'Guide To Freedom' Documentary Chronicles The Real Life 'Green Book'

Feb 25, 2019
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The movie "Green Book" won three Oscars last night, including best picture. We're going to talk about the new documentary "The Green Book Guide To Freedom," which will be shown on the Smithsonian Channel tonight. The Green Book was a travel guide that was first printed in 1936, in the era of segregation, listing restaurants, hotels, shops and gas stations that would serve African-Americans and that were safe for them. In 1967, following the signing of the Civil Rights Act, the Green Book stopped publication.

Our guest is the director of the documentary, Yoruba Richen. She tells the story through archival home-movie footage and interviews with descendants of African-Americans who used the Green Book and the children of business owners who were listed in the guide. The film shows the challenges and dangers black travelers faced, the limited options they had while on the road and the role business owners listed in the book played in the civil rights movement. Yoruba Richen is the director of the Documentary Program at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Her previous films include "The New Black" and "Promised Land." Richen spoke to FRESH AIR'S Dave Davies about the Green Book.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Well, Yoruba Richen, welcome to FRESH AIR. One of the things that makes the film so great is footage from the era and interviews from people who recalled these events. How'd you gather the material?

YORUBA RICHEN: Well, in terms of the footage, we initially went down to the National African Museum of History in Washington, D.C. They're a Smithsonian partner. And as soon as I started to see this footage, this amazing home-movie footage of African-Americans traveling, vacationing, working, I wanted to tell the film through this archival footage. And I really wanted to have a home-movie feel to it because that's what "The Green Book" was about. It was about African-Americans traveling for, you know, vacation, to visit family and what their experience was like.

And also the industry, the automobile industry, as we say in the film, was a huge employer of African-Americans. Helped us as we came out of the South from the Great Migration and get these jobs in the car factories, enter the middle class and the upper class. So the automobile is very significant for the African-American population.

DAVIES: Well, let's talk a little bit about kind of what conditions were like that led to the need for the Green Book. And I want us to hear a little scene from the film where we hear two sisters reminiscing about traveling when they were kids. Their names are Jennifer Ivy (ph) and Karen Allen Baxter (ph), who speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE GREEN BOOK: GUIDE TO FREEDOM")

KAREN ALLEN BAXTER: We would go places. And I remember the routine had been my dad would get out first, check it out, and we sat in the car. Then he would come out after a few minutes and say, OK, we can go in. But Jennifer reminded me of one time where we had reservations. Was it a...

JENNIFER IVY: Hotel.

BAXTER: It was a hotel reservation. And when Daddy showed up, they said all of a sudden there was no reservation.

IVY: He got back in the car very quickly and was upset. It was because it was late at night and dark.

BAXTER: They sent us down the road someplace. I remember my mother being very upset. And we ended up in this hotel or motel that was a converted barn. And I remember Mommy saying it smelled like the animals were still there.

IVY: And it did.

DAVIES: And that's from the film, "The Green Book: A Guide To Freedom." Our guest is the director Yoruba Richen. Just talk a bit about the challenges African-Americans faced traveling back in those days.

RICHEN: You know, Karen and Jennifer are from New York. They traveled through New England with their family, and that instance happened when they were traveling to New England. And I say that because it's important to understand that this was not relegated to the Jim Crow South. The dangers and the humiliations and the fear were really all over the country.

And in fact, in some ways the South was a bit easier to navigate because there were signs, so you knew exactly where you could and couldn't go. Whereas in the North and the West, there weren't necessarily the signs but still the same conditions. So African-Americans had to figure out where they would go, where they would be able to sleep and where they would be served. And as you just heard, they would walk into places sometimes and would be denied.

And then, of course, there's the danger, the potential threat of violence that met African-Americans. There were places called sundown towns that are all over the country, mostly in the North and the West. And these were places that African-Americans had to leave before the sun went down. Sometimes there were signs. Sometimes they rang a bell so the workers who worked, the black workers who worked there, knew they had to get out of the town. And these were all over the country.

