated with Black motorists – I think you start connecting the dots and I think it’s really important to understand the history.”
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