Book review: “Overground Railroad”

Overground Railroad

Candacy Taylor’s book, “Overground Railroad,” about the Negro Motorist Green Book and the history of African-American travel, will prove provocative and even shocking to some readers — including the chapter devoted to Route 66.

Subtitled “The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America” (Abrams Press, hardcover, 360 pages, 150 illustrations), the years of research by Taylor, an African-American herself, is not just a definitive recounting of the Green Book published from 1936 to 1967 to help African-Americans navigate around potential trouble in the Jim Crow South and other parts of segregated America.

“Overground Railroad” also explains in searing detail why such a book was crucial, even necessary, to black travelers looking for safe places to sleep, to eat, to get fuel, to have a drink. Her late stepfather, Ron Burford, provided vital memories of his experiences. Taylor’s unsparing and frank criticism of former and current presidents and the exposure of widespread racism may make some white readers uncomfortable.

The book’s Route 66 chapter is titled “Why Black People Aren’t Nostalgic About the Nation’s Favorite Highway” and focuses on Green Book editions in 1957 and 1958 — about the time Route 66 arguably was at its peak and the rise of freeways that would change the highway forever.

The book lists a few ugly truths about U.S. 66 during the Green Book era:

  • Half of the 89 counties that Route 66 traversed were sundown towns — i.e. not allowing black people after dark — when the guide first was published.
  • 35% of those counties didn’t allow black motorists after 6 p.m. during the 1950s.
  • Six of the eight states that Route 66 traversed had segregation laws.
  • Fantastic Caverns in Springfield, Missouri, once hosted Ku Klux Klan rallies.
  • A 260-mile stretch from Oklahoma City to Amarillo contained no facilities for black travelers.
  • Only six of more than 100 motels in Albuquerque allowed black guests.
  • No Albuquerque motel was listed in the Green Book until 1947, a full decade after the publication began.

Taylor also puts the spotlight on several Route 66 businesses that catered to black travelers during the Jim Crow era. One was Alberta’s Hotel in Springfield, Missouri, which converted a former hospital into lodging, a salon, a barbershop, a restaurant and a nightclub that hosted Stevie Wonder, The Drifters, The Imperials and the Harlem Globetrotters.

Another paradise for black travelers was Murray’s Dude Ranch near Victorville, California. It contained a complex of 20 buildings that contained lodging, restaurants, a swimming pool and horseback riding.

Murray’s and Alberta’s are defunct — a common fate for businesses in the Green Book. Taylor estimates 5% of Green Book sites are operating today and about 75% are gone. Many businesses were casualties of “urban renewal” plans and freeway projects that decimated many African-American communities, including Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood that rebuilt itself after the infamous 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Taylor, who has written about Route 66 in the past, states the Mother Road is clinging to a dishonest, rose-colored view of the past:

“Today, the Route 66 brand is so weighted with nostalgia that parts of the fabled highway are suffocating under an idealized past that never was.”

Victor Hugo Green, a postal carrier in New York City’s Harlem district, began publishing the Green Book in 1936. Other guides for black motorists existed, including Grayson’s Travel and Business Guide and the Go Guide to Pleasant Motoring. The Green Book was the longest-lasting, with a reported circulation of 2 million by the early 1960s.

Taylor wrote this about Green:

“While he didn’t get rich off the Green Book, his reward was much more valuable than many, because for every business he listed, he may have saved a life.”

It helped that Green’s fellow postal carriers across the country stayed on the lookout for potential advertisers. A marketing executive with Esso also distributed the guides to his black-friendly filling stations.

The Green Book evolved over the years, printing special editions about railroads, airlines and the National Park System.

Green died in 1960, but the publication continued for several more years under the direction of his widow and strong editors. The death knell of the Green Book turned out to be the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Taylor writes “the double-edged sword of progress” pulled money from many black districts. She reports in less than five years after the law was enacted, at least half of the black-owned businesses closed.

Near the end of the book in a section about the Hampton House in Miami, Florida, Taylor writes:

“It’s ironic that it was integration, which most Americans wanted (and still want), that killed many of the sites in the Green Book. It’s also ironic that something as hateful as segregation facilitated a stronger sense of unity in the black community. Years of forced isolation, seclusion, and fear of connecting with people outside one’s race all came at a high price. All black Americans wanted was the ability to walk, run, drive, shop, and live freely outside their neighborhoods, just like white people. After the Hampton House became another casualty to integration, community activist Georgia Ayers summed it up: ‘We got what we wanted, but we lost what we had.'”

Taylor’s work with the Green Book doesn’t end with “Overground Railroad.” She’s planning a children’s book, walking tours, a mobile app and a digital interactive map of Green Book sites. She wants to emphasize Green Book sites that need rehabilitation and can create jobs for African-Americans there.

“Overground Railroad” contains a small section of “What Can We Do” to help black communities, including “Hold your district attorney responsible” and “Do not buy products from companies profiting from mass incarceration.”

The book also has a Green Book Site Tour to key sites in states, including the DuBeau Hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona, and Clifton’s Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles.

“Overground Railroad” is a thick, heavy volume, but readers shouldn’t be dissuaded by that. It contains more than 150 photographs and excerpts from various Green Book editions. Taylor’s candid writing also proves to be a fast read, including a final paragraph that sounds a cautiously optimistic note that Americans can learn from their past mistakes but adds an educator’s words: “History doesn’t repeat itself. Humans do.”

Highly recommended.

(Image of the front cover of the “Overground Railroad” book)

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