Power of Public History: Documenting Green Book Sites in North Carolina

The Green Book is a travel guide. It was started in 1936 by a Harlem postal worker whose name was Victor Green. Um, Mr.Green, he recognized the need for African Americans to be able to quickly identify the places where they may be able to stop and get food, get gas, have auto repairs. The things that you may consider that will be needed on the road. And to do so safely during an era of racial And so what we’re primarily doing is going through the Green Book and verifying where those places were listed and located. In addition, we are doing archival research as well to find archival photographs, documents that may talk about the different businesses and people that are found in the Green Book. We are also documenting stories of travel in general. My name is Sylvia Clifton West and I’m a resident of Raleigh, North Carolina, born and raised. My family loved to travel. We always traveled. Mommy and Daddy would always pack food, and I was “Why are we packing food? It’s not like, you know, you’re not, we’re not broke. Can’t we stop and get lunch? Can’t we stop and get dinner?” But Mommy would always pack, you know, sandwiches. She’d make chicken sandwiches, bologna sandwiches, always pack it. But now as a
grown person, I think about how when she was growing up you didn’t even stop to
eat because there was no place to stop to eat, unless you knew of a safe place
where you could stop. And so, I think that carries on from generation to generation
to generation. My time within the history department has definitely
provided the content that I needed to be able to do this work effectively. For
example, I had the opportunity to take an oral history class that proved really helpful because now I am doing oral histories out in the field to be
able to complete this project. It’s important because
there’s so many people that are younger than I am.
They don’t have clue. They just don’t know. I’ve talked to people that are older than I am and they’ve never heard of the Green Book. So that book is very
important to show that there were places out there where people actually opened
up their home. They didn’t know you but they were willing to take you in, share
their bed, their laundry, cook for you, give you their food, give you gasoline.
Most of these people, they didn’t they weren’t rich, they didn’t have anything, but they
were willing to share because they knew how hard it was. That’s important to tell.
This work is so important and meaningful because it incorporates a lot of people.
It really brings back to mind that just the different places, big and small, all
play a role into the way we understand the past and how it shapes the present.
So bringing in not just a local history but community members into this larger
process of answering the, “So what?” And I would say that is the power of public
history: the way it democratizes making meaning of the past.

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