The Green Book
I was photographing and interviewing Lilla Bentley who was well into her late 80s, back in 2003, we were in her home at her kitchen table looking through her old photos as she told me stories. One of the photos stood out, an image of a group of black musicians pressed and dressed in front of a bus, suitcases and instruments in hand. What was it like for them to travel? How did they manage? Did they suffer emotional pain? Or worse, were they physically harmed while traveling? Her stories and that image have stayed with me, and in many ways played a part in my pursuit of this project. The Places That Were Safe: What Sanctuary Looks Like Now.
My photographic exploration has been to photograph the present-day locations of sites that were once beacons of light for African Americans traveling around the country during the days of enforced segregation and Jim Crow laws. I have been following The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guidebook first published in 1936 by the New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green to ensure safe travel for African Americans. His guides helped generations navigate their way safely through the Jim Crow era, directing them to everything from beauty parlors to gas stations to motels. Green wrote that his book would not be necessary “when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges.” It ceased publication in 1964.
The title of each image was how it was listed in the 1956 edition of the Green Book which I primarily use. I am also guided to places from those I meet on the street.
So far I have been to over two dozen cities in the past two years.