Zog, King of the Zogus: A Balkan ‘Tinpotocrat’, Part 2

Biographical, International Relations, Regional History

As has been described in Part 1, Zog’s attainment of the kingship paved the way for him to step up his autocratic rule over the citizenry. Zog was now politically more secure against his internal rivals, but the broader reality of the plenipotentiary’s (and Albania’s) position was still that of a very small fish in a large and increasingly volatile European lake.

King Zog in his finest regalia
King Zog in his finest regalia
Dicing with the Devil
Given the backwardness and poverty of an Albania that was still essentially feudal, Zog realised that the country needed large injections of external finance to achieve modernisation. Zog’s government had approached the newly formed League of Nations but to no avail (although Yugoslavia provided an early loan). Needing more money to develop Zog eventually turned to fascist Italy and the two countries entered into talks. As a result of the 1926 Pact of Friendship and Security Albania secured loans of around 20 million lira from Mussolini – but in exchange for the loss of its independence in foreign policy. A second Tiranë Pact in 1927 netted Zog a further £140,000 at the cost of a further diminution of Albania’s sovereignty, Italy negotiated more influence over Albania’s militia (including control of its training). Consequently the Italians ended up with a “virtual protectorate over Albania”[1].

Follow up bilateral treaties tied Albania to Italy economically by monopolising its trade. Albania granted Italy new petroleum concessions¤ and the right to build military fortifications on Albanian soil. These pacts kept Albania in a subordinate position vis-à-vis Mussolini’s Italy. Its economic development was hamstrung, industrialisation was stagnant, having achieved little headway, by 1939 production was still predominantly agricultural and the state was forced to rely on imports from Italy, a situation that Rome was perfectly content to see persist[2].

Shqipëria "Land of the Eagles"
Shqipëria “Land of the Eagles”
Roadblocks to Reform
Education in Albania during Zog’s rule was state-controlled but made slow progress due to a combination of factors, eg, lack of national educational infrastructure, shortage of teachers, resistance from religious institutions and communities, (Greek) Orthodox, (Italian) Catholic, Ottoman/Muslim. By 1939 the literacy rate was only 15% (only marginally up from 10% in the early 1920s)[3].

Some scholars have placed stress on Zog’s distinctiveness as a European Muslim monarch (eg, JH Tomes, King Zog of Albania: Europe’s Self-Made Muslim Monarch, (2004)) but in reality the footprint of Islam didn’t feature in his policies. Once entrenched in power Zog legislated to ensure the primacy of secular law. Islamic law was supplanted by Western civil (Swiss/French), criminal and commercial codes[12]. Zog’s government in 1923 put an end to polygamy and the wearing of the hijab[4]. However for purposes of political unity he still endeavoured to appeal to the diversity of communities within Albania, eg, his oath of allegiance at his coronation was sworn on both the Bible and the Koran, a further manifestation of Zog’s dualism.

With the rise of European fascism in the 1930s Mussolini had become more emboldened in his foreign policy, engaging in widespread colonial adventurism, eg, Ethiopia, Balearic Islands. Zog, perturbed that Albania was becoming more and more a client state of Italy, tried to counterbalance Rome’s excessive influence by forging trade treaties with Greece and Yugoslavia. But Albania (and Zog) were in a very difficult situation from either direction, both Italy and Serbia were attracted to its territory and the lure of unfettered access to the Adriatic.

Endgame for Albania’s independence
By the late 1930s Zog was baulking at Mussolini’s demands for even greater Italian incursions into Albania. The linchpin for Mussolini’s decision to invade its Adriatic neighbour was Nazi Germany’s sudden, unexpected takeover of Czechoslovakia … Mussolini, peeved at Hitler’s unilateral move without informing his Italian allies, immediately launched his action as a tit-for-tat gesture[5].

'Daily Express' April 8 1939
‘Daily Express’ April 8 1939
The military conflict was short-lived, the meagre, poorly equipped forces of Albania’s army (trained by Italians, itself a factor compromising its will to resist) put up a feeble fight (although small pockets of the resistance did fight valiantly if briefly). In the middle of the ‘defence’ Zog and his retinue fled the country, slinking off with him a significant chunk of the nation’s gold reserves. The Albanian people he left behind were absorbed into the Italian empire, the country was made nominally autonomous with Albania’s largest landowner, Shefqet Verlaci (onetime Zog’s prospective father-in-law), appointed as prime minister. This was for appearances though as control of Albania was entirely in Italian hands (until the fall of Italy in 1943), and Mussolini set about implementing an Italian colonisation program in ‘Greater Albania'[6].

