The Negro Motorist Green Book

Erik S. Lesser for The New York Times

Check out this intruging New York Times article brought to my attention by an Outdoor Afro community member about The Negro Motorist Green Book, a book that helped black people find where and how to move about the United States for travel and leisure in the Jim Crow era. Living in these Obama tinted times, it can seem like a distant concept that in the lifetimes of our parents and grandparents, where black people might go to eat, spend a night, or merely venture to recreate was often dictated by the color of their skin.

But outdoor engagement for many African Americans was still happening in spite of these barriers, especially in places like the south. Leafing through the pages of my own family photos, my folks and other relatives are pictured outdoors and engaged in all sorts of recreational activities over the years, but the scene was most often a picnic on private land; backyards, or other neighborhood settings — not at a National Park. For example, American Beach in Florida has historically been about celebrating family. Today, some of the community’s original families still gather here for vacations.

Related to camping history in the US, Terence Young in his 2009 article: ‘a contradiction in democratic government’: W. J. TRENT, JR., AND THE STRUGGLE TO DESEGREGATE NATIONAL PARK CAMPGROUNDS, shares some additional historical context:

“Camping began in the nineteenth century as an elite form of pilgrimage to the wild, but the arrival of inexpensive automobiles in the early twentieth century greatly expanded camping’s social diversity. The change was not universally embraced, especially when African Americans were involved, and the issue came to a head during the 1930s after two racially segregated national parks were opened in southern states. As complaints flowed in, William J. Trent, Jr., became adviser for Negro affairs to Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes. He had no special interest in the outdoors or national parks, but Trent championed increased African American access to the parks and an end to discrimination in them. NPS leadership resisted Trent’s efforts until Secretary Ickes ordered them to create one nonsegregated demonstration area in Shenandoah National Park in 1939. The policy was extended to other areas in 1941 and the next year, with World War II shifting into high gear, campground and other forms of segregation were ended throughout the park system.”

Anthony John Coletti – Family Reunion at American Beach

Current barriers to the outdoors can no longer be attributed to segregation laws, but sometimes a fear of the unknown experience coupled with concerns about not being welcomed. Public and private organizations related to the outdoors have the challenge of not only connecting a new generation to wild spaces, but also addressing some of the historical residue that may account for some of the current estrangement.

Today we each have an important opportunity to make a difference related to who engages with our natural and public spaces. There is a monumental effort happening at a national level and across many organizations to reconnect all Americans to the outdoors not seen since Roosevelt. Since my trip to Washington DC for the America’s Great Outdoors Conference last spring, senior White House Officials have traveled all over the country hosting listening sessions to collect inspired ideas from people of all walks of life to map out ways to connect more Americans to the outdoors. The data collected will be presented to President Obama in a report due in November of this year. And even if you cannot make one of the upcoming listening sessions in a town near you, please make sure to add your ideas to the official AGO website.

Outdoor Afro Project: Ask your parents or grandparents how they engaged with natural spaces while growing up, especially if they lived during the pre-Civil Rights era. Post your findings here in the comments. You may also mail in photos to be featured in a follow-up blog post.

Read: Frank and Audrey Peterman’s book, Legacy on the Land, about the history of the National Parks and people of color.


7 Thoughts on “The Negro Motorist Green Book”

  • Thank you Rue for this wonderful and enlightening post. My parents and grandparents, and great grandparents who are now ancestors engaged with the natural world through gardening, monthly family picnics, fishing and tending to animals out in La Grange TX. When I spoke to my mother recently who is 74 yrs old about her experiences as a child she said she was a tree climber and loved to spend time sitting in and climbing trees.

    • Yes, all reminders that outdoor engagement is not new for African Americans. As you mention, the practice and habits in the outdoors might show up as picnics (you know how important food is), tending farm animals, and engaging with land where one lives versus traveling to a destination. Thanks for sharing Phoenix!

  • Another good history lesson. And with 75% white population and 13% black, serves to let us know we have come a long way. Also serves to remind us we should be thankful that most blacks and whites want all types of crime to end.

    But too many powerful and affluent, both blacks and whites, want crime to grow for profits. Billions in revenue to be had to provide products and services for criminals. Those evil groups, made up of blacks and whites, are the evil that serves to divide instead of unite blacks and whites. Done for greed, influence, power. Possible because we have so many poor, dumb, and needy because of the many and varied systems in place that enable criminal production. We, blacks and whites, allowed this. We are the enablers of the enablers of criminal production.

    Let’s be even more thankful that 100% of blacks and whites do not become criminals. Consider if 100% of blacks and whites became criminals. With 75% white and 13% black population ratio, and both sides with no morals, it would be a very bad thing for blacks. It could become like things are in Africa today for many blacks. Where blacks kidnap, torture, kill, and enslave other blacks. Where a variation of “The Negro Motorists Handbook” black travel guide is still used to escape horrid abuse by blacks.

    Actually we still have similar travel guides throughout the US. There are certain places blacks and whites just don’t go because of their race, or because of the level of crime regardless of your race, or because of gang warfare, or because of large communities of street dwellers.

    Have a safe trip to the voting station.

    • Interesting Danny. While your logic jumps around quite a bit, leading to an ominous conclusion, I give you kudos for taking the time to participate.

  • I run a youth mentorship program in Brooklyn schools. It is called H.O.L.L.A.!, Ink (How Our Lives Link Altogether). I’m interested in exploring outdoor trips for my young people. WHo can help me out? Please contact me at / 347 848 7395

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