For decades, African Americans relied on a “Green Book” to tell them where it was safe to stay, eat, and buy gas while traveling in the U.S. The Green Book was last published in 1964, and the segregated culture that led to its creation is gone. But the Green Book’s place in history is being revived with a new play that will get a reading in the District this week. We’ll learn more about the Green Book and the theatrical piece it inspired.

Guests

  • Julian Bond Co-Founder, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); Former Chairman of the Board, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Professor, American University and the University of Virginia; Performer in "The Green Book"
  • Calvin Ramsey Playwright, "The Green Book"
  • Kenyatta Rodgers Director, "The Green Book"; Associate Professor of Theater, Montgomery College

Transcript

  • 12:37:47

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe great American road trip is supposed to be about freedom, adventure, the possibilities of the unknown, unless, that is, you're African-American during the era of segregation. But then, African-Americans could never be sure where they'd be welcomed, even in supposedly friendly communities of the North. So one man, a postal worker named Victor Green, created a travel guide that told African-Americans which hotels and restaurants would be open to them in a given city. It was known as "The Negro Motorist Green Book." And until recently, it had been a mostly forgotten piece of American history, but "The Green Book" is now the topic of a new play that's about to get a reading here in D.C. And in the process, it's reviving memories of the time when segregation made life extremely difficult for many Americans. Joining us in studio now is Calvin Ramsey. He is the playwright of "The Green Book." Calvin Ramsey, thank you very much for joining us.

  • 12:38:44

    MR. CALVIN RAMSEYWell, thank you for having me.

  • 12:38:46

    NNAMDIJoining us by phone is Kenyatta Rodgers. He is director of "The Green Book." He's a professor of theater at Montgomery College. Kenyatta Rodgers, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:38:55

    MR. KENYATTA RODGERSIt's a pleasure. Thank you.

  • 12:38:56

    NNAMDIAnd still with us in studio is Julian Bond. Calvin, allow me to start with you. Tell me more about "The Green Book." What kind of information did "The Green Book" provide to travelers?

  • 12:39:06

    RAMSEYIt provided almost everything from lodging to beauty shops, barber shops, places to rest. If you had car trouble -- it was -- and it grew. I think near the later years of the publication, it was up to over 80 pages.

  • 12:39:28

    NNAMDIJulian Bond, for people who may not have experienced this time in American history, take us back if you would, to the era when "The Green Book" came into being. What are your memories of segregation as a child growing up in Pennsylvania?

  • 12:39:42

    MR. JULIAN BONDI can remember when my parents left Pennsylvania to go south, where both of them are from and where they'd worked previously to coming to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. That -- as soon as you got to a place where you wanted to spend the night -- say, Charlotte -- because you couldn't drive from Philly to Charlotte. It's a good day's drive. You had no idea where you could go. You knew you couldn't go to the big downtown hotels. You knew you couldn't go to the restaurants you saw by the side of the road. And you're in a quandary. Where can I go where I won't be insulted? Where can I go where the door won't be slammed in my face? Where can I go where I'll be welcomed?

  • 12:40:21

    MR. JULIAN BONDAnd so "The Green Book" was like a passageway to a clean room and a bed, to a restaurant where the food was the kind of food you wanted to eat, a place where people would say, come on in, we're glad to see you, and wouldn't call you a name or call you out of your name.

  • 12:40:37

    NNAMDIAnd since your family was living in Pennsylvania, but both your parents were from the south, I can assume that you traveled south quite frequently. So "The Green Book" was, like, a part of your life.

  • 12:40:46

    BONDOh, absolutely. My mother's family was from Nashville, and we frequently went down there on holidays and summers. And, you know, you couldn't drive from Philly to Nashville in a day. And this -- you're talking about a two-day trip because there are no superhighways. And just the idea of coming to a place and saying, where can I get a sandwich? Where can I get a cool drink? Where can I get anything? Where can I get my car fixed? Where can I get treatment? Where can I be treated decently? And this book was the passport to all of that.

  • 12:41:20

    NNAMDICalvin, you were a child during the course of that era. Any experiences with your family trying to travel south?

  • 12:41:26

    RAMSEYWell, I was born in Baltimore, and my mother is from Southern Virginia. My father is from Northern North Carolina, and we resettled back in North Carolina. And I remember uncles coming down and us traveling, and we always packed these big coolers. And I didn't quite understand why they would stock them with -- 'cause it was eight kids and two adults -- with Coca-Colas and Pepsis and things like that because -- and sometimes we even put -- I found out later there were gasoline cans in the trunk, you know, big metal cans, so that you wouldn't really have to stop almost for anything. And the restrooms weren't really readily available on the open road, so you had to stop and go into the woods. And that's somewhat embarrassing for...

