Black History Month, 1-31 October - A green light for life on the open road

A picture book about segregation has restored an almost forgotten piece of African-American history, says Mary McCarney

Mary McCarney

When author Calvin Alexander Ramsey came to read Ruth and the Green Book at my school in Atlanta, Georgia, it seemed rather appropriate, and a little poignant, too. As Atlanta is the birthplace (and final resting place) of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, this award-winning picture book about racial injustice was right at home. But Ramsey's story of a black family's road trip and the discrimination they faced in 1950s America also revealed to my pupils a fascinating historical resource that has recently been rescued from obscurity.

Ramsey talked about his experiences as an African American growing up in the segregated South. "I'm old enough to remember those days," he said. "When we travelled, we'd pack a lot of food, even metal containers full of gas (petrol) because you didn't want to stop along the road. You never knew if you would run into a friendly or unfriendly person. My parents were constantly thinking about safety. As kids, we always had to go to the bathroom in the woods. We didn't want to stop because of the humiliation of being turned away or the fear of being harmed or assaulted. My parents shielded us as much as possible from unpleasant experiences."

While these memories certainly influenced Ramsey's writing, a chance encounter at a funeral early in 2001 revealed a little-known piece of history that became the true inspiration for his work. One of the elderly mourners mentioned that he was trying to track down a copy of The Green Book. "What's The Green Book?" Ramsey asked, and his fellow mourner told him about it. "That really grabbed my attention," says Ramsey.

For almost 100 years, Jim Crow laws mandated racial segregation in public places, particularly in the southern United States. First published in 1936, The Negro Motorist Green Book: An International Travel Guide, known simply as The Green Book, directed black people to restaurants, hotels and petrol stations that were safe and welcoming. The guide was discreetly distributed at Esso stations, which also franchised to African Americans at that time. Black travellers who were lucky enough to discover a copy of The Green Book relied on it to find places, often few and far between, where they could eat, sleep and top up their tanks without fear of refusal or abuse. The rest of America was oblivious and by 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed, the little guide book was redundant and soon forgotten.

Although he hadn't heard of it before, Ramsey knew from his own childhood experiences the reason The Green Book existed. "I did some research and then I really wanted to tell that story," he says.

But it wasn't till late in 2001, after the tragic events of 11 September, that Ramsey felt compelled to complete his work. "I'd spent the summer in Martha's Vineyard and decided to return to Atlanta in September, shortly before 911. What happened that day put everything in perspective," he says. "I thought about the people on those planes, just a few days after me, with their hopes and dreams. It made me realise that if you really want to do something, you can't just wait around. So the events of that terrible day spurred me on to finish writing the story I had in my head."

Ramsey first wrote a play for adults, The Green Book. Then, in 2010, his picture book for children, Ruth and the Green Book, was published. Now he is planning staged readings of the play in London next spring.

The book deals sensitively with incidents of discrimination as seen through the eyes of a child. As Ruth, a young African-American girl, travels with her parents from Chicago to visit her grandmother in Alabama in the 1950s, they are refused service at "white only" restrooms and hotels. Ruth is puzzled and confused. "Why don't they want our business? Wasn't our money just the same?" she asks herself. After the family spend a night sleeping in their car, her father buys a copy of The Green Book at an Esso station in Georgia and Ruth is given a great responsibility: "I was in charge of keeping it. I couldn't stop reading it - all those places in all those states where we could go and not worry about being turned away."

The beautiful illustrations by Floyd Cooper have muted sepia tones, making them reminiscent of old photographs. The pictures capture the warmth of the support Ruth and her parents receive along the route, guided by The Green Book. There is a gorgeous picture of Mrs Melody, a voluptuous black woman who opened her home to tourists and would not accept any payment in return.

Although the characters are fictional, Ramsey's story encapsulates the struggle of African Americans at that time, but with a positive focus on how people pulled together to support each other. For teachers and parents, there is also a substantial closing note, detailing the historical background to The Green Book.

The picture book is a great resource for provoking discussion and questions among primary pupils. Of his many school visits, Ramsey says: "The main reaction from kids is, 'That was unfair.' I always ask them about themselves - have they ever felt discriminated against? Most have their own stories, so we talk about that: religion, body size, the way they look. What it feels like to receive and give unfair treatment."

My fourth graders enjoyed the story, but were shocked, too. "Everyone loves road trips," said Dani. "I never knew how hard it was for some people to travel. It makes me feel sad that they needed a book to help them."

Ramsey says his work is guided by the African proverb, "When an old person dies, it's like a library burning down." His mission is to rescue and preserve those precious memories.

Mary McCarney is a primary teacher from the UK working at Atlanta International School, Georgia, US

Read on ...

View an original copy of The Green Book online at this University of Michigan website: bit.lygreenbookonline

Visit the publisher's website:

Ten ways to celebrate black history

Mark Black History Month in October with these 10 recommended resources.

A time to reflect - What do we mean by black history? Why should we celebrate? Explore these questions and more in an assembly from TrueTube.

Mansa Musa - This teaches pupils about the 1312-37 pilgrimage to Mecca of Mali's emperor in a faux interview from FranklinWatts.

Face to face - Celebrate black authors and personalities with these simple photo matching cards.

Montgomery to Memphis - Debate and discuss how central Dr Martin Luther King Jr was to the Civil Rights Movement.

Black celebrities - A crossword to test how many famous black personalities pupils know.

Famous faces - Decorate your classroom with these profiles of well-known black people.

Black heroes - Get pupils to research black icons from history. African clothes and fabrics A presentation of African clothes - a great stimulus for teaching about black history.

Black Britain - Explore the journeys black British citizens made to get to this country and discover the history of London's slave trade.

Pick and mix - From bingo to trivia, try some of these activities to celebrate black history and culture.

For more great Black History Month resources, check out the TES collection at bit.lyTESBHM

What else?

Key stage 1: A friend for Farouk

Show pupils why it is important to respect differences with a Citizenship Foundation lesson.


Key stage 2: Own perceptions

Help pupils see prejudices they may have and break down stereotypes with a resource pack from Kidogo.


Key stage 3: On the podium

Explore black heroes of the sporting world in an assembly from Sharonjean.


Key stage 4: Roll of thunder

Explore the themes of Mildred D. Taylor's novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry about racial segregation with a PowerPoint from tonykcb.


Key stage 5: Vietnam and Black rights

Discover the effect the war in Vietnam had on the black freedom struggle in the US with a study pack from Zengi. bit.lyVietnamblackrights.

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