House-moving with the Zogu family
In exile Zog (and his family including heir to the throne Prince Leka) led a peripatetic life which took them to Greece, Egypt, the south of France, England (living in London, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire), returning to Egypt as guests of King Farouk until the deposition of Farouk himself. Zog spent the final part of his life living quietly in Paris.

Zog's Long Island Palace
Zog’s Long Island Palace
An intriguing side story of Zog’s exile was the grand castle and estate he purchased in New York in 1951. Zog intended to inhabit the 60 room mansion (the Knollwood Estate in Muttontown, NY) and turn it into his palace-in-exile, complete with Albanian retainers and servants. The Zogus never carried through with the planned relocation to the US and the property was sold in 1955, the mansion eventually fell into disrepair and decay, and was later demolished[7]. The scattered remnants of the Zogu estate (in what is known as the Muttonwood Preserve) such as they are, are a curiosity piece today for hikers and other visitors.

Moderniser? Harbinger of Nationalism?
A perception of Zog as being a comical figure in history, not to be taken too seriously and the sense of him being of at best minor importance, obscures whatever Zog may have achieved as head of state for Albania and Albanians. The exaggerated pomp and ceremony of his monarchical style didn’t help to elevate him in the opinion of those outside of the country. Even when he announced his kingship to the world in 1928, the international response was more or less universally underwhelming. Hardly anyone, certainly none of the major powers, rushed to recognise the event. There were those who publicly rebuked him, such as the Turkish president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who refused to recognise Zog’s kingdom and ridiculed the Tiranë royal court as being like a scenario from an operetta[8].

Tiranë, 1930s
Tiranë, 1930s
Notwithstanding all of this, Zog was a leader who made a genuine attempt at modernising. Modernisation for a backward, hidebound country like Albania entailed Westernisation. Zog introduced a Western state apparatus and constitution and secular legal system. Under Zog Albania made some progress in education and other areas of society (albeit starting from a very low base!), but his accomplishments were only partial or often heavily qualified. This can be attributed to a number of factors. Albania suffered badly from a chronic lack of financial reserves and limited resources, hence the ill-advised reliance (as it turned out) on fascist Italy to provide the shortfall. Some of the projects (eg, public works in the new capital) involved extravagant waste. And like everywhere else at that time, Albania ran smack bang into the Great Depression and the catastrophic economic dislocation that ensued would have had a retarding impact on Zog’s programs and reforms. Corruption and misappropriation, predictably for a despotic regime, also played its part in hindering Albania’s progress.

A by-product of Zog’s consolidation of power was the formative development of nationalism in Albania, a consciousness already kick-started by his prime ministerial predecessors. At the uncertain beginnings of Albanian independence which was born out of the upshot of the Balkan Wars, conditions were far from propitious for engendering nationalist sentiments – the many obstacles included:

⌲ the Albanian language had not been widely disseminated because the Ottomans had forbidden its teaching in school
⌲ because of aggressive designs by Greece and Serbia on its territory, many Albanians viewed Turkey positively as it provided protection to small and vulnerable Albania. Moreover the Ottoman Empire provided a defined path for career advancement for Albanians – either in the army or in the civil service
⌲ the bonds of clanism and localism were very entrenched in Albania
⌲ the churches were not a unifying force because there was no one, dominant religion in the country (spiritual instruction was spread between the four coexisting faiths – Orthodox, Catholic and two separate strands of Islam)[9]

Zog managed to get round most of these handicaps and foster a measure of nationalist feeling among Albanians through several state strategies … using the education system to inculcate a nationalist consciousness and desire for national independence; creating autocephalous churches to block the sources of external authority and bring the clerical leadership under national control; shaping the tiny national army into a “melting pot” of recruits drawn from all parts of Albania; by achieving some improvements in communication and transport infrastructure (eg, extending the road network) the police and tax collectors gained greater access to the far-away northern tribes in their mountain retreats. There is an irony in the extent to which Zog made inroads into the sectionalism of Albania and achieved an element of unification and nationalist consciousness … he laid part of the groundwork for communist strongman Enver Hoxha later on to set up a very different brand of nationalism[10].