DAVIES: Right. And it was really striking how many more sundown towns there were in the North and Midwest and West than in the deep South. Why would that be?

RICHEN: You know, I think it's because the South had legal segregation. I mean, it was legal. And that's where you know, obviously, with the history of slavery and all that, there was a system that was set up to discriminate against African-Americans. And in the North and the West, that system was not as sort of visible, even though it was still there. So I think that the - those sundown towns, I mean, there were - you know, they were all over. And that racism that was throughout the country, these were specific places where African-Americans were either run out of the towns for various reason, or they just never allowed African-Americans to live in that town.

DAVIES: And these were places where African-Americans worked during the day but had to...

RICHEN: Some, yes. Exactly. Yeah.

DAVIES: And if you happened to be driving through a sundown town without knowing it was a sundown town, you would...

RICHEN: Yeah, that's - you want to not do that (laughter).

DAVIES: You know, when a lot of us are on a road trip, you take for granted that when it's lunchtime, you know, you could find a restaurant, or maybe you want to grab some food to eat in the car or go to a grocery store and get stuff for a picnic. An African-American family in this era faced a whole different challenges. They really had to think hard and prepare before they left, didn't they?

RICHEN: Yeah, absolutely. You know, at the screenings that we've had, we've had people stand up after the screenings and talk about how they remember, you know, their mom wrapping the fried chicken to bring on the road and the fruit that they would bring. And - you know, and they would just drive and not stop, or they knew only where to stop, specific places. We had one woman say, you know, she never knew why we only went to certain places. But, you know, as she got older, she knew that that was because they were using the Green Book. The family was using the Green Book and only going to the places that were designated. And they did. They had to prepare for these long journeys.

DAVIES: And there's the matter of using the bathroom. That's hard to plan. How did people figure out how to do that?

RICHEN: Well, a lot of times there were, you know - you used the Green Book to figure out where you could do that, where there were gas stations and restaurants. You had to go on the side of the road. I think that one of the things that is interesting is Rosa Parks, before she was, you know, the woman that we know who refused to give up her seat on the bus, she worked investigating harassment of African-American women in the South. And one of the places that African-American women were most vulnerable was on public transportation or on train stations because they could not - they didn't have access to the facilities and had to go in the open sometimes.

So this is a very deep reality that African-Americans lived with and a big - a really big part of our experience that we don't talk about, really, when we talk about the black experience. You know, we have - often have a very narrow lens in looking at African-American history. And I think that the Green Book allows us to look at so much more.

DAVIES: Yeah. One of the men in the book said that when they would travel, he would bring a sheet in case they needed some kind of a screen or barrier just so...

RICHEN: Exactly.

DAVIES: ...People could relieve themselves. Wow.

RICHEN: Exactly. Exactly.

DAVIES: Yoruba Richen's new film is "The Green Book: A Guide To Freedom" (ph). It premieres at 8 o'clock Eastern time tonight on the Smithsonian Channel. It's also available for streaming on the Smithsonian Channel. We'll be back in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with filmmaker Yoruba Richen. Her new film, about the travel guide to help African-Americans find places they could stay and eat back in the days of segregation, is called "The Green Book: Guide To Freedom." So how did the Green Book get started?

RICHEN: It was created by a man named Victor Green, Victor Hugo Green. First, you know, very good at branding, (laughter) called it the Green Book. And he was a postal worker based in Harlem. And he had a Jewish friend who had a guide to places in the Catskills where Jewish families could go and have recreation and pleasure and be safe. And he thought that would be a really good idea for African-Americans. He knew that we needed such a guide. He also had a wife named Alma, and Alma had family in Virginia. And they would go, and they'd travel from New York down to Virginia to visit family. So he experienced what it was like to drive on the segregated roads.

DAVIES: And how did he get the information for it? It's a big country. I mean, there was no Internet obviously.

RICHEN: (Laughter) That's right.

DAVIES: And people didn't call long-distance routinely. How did he build...

RICHEN: I know.

DAVIES: How did he build his network?

