The playwright and author Calvin Alexander Ramsey (left), 65, was raised in the South and now lives in New York City. He is the author of “Ruth and the Green Book,” a children’s book published in 2010, and the play “The Green Book,” first produced in 2005 and published last year in book form. He is working on a documentary called “The Green Book Chronicles.” His work was inspired by Victor Hugo Green, who from 1936 to 1964 published the Jim Crow-era “Negro Motorist Green Book” (its title was modified over time, eventually abbreviated as the “Green Book”) listing locations catering to African-American travelers in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Bermuda.
Following are edited excerpts from a conversation with Mr. Ramsey.
Q. Who was Victor Hugo Green and why was “The Negro Motorist Green Book” significant?
A.Green was born in 1892 in Hackensack, N.J. In 1913, he became a mailman. He married Alma Duke, from Virginia, and they moved to Harlem. Around 1936 he started “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” and later a travel agency, as African-American travelers became more affluent. A Jewish friend gave him the idea after showing him guides for avoiding “Restricted,” gentile-only places. With Green’s wife being from Virginia, he decided to make trips less humiliating and reached out to fellow mailmen all over the country. Jim Crow laws were not just in the South. In many smaller towns, there was no Negro hotel. The book listed networks of homes. If African-Americans were traveling by car, that’s when it got dicey, with sundown laws. You’d get arrested, or something worse. His book was a life saver.
What got you interested in Green?
I’m old enough to remember those days, but the “Green Book” found me, at the funeral of a close friend’s son killed in an accident, in 2001. The grandfather said, “This is my first time in the deep South, and I was looking for a ‘Green Book.’ ” And I said, “What’s a ‘Green Book?’ ” It wouldn’t let me go.
How much has African-American travel changed since the book?
There’s no more Jim Crow. So it’s 100 percent better. People worked together, black, white, Jew, gentile, to overturn these unfair, unjust laws. There are still issues with “driving while black,” but nothing like it used to be. But it was hard-fought. A lot of people died, from the average citizen to President Kennedy to Dr. King, to make this country more just and push along this social experiment of democracy.
Are there important African-American historical sites no American should miss?
New York City, you’ve got the African Burial Ground by Wall Street, Schomburg library, Abyssinian Church. In Maryland, Thurgood Marshall’s home, Frederick Douglass’s birthplace, and Harriet Tubman’s. The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, even though it’s a tragic remembrance of Dr. King getting killed. In Greensboro, N.C., where the early sit-ins were, there’s a museum. In Selma, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the National Voting Rights Museum. I lived two doors from Dr. King’s birth home, Atlanta’s King Center, people coming in from far away to pay homage. Not just black people, all people.
People can also see the site where the “Green Book” was produced.
Green lived at 938 St. Nicholas Avenue, his office was 200 West 135th Street. That’s now the Thurgood Marshall Academy. How fitting is that? Green loved saving people from humiliation, hardship and physical violence, but Green’s dream was that the book would not be needed one day. But he didn’t live to see it. He died in 1960. The 1964 civil rights bill was the dream Victor wanted. He was hoping equality would mean his company would go out of business. After he died, his team honored that by closing down the company and no longer publishing the Green books. In a way, that’s a good thing.