Postscript: Enter the pretenders
After Zog I died in 1961 his only son and heir Leka had himself consecrated ‘King Leka I of Albania’, notwithstanding the fact that the Hoxha communist regime of Albania abolished the monarchy in 1946. Leka married an Australian teacher and, being an admirer of Franco, lived in Spain where he worked as a commodities broker. Some of those ‘commodities’ it transpired were weapons and armaments (prompting the post-Franco authorities in Madrid to move the Zogus on)❦. They moved to Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) but clashed with Robert Mugabe, necessitating another move, this time settling in South Africa.

Leka, throughout his life, sincerely campaigned for his restoration as King of the Albanians (and for Kosovo’s integration into Albania). An attempt to return to the country of his birth in 1995 was stopped at Tiranë airport when authorities barred his entry because his passport (issued by the Albanian Government-in-Exile, ie, by himself) listed his occupation as “King of Albania”.

Leka I - celebrated return amid controversy 1997
Leka I – celebrated return amid controversy 1997
He was more successful two years later when the Albanian (Berisha) Government found itself under pressure from the public for its part in failed financial schemes and was forced to allow both Leka’s return and a referendum on the question of the monarchy’s restoration in Albania. Only 30-35% however voted for the monarchy. Leka responded by alleging that the ballot was rigged by the government, and a shoot-out erupted at the electoral centre between Leka’s personal militia and the police before Leka’s entourage fled in a private jet. ‘Colourful’ would be an apt description for Zog’s son who enjoyed shooting and hunting and was given to swanning round in military fatigues.

The pretender to the throne was subsequently sentenced in absentia to three years imprisonment – which was later overturned with Leka being pardoned. Surprisingly in 2002, after support was mustered within the Albanian parliament by right-wing monarchists, the government permitted the return of Leka to his homeland[11].

Leka and his wife, ‘Queen’ Susan, had one son (Zog’s grandson), also named Leka, who had born in Johannesburg. After Leka I died in 2011 in Albania the crown prince was declared to be the successor to the Albanian throne. Prince (or King) Leka II, as he is known to some Albanian émigré monarchists, has initiated no active role in promoting the Zogu restoration in Albania. In fact he has been co-opted into the machinery of government in Tiranë, representing the Fourth Republic in various diplomatic posts.

¤ Albania had earlier granted Anglo-Persian Oil (partly British owned) extensive prospecting rights.
❦ Leka’s fascination with guns maintained the family tradition as Zog was famous for resorting to the use of weapons when needs be.

[1] ‘Tirana Pact’, (Papers Past – Press – 1 April 1927), www.paperspast.natlib.gov.nz
[2] The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, (3rd Edition, 1979) “Italian-Albanian Treaties and Agreements” Retrieved 20 July 2016 from http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Italian-Albanian+Treaties+and+Agreements ; BJ Fischer, ‘King Zog’s Albanian Interwar Dictator’, in Fischer (Ed.), Balkan Strongman: Dictators and Authoritarian Rulers of South Eastern Europe, (2007)
[3] E Sefa, ‘The Efforts of King Zog I for Nationalization of Albanian Education’, Journal of Educational and Social Research, 2(2) May 2012, www.mcser.org ; Fischer, ibid
[4] ‘Albanian Kingdom 1928-39’, (Wikipedia), www.en.m.wikipedia.org
[5] ‘Zog I of Albania’, (Wikipedia), www.en.m.wikipedia.org
[6] ‘Italian colonists in Albania’, (Wikipedia), www.en.m.wikipedia.org
[7] ‘King Zog’s Ruins’, (2008), Bygone LI, www.lioddities.com/Bygone/zoo.htm
[8] JH Tomes, King Zog: Self-Made Monarch of Albania, (2007)
[9] BJ Fischer, ‘A Brief Historical Overview of the Development of Albanian Nationalism’, paper delivered www.wilsoncenter.org
[10] ibid.
[11] ‘Leka I Zogu’, The Telegraph (London), 30-Nov 2011, www.telegraph.co.uk

Zog, King of the Zogus: A Balkan ‘Tinpotocrat’, Part 1

Biographical, International Relations, Regional History

Zog the First is one of my favourite rulers among the unimportant bit players in the authoritarian power politics of interwar Europe. Zog hailed from the periphery of Europe, Albania, a ‘backwaters’ country at that stage of its development, predominantly absorbed with agrarian pursuits and animal husbandry and the persistence of tribal fiefdoms. The (London) Times was given to describing the unlikely, self-appointed monarch from Europe’s most obscure country as “the bizarre King Zog”[1].

