Eric Nemoto
Commentary, Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

In 1936, a Black New York City mailman, Victor Hugo Green, created the first “Green Book,” a guidebook for Black American travelers. For 30 years, the “Green Book” provided information on safe places and services for Black Americans during the era of Jim Crow laws. Today, social documentarian and National Geographic grantee, Candacy Taylor, is documenting past and present “Green Book” sites in order to preserve this critical part of America’s history. A video that was recently shared with me chronicles her in the process of filming her documentary, and it piqued my curiosity about the subject.

The Movie

I first heard of the “Green Book” by watching the movie of the same name. In it, Italian American bouncer Tony Vallelonga, played by Viggo Mortensen, is hired by Black American pianist Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, to serve as his driver and bodyguard on a 1962 tour of the Deep South. He is given a copy of the “Green Book” by the tour’s producers to find motels, restaurants and filling stations that would serve Shirley during their travels together. Tony is a man raised in the Bronx, New York, and is not without his sins. After seeing his wife provide glasses of water to two Black workers in their apartment, he later throws the glasses in the trash. Shirley was born in Pensacola, Florida, and first showed an interest in the piano at two-and-a-half years, and by age three he was performing on the organ at church. At age nine, he was traveling to the Soviet Union to study at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music. He later received lessons in advanced composition from Conrad Bernier and Dr. Thaddeus Jones at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His training and world travels would create a refinement about him, perhaps even haughtiness, that when contrasted to Tony’s earthiness, makes them as polar opposites as any two men could be. But over their eight-week tour the men come to understand and appreciate one another, and by the end of the movie Don is invited by Tony to spend Christmas dinner with the Vallelonga family. “Green Book,” the movie, is a wonderful story of understanding and reconciliation and depicts the hope that all of us can appreciate one another, including our differences. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2018.

The tourist guide “Green Book” was a publication for Black Americans back when they could not travel on vacation, confident in the knowledge that all accommodations and services would be open to them. The fact was they were not. When Black men and women traveled by car, they did so under the cover of night so as not to be seen by white policemen, who would often pull them over. Moreover, there were sundown towns across the country, where Black Americans were not allowed at all. Sundown towns were all-White municipalities or neighborhoods that practiced racial segregation by excluding non-Whites through a combination of discriminatory local laws, intimidation or violence. The term came from signs posted that “colored people” had to leave town by sundown. The “Green Book” pointed out these towns, as well as hotels, restaurants, gas stations and other businesses that were safe for Black travelers.

Candacy Taylor’s “Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America.”
Candacy Taylor’s “Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America.”

The Book

Taylor’s video and book made me recall the movie, and eventually got me to pick up a copy of her book, “Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America,” which chronicles that period, 1936-1966, when the roads were not open to all and racial segregation was in full force throughout the country. As incredulous as it may seem now, the “Green Book” was received with great enthusiasm. Black motorists who picked up a copy, would find inside its covers the pronouncement, “NOW WE CAN TRAVEL WITHOUT EMBARRASSMENT.” Inside Taylor’s book, she describes sites that were listed in past “Green Books,” which are still in operation today. Her visits to these places and commentary about each makes history come alive. When faced with these tangible remains, it helps to keep that part of the past from being forgotten. Taylor also succeeds in conveying the contributions that the proprietors of these institutions displayed. It took courage to be listed in the “Green Book,” and Taylor celebrates the stories of those who put their names in the book and as such, stood up against segregation. In compiling the history of the “Green Book,” Taylor chronicles how far America’s race relations have come, and also how far we still have to go.

Have Car, Will Travel

I could relate to the “Green Book” because travel has always been something I’ve cherished. During my undergraduate years at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa, I was very active in student life. I recall being on a committee with renowned history professor Walter Johnson, who could regale stories of what he did in Portugal or France or China. As a young man who at the time had rarely been off the rock, I would listen with utter amazement that anyone could have traveled to so many far and distant lands. During a dinner that our committee had, I finally blurted out, “Dr. Johnson, is there anywhere in the world that you haven’t been?” He sat there, eyes fixed away in contemplation, and then answered, “I haven’t been to the deepest parts of Africa. I intend to one day.”

The moment was transformational for me. It hit me that traveling was not just a luxury, but a necessity. I wanted to be like Dr. Johnson, that is, having the kind of perspective about things that only traveling could produce. As Mark Twain put it, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” So serious was I to make traveling a commitment going forward in my life that I decided that upon the conclusion of my graduate studies at Oregon State University in 1983, I would travel with my wife, Mary Ann, across the United States, taking in as many of the country’s iconic sites as possible. Our intention drew interested parties. My father and mother, Goro and Hatsue Nemoto, mother-in-law Chisato Holck, “Big Aunty” Toshiko Miyakaku (Chisato’s oldest sister) and my nine-year-old nephew, Ryan Lung, thrust upon me by my sister, Evelyn, as a return of a favor for her flying Mary Ann and I home for Christmas vacation in 1982. 

