Freedom Center exhibit highlights impact of iconic ‘Green Book’

A new exhibition coming to Cincinnati offers a detailed look at the role an iconic travel guide played in helping African American motorists safely journey through the segregated United States while also supporting Black-owned businesses.

“The Negro Motorist Green Book” opens at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center on July 13.

Developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the exhibit highlights the cultural impact of a unique guide designed to assist Black Americans with navigating across the United States during the intense, often violent part of the early 20th century.

At the time, many Black and Brown people faced harassment, embarrassment and even physical harm when they left the known safety of their towns and communities. 

Seeking to provide them with a reliable source of safe spaces, New York City-based mail carrier Victor Green, in 1936, created a list of businesses that welcomed travelers of color. It featured restaurants, gas stations, hotels, department stores, social clubs, music venues and more.

Green’s guidebook, “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” earned the nickname of the “overground” railroad.

“‘The Green Book’ is a light in a dark period in American history,” said Woodrow Keown, Jr., president and COO of the Freedom Center. “It showed, as the Underground Railroad did a century earlier, that African Americans would not be denied their freedom and were prepared to subvert the systems designed to oppress them.”

Supporting African Americans, Black-owned businesses 

“The Green Book” remained an annual, nationwide publication until 1967. Its publishers updated it every year to include new locations that popped across the country, including Cincinnati.

Among the local spots listed in the guide was the Edgemont Inn, a house in Walnut Hills that served as a gathering space for the community between 1939 and 1952. Before its existence as an inn, the property was the home of influential anti-slavery author Harriet Beecher Stowe. 

Today, the facility celebrates both of those histories as the Harriet Beecher Stowe House museum.

Through the “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” the Smithsonian presents a variety of artifacts – ranging from business signs and postcards to historic footage and firsthand accounts – to showcase what it was like for African American travelers during this period.

The traveling exhibition also highlights the role “The Green Book” played in facilitating the second wave of the Great Migration, empowering Blacks to find communities across the U.S. that were more welcoming to their pursuit of the American Dream.

This new exhibit is one of several Freedom Center events and collections the Freedom Center has hosted over the years, such as the “This Small Book” display in 2018.

“The Negro Motorist Green Book” is a traveling show developed by SITES in collaboration with award-winning author, photographer and cultural documentarian Candacy Taylor. It’ll be available in Cincinnati from July 13 through Oct. 13.

“We’re excited to share the story of ‘The Green Book’ with our community. It’s a story that transcends history because its legacy, and those who lived it, are still with us, right here in Cincinnati,” Keown, Jr. said.

The Negro Motorist Green Book

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