  • 12:42:18

    NNAMDIHad to pack everything to travel. Calvin Ramsey is the playwright of "The Green Book" and also the author of the book, "Ruth and the Green Book," with illustrations by Floyd Cooper. You first learned, Calvin, about "The Green Book" from a family friend at a funeral. Tell us about that.

  • 12:42:36

    RAMSEYI was -- this couple I met years ago when I lived in California, Santa Monica, Tony and Patricia, and they were just starting to date. But they had a long love affair. Tony was older, and Pat had this crush on Tony for years. And Tony had just got out of the Air Force, and he settled in Santa Monica. And I was out there taking some classes. And Pat eventually came out there to join Tony and stayed with her older brother Jonathan. And we didn't know that they even had this, you know, hidden romance. And so it finally revealed itself.

  • 12:43:10

    RAMSEYAnd so, 27 years later, I'm in Atlanta at a Home Depot, and Tony walks in and says, you look like Calvin Ramsey. And it was Tony, and I went home with him. I met Pat and the, you know, nine children.

  • 12:43:25

    NNAMDII love a good love story.

  • 12:43:26

    RAMSEYYeah, and the oldest child name was Little Tony. And he was taking a lady to the hospital, and he stopped on side of the road to fix his tire. And two police officers stopped to help him so that he wouldn't get hurt. And someone came in the road flying and ran over the two police officers, broke their legs, but killed Little Tony. So this was just really a tragic thing and -- 'cause all those little kids just worshipped their oldest brother -- and Pat and Tony was pretty devastated. So I went to the funeral.

  • 12:43:59

    RAMSEYAnd the grandfather came down from Long Island. He was a retired mailman who grew up across the street from Mr. Green. And he asked me at the backyard that he was trying to find a green book -- his first time down south. He thought he still needed one. And that's how this whole thing started with me on this pursuit. And in the front of my children's book, I -- on the dedication page, I dedicate the children's book to Little Tony and his family.

  • 12:44:27

    NNAMDIThe story of "The Green Book," you'll hear a little bit more about Victor Green later. But, Kenyatta Rodgers, you were introduced to "The Green Book" after being contacted by Ari Roth, the artistic director of Theater J here in D.C. -- Mr. Ubiquitous, I call him. What was your reaction when you heard about it, Kenyatta?

  • 12:44:46

    RODGERSI couldn't believe I hadn't heard about this part of American history and black history. It was just completely alien to me. And so, of course, immediately, I was drawn to the material once Ari described it a bit. Very much drawn to the playwright, wanted to know, you know, how he could turn this into a piece of history, from a piece of history to a story that would be entertaining and one that obviously would have the ability to teach. But the more and more I spoke with the playwright and realized that he really created this great story around this piece of history, the lives of the folks who were using "The Green Book," whose livelihoods depended on "The Green Book," and whose lives depended on "The Green Book" really came into focus. So that's why -- my introduction was first through Ari over at Theater J and then, of course, through Calvin.

  • 12:45:40

    NNAMDICalvin, your play "The Green Book" involves an interaction between an African-American man and a Jewish man. Why did you decide to make that a key piece of your play?

  • 12:45:50

    RAMSEYWell, actually, Mr. Green got the idea for "The Green Book" from Jewish friends of his in New York City. They had a travel guide similar, not quite like "The Green Book." It was a little -- a travel -- one that's widespread. But they had their -- the Jewish community had their book as well. And once he saw that, the idea sort of clicked. And Mr. Green, being a mailman, belonging to the National Association of Postal and Federal Employees, which was the only union that African-Americans joined in the '30s because they could not join the...

  • 12:46:32

    NNAMDIAnd it's still around today.

  • 12:46:33

    RAMSEYExactly. They could not join the AFL-CIO, not until John F. Kennedy -- President Kennedy signed the executive order for that. So through that network of union people throughout the country, Victor Green was able to get other mailmen -- because they were all men in 1930s -- in the 1930s are -- to ask people in their rounds would they mind being in this publication.

  • 12:46:53

    NNAMDIJulian Bond, how is that a metaphor, Victor Green's relationship with a Jewish individual? Because Jews had suffered discrimination and published this kind of book before, how is that a metaphor for the historic alliance between Jews and African-Americans in the Civil Rights Movement?

