‘The Green Book’ History Is Explored in New Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Opening October 3 At National Civil Rights Museum
“The Negro Motorist Green Book,” an exhibition developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) in collaboration with award-winning author, photographer and cultural documentarian, Candacy Taylor, will begin its national tour at the National Civil Rights Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate, in Memphis, TN on October 3, 2020.
The exhibition highlights the history of The Green Book, an annual guide created in 1936 by Harlem postman Victor Green that helped Black Americans travel the country with dignity by listing facilities that welcomed during the era of segregation. Distributed nationwide until 1967, The Green Book provided travelers with information on restaurants, gas stations, department stores and other businesses that were black-owned or served black travelers. In an era of Jim Crow laws and “sundown towns”—communities that explicitly prohibited Black people from traveling at night or staying overnight—offered critical, life-saving information to strategize for traveling freedom and sanctuary.
“The Negro Motorist Green Book” exhibition debuts at the National Civil Rights Museum located at the Lrraine Motel which is not only the historic site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but it is also one of the few Green Book sites still remaining other than the Four-Way Grill in Memphis. In addition to the Lorraine Motel, the only Green Book site on the tour, the exhibition celebrates the historical and cultural heritage of the Green Book sites like The Savoy in Harlem, Haugabrooks Funeral Home in Atlanta, Idlewild in Michigan, and Charlie’s Place in Myrtle Beach, while reflecting on the thriving Black businesses as social centers in a segregated society and symbols of upward mobility. It highlights sites as places of refuge where harmony and creativity permeated through a difficult period of discrimination and fostered a greater sense of community.
“It may seem unbelievable to some, but traveling from town to town, or across states during the Jim Crow era was a very dangerous thing. What many don’t realize is that fear was not limited to traveling southern states,” said National Civil Rights Museum President Terri Lee Freeman. “The Negro Motorist Green Book was an essential tool for Blacks and was found in basically every African American home. The Lorraine Motel was one of those safe havens listed in the book that provided boarding, food and relaxation safely, for its guests. We are excited about being the debut site for this important exhibition.”
The Lorraine Motel, prior to the April 4, 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a sought-out destination for traveling Blacks. Walter Bailey and his wife, Loree purchased the building in 1945, and renamed it for his wife and the song, “Sweet Lorraine,” made famous by Nat King Cole. In 1955, the Baileys expanded the business making it a modern motel near the heart of the business district. The motel became prime lodging for traveling Blacks, including prominent musicians, sports legends and community leaders. A destination for performers and tourists, as well as a place for weddings and other celebrations, the Lorraine was part of the cultural fabric and music history of Memphis.
The exhibition includes a variety of objects from Green Book sites ranging from business signs and postcards to an original Green Book. Historical footage, images and firsthand accounts convey not only the apprehension felt by Black travelers, but also the resilience, innovation and elegance of people choosing to live a full American existence. It will not only highlight the success of many Black-owned businesses that made these journeys possible; it will offer viewers a chance to visually engage with the people who made the journeys.
“The Negro Motorist Green Book” is made possible through the generous support of Exxon Mobil Corporation. It is on display at the National Civil Rights Museum until January 3, 2021. The exhibition is included with museum admission with a separate ticket option to see the exhibition only.