Looking back, the trip became an odyssey, and as each year passes, what we did and how we did it take on more mythical proportions. Perhaps it was not as epic as Homer’s iconic poem, but for ourselves, and our friends and family, it has become the stuff of legend. For in 1983, there was no internet, the only computers were at work, and the cell phone was years away from being available. Hence, there was no GPS to guide us to our destination and no way to research and book accommodations ahead of time. All we had were a host of hard copy maps and guidebooks that I had retrieved from the local AAA office in Corvallis, Oregon. In creating our itinerary, I had to literally count the miles from point A to point B on a map by using a hand calculator, and approximate the time it would take to travel each day. This resulted in a journey that, but for one day, had us at every destination on the exact day I planned. This was amazing, considering that every day we literally had to find our way to the “motel district” to pick out our accommodations for the night. The trip eventually took six weeks, where we visited 32 states and covered an extraordinary 10,367 miles. Among the innumerable tourist sites we took in, we visited the Space Needle, Yellowstone National Park, Mount Rushmore, the (then) Sears Tower, Niagara Falls, New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Orlando, New Orleans, Dallas, Carlsbad (New Mexico), the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, LA, San Francisco and the Redwoods before finally looping back to Portland, Oregon, to return the station wagon we rented and fly back home to Hawai‘i. 

When I think back on this, I shake my head in astonishment. Today, the thought of not traveling across the country “with” our cell phones and not having secured lodging in advance, would be something I still wouldn’t attempt. But to do so without such advantages back then? It seems now, entirely too bold, and perhaps even reckless. But I guess we were younger then, and with no real idea as to what we were missing, our desire to see this great country trumped all other concerns. I mean, that’s just the way it was, and we accepted it. But given even this, when I imagine what it would have been like to endure such travel under the added burden of worrying whether a motel would accept us? Or having to make sure to avoid a town where we were not allowed to be in after dark? Whether a restaurant would even serve us? I can tell you we would not have ever tried. I mean, there is just no way that I would have ever risked such a trip. And yet, that’s exactly what many Black Americans had to endure and did from 1936 to 1966, simply because if they wanted to go on vacation somewhere else, that’s just the way it was. They had to accept it.

Life Lessons

Our trip, as challenging as it was, faced very little adversity. But there were two moments that I can vividly recall that are applicable to the “Green Book.” The first happened at a gas station in West Yellowstone, Wyoming, when Mom Holck walked around the side of the station in search of a restroom. She was followed by an older Caucasian man, big, burly, and someone I assumed was the owner of the station. I followed them and as I turned the corner the man said to mom, “What are you doing there?” Mom Holck replied, “Oh I just wanted to use your restroom.” With the restroom door clearly in view, the man replied, “Well, there’s a restroom across the street in those stores over there.” In the tone of the man’s voice it was evident that he didn’t want anyone of color to use his bathroom. It was so blatant. So shocking. So unfortunately real. I walked up to my mother-in-law and escorted her away. I said something to the effect of, “Come on mom, let’s get out of here,” and I gave the man a brief but pointed look, which communicated my anger.

Eric Nemoto at the Sulphur Caldron in Yellowstone, Wyoming, June 15, 1983. (Photos courtesy of Eric Nemoto)
Eric Nemoto at the Sulphur Caldron in Yellowstone, Wyoming, June 15, 1983. (Photos courtesy of Eric Nemoto)

The other moment came upon us after we encountered the long-distance traveler’s worst fears – car trouble. About a half hour after leaving Orlando, we were heading west on the second half of our journey, when there came a knocking sound emanating from the engine. We pulled off the interstate into the small town of Clermont, Florida, and found the first auto repair shop that we came upon. There, the head mechanic, a Caucasian man in his forties, came out from the back of the garage. Shirtless, mustachioed, his hair unkept and his hands black with grease, he merely said, “Yeah?” Because there was no “How can I help you?” that followed, I immediately didn’t feel welcomed. I explained our situation, to which he responded that he had two jobs he had to work on before he could even look at our car, and that would be maybe two hours. Having no other option, I told him fine, that we would get some lunch and then check back. I recall sensing that he really didn’t like the answer I gave him. His shrug and a not-so-subtle sigh made that very clear. 

