The Green Book, also known as the The Negro Motorist Green Book, was created in 1936 by a mailman, Victor Hugo Green. The Green Book served as a guidebook for Black travelers during the era of Jim Crow laws when white owned establishments refused to accommodate or serve Black patrons.
It also helped Black travelers avoid “sundown towns”, all-white neighborhoods that prohibited Black people from being within the city limits after sundown.
After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, publication of The Green Book ended and little was seen or heard about it. Enter Calvin Ramsey. Calvin is an author and playwright who is creating documentary about the book, entitled “The Green Book Chronicles.” We caught up with him to learn more about the documentary and the Green Book.
SB: How did you find out about the Green Book?
CR: In 2001, a friend’s teenage son, Little Tony, was killed in a car accident. I left New York to attend the funeral in Atlanta. Little Tony’s grandfather also came down from New York. After the service, we were chatting in the backyard and the grandfather said this was his first time in the deep South and that he was looking for a Green Book. That’s when I first heard about it.
At the time, I was on the advisory board for rare books and manuscripts at Emory University in Atlanta. I went over there to see if they had a copy of the Green Book and they didn’t, no one had even heard of it. I went to a library at Morehouse and they had two copies of it, so I made copies of those copies. I started looking through it and decided to write a play about it.
SB: What was it about the subject matter that gripped you?
CR: I was fourteen and living in North Carolina during Jim Crow and when the Civil Rights Act was passed. The first nine years of my life, I was in Baltimore so I really wasn’t aware of Jim Crow laws and where I couldn’t go or wasn’t allowed to sit.
In Baltimore, I just wasn’t conscious of it—I didn’t see it. When I went to North Carolina, I became conscious of it. It always struck me as being unfair and never quite left me.
SB: You mentioned it was hard for people to know that The Green Book existed. Why do you think it isn’t taught in schools and why isn’t more known about the Green Book?
CR: I’m asked that numerous times and some of the answers I’ve given in the past were things like; “It’s just one of those things that fell through the cracks of history”, but now, I think differently about it. This story is about Victor Hugo Green, a mail man with a seventh grade education. The story is about all the other Black men and women who opened their doors to travelers.
I think people are still wrapping their heads around how these people who didn’t even know each other, were in this Green Book with their address listed. I think its hard to believe that folks could just drive up and knock on someone’s door and say, “I’m traveling and need a place to stay.” I’ve told young adults these stories and they see it as so foreign to them—that Black people loved each other that much and were so trusting of one another.
SB: Do you think that there’s a need for something like the Green Book now, and do you know of any modern-day versions?
CR: There have been some problems with Airbnb hosts turning people away based on their race or sexuality. So, yes, I think we still need it. There are some Black sites that have popped up to combat that.
SB: Right. There’s a company called Innclusive; they are actually one of the sites that you’re referring to.
CR: That’s wonderful. Its definitely still needed.
SB: Who have you been able to contact in terms of Victor’s friends or family for the documentary?
CR: I have his niece, Ramona Green in the documentary. She’s 85 years old and still lives in Harlem. I also have the gentleman whose family printed the Green Book.
They’re a Jewish family also based in New York. He said Victor used their services for ten years before moving to another printer. They regretted it because it was a big order; about thirteen to twenty thousand books printed per year.
I have people in the documentary who actually used the Green Book, families that owned the Green Book and folks whose homes were listed in it.
SB: Your story was actually told on Humans of New York, was it a few years ago?
CR: (Laughs) Yeah.
SB: It’s funny because I actually saw your story when it came out on Humans of New York. I didn’t realize that was you until I got started doing some research on you and the documentary for this interview.
CR: I moved up to New York three years ago from Atlanta and I had never even heard of Humans of New York. I was there in Bryant Park to drop off some books to the library. As I sat and waited for the library to open, this white guy with a beard and a skull cap walks up.
He passed by me twice and he was looking at me, and said, “May I take your photograph?” I said, “Sure, go ahead.” Then, he took some shots and introduced himself. He said, “I’m Brandon Stanton and I have twelve million followers, and I have this blog; Humans of New York.” And said, “I’d like to interview you.” I had never heard of it but I agreed.
After we got through, he asked if I have a fan book page and I said, “No, I only have a Facebook page.” He said, “Well if you get one up in forty eight hours I’ll post this interview.”
I created the page and he posted two photos. One of them hit 230,000 likes and the other hit 270,000 likes, nearly half a million hits, and on my Facebook page, I had over 40,000. It’s been like that ever since. I posted something recently and I received 17,000 likes.
SB: Being a playwright and a film maker are artistic endeavors. However, there’s a business aspect that goes along with it because you need money to get the product made and you want to make money. How do you capitalize on this exposure?
CR: I do a lot of speaking engagements from November through March. In January, for Dr. King month and February, for Black History month, and then March, for Women’s Month. Usually the first ninety days of the year I’m pretty busy. What I also plan to do is start a production company in the Bronx. I’m currently putting together a crew for that.
SB: I’m glad you actually said that you’re starting a production company. It’s very important that we tell our own stories and have control over the stories that are being told about us.
CR: I agree! I just saw a trailer for a film about the Black women who helped facilitate the NASA moon landing back in the 50’s. I think the lady who wrote the book sold it to a major studio and they made it into a film and what I saw as a trailer was almost done in a comical way.
I heard from many people that once you sell something to a studio, you lose control over it. You get a big check, but they steal your baby.
SB: So when can we expect the documentary to be released?
CR: We’ve pretty much shot everything and now the goal is for the documentary to be done in early April 2017. We just need to finish with the editing and put some music to it.
Learn more about the Green Book and keep find out more about the upcoming documentary here.
-Tony Oluwatoyin Lawson