I suppose what first drew my attention to the Albanian strongman-cum-potentate was simply the seeming absurdity (to Western ears) of his odd-sounding name. “King Zog” sounds like a character you would find either in a television spoof about prehistoric man (sort of like … “Ugg, me Zog, live cave”) or featuring as an interplanetary humanoid in a Star Wars episode. You might also think a slightly ludicrous royal named Zog wouldn’t be out-of-place in fictional Ruritania or the Duchy of Grand Fenwick (depicted in The Prisoner of Zenda and The Mouse that Roared respectively).

Working his way to the top of the political heap
But unlike the imaginary rulers from those satirical places and fictional works, Zog was a very real person. Born Ahmet Zogolli into a Beylik Muslim family in Northern Albania in 1895 (then part of the Ottoman Empire). Zog utilised his post as hereditary governor of Mati province as a springboard into Balkan politics. From 1919 Zog was involved in political machinations and intrigues in the new state of Albania, playing the role of ‘kingmaker’, being largely responsible for the overthrow of successive governments, biding his time until he was in a position to takeover as prime minister of the Principality of Albania at the young age of 27.

A tenuous grip on power
Tenure of the Albanian prime ministership was a revolving door for politicians from the Declaration of Independence (1912) through to the 1920s. Even Zog, the most successful interwar leader, found himself brought down at one point by the vicissitudes of national politics. In 1924 a chain of events upturned Zog’s power base. The trigger was an attempt outside the parliament on the life of the still vicenarian prime minister. Zog was wounded in the fracas but managed to escape, retreating to his Mati tribal stronghold to recover. Zog had earned the enmity of a diverse group which had coalesced in opposition to his program (northern chieftains, elements of the military and gendarmerie, irredentists and the main parliamentary rivals, the Democratic Party). In keeping with the native custom of “blood vengeance” an opposition MP held responsible for the attack on Zog was assassinated (Zog had authorised it as a revenge killing). Fan Noli’s Democratic Party reacted by orchestrating a coup forcing Zog to flee the country to Belgrade with the Harvard educated Bishop Noli replacing him as Albanian PM. Six months later, with funding and troops provided by Serbia, Zog launched a counter-coup to retake the government in Tiranë (Tirana). The lessons of 1924 convinced Zog that he needed to shore up his hold on power more securely … the solution was to come the following year with Zog taking the opportunity to change Albania into a Republic and enact dictatorial powers.

Highland Albanian tribesmen
Highland Albanian tribesmen
The consummate opportunist
Throughout his public life Zog’s instinct for opportunism was always to the fore. Zog played a significant role as a tribal leader in helping to rid Albania of foreign forces (especially Italian and Serbian) in the immediate post-WWI chaos, though the credit given him was perhaps a little inflated. Whichever way it happened[2], once the border incursions were repulsed Zog turned his attention to the overriding task of national unity. Internally chaos still reigned in Albania with a host of warring tribes (Ghegs, Tosks, Mirditës, etc) hostile to central authority and each other. At the core Zog had a non-ideological bent, fundamentally he was about power for power’s sake … his best chance, probably his only chance, of staying in control, was to bring the powerful tribes together under his hegemony. He understood that political unity was the precondition for economic stability[3].

The Über-chieftain: Countering the centrifugal forces
Zog’s strategy in regard to the quarrelsome regional clans was a mixture of cunning and force. Many chiefs were bribed with “peace money”, this often took the form of offering them the rank of colonel in the Albanian army and putting them on the payroll. Those chiefs that came to swear allegiance to Zog did so personally to him … to his supporters he was viewed as a kind of über-chieftain. Remarkably given the feudal and “Wild West” nature of the country at the time, Zog through his persistent efforts, got many (but not all) of these tribal leaders sufficiently onside that they eventually acquiesced to his bold insistence that they hand in their rifles[4].

