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Vanishing History: Sites of The Green Book
04 / 25 / 17 | By: Rachel Jacobson
When spring arrives, many families start thinking about taking a road trip. The iconic family road trip represents freedom and spontaneity for many, but not so long ago; a significant portion of the U.S. population could not plan a road trip at whim. During segregation, navigating the country proved difficult and dangerous for African Americans, so they addressed this issue by creating travel guides. One such guide was called The Green Book, published from 1936 to 1967. Each year a new Green Book would list safe businesses in each state and county throughout the United States. They became an essential tool for African American families as the middle class grew and highway systems improved.
Last year at North Carolina State University, I was part of a class from the public history program that worked to document what, if any, of the North Carolina Green Book sites still existed. To gather information we went on site visits covering each county in North Carolina. As I visited the few extant sites in Durham, I spoke with the owner of Deluxe Barbershop, first listed in The Green Book in 1950. He was the grandson of the original owner and only the second owner of the shop. He felt his business was deprived of acknowledgement — not only is Deluxe Barbershop listed in The Green Book, it acted as a staple of the community and is still one of the oldest single-family owned businesses in North Carolina.
We presented our findings at the Southeast Chapter of Architectural Historians and the Transportation Research Board conferences. We found that approximately 93% of the North Carolina Green Book businesses had been demolished, or were unable to be located. With such a high volume of the sites no longer standing, we titled our presentation “Vanishing Acts.”
Glimpses into the past are important because they help create a stronger and more accurate narrative of American history. As I presented at the Transportation conference, an elderly white man had an emotional reaction to seeing the segregation that he grew up with but didn’t understand then. He remembered some of the sites, but of course did not frequent them growing up.
For those who lived through it, this difficult past evokes strong emotions. The vanishing act revealed by our investigation also poses challenging questions about why so few businesses survived.
To get a glimpse of this vanishing past visit the New York City Public Library online to explore the entire run of the Green Book publications. Perhaps you will discover evidence of a vanishing part of your own community and consider the causes and consequences of change over time.