  • 12:47:11

    BONDYou know, we were just talking before we came here about this play that's up right now in Baltimore at the Reginald Lewis Museum. It's a historical look at the phenomenon of Jewish teachers at black colleges. And it focuses particularly on one man, Ernest Borinski, who taught at Tougaloo College. And on yesterday in Baltimore, Joyce Ladner, who used to be acting president of Howard University, came and spoke about her experiences with Ernest Borinski at Talladega, when she -- not at Talladega -- Tougaloo, when she was a student there. And the -- this play is just marvelous because it shows how you had these two groups of outlaws and people who are spurned by others. Blacks and Jews found common cause and the cause of higher education. Well, I mean, this "Green Book" is another example. I tell you, until I heard about this play, I thought it was called "The Green Book" because it was green. I didn't know there was a man named Green.

  • 12:48:11

    NNAMDINamed Victor Green...

  • 12:48:12

    BONDYeah...

  • 12:48:12

    NNAMDI...who actually wrote the book.

  • 12:48:14

    BONDYes, I didn't know that.

  • 12:48:15

    NNAMDIAs a matter of fact, Calvin Ramsey and Kenyatta Rodgers, tell us a little bit about Victor Green. Who was he?

  • 12:48:22

    RAMSEYWell, as I mentioned earlier, Mr. Smith, who came down for his grandson's funeral, grew up across the street from Victor Green. And, see, if you saw Victor Green walking down the street, whether in his uniform or his Sunday clothes, you would think he was an ambassador to the U.N. He carried himself with a lot of pride, a lot of dignity. And so that's why I was so honored that Mr. Bond is going to be playing Victor Green because I see a similarity, you know, with that.

  • 12:48:50

    NNAMDIHold up. We got to take a short break. We have to take a short break before we announce the debut of Julian Bond in the role of Victor Green at the -- Lincoln Theater is where it's going to be?

  • 12:49:02

    RAMSEYYes, sir.

  • 12:49:03

    NNAMDIWe're going to talk a little bit about that also. We'll take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on "The Green Book." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:50:37

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing "The Green Book" with Julian Bond, civil rights activist, founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, former chairman of the board of the NAACP. He's now a professor at American University. He is performing in this week's reading of "The Green Book." Also with us is Calvin Ramsey, playwright of "The Green Book" and author of "Ruth and the Green Book." And Kenyatta Rodgers joins us by phone. He is director of "The Green Book." He's a professor of theater at Montgomery College. Victor Green was a mailman who, you said, spoke like a college professor. Mailman was the kind of job that African-Americans were forced, in many ways, to perform because they couldn't get any other. So they were very educated people who were doing those jobs, but tell us a little bit about why you thought of one Julian Bond to play or read the role of Victor Green in "The Green Book."

  • 12:51:24

    RAMSEYWell, we have a mutual friend named Bonnie Nelson Schwartz.

  • 12:51:28

    NNAMDIYes.

  • 12:51:28

    RAMSEYAnd we've been -- thought about this over a year ago. And we tried to find a date that will accommodate his schedule, and we really wanted him. As I said earlier, you know, Victor Green carried himself with so much class and dignity that people in the neighborhood of Harlem, you know, thought the world of him. And for him to start this publication, it wasn't really out of character for him at all.

  • 12:51:51

    BONDYou know, it's interesting to talk about Bonnie because she is the founder of the Helen Hayes Awards, which...

  • 12:51:56

    NNAMDIMm hmm.

  • 12:51:56

    BOND…well-known in the theater community here in D.C...

  • 12:51:58

    NNAMDII love going to them.

  • 12:51:59

    BOND...and really put D.C. theater on the map. And she's put together this idea, four of these readings. This is the first one on Wednesday night. But talking about the African-American experience, so that's something we ought to just keep in mind and look forward to as they come along.

  • 12:52:15

    NNAMDIA reading of "The Green Book," as Julian and Calvin mentioned, will be taking place this Wednesday, Sept. 15th, at the Lincoln Theater in partnership with Theater J and the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture. For more information, you can go to lovethelincoln.com, lovethelincoln -- one word -- .com, or call the box office at 202-328-6000. Kenyatta Rogers, directing "The Green Book," how is directing Mr. Bond?

  • 12:52:41

    RODGERSOh, my goodness. It's going to be a pleasure. I'm going to learn a thing or two, I'm sure. But...

  • 12:52:46

    BONDI need strong direction.

  • 12:52:49

    RODGERSI was told that he is a very strong hand. I will see how that works out.

