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ON THE SCENE: Author explains the ‘Green Book’ to students

May 11, 2018
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Today, finding a place to stay when planning a trip to most places in the United States is no big deal.

There are websites like hotel.com and booking.com, travel sites like Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia, travel guides like the Lonely Planet, Frommers, and Fodor's Travel, and emerging websites like airbnb.com and homeexchange.com. Back in the 1920s and up into the early 1960s, such options were far and few between for black Americans as discrimination against non-whites was common in many parts of the U.S., especially the south where Jim Crow laws were in force.

For many travelers, expressions of discrimination included having to sit in the back of the bus, finding many hotels, motels and restaurants closed to them, and only separate fountains, and bathrooms open to them.

Article Photos

Author Calvin Ramsey poses with Keene Central School students in grade 6 Friday, May 4.
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Indeed, so many hotels, motels, and restaurants were closed to blacks that by the end of the 1960s there were more than 10,000 cities and towns across the U.S. that had declared themselves "sundown towns," communities that were off-limits to black Americas after sundown. As an example of how widespread such towns were, in the mid-1950s only three motels in all of New Hampshire served African Americans.

In 1908, Henry Ford's Model T revolutionized transportation. By the late 1920s and early 1930s, cars and the resulting network of roads and amenities had improved so much millions of people wanted to hit the roads. An emerging middle class of black Americans was no different. They, too, wanted to visit families, national parks, or take in sites of special interest.

For black Americans, the added value of owning and driving their own cars is that it provided them greater freedom as to time, direction and method of travel, with fewer incidents of prejudice. Even so, determining where to stay, eat and get their car serviced remained a daunting challenge.

Victor Hugo Green, a World War I veteran and a New York City postman decided that black Americans could use a guidebook on where blacks could stay, be served food, and get gas for their cars without with hassle of discrimination. Like most postal carriers, Green knew the people on his route, knew their politics, their religion and their character. He knew which one's might be likely to let a black person or family stay with them. He figured that was true of other postal carriers, and as these jobs being federal were open black men and women, he started by contacting carriers he knew and asked then to reach out to others.

Green published his first travel guide, titled the "Negro-Motorist Green Book" in 1936. Commonly referred to as the "Green Book," its popularity resulted in an expanding number of listings, and new editions often appearing on a yearly basis. It soon became the bible of the black American traveler and continued to be published until 1966 when changes in Civil Rights laws and shifts in American mores created more options for the African-American traveler. After a while, the "Green Book" faded in people's memories as it was supplanted by the more universal travel guides published by AAA and others.

In the late 1990s, Calvin Alexander Ramsey, then trying to launch a second career as a writer, learned about the "Green Book" while attending a funeral in Atlanta. He was so fascinated by the story of its author, and how and why it came into being, that he decided to use it as the topic for a play and an illustrated children's book, "Ruth and the Green Book."

Martha Swan, director of John Brown Lives!, learned about the book and decided to invite Ramsey to come to the Adirondacks to participate in the 19th John Brown Day on Saturday, May 5, and, on the day before give readings at Newcomb Central School, where she teaches, and at Keene Central School. From Ramsey, she learned that Lake Placid had several listings in the "Green Book."

"We've always been dedicated to finding ways of engaging students and teachers in the history of slavery, injustice, and civil rights," said Swan. "Children often don't come to our celebrations at John Brown's Farm so we bring them opportunities to connect with people like Calvin in their schools as we did in Newcomb and Keene Central on Friday."

Swan wanted the children to meet Ramsey, learn why he decided to write his book, learn that several homes in Lake Placid were listed in the "Green Book," and realize that here, in their own communities, people stepped up to fight against racial injustice and, indeed, many still do.

Ramsey is very relaxed. He has the kind of personality that puts people at ease and the warmth of a beloved uncle or grandfather. At Keene Central, he participated in an assembly for students in grades 2-6. He introduced himself, told the kids that he always wanted to be a writer and how the necessities of making him a living led him to becoming an insurance salesman where he had a long and successful career. Then after retirement, he decided to go back this first love of writing.

Ramsey's book is set in 1953 when an 8-year-old girl, Ruth, goes on a summer road trip with her parents leaving their home in Chicago to visit her grandmother in Selma, Alabama. Using a PowerPoint slide show featuring pages of the book, Ramsey provided the children an annotated version of her trip. He explained that earlier in the 20th century there had a been a great migration of blacks from the South to the North in search of jobs, and this trip took place after the height of that movement when many wanted to visit relatives left behind.

He shared the various challenges black travelers encountered along the way and continually asked the children the cause behind various situations they faced. As an example, at one point they stopped at a service station and Ruth wanted to go to the bathroom, but the owner told her father that he could not her the use of the bathroom door key.

"Do you know of any reason he said her couldn't give them the key?" asked Ramsey.

Many hands shot up. After hearing their thoughts, he asked if they felt the station manager was a bad person. That got more responses with Ramsey than explaining Jim Crow laws. He then asked the children what they would have done if faced with similar problems, which resulted in a very engaged dialogue. And so, the presentation and discussion continued in a very non-threatening and respectful manner that constantly elicited responses from the children.

Ramsey wrapped up by asking each child what they wanted to achieve in life, so no one felt left out.

"The kids were bright, and a number of them had read the book," said Ramsey after the session. "They asked good questions. Usually this is a tough age group, but these kids were exceptional, different, definitely good. I was very impressed with them. I'd love to come back."

 
 

 

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