The Green Book deserves special attention now because our past and current policies shape how not just black people but people of all races and gender identities navigate this country. During my research for this book, I learned so much about America just by getting off the interstate and driving through neighborhoods. Photographing Green Book sites gave me a greater understanding of and insight into the guide that I never would have had merely reading it in my office at Harvard University. On the road, I felt the tenor of a bygone era and saw a new cycle of grit and survival along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevards and in the dilapidated houses on dirt roads across the nation.
With the Green Book in the rearview mirror, I saw America for what it is, not what it imagines itself or even aspires to be. Nearly every podcast on my Stitcher app covered Trump's refusal to denounce white supremacy in response to Heather Heyer's murder in Charlottesville. Those news reports conjured thoughts of Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Alton B. Sterling, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, and Eric Garner. It was their memories that fueled my journey to drive for months working sixteen-hour days. After scouting more than 3,600 Green Book sites, I realized that most of my well-meaning liberal friends in the coastal cities had never seen the poverty that millions of Americans are living in. By the time I got to Detroit, after leaving Los Angeles and driving across the country, I was in tears.
Once the sadness subsided, I found strength and resolve in the Green Book buildings that are still standing. Green Book sites range from A-frame houses to simple storefronts to Spanish Colonial hotels. Regardless of their stature, these former safe zones are symbols of refuge that redefine sanctuary, the agency of place, and the story of race in America. After three years of scouting nearly five thousand Green Book sites, I learned that less than 5 percent are still in operation and more than 75 percent are gone. That is why it was so important for me to document the ones that are left.
In most traditional African American neighborhoods, Green Book buildings were destroyed in the name of urban renewal, and many of the remaining sites are in ruins, and others have been leveled or radically modified beyond recognition. While traveling, I ran a tight ship, following a mapping system in which I could scout thirty sites a day. Since most of them are gone, there were times when I would drive for days and not find a single one. On the rare occasion when I did find a Green Book listing that was still in business, it towered over the sidewalk like a rare and beautiful force of nature. It's incredible that any business would survive up to seventy years. Given that most Green Book businesses were owned by black families, to find one that is still operating was reason enough to celebrate. The sites that are still with us symbolize survival: They endured the times the pendulum swung forward and a wrecking ball swung back. These businesses survived urban renewal, gentrification, and white supremacist policies. And the people in these communities survived underfunded schools and overfunded prisons. All of this cemented my faith that we would survive Trump.
Green Book businesses are powerful. They shape the narrative of black mobility and tell a story that is not all about struggle. These sites of sanctuary symbolize black ingenuity, resourcefulness, strength, entrepreneurship, and resilience. They carry a cultural memory with them and reveal the untold story of black travel, offering us a rich opportunity to reexamine America's story of segregation, black migration, and the rise of the black leisure class. To honor and celebrate these places, I have included a Green Book site tour at the end of this book. I hope you visit these businesses, as a witness, and reflect on this history.
When you go to these sites, remember that America is a messy collection of customs, traditions, values, and belief systems that have been shaped by capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. Hate is hard to understand, and our relationship to it is deeply layered because history is fleeting, ephemeral, and slippery, and it changes according to who is telling it. The past is usually presented as a buttoned-up, simplified, and often sanitized story that side-steps the turbulence and whitewashes the journey, making it look like one smooth ride—one where we learned from our mistakes, righted our wrongs, and kept getting better. But this isn't how it happens. For every major push forward for black equality, there was a swift and urgent "whitelash." So, are we there yet? Hardly.
This is not a book about the history of road-tripping and black travel. It's more of a pilgrimage toward understanding a country so blinded by symbolism that it can't or won't tackle the pervasive, relentless forces that created the environment for the Green Book to thrive in the first place. It is a book that I hope will show how we got here and why, after all this time, we still have so far to go.
This excerpt ends on page 25 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving by Mo Rocca.