Hearing first-hand the stories of racial segregation his biracial stepmother endured as a child stirred a lasting fascination in the inquisitive mind of Nat Gertler.
Pocahontas Gertler, who was half African-American and half Cherokee, told her young stepson painful stories about being at the mercy of Jim Crow laws while traveling with her high school’s athletic team.
“They would take a bus to another town and all the other girls would go to one hotel and she would have to go to a different hotel outside of town, because everybody else was white,” the 53-year-old Camarillo resident told an audience of about 100 Royal High School students Tuesday.
A child prodigy who attended college at age 14 and became a writer and an editor, Gertler started About Comics, a publishing company in Camarillo, 20 years ago. Initially specializing in comics, his firm now also puts out novels, audio books and specialty publications.
“Being basically a one-man operation, I’m free to chase after whatever I’m interested in at the moment,” he said.
A couple of years ago, while doing research online for possible books to publish, Gertler became interested in Harlem mailman Victor Hugo Green’s “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a guide for African-American travelers first published in 1936.
Notable more for how much it excludes than for what it includes, Green’s guide was intended to help keep African-Americans safe as they traveled around the country. It provided a list of hotels, motels, restaurants and even gas stations that welcomed black customers. Green updated his book annually with input from fellow black postal carriers.
Covering the 48 contiguous states, the guide was an essential survival tool, letting African-American travelers know where they could expect to find lodging after a long day on the road or where to gas up before heading across the desert.
For Gertler, “The Green Book” represented tangible evidence of what his stepmother endured growing up.
“It got me curious,” he told Royal High School students during a recent Brown Bag Lunch speaker series presentation.
“I wanted to reach out and buy a copy. Then I found out that they cost thousands of dollars, because it’s rare and people want it. Let me tell you, as a businessman, when something is rare and people want it, that’s where I want to be.”
So, in November 2016, after scanning an original copy of Green’s guide at the New York Public Library, Gertler republished “The Negro Motorist Green Book.”
“At first I wasn’t sure anyone would want it,” he said.
Gertler has sold 12,000 copies thus far.
Although he is not African-American, Gertler said he put out the guide not only as a business venture but also to “amplify” an ugly chapter in U.S. history.
“I am sure you heard and read about segregation in your classrooms, the civil rights struggles and the things people went through,” he told students. “But that’s different from seeing the two or three places in a state where people could go. It puts you into the immediate place of someone who had to use (‘The Green Book’).”
Gertler recently received a letter from the National Civil Rights Museum, he said, thanking him for making the book available at a reasonable price.
Royal High history teacher Brian Dennert, who’d been talking to his classes about segregation, was eager to get his hands on a copy of “The Green Book.” After learning that Gertler’s firm was selling inexpensive reproductions— at $9 a copy—Dennert contacted the publisher and invited him to speak at Royal High.
“As part of our geography class, the students are learning about how the railroads and transportation system created the suburbs, which in many parts of the county were segregated,” Dennert said.
Within the pages of “The Green Book,” Gertler said, he’s found interesting facts about segregation in America and the nation’s attitudes about race.
Although strict segregation laws were imposed in the South, for example, safe havens for black travelers were few and far between throughout the U.S.
“ Take a look under New Mexico,” Gertler told the students. “There’s one place, just one place in all of New Mexico where black people were welcomed, which was the private home of one
Matt Wilson at Iron and
“There were no places listed in Camarillo, Thousand Oaks or Simi Valley.
You had to plan, and you had to plan well ahead.”
Published from 1936 until the passage of the
Civil Rights Act in 1964 made racial segregation illegal, “The Green Book” eventually became obsolete.
Victor Green, however, did not see the end of Jim Crow; he died in 1960. But in the foreword to his first “Green Book” in 1936, he prophetically wrote:
“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.”