For decades, a series of books were bought by millions and was considered by many to be literally life-saving. One woman is making it her life’s work to document the story of these books. Their reach touches every community in the country.
There are so many old vacation memories recorded in the time of the late 1940s and 1950s, as ads encouraged families to go out on the road and explore America. Thinking back on these years of unprecedented opportunity to experience the country, someone had a question: how did Black families travel during a time of sundown towns?
“Sundown towns were all-white communities,” said writer and photographer Candacy Taylor. “If you were caught there after sundown, there could be severe consequences and even death. My innocent question was if there’s all these sundown towns, what did the Black people do? Looking back on vacation history and marketing, there’s white folks at the beach, and you never see Black people in any of these images, and there’s a reason for that.”
At night, going through unfamiliar towns so far from home, where did these families stay? How did they know if they were in a sundown town? There have been many stops in answering these questions for Taylor. On one day, the questions led her to Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia.
“That’s the original sign, but ‘funeral home’ was beneath here,” said Taylor, snapping a picture outside a building. “We’re at Haugabrooks Funeral Home, but now it’s just called Haugabrooks because it is an art space.”
There’s an important history to Haugabrooks, as one of the original sites to be featured in the Green Book.
“It was everything from drug stores to banks,” Taylor said of the Green Book. “Anything you might need on the road was in the Green Book. It was like a Black Yellow Pages. Most Black families spent weeks preparing for a road trip. You’d pick up a Green Book. You’d go through and figure out the places you wanted to stay. This was the Jim Crow era in general. The Green Book started publication in 1936, and it lasted through 1967.”
Taylor snaps pictures of stained glass inside Haugabrooks.
“There’s something visceral about being in a space that’s tied to this history. It’s almost like a spiritual experience for me.”
Taylor’s work, photographing and writing about the Green Book sites, is a project of rare ambition.
“I’ve cataloged over 10,000 Green Book sites,” she said. “I’ve scouted 6,000, and right now, I’m on the road scouting the remaining 4,000.”
Part of Taylor’s work is in her book Overground Railroad, where she details original Green Book sites like The Rossonian in Denver, Colorado, the Hampton House resort in Miami, Florida, and the Regal Hotel in Los Angeles, California.
The work is being archived at the Library of Congress and is used both for an exhibition with the Smithsonian and a mobile app Taylor is developing. She’s telling the story of the Black family on those unfamiliar roads in the Jim Crow era.
“This feels like my life’s work,” said Taylor. “I think we’ve lost our way in understanding how race and racism have led to where we are today. I felt it’s even important we tell this story now, and we look at this history through the lens of the Green Book. I don’t know where this ends, but I know it’s important, and I feel it’s bigger than me at this point.”