Primary sources can give us a sense of time. Images and language that are from long ago can be brought to our attention by a photograph or letter. Primary sources can also give us a sense of place and connect that item from the past to somewhere very near us. I had that feeling after reading Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and seeking out the primary sources related to the picture book.
The Primary Source and the Picture Book
The picture book gives a fictional account of an African American family traveling from Chicago to Alabama. Along the way, they are refused service at a gas station and motel. Eventually, they discover the Green Book and use it for the remainder of their trip.
The Negro Motorist Green Book was published yearly between 1936 and 1964. Meant for travelers, it documented places that would serve and house African Americans throughout the country and eventually even outside of it.
Using a Picture Book to Establish a Connection Between History and Geography
Begin giving a historical context to the Green Book by reading the picture book. While reading, make note of the mentioned locations the family traveled to and through. These include Chicago, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama.
Share with students that the New York Public Library has digitized many copies of The Negro Motorist Green Book. Share the web page and a few covers of the Green Book, digital downloads, or printouts to model how to navigate the primary source.
In the story, the author writes about finding an Esso service station in Tennessee near the Georgia border. Providing a map, ask students how they might find where that gas station was located in Tennessee. Looking at a current map, Chattanooga becomes a likely possibility.
Ask students, using the 1952 Green Book (the year of the Buick the family drove in the story), what cities and towns in Georgia and Alabama the family in the story may stop in if relying on the Green Book. Given that they are in Chattanooga and traveling to somewhere in Alabama, which cities and towns make the most sense?
Use the Green Book to Make More Connections Between Geography and History
There are several other ways to explore history and geography using the Green Book.
- Choose a year of publication. What types of services were listed for African American travelers in the Green Book? How does that compare to services needed by people traveling by car today to towns or cities they know little about?
- Explore the map created using the 1956 Green Book on the University of South Carolina Library site. Choose a city. Are there any noticeable patterns to the locations of services offered in the Green Book? What services are clustered together in a town? Read the Introduction in an issue of the Green Book. What does it reveal about how locations were listed in the Green Book?
- Using the 1956 Green Book (or any year), select a city. Use Google Maps or another online mapping tool to search for addresses. If there is a building or home does it appear to be over fifty years old? Is it what you expected?
- Using Google My Maps or another mapping tool, select a city listed in a year of the Green Book. Create a custom map showing the locations of services in that town similar to the map mentioned above.
Look at Green Books for a city, town, or entire state over several years. How do the listings change? What might be the reason for the changes?
- Look at a photo titled “Duke Ellington and band members playing baseball in front of their segregated motel, Astor Motel, while touring in Florida.” Bibliographic data does not say where the photo was taken in Florida, but it does give a year, 1955. Have students use the 1955 Green Book to find a page listing the Astor Motel in Jacksonville, Florida.
Connections to History through Primary Sources
Connections using primary sources can extend well beyond geography and look at the experiences of African Americans prior to the passage of Civil Rights laws. Explore the Jim Crow and Segregation primary source set from the Library of Congress or photos, prints, and drawings related to segregation, also from the Library of Congress. How do these visual primary sources connect back to Ruth and the Green Book and the fictional story of the family’s travels?
Author: Tom Bober
Tom Bober is an elementary librarian at RM Captain Elementary in Clayton, Missouri, a former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress, and a Digital Public Library of America Community Rep. He has written about the use of primary sources in classrooms in School Library Connection, Social Education magazine, and the Teaching with the Library of Congress blog. Tom also presents at regional and national conferences, runs workshops, and has developed and presented webinars for the Library of Congress and ABC Clio on a variety of strategies and topics for students’ use of primary sources in the classroom.