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Virginia Green Book historic sites project underway

Green Book over the decades (Image: VCU Capitol News Service)
Green Book over the decades (Image: VCU Capitol News Service)


Three state agencies will have a role in the effort to note historic sites listed in Victor Hugo Green’s “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” written during the Jim Crow era.

The Virginia Department of Transportation will absorb costs for road signage directing travelers to the historic sites. Existing interstate exit signs will be updated to note the location of a Green Book historic site. The Department of Historic Resources, or DHR, will install historic markers at the sites.

The Green Book identified resources for Black travelers to find safe spaces during legal racial segregation, and included listings of service stations, drug stores, hotels, barber shops, taverns, restaurants and guest houses, according to the bill.

The book started in 1937 and initially focused on the New York vicinity, but had expanded to nearly all 50 states by the late 1940s. The book was published internationally in the 1950s, according to the Green Book website created as a University of Virginia project. The Virginia Tourism Corp. will partner with DHR to educate the public about the Green Book designations through the Virginia's Black Heritage Trail, according to Virginia Tourism Communications Director Andrew Cothern.

“We have developed a number of marketing opportunities to promote the state to the Black traveler as well as sharing the Black heritage stories for a more authentic experience,” Cothern said.

Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, introduced House Bill 508 last year, which did not pass but was turned into an approved budget line allowing the tourism agency to move forward with the website.

Mullin introduced HB 1968 in the recent session, after working on the legislation in the off season, and with support from the governor’s office, according to the delegate’s chief of staff Randall Riffle. The bill passed unanimously through the General Assembly. The bill signs off on the coordinated effort between agencies, who will absorb project costs, according to the bill impact statement and the delegate’s office.

Almost $100,000 from the state’s general fund was earmarked for DHR to further study and categorize buildings and locations listed in the Green Book. The General Assembly ended without amending the budget, so this part of the Green Book project has support, but does not yet have funding unless lawmakers are able to finalize a budget.

Over 300 Virginia properties were listed as safe for Black travelers, according to Julie Langan, the DHR director and state historic preservation officer. There are approximately 60 of those properties left, she said.

“We need to go out and field check and see, ‘OK, which ones are still here, which ones aren't’ and with that additional funding, which hopefully will make it into the final budget, we will be able to do that,” Langan said.

The University of Virginia project identifies Green Book locations throughout Virginia, many of which have been demolished, are vacant or have been transformed into new businesses. For example, the site of Williams Prof. Druggist on Third Street in Jackson Ward was listed in the 1938 Green Book, and is now the Richmond Lyft headquarters.

“We will place those signs on those markers that are already out there that have a connection to Green Book properties, but future markers with that connection, even if they make reference in the text of the marker, they too will have this special sign on the post that calls attention — and over time what this will do is create a network,” Langan said.

The bill makes telling this aspect of Virginia’s long and diverse history a priority, Langan said.

“It gives us a wonderful opportunity to educate the public about a period of time that maybe they didn't personally grow up in or during,” Langan said. “It's kind of hard to understand what it would feel like to live during Jim Crow and be African American if that's not your own personal experience.”

Hollywood created a film about the book that won a best picture Oscar in 2019, but the book’s legacy has impacted artists like Connecticut-based Calvin Alexander Ramsey. Ramsey is the author of the 2010 children’s book “Ruth and the Green Book,” and also wrote “The Green Book” play.

U.S. letter carrier Hugo Green and his wife Alma Green, who was from Richmond, Virginia, “created a safe haven” for families and children, Ramsey said.

“Sometimes people like Victor Green and Alma Green get overlooked, because they weren’t really what you would say, a cornerstone of the Harlem Renaissance period,” Ramsey said. “They were ordinary people who did extraordinary things.”

Ramsey has worked to chronicle the Greens’ story in a documentary that has yet to be released.

The Greens hoped the book would cease to exist, Ramsey said. “Then they would know that the African American person would have full access to travel on the open road,” he said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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