In 1946, the songwriter Bobby Troup penned “Route 66,” cementing the Great American Road Trip into American mythology. The song was based on an actual cross-country trip he and his wife (who were both white) took, and he framed their journey as one of adventure and excitement. He invited listeners to “get your kicks on Route 66.”
Nat King Cole was the first to record the song and the great irony is that while the jazz legend helped romanticize the highway, it was incredibly dangerous for him: Route 66 snaked through cities and towns that were hostile and often violent toward black travelers.
However, touring musicians, like Cole, and other travelers had a secret weapon to bypass racist towns, restaurants, motels, gas stations, and other businesses across the country: The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide to establishments that were safe for and welcoming to African Americans.
Last year, the Brooklyn-based artist Derrick Adams came across a copy of the Green Book and decided to create an exhibition about it. Now on view at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York City, “Derrick Adams: Sanctuary” investigates the book as both an artifact of Jim Crow America and as a constructive force against racism through an architectural installation, mixed-media collages, sculpture, and quilts.
“The Green Book was like a treasure map that led [black travelers] to places that they could stop, from gas stations to food to hotels,” Adams tells Curbed. “I’m showing the Green Book as a political statement: regardless of circumstances, [black people will] still get around.”
The Green Book is both a story about the painful history of driving while black and about an entrepreneurial citizen. In 1936, Victor Hugo Green, a a 44-year-old postal worker from Harlem, set out to practically address the legalized and potentially lethal discrimination black travelers, like himself, faced on road trips.
On his own, Green couldn’t stop violence and intimidation in sundown towns or prevent businesses from refusing to serve customers based on the color of their skin—but he could try to game the system. By publishing The Negro Motorist Green Book, Green helped preserve black travelers’ dignity, made travel less fearful, and probably saved lives.
Green’s persistence and perseverance resonated with Adams, and he wanted to communicate how an individual’s “do it yourself” ethos can make a difference. From 1936 until 1967, Green published the book, whose circulation remains unknown but was definitely in the several thousands at its peak. It grew from a 15-page guide to New York City to a 99-page compendium of black-friendly businesses across the country and even abroad.
“America was promoting this idea of travel and using automobiles and trailers to explore the country, but it wasn’t something that black Americans had the privilege of doing,” Dexter Wimberly, the exhibition’s curator, tells Curbed. “What Green did was try to construct a space where black travelers can feel like all the other [white] Americans who can travel.”
For many visitors to MAD, “Sanctuary” will be their first encounter with the Green Book, which Adams interprets throughout the space. He blows up Green Book pages to make wallpaper, turning the matter-of-fact listings—usually just the names and addresses of businesses—into something monumental.
To approach the collages and quilts hanging on the museum’s wall, you first have to pass through a wooden threshold done up like doors and a highway—a literal interpretation of the barriers black travelers experienced. The artworks create a feeling of nomadism through their travel motifs. Look closely and you’ll see objects related to travel: bags, compact mirrors, combs, driving gloves, and more.
Adams titled the exhibition “Sanctuary” to evoke the feeling that the Green Book created: “I felt that sanctuary is what the Green Book was really trying to create and was really successful at—creating these sanctuary spaces where people feel welcome,” he says. “That’s one of the highlights of traveling: getting to some kind of oasis.”
In the context of our political climate, the name—and exhibition as a whole—takes on a deeper resonance. The “oasis” is harder to find. Hate crimes are increasing. The federal government’s war on sanctuary cities has jeopardized the safety of thousands of immigrants, and continues to meet pushback from local leaders nationwide.
In the meantime, museums have emerged as a platform for engaging discourse on the topics. Recently, the Queens Museum’s former director Laura Raicovich (who departed due to political differences) called for all art institutions to become sanctuaries for progressive ideas and for all people. MAD is beating that drum with “Sanctuary; La Frontera,” an exhibition about the U.S.-Mexico border told through objects, and the soon-to-open show on feminist artist Miriam Schapiro.
“Civically, art is an important voice to articulate a diversity of positions and perhaps a space where people can explore and articulate politics that are difficult to engage with,” Shannon Stratton, MAD’s chief curator, tells Curbed. “There’s a generosity to art that we don’t necessarily find in journalism, and museums should be a place where people can be safe in that exploration. There are other places where we can have a purely aesthetic experience—we have capitalism for that.”
Stratton praises Adams for his “incredibly beautiful aesthetic work that packs a critical punch,” she says. “That’s something artists who are able to make good political work do—they seduce you and make effective statements.”
Adams’s work is beautiful, as Stratton says. He uses the same color palette that African-American painter Jacob Lawrence did in his famous Migration Series. He borrows from the tradition of hiding messages in quilts, but makes them contemporary by fashioning his from automotive upholstery and encoding them with phrases—like “Are we there yet?”—you can only read up close, an optical illusion rendered in black-on-black paint.
The answer to the question is, of course, no. Movement today is still very much restricted in practice, even if discrimination is illegal. “Sanctuary” makes you think about that, and offers an optimistic note: Victor Hugo Green created a solution decades ago, and someone today—perhaps provoked by something they see at MAD—could unlock an answer to help the myriad challenges of today.
“In society, there so many opposition forces to deal with; focusing on the effects of the Green Book would be more enlightening to future generations,” Adams says. “Something so simple as putting a book together can be a way to deal with political unrest; something so simple that you can do on your own can affect people in a constructive way.”