  • 12:52:53

    NNAMDIKenyatta, why do you think Victor Green is not better-known today? I, like you, did not know about him. I have an excuse. I was born in the Caribbean. You don't. It seems that this piece of history has been mostly forgotten.

  • 12:53:06

    RODGERSYeah, one of the reasons, I think, is because he was, you know, a businessman first it seemed. And he was pretty project specific with his goals. I found it interesting. Usually, you know, or not usually, but many times, somehow we'll try to create an organization that will push forward into the future. He was very project specific. He intended this "Green Book" to last until Civil Rights legislation was passed. And true to his word, from 1936 when he created it, it then went out of publication in 1964. So the legacy didn't carry on because, I guess, the need wasn't there for that kind of literature, and he recognized that. And once his goals were accomplished, I guess "The Green Book," and its legacy also faded as well.

  • 12:53:50

    NNAMDIYet, Calvin Ramsey, once you found out about it, you felt there was a need for it. Why?

  • 12:53:55

    RAMSEYI was on the advisory board at Emory University in Atlanta, and there were collections all around there. Ralph McGill, the former editor of The Atlanta Journal paper, his papers were there. Alexis Scott, her father William Scott, his papers were there. So I was surrounded by all this archive of material, and Atlanta University had two copies of "The Green Book." At that time, Emory didn't have a copy. And I went over there, and once I saw the book -- the books -- and they were, like, living books. They weren't just pamphlets. They were things that people needed to survive day to day and also -- especially on the road. And so I just got caught up in it. And, you know, there's not many people that actually had a copy or knew someone who had a copy, and it just rolled from there.

  • 12:54:51

    NNAMDIJulian Bond, in a larger sense, it seems that many young people today don't know much about the history of segregation and what it involved, the ways African Americans had to deal with it. Is that inevitable, or is that something that we should be concerned about?

  • 12:55:06

    BONDYou know, it's kind of good news, bad news. It's good news that these young people don't know about the horrors of yesterday. It's bad news because they should know about the horrors of yesterday, so they can prevent them from being repeated. And we're close -- not close -- but repeating them is in the air right now. You know, Rand Paul, the Republican Senate candidate from Kentucky, is complaining now that the civil rights laws that made it possible for the three of us and Mr. Kenyatta, too, to eat at these restaurants, to stay in these hotels, were wrongly decided. And if up to him, we'd be back in the day when we needed a "Green Book" to go around.

  • 12:55:44

    NNAMDIIndeed, that was one of the major controversies in this election season. Kenyatta Rodgers, what does this mean to you in terms of understanding the history of segregation and passing it on to an audience that may not have understood it?

  • 12:55:56

    RODGERSWell, just to go back to your point about the Jewish communities and the black communities in D.C. and across, you know, the United States coming together, taking a look at this time in history to recognize -- and I love that way playwrights capture not only history, but also tell it in a way that's, you know, you're in the building. You suspend disbelief, and you're in that moment with the characters.

  • 12:56:20

    RODGERSWe see that it's happening now. What Calvin has done is created the connections between these stories of oppression and the various -- and the two -- the African and the Jewish holocaust. And you can take a look at how the communities have healed, how they addressed the issues of their day and learn lessons from not only, you know, the history itself but also in a way that Mr. Ramsey has put it together in his play. I think for generation -- my generation and generations after -- it's an incumbent upon us to seek our audience where we can hear these stories, so that we can recognize the quandary we find ourselves in today.

  • 12:57:00

    NNAMDII'm afraid we're just about out of time. Allow me to remind you a reading of "The Green Book" will be taking place this Wednesday, Sept. 15, at the Lincoln Theater on U Street. It's in partnership with Theater J and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. For more information, go to lovethelincoln.com, lovethelincoln -- one word -- or you can call the box office at 202-328-6000.

  • 12:57:24

    NNAMDIKenyatta Rodgers, thank you very much for joining us. Kenyatta Rodgers is the director of "The Green Book." He's a professor of theater at Montgomery College. Calvin Ramsey is the playwright of "The Green Book." Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:57:37

    RAMSEYThank you, sir, for having me.

  • 12:57:38

    NNAMDIJulian Bond is a civil rights activist, co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, former chairman of the board of the NAACP. He's now a professor at American University. He will be performing in this week's reading of "The Green Book." You don't want to miss this. Julian Bond, always a pleasure.

  • 12:57:55

    BONDThank you. Thank you.

  • 12:57:56

    NNAMDIThank you very much for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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