Spoilers ahead for the Lovecraft Country premiere
Lovecraft Country’s first episode explores the dangers of traveling while Black during the Jim Crow era. The series introduces Uncle George, a business owner and publisher for the Safe Negro Travel Guide. George frequently makes risky car trips to compile a list of places and services that are friendly to Black people. Though this mission that has led to physical harm, he continues to explore and expand entries. That zeal leads to a dangerous trip with his nephew Atticus and drifter Leti from Chicago to Ardham, Massachusetts.
The Safe Negro Travel Guide is a vital and potentially life-saving resource, and it’s based on a real guidebook. Here’s the history behind Lovecraft Country’s Safe Negro Travel Guide.
The History of A Black Travel Guide
The guide is based on The Negro Motorist Green Book, also known as the Negro Travelers’ Green Book or just Green Book. According to History.com, it was an annual guidebook published from 1936 to 1966 by New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green for Black travelers. Green wrote the guide out of frustration over Black people’s treatment when traveling outside of their segregated neighborhoods. Car ownership by Black Americans didn’t rival their white counterparts; however, the numbers were on the rise and people were on the road for various reasons.
The Negro Motorist Green Book helped quell the hardships of traveling when it was legal to discriminate against Black people. The guide was an invaluable resource for lodging, gas stations, restaurants, rest stops, sundown town warnings, and other essential stops typical for a road trip. It initially started with New York-based businesses and locations and expanded out across most of the United States.
Listings were categorized by state and city and often included address of people who opened their homes to Black travelers. The book eventually sold enough copies to allow Green to retire from the post office and create a publishing staff in Harlem.
The final edition came out in 1966, two years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act prohibits discrimination in public places, integrates schools, and makes employment discrimination illegal. It was the result of years of protests and activist work against segregation and the unjust treatment of Black people. This led to the Negro Motorist Green Book essentially becoming obsolete and quietly going out of print—a moment that Green and others hoped for, that Black people could go where they pleased without legal discrimination.
Of course, the laws changed but many hearts stayed the same. White business owners continued to resist the legal mandates and refuse to serve Black patrons. In 1968, All-Star Bowling Triangle owner Harry Floyd claimed his business was exempt from the new laws because it was private property. A group of Black college students from Orangeburg, South Carolina challenged him, showed up to bowl, and were denied entry. It eventually led to the Orangeburg Massacre, a protest where 200 unarmed Black students were attacked by police. The violence left three men dead and others wounded, sparking continued outrage.
Many Black people who tried to go to previously all-white establishments and schools were often met with violence from citizen and police. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 took place before the infamous Selma march known as Bloody Sunday, Martin Luther King’s assassination, and a host of other acts of violence showing that racism couldn’t be erased with a pen stroke. But it was a viable foundation for a shift in America.
The Green Book’s Legacy
The guidebook is now a cherished piece of history. A 1941 copy sold at a March 2015 auction for $22,500 and several copies are on display in museums like the National Museum for African American History and Culture.
Victor H. Green, a postal worker, created his namesake guide to help black travelers safely navigate the segregated realities of Jim Crow America. Our "Follow the Green Book" simulation explores the experience of using the Green Book.— Smithsonian NMAAHC (@NMAAHC) February 25, 2019
Learn More: https://t.co/J8Edctr5r9 #BHM pic.twitter.com/qYWPYrBCIC
The traveling guide is the subject of several documentaries, including Traveling While Black. The virtual reality documentary allows the viewer to experience what it’s like to use the guide while traveling. The 2015 short film 100 Miles to Lordsburg explores one couple’s cross country journey as they use the Negro Motorist Green Book.
It also became a hot topic in 2018 with the release of Green Book, a drama about a Black musician and his chauffeur using the book during their travels. The film is rightly criticized for its white guilt and “redemption” storyline. Either way, a new generation of people who didn’t know about the guidebook are able to gain a better understanding of it through exhibits and entertainment.
The Significance in Lovecraft Country
Lovecraft Country’s Uncle George is a fictionalized version of Green, who died in 1960. Green’s widow took over as editor for the last few years of publication. Uncle George’s wife Hippolyta is already writing reviews for the Safe Negro Travel Guide based on his notes, but she admits in this episode that she wants to go on the road herself. George is against it, saying the road is too dangerous. However, he changes his tune after spending a little time with the all-powerful Leti. So it’s possible that we may see George and Hippolyta head out on a future journey with each other or maybe even Hippolyta taking on the road by herself.
Including the traveler’s book in this story makes sense for several reasons. First, it’s a narrative that centers Black people and how they would rely on this book at that time. Second, it’s a reminder of how the simplest decision could put Black people in danger. George, Atticus, and Leti deviate slightly off course to Simmonsville to try Lydia’s, a local diner. Uncle George says he got a tip that Lydia’s could be a friendly spot for Black people. It seems to be a good move considering the next safe place in the guide is far way and they are all ready for a meal now. So, they take a chance and go for it.
The crew arrives and notices the place doesn’t have the same name anymore. Atticus and Leti aren’t sure about the stop but Uncle George affirms that they have every right to eat there. Unfortunately, they piece together that a few white locals did something terrible to Ms. Lydia. Now, those same people are on the way to run them away. The trio end up in a terrifying car chase with bullets tearing through their car window. A simple detour, something that travelers do all the time, could have ended with their deaths.
Only time will tell how Lovecraft Country’s Safe Negro Travel Guide may impact future episodes. But it’s a vital piece of Black history that needs to be acknowledged and understood by all. It’s a testament to Black people’s continuous resistance and innate desire to look out for each other. Even in the face of fear, people took to the open road for adventure, business, and, in the Freeman family’s case, to find answers.
Featured Image: Elizabeth Morris/HBO