RICHEN: Yeah. I mean, it's pretty incredible, right? He did this all before computers. He was kind of the - one of the original crowd-sourcers. He had his network of black postal workers. And that was one of the industries, of course, where African-Americans could break into, the Postal Service. And he had a network of black postal workers who he would get information from. So you know, where are the black businesses? Where are the black communities? Let me know.

And they also encouraged business owners to advertise in the book. So these postal workers would be out, you know, delivering mail. And they saw black businesses, and they would tell them about the Green Book and encourage them to advertise in it. And then, a little bit later, he would always say in the Green Book - like, in the pages of the Green Book, he would always say, please send in your businesses.

Sometimes he would target markets that he was looking for. Hey, we need more listings in Springfield, Miss., or what have you. So you know, it was a real early form of crowdsourcing. And of course, the distribution, he was able to partner with Esso gas station. And Esso distributed the Green Book in its gas stations.

DAVIES: Well, that's a big deal because corporate America were not exactly open to, you know, black employment, certainly not black management back then.

RICHEN: Absolutely. So Esso's a really interesting case of how a corporation was really trying to be, like, on the progressive edge.

DAVIES: And we should probably just say for younger listeners...

RICHEN: Sure.

DAVIES: ...This is the parent company of what's now Exxon, so a big, huge oil company.

RICHEN: That's right.

DAVIES: Right.

RICHEN: Yes. It was Standard Oil then, and it was owned by Rockefeller. Rockefeller was one of the owners. And Rockefeller was married to a woman. Her last name is Spelman. They were from a family of abolitionists. Spelman was - they started the HBCU Spelman College in Atlanta, the women's college. So there was a history of working to advance racial African-American rights that Rockefeller had. And he hired black chemists very early, or Esso did. They had - they marketed to the African-American community. You know, they were also smart, and they knew that this was a a potential customer base.

DAVIES: Right. So he began this in 1936 when, you know, the auto industry was booming, and a lot of African-Americans got jobs and could afford cars and were traveling more. How did he market it? I guess the Esso gas stations were a good way.

RICHEN: Yep, Esso gas stations. He eventually printed around 15,000 copies. And somebody actually got up at one of my screenings too and said, you know what? It's also important to remember that not everybody bought a copy. They would share a copy, so they would pass it to their neighbor, to their family member who was traveling, you know, who was about to take a road trip. And I think it was word of mouth. And the businesses had had them as well.

And so I think it became - he had distributed 15,000 copies because of the Esso connection. That really, you know, gave it a visibility that I think other travel guides didn't necessarily have. Because there were some other black travel guides too, but the Green Book was the one that was the most well-known.

DAVIES: So it really was nationwide. It wasn't primarily in the Jim Crow South.

RICHEN: No, it was nationwide. I mean, Victor Green started in New York. He started with New York listings because there were places even in Harlem at the time that African-Americans were not allowed to go to. Even in the, you know, African-American Mecca, there was segregation, de facto segregation. So he started with with New York listings. And then, soon it went all over the country, really by the second or third edition. And then he was all over the world. By the end, he had incorporated Europe, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean.

And I think it's also important to know too that he started it as - it was called the Negro Motorist Guide. And then, really by the early 1940s, he incorporated the Negro Motorist Guide to Travel and Vacation. So that's another part of it too, that it was - the guide helped African-Americans go to and find places where they could have vacation and leisure and recreation. So safety was a big part of it obviously, but this pursuit of leisure and vacation was also a part of it.

DAVIES: Yeah, I wanted to talk about some of those resorts. But first of all, what other kinds of businesses were in it besides hotels and restaurants?

RICHEN: Gas stations were listed, clubs, liquor stores, resorts, beauty shops, tailors. In the early ones, there were doctor's office and hospitals, I mean, because - and that just goes to show you, as someone says in the film, the breadth of businesses and services that African-Americans were locked out of at the time.

DAVIES: Right. And auto repair could be a big deal if you're on the road too, I guess.

