Green Book: A Guidebook to Jim Crow at the Holocaust Museum

The video game portion of the Green Book exhibit.
The video game portion of the Green Book exhibit. Photo by Jef Rouner
The famous Negro Motorist Green Book is one of the best shorthand examples of America’s continued institutional white supremacy even into the Civil Rights era. The Holocaust Museum is hosting an incredible exhibit dedicated to both the book’s history and Black American travel from the Great Depression to the Swingin’ ‘60s.

First published in 1936 by Victor Green, a New York postal worker, the guide offered Black Americans who were traveling a list of Black-owned or Black-friendly businesses. In doing so, it allowed families the freedom to travel the United States and helped build successful Black businesses.

It’s easy to take movement, one of the most fundamental freedoms, for granted when you’re white. During the Green Book’s heyday, travel by road was still dangerous even for people who weren’t Black. Our modern system of repair services, fast food joints, gas stations, and motels was still in its infancy.

In spite of that danger, Black Americans wanted to move around. The ones who had moved north to Michigan, New York, and Illinois still had family in the south they wanted to see. Navigating through conflicting levels of violence and segregation required knowledge. The Green Book provided that.

One of the most moving exhibits in the collection is an interactive road trip to Huntsville, Alabama. Any half-decent new exhibit in Houston these days seems to sport a video game element, and this one might be the best so far. It puts visitors behind the wheel of a Buick (Black families often bought large cars because they might have to sleep in them) to prepare and make a trip to grandma’s house in the south.

As the resident video game reviewer at the Houston Press, I felt the need to try and fail state the game from the beginning. I avoided the suggested route by the Green Book and pulled into unfriendly stations. These encounters, complete with full-motion video live actors, were deeply unsettling. A white proprietor told me that he would grudgingly sell me gas, but the restroom was a go. “Go on yourself for all I care,” he said.

The weight of racism is felt throughout the exhibit, but the experience is far more about Black joy and entrepreneurship. The Ku Klux Klan is mentioned several times, but they appear in only one photographed tucked away in a corner. Even that is blurrier than the rest of the photos on display, turning them into little more than meaning ghosts.

Instead, the exhibit celebrates how travel built Black culture. The prevalence of salons and barbershops can be partially traced by to Green’s listing of such places in his book. The Harlem Rennaisance, the burgeoning middle class built by the Pullman Porters, music, and more were are made possible thanks to Green’s increasing network of businesses that were Black-owned.

Through mid-century artifacts and happy photos of Black families on vacation, the exhibit shows that progress was made during Jim Crow. Thousands of very remarkable and brave people pulled the resources of their communities to chase the American Dream, even in places where white people were openly antagonistic to the idea.

Texas, sadly, is mostly left out of the Green Book story. As the borderline western state, we represented a frontier the Green Book often failed to cross. A single panel near the entrance lists some of the Houston businesses that made it into the Green Book, including Ralston Drugs, now a liquor store still run by the family today.

As it always is with the Holocaust Museum, the moral of the exhibit is bittersweet. The end of Jim Crow was also the end of the Green Book, as well as many of those Black-owned businesses. Forced to integrate, better funded white businesses with all the advantages of racial privilege on their side wiped out most of the Black-owned ones.

Even with the advancement of racial rights, a kind of continued cultural genocide happened. The world that Green mapped ceased to be, and a lot was lost. What’s left is a chronicle of pioneership, where Black Americans navigated the unsafe waters of the open road in the name of fortune, family, and adventure.

Open daily at Holocaust Museum Houston through November 26, 5401 Caroline. $16-$20, under 18 free. For tickets and information, visit
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner