In segregation era, 'Green Book' helped black travelers avoid discrimination in US, including North Dakota, Minnesota
FARGO — Imagine it’s 1962 and a black family decides to take a road trip through North Dakota. Along with a map, they may pack a guide called the "Green Book" that lists locations where they can safely eat, sleep and get gas without facing discrimination.
Except the only North Dakota businesses listed in the Green Book, originally called "The Negro Motorist Green Book," are five hotels scattered throughout the state, including the former Home Sweet Home Motel at 6001 Main Ave. in Fargo.
Along with hotels in Bismarck, Williston and Minot, the Rough Riders Hotel in Medora was among the safe establishments to stay in the state, according to a copy of the 1962 Green Book available in the digital collection of the New York Public Library.
The library collection is proof of what's portrayed in the five-time Oscar-nominated film, "Green Book." It tells the story of a black pianist who hires an Italian-American bouncer to accompany him on tour, and they witness the injustices of segregation across the U.S.
The guide was initially a local publication for New York in 1936. But author Victor Hugo Green wrote that the response to the guide was so great, it became a national issue the following year and eventually expanded internationally, with a special airline edition in 1953.
Larry Napoleon, a North Dakota State University education professor who specialized in U.S. and African-American history, said the Green Book was born out of necessity and shows just how oppressive the black experience has been in the U.S., and continues to be.
"Think about something as essential as boarding or restaurants, gas stations. These types of things we all take for granted. Black folks could not take those things for granted when they traveled," he said. The Green Book "said 'Here are the places where you can stop without being denied service or without putting yourself in harm's way.'"
A New Orleans native who studied at Dillard University, Napoleon said his professors had firsthand experience using the guidebooks and living during the era of Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation.
"We're not that far removed from people having to deal with these types of atrocities that would necessitate something like the Green Book," he said. "As a society, we have to divorce ourselves from the mindset that history is something that is antiquated."
Napoleon connects the publication of "safe spots" to the underground railroad — only then it was travelling to freedom, while the Green Book was about the freedom to travel. He said African Americans were resourceful in both systems to communicate and highlight places of refuge.
"Unfortunately in 2019, in ways that are different, as a group of people, we still deal with these issues today. The right to move freely as an African American is still an issue today," he said.
Black motorists are pulled over at greater rates than their white counterparts. The phrase "driving while black" points to ongoing racial profiling and is an area of intense study by universities and organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union.
Back in 1949, Green wrote that he looked forward to when he would no longer have to write the Green Book:
“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment."
It turned out the 30th issue in 1966-67 would be the last. A few years prior, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had outlawed racial discrimination, including at hotels and restaurants. The final issue again listed the five hotels in North Dakota and about 30 restaurants and hotels in Minnesota.
Medora’s Rough Riders Hotel appears to be the only Green Book-approved establishment still in existence in North Dakota.
The historic hotel is owned by the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation. Its name, Rough Riders, is in honor of the volunteer cavalry unit Roosevelt led during the Spanish-American War.
Foundation spokesman Justin Fisk said he saw the "Green Book" movie trailer, but has yet to see the entire film. When first learning about the Rough Riders Hotel being included in the guidebook during a recent phone interview with The Forum, he said he’s not surprised.
“I wasn’t aware of this. I’m not sure anyone in this organization is,” he said. “But this is just another cool thing that fits into the unique history of Medora.”