RICHEN: Absolutely, yeah. If your car breaks down, we can't all - you know, not all of us know how to change a tire on the road. So auto repair and gas stations were definitely a big part of the Green Book.

DAVIES: Besides places to stop and eat and stay, Victor Green started advertising resorts. Tell us about a couple of them.

RICHEN: That's right. Yeah. Very early on, the African-American vacation resorts started to be listed in the book. And one of the places that we profile in the film is Idlewild in northwest Michigan. Idlewild was one of the biggest black resorts in the country. It had - they said there were, you know, during its heyday in the early '50s, 25,000 people coming out to Idlewild.

And it's so - such a fascinating place. It was developed. It started being developed in 1910. So really, really early on, African-American middle and upper class were coming to this, you know, coming to buy lots and build houses. One of the early developers was a - the first African-American surgeon at the University of Chicago who started buying plots there. African-American developers, real estate owners. So it really allows us to see too the - how the African-American middle and upper class have always been a part of this country as well.

And they had amazing entertainers who were there - Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, Diahann Carroll. All the entertainers would come to Idlewild, and it was a safe haven. That's what - how everybody described it. It was a safe haven where African-Americans could go and go into the lake and own property and have friends and reunite and really have a community. And it's still there. Idlewild is still there. They are folks who are trying to redevelop some of the buildings, who've bought property there. They have events there. It's really a beautiful place. And there are other ones, too. There was American Beach in Florida, Highland Beach in Maryland, Murray's Dude Ranch in California, Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. I mean, these African-American resort - vacation resorts were all over the country.

DAVIES: One of the other interesting things about the film is that you note how many businesses that were advertised in the Green Book were owned by African-American women.

RICHEN: As we were, you know, developing the film and finding the stories, the women owners became, you know, a real part of what we were finding - a real part of the, you know, how we were telling the story. And at one point, we looked in the Green Book, as they're all online, and there were just tons of these advertisements that women had sent in - women business owners had sent in. That's one of the backbones of our community, African-American women.

And we have always been entrepreneurial and had that spirit of business creation. I think, even today, African-American women are the largest fastest-growing number of entrepreneurs. So, you know, they owned restaurants, and beauty parlors, tourist homes. And they're all through the book. And it's really a wonderful way to bring that history through "The Green Book."

DAVIES: Right. And some of them were very small businesses. But some of these women were really, like, major business leaders in their communities.

RICHEN: Absolutely.

DAVIES: You tell - talk about a woman named Alberta Ellis in Springfield, Mo.

RICHEN: Yes.

DAVIES: Tell us about her.

RICHEN: Yeah. She was amazing. I wish I had known her, but we talked to Alberta's grandchildren. And Alberta owned Alberta's Motel in Springfield, Mo. And she - at one point, she was one of the only listings in Springfield. She started with a snack shop, and then she was able to buy - I think the local hospital, the land for the local hospital had closed. The local hospital had closed, and she bought that property and put it into...

DAVIES: Showed up with cash she had saved...

RICHEN: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: ...And just got it. You know, it's a great story.

RICHEN: Exactly. And then bought that and created Alberta's Motel. And Alberta's - I mean, everybody came through Alberta's. They talk about James Brown coming through and all the singers. And she was really a woman about town. She had her own money. She was independent. She had the family working there, working the motel. It was a real thing. And unfortunately, it's not still standing, but her grandchildren have really brought her story and kept her story alive.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Yoruba Richen, director of the new documentary "The Green Book," which will be shown tonight on the Smithsonian Channel. The documentary is about the travel guide for African-Americans that's also referred to in the title of the feature film "Green Book," which won the Oscar for best picture last night.

After a break, we'll hear more of the interview. Ken Tucker will review a reissue of two Ray Charles country and Western albums, and John Powers will review a spy novel about an African-American woman working as an FBI agent during the Cold War. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAY MCSHANN'S "ROSE ROOM")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview Dave Davies recorded with filmmaker Yoruba Richen. Her new documentary, "The Green Book: Guide To Freedom," tells the story of the travel guide first published in the pre-civil rights era, listing places across the country where it was safe for African-Americans to eat, shop, stay overnight and find medical help while travelling on American highways. The documentary will be shown tonight on the Smithsonian Channel.

