When artist Derrick Adams became interested in The Negro Motorist Green Book, it didn’t take long for him to realize how complex and innovative this seemingly simple guidebook actually was.
Origins of The Green Book were straightforward. In 1936, Victor Hugo Green, a New York postal worker, put together a practical 15-page list of places Black travelers could use without, as Green put it, “running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trip more enjoyable.”
In other words, The Green Book helped navigate the racism of an America still very much in the grip of Jim Crow. The advent of World War II and rising incomes, however, gave many Black people (and most everyone else) a little extra cash and an opportunity to travel. But for Black Americans, travel could be a very unfriendly activity.
The Green Book was initially very New York-centric — the publishing offices were above legendary Harlem club Smalls Paradise. Over three decades of annual publication, it grew to a 130-page national guide selling 15,000 copies a year, finally shuttering in 1967.
Pondering this phenomenon, Adams began work on “Sanctuary,” a Green Book-inspired installation that opened at the African American Museum in Philadelphia on April 7 for a run through Aug. 28.
Celebrating the Greens
“Sanctuary,” which was organized by the New York Museum of Arts and Design in 2018, is born out of what Adams calls the “traumatic experience” of segregation prior to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But he decided to “go beyond that part of the history to the celebratory part, highlighting the maker of [The Green Book], Hugo and his wife, Alma Green,” Adams said by phone from his Brooklyn studio.
Hugo Green becomes a Virgil-like guide down the unfolding road of America in Adams’ multipart installation. The American Dream beckons from the open road, but for Black travelers, the importance of knowing when and where to stop were a critical part of the journey.
Banners in the initial part of the installation, “Driving While Black,” depict car doors and feature familiar everyday phrases — “Are we there yet” and “Can we take a break” and “We’ve come a long way” — largely simple questions that in America could lead to deadly responses.
Green, however, provided reliable information on where sanctuary might be found, and now, looking back, viewers can wonder if, in fact, “we’ve come a long way” or not.
“Hugo was a postal worker, and he had a full-time job. So he had a stable income and a stable job,” said Adams. “But on his own time, he decided to compile this data to make traveling for Black Americans safer and also to connect.”
Green crowdsourced his guidebook, gathering information from members of the postal workers union who spread the word across the country and reeled in good information about hotels, restaurants, auto shops, barber shops, drug stores, taverns, and all manner of other places a traveler might need to use.
As a result, The Green Book is a kind of people’s history of Black life in America, in addition to being a practical listing of “restaurants and other places that were really interested in Black patronage,” said Adams.
A considerable amount of ingenuity went into publication of “such a complex directory,” Adams continued. “It’s an archive. Yeah, and a lot of places that are listed in The Green Book are no longer around. So it became like this documentation of certain things that existed within Black communities and it tells a complex and interesting story of the economic structure of these places at certain times.”
“That’s what drew me to The Green Book,” he said. “I went beyond the other aspect of the history because other artists have spoken about those traumatic times. I felt it was a space to have a different conversation.”
Transforming The Green Book into art
Dejay B. Duckett, director of curatorial services at the African American Museum who worked to bring “Sanctuary” to Philadelphia, said the installation “blew me away” when she saw it in New York.
“I find the exhibition to be incredibly comforting and challenging,” she said. “That banner that’s in the exhibition that says “Are we there yet” — I love that tongue in cheek. Are we to a place yet where we can just move forward to a place of safety, and we just never seem to get there. At least not yet.”
The final section of “Sanctuary” is literally a roadscape fashioned out of images taken from The Green Book. Mountainous listings rise up, towering over roadways while small cars fashioned from driving caps putt their way along.
But this is far more than a toy-sized landscape. The caps are a particular cap once worn by chauffeurs and other servants back in the day. Caps become the drivers.
“That driver’s cap has been called many different things. It was called a black cap in the past. And that particular style of hat was worn by … drivers like chauffeurs or bus drivers or service industry, that hat was considered a service industry hat and in later years, it became more of a hat of leisure.”
The hat of labor became the hat of leisure.
“So in the history of the timeline of The Green Book, Black drivers, even when it was their car, they would have their family ride in the backseat, and they were driving in the front, sometimes with the hat to almost signal they were chauffeur versus the owner of the fancy car.”
Adams said his grandfather wore one. It was, he said “another way of a neutralizing the idea of a Black person in a position of power, having a nice automobile.”
“Derrick Adams: Sanctuary” is open to the public via timed entry reservations beginning April 7.
The African American Museum in Philadelphia, 701 Arch St., Philadelphia, is open Friday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visits are limited to four time slots per day, observing the following hours of operations:
10 a.m. - 11:30 a.m.
Noon to 1:15 p.m.
1:45 p.m.- 3 p.m.
3:30 p.m. - 4:45 p.m.
For information, see the African American Museum’s website at aampmuseum.org or call 215-574-0380.