My family and I next found ourselves at a restaurant across the street, seated at the window that had a clear view of the man’s garage. I figured, here was a meal that we would really take our time. But after about an hour, we noticed that the mechanic came out to move the station wagon from the parking lot into the garage. Progress. So, figuring that the man would need some time to check things out, we had a few refills of coffee until half an hour later I was back in the shop asking for the man. The shirtless man walked out holding a spark plug. This instinctively gave me hope. Whatever it was, the spark plug meant that he found out what the problem was.

But what the shirtless man told me was both unexpected and disconcerting. He said he checked everything and pronounced the engine to be totally fine. He showed me a spark plug and said that it looked brand new and that all the others were the same. He surmised that the knocking sound was a piece of carbon that might have gotten wedged in the spark gap, which possibly caused what we had heard. To hear that “nothing looked wrong,” didn’t sit well with me. All I could do was envision being stranded on some country road, a mile from nowhere, and so I imagine I didn’t respond in an appreciative way. The man picked up on my frustration and said, “Look, if you want, I could do a full tune up, but in my opinion, I’m going to be charging you a whole lot for nothing and I would only be taking your money, because I see nothing wrong with the engine. What I suggest is that you drive it and see what happens. If I’m wrong, and it continues, then get to another shop and have it checked again. But I’m saying I don’t think that will happen.”

I left there very angry and without even telling him thank you. It was likely the initial reaction I received from the man when I first explained to him our problem, coupled with the ugly incident involving Mom Holck a couple weeks before that fueled my rage. I was convinced that he didn’t want to help us, and the look I gave the ugly man of West Yellowstone, I again gave to the shirtless man of Clermont. As we drove off, I thought the worst of him in the most stereotypical of ways. I felt that prejudice, this time, reared its ugly head not in the form of any outward expression of discrimination, but in the subtle indifference of a man who didn’t really want to go out of his way to help a group of Asians. He was, after all, the epitome of a good ole boy in my eyes, and so all the troubling stories I had heard about the South came rushing to my brain. 

But a curious thing happened as we continued traveling. The knocking stopped. In fact, from the moment we left the man’s garage not a single sound came forth and the engine purred perfectly. As the miles climbed and our trip progressed, I realized that the good ole boy mechanic back in Clermont was not only telling me the truth, but he actually did us a favor. He could have literally overhauled the engine for all that I knew and charged me accordingly. But he didn’t. He was a good guy. I just didn’t see it at the time. Looking back, I realize that there certainly was prejudice going on during our encounter. But it didn’t come from him. It came from me. 

In the movie, “Green Book,” there are two great scenes involving cops. The first is when Tony and Don are pulled over and eventually taken in because they were traveling in a “sundown” town. The cops ooze such prejudice that it seems to seep out through their pores. In the other scene, Tony and Don are again pulled over as they are traveling in a snowstorm and based on their prior experience, they expect the worst. But the cop tells them that their back tire is flat and after helping to direct traffic while Tony puts the spare on, he tells Tony to drive safely and wishes both a Merry Christmas. I could relate to both scenes. The first reminded me of that ugly man in Wyoming and the second the shirtless man in Florida. 


All these years later, 40 to be exact, while Mary Ann and I have traveled to many countries abroad, our cross-country trip of 1983 remains the greatest adventure of our lives, and the memories we have of all the amazing sites we visited live on forever in our minds. Among these, the experiences I had with, respectively, the shirtless man from Florida and the ugly man from Wyoming, serve to validate the belief that there are both good and bad people in the world. That we all need to try and be, and associate with, good people, and to avoid being, or associating with, bad people. 

Eric Nemoto (in sunglasses) and family (from left to right) Hatsue Nemoto (mother), Goro Nemoto (father), Toshiko Miyakaku (aunt), Ryan Lung (nephew), Chisato Holck (mother-in-law) and Mary Ann Nemoto (wife). The picture was taken at Wanapun Vista View, Columbia River, Washington, June 13, 1983.
Eric Nemoto (in sunglasses) and family (from left to right) Hatsue Nemoto (mother), Goro Nemoto (father), Toshiko Miyakaku (aunt), Ryan Lung (nephew), Chisato Holck (mother-in-law) and Mary Ann Nemoto (wife). The picture was taken at Wanapun Vista View, Columbia River, Washington, June 13, 1983.

Accordingly, the movie and the travel guide, reflects this country’s good and bad sides. As truly beneficial as it was to a race of people at the time, the travel guide, “Green Book,” is a sad reflection of how bad things were in this country that a book for such purposes had to be published in the first place. The movie, “Green Book,” while not sparing in its depiction of outright discrimination, is a heartwarming tale of brotherhood. Certainly watch the movie, but if you can, pick up Candacy Taylor’s book, “Overground Railroad.” As that saying goes, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Both help us to understand a troubling time and subject matter. 


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