DAVIES: What role did the business owners that were in the Green Book play in the civil rights movement? There were some interesting stories here, weren't there?

RICHEN: Yeah. You know, I keep saying we've seen the footage of, you know, civil rights footage of marches and hoses being, you know, put upon African-Americans, African-Americans fighting back. But who pays for the movement? Who - movements costs money. And the Green Book, lists one of the places - the Gaston Motel in Birmingham, Ala., whose owner is a man named A.G. Gaston. A.G. Gaston was one of the most successful black business people up until that time - multimillionaire. He had many different businesses. And one of those was the Gaston Motel. And the Gaston Motel was one of the headquarters where Martin Luther King - Dr. Martin Luther King - fought the Birmingham campaign.

And with - the Birmingham campaign was an effort to desegregate the businesses downtown. And Birmingham was policed by a notorious, racist sheriff who had a lot of power in the town, Bull Connor. So the photo footage that we - you know, that we've found show Martin Luther King at the motel with Dr. Reverend Abernathy really orchestrating this campaign. And A.G. Gaston was the owner, let them stay for free and also gave money even though he disagreed - he was more conservative. And he disagreed with a confrontational approach, initially. So he and Dr. King would kind of go at it about, you know, what's the right way forward to fight - you know, to fight for civil rights. But he's a really unsung hero of the movement. And so it was really wonderful to be able to talk to his niece Carol Jenkins, who is an esteemed reporter in her own right, about that history.

DAVIES: Right. I have to say one thing that made this part of the story really fascinating is, you know, when movements for change occur - years later, we know kind of the outcome. And it all seems predetermined. But back then, there were these real debates. I mean, how hard can you push? How far do you go in potentially alienating other supporters? And King was pushing harder. Gaston was an established businessman, and so while King was pushing action on the street - had lines of communication to the department store owners. And did they work together? Did they - I mean, how did that - was it an alliance? Was it an - what was the relationship like?

RICHEN: I think it was an alliance and also a give-and-take. So there are things I know that King did that Gaston did not support. One of those was the children's march. During that campaign, they had all the students come out and march. And Gaston thought that was a bad idea, and there was violence around that. And Gaston didn't want the children - was worried about the children being attacked. But also, too, Gaston bailed King out of jail. He let them stay for free. And he does talk about how he realized that there needed to be a more confrontational approach when he saw the hoses on the people in the park and - you know, the strength of the hoses literally making someone barrel down the sidewalk. And he knew that things had to change and that confrontation was going to - you know, it was the only way to attack this problem.

DAVIES: And there's this amazing footage. And I think it's in the parking lot, maybe, of the A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham in which Gaston himself is announcing an agreement to integrate some of the shopping areas, right?

RICHEN: Absolutely, yeah. So they did win in that they had an agreement with the business owners for - to integrate the downtown. Now, of course right after that, riots and violence kind of blew up all over the country. So, you know, there was progress made in this particular moment, but it's - it certainly didn't solve the problem of what was happening nationally. We were in the midst of the heat of the movement.

DAVIES: The Green Book was published over, like, a 30-year span. But I'm curious whether the copy in the book addressed issues of racism and discrimination, or did it simply accept it as a fact of life and say, this is how we're going to get around it?

RICHEN: It wasn't until the later editions where you had the book addressing what the conditions were. In one of the later copies in the '60s, it says - you open it up, and it says know your rights. And it had, you know, the places - the civil rights laws that were passed on a state level in every state. But it was not a political - necessarily a political book. Remember how it was being distributed. It was being distributed by a white-owned business. So it wasn't going to be too political in its pages. But it did have - I mean, the way...

DAVIES: But that - that business being the Standard Oil Company at its gas stations.

RICHEN: Yeah, exactly.

DAVIES: Right. Yeah, yeah.

