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Looking for 'Green Book' stories from Lansing and across the U.S.

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Kenny Turner remembers riding in his family’s 1965 Vista Cruiser when he was 12 years old — packed in with seven other family members to visit relatives in Alabama. It was the Jim Crow era, and his mother had packed “shoebox lunches” so they could eat in the car.

They only stopped for gas and bathroom breaks and Kenny was instructed not to talk to anyone along the way.

Turner doesn’t remember if his father had “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a traveler’s guide designed to warn black motorists about hostile towns, gas stations, police departments and restaurants.

If Turner’s father had a copy, he’d have known to stop at ESSO gas stations, which were black friendly and advertised in “The Green Book.” ESSO was one of the first to sell franchises to blacks and to employ black marketers.

“The Green Book,” first published in 1936 and written by postman Victor Hugo Green, is getting renewed attention due to the success of a movie by the same name. The movie tracks a black entertainer as he tours the South chauffeured by a white body guard. An article in this past Sunday’s New York Times included the movie in a piece on romanticizing race relations in movies.

In the movie, the chauffeur is given a “Green Book” by the record company before he heads out on the tour. “The Green Book” sold for 25 cents mostly at local churches and covered only metropolitan New York City — listing black friendly hotels, motels, taverns and night clubs.

Later, it expanded to nationwide listings compiled by a network of black postmen across the country.

Lansing’s listings first appeared in 1938, showing three boarding homes on W. St. Joseph Street and Butler Street where black travelers could stay. The 1939 Guide had five Lansing listings for “Tourist Homes,” three were on W. St Joseph Street: M. Busher at 1212; Mrs. M. Gray at 1216 and Mrs. Cook at 1220, and the other two were Mrs. Lewis at 816 S. Butler and Mrs. J.B. Gains at 1406 Albert St. None of the homes survive today.

The final “Guide,” published in 1967, had listings for Mrs. Gains, Mrs. Lewis and Sonny’s Tropicana Lodge at the corner of Division and Williams Street.

Victor Green predicted his publication’s demise in the introduction to his 1948 Guide, writing: “There will be a day someday 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 when we can go wherever we please and without embarrassment.”

Toya Levi and her husband Reuben had this in mind when they set out on a great American Road Trip from Houston to California with their two children in the summer of 2016. They planned to camp along the way, selling a line of clothing they had developed, she said.

Toya said their plans changed when the summer became known for its racial violence.

“It seemed every morning we would wake up to the shooting of a black man,” she said. The African American family began staying with friends and when they reached California a friend who runs Funky Junk Farms, a prop supplier for the movie industry, loaned them a ‘60s RV.

“He said, ‘This is just like the ‘Green Book,’” Toya said.

“I never heard of it,” she said. But a germ of an idea blossomed around a business relating to the “Green Book.” With funding from the Idea Fund, underwritten by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Graphic Arts, the couple began travelling to places like Little Rock, Galveston and Memphis for presentations on the “Green Book” gathering photographs and recording stories about the book’s entries which they post on thegreenbookproject.com. They also recorded a mix tape with Little Richard, Sonny Terry, Ruth Brown, Chuck Willis and Bo Diddley that is available for free online.

The couple also presents at a “Shoebox Lunch” which features fried chicken, boiled eggs, corn bread and desserts that wouldn’t spoil on a long trip.

Also two documentaries cover the book, “The Green Book Chronicles” by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Becky Wible Searles and “100 miles to Lordsburg” follows a young couple cross country. Candacy Taylor, a cultural historian, is documenting the physical structures included in the “Green Book.”

A children’s book, “Ruth and the Green Book,” by Calvin Alexander Ramsey, tells the story of a young girl and her family trip to Alabama through Jim Crow America.

Green would be proud his book is receiving recognition and likely would be shocked that the National Museum of African American History and culture bought an original copy at auction for $22,500.

The Historical Society of Greater Lansing is soliciting stories about Lansing’s sites as part of Pave the Way, an examination of the impact I-496 had on the city’s African American neighborhood.

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