RICHEN: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I would imagine that there is certain - you know, he knew what he had to do in order to get wide distribution. But later in the - later in its pages, it did have more acknowledgement of, you know, what was going on and the fight for civil rights that was happening in the country.

DAVIES: Were there white-owned businesses advertising in the book also?

RICHEN: Yes, there were. There were white-owned businesses. I don't know if they advertised. I didn't necessarily see any advertisements in terms of, like, pictures. I do remember seeing in one one Chinese-owned business that advertised in the book. I remember that. So there were some white-owned businesses and other races as well who owned businesses in the book.

DAVIES: So the Green Book ceases publication in 1967. Is that right?

RICHEN: That's right. 1967 is the last year it's published.

DAVIES: Right. And I guess that obviously has to do with advances in the civil rights movement and the end of legal segregation.

RICHEN: That's right.

DAVIES: What did that mean for all these businesses that were - you know, that offered these services over the decades?

RICHEN: It's kind of the unintended consequences of desegregation. I mean, when we had segregation, we also had many businesses that served the African-American community and that we went to as African-Americans. Obviously with the end of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, that ended legal segregation. The businesses opened up, and that meant that African-Americans could now go to the Holiday Inn - not just the Gaston Motel, for example.

And it also meant that there was competition for those African-American dollars. And with that competition, you also need money in order to have your place meet certain standards or to have it, you know, be able to compete against the Holiday Inn or what have you. And that was a challenge for black businesses. You know, we had these businesses. And we're entrepreneurs, but we didn't necessarily have the economic support from the banks, for example, that could help us maintain these businesses. So what you find is that after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, many of these businesses started to close.

DAVIES: Right. And there's plenty of footage in the film of parking lots that are overgrown and buildings, you know, in disarray. About a third of them still standing, right?

RICHEN: That's right - about a third. Yeah.

DAVIES: Is there an effort to preserve or revive these businesses?

RICHEN: Yeah, there is in some cases. One of the most exciting cases is the Gaston Motel where the National Historic Trust made the Gaston - designated the Gaston a historical landmark and is in the process of renovating or will begin renovating the motel for reuse. So that's a really big effort that was helped by the fact that it was - that President Obama named it a historical landmark. In places like Idlewild, there is definitely an effort to get African-Americans - and not just African-Americans but people to buy land there, to renovate, to hold on to that history. It's more of, you know, a - unofficial effort. But that - those efforts still are going on.

DAVIES: You know, your film comes out the same year as the feature film "Green Book," starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, based on the story of Tony Vallelonga driving Don Shirley, the African-American pianist around the South. Have you seen the "Green Book" movie, the commercial film?

RICHEN: I have. Yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah.

RICHEN: Yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah. And your thoughts?

RICHEN: Before I saw it, I had - you know, definitely had kept up with the sort of criticism it was getting around - of course it's winning a lot of awards, but the criticism it was getting from the family of Dr. Shirley - that this was, you know, a story told by the white driver's perspective. And that's certainly the case. It's not really - it's definitely through a certain lens. That's the white driver's lens. But in terms of the Green Book - the thing that I found frustrating is that it only shows places that they go to, you know, through the Green Book as being - really as dumps, as really not nice places. And that's not the case.

There were so many - you know, there were more than 9,500 listings in the book over the years and places like the Gaston, which was considered the finest Negro motel in the country. So that was frustrating to see that portrayal of the Green Book in the film. And the other thing is that they only used it - they only picked up the Green Book when they were in the South. And that plays into the mythology that this was - you know, racism was something that was only in the South. So those were my two big criticisms in terms of, you know, how the Green Book was portrayed.

DAVIES: Well, Yoruba Richen, it's been great. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

RICHEN: It's been a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Yoruba Richen directed the new documentary "The Green Book: Guide To Freedom." The film will be shown tonight on the Smithsonian Channel and will also be streaming. Her interview with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies was recorded last week. The documentary is not to be confused with the feature film "Green Book," which won the Oscar for best picture last night. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the reissue of two Ray Charles albums of country music songs. This is FRESH AIR.

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