Zog streamlined the national army and carved out a personal elite, a new militia composed of trusted Mati tribesmen. This provided him with the clout to subdue (or at least keep quiescent) the tribal warlords who failed to be won over by his military appointments and other financial inducements. In trying to integrate the regional players into the unified state Zog was pragmatic when there was bigger, especially external issues to consider, he refrained for example from supporting the irredentist impulses of the Kosovars so as not to draw the hostility of Albania’s larger neighbour Yugoslavia (the Kosovo minority was already a sensitive issue to the Serbs)[5].

Military man
Military man
Guinness Book of Assassination Records
Zog’s Mati guards were also responsible for the leader’s personal safety. Over the course of Zog’s rule many hundreds of political opponents were arrested and exiled – mainly to Italy (other enemies were not so lucky being liquidated outright!). But the guards still had their work cut out for them, between 1924 and 1939 Zog was thought to be the target of around 55 attempts to assassinate him! The most conspicuous attempt occurred in 1931 when two gunmen (agents acting for Zog’s Albanian political opponents) shot at the king as he was leaving the Vienna Opera House. Zog was not harmed and, according to eye witnesses, became the stuff of legends by pulling out his own revolver and returning fire[6].

Zog permitted some limited political reform once at the helm, but was careful to make sure it never threatened his own position. He introduced Western-oriented reforms into the polity but increasingly his rule became more despotic (a mix of West and East) – especially after 1925 when he replaced the principality with a republic and himself as president.

There was also limited land reform[7] but Zog’s regime intended no social revolution. Zog always made sure that he didn’t take things too far, he avoided encroaching on the traditional way of life of the people and discouraged popular participation in society. By permitting the populace minimal representation he maintained his hold on power, and continued to “collect the fruits of monopolizing political power”[8].

Pretensions of emulating Napoleon
From 1927 Zog embarked on the road to becoming royalty. He engineered a ‘spontaneous’ response from sectors of the community, entreating him to accept the title “Saviour of the Nation”. The following year, after receiving a nod of approval from Italy, the “Nation’s Saviour” changed his family name to Zogu❦ and (in the tradition of his hero Napoleon) had himself crowned “King Zog I”. After his coronation he broadened and deepened the already extensive powers he had as president, extending them to the point of autocratic control of the country. Parliament was dissolved, and to retain a sham veneer of democracy, replaced by a new constituent assembly. All decision-making was by executive prerogative.


White Uniform Brigade
White Uniform Brigade
Zog set about immediately and enthusiastically acquiring the trappings of royalty, he had already exhibited a fondness for dazzling white uniforms and elaborate epaulettes. The king’s face now appeared on stamps, on buildings and his name and initials were carved on to the side of mountains. To further enhance his reign’s legitimacy he fabricated, or at the very least embellished, a connection to the 15th century national military hero Skanderbeg, taking the name ‘Skanderbeg III’ as part of his official title[9]. Zog, again taking a leaf from the Napoloeonic playbook, extended the garland of royalty to his siblings who were made princes and princesses.

With the consolidation of the Zogu monarchy (purportedly constitutional but in reality absolute), Albania took on the increasingly appearance of a police state. With his regime buttressed by a facade of royal imprimatur, the vainglorious Zog had attained the high point of his rule. Over the next decade or so the Albanians’ hold over their own country would be whittled away by pressures exerted from outside – as will be described in the second part of my piece on Zog Zogu, the “Bird Pasha“.


❦ ‘zogu’ in Albanian means ‘bird’.

[1] R Cavendish, ‘King Zog I of Albania’, History Today, 58(9), Sep 2008, www.historytoday.com
[2] The success of getting the invading Serbs to pull back from Northern Albania may have resulted from a secret deal between Zog and the Serbian leaders whereby Zog agreed to not support the irredentist demands of the 700,000 Kosovars wanting to escape Serbian rule, JH Tomes, King Zog: Self-Made Monarch of Albania, (2007)
[3] BJ Fischer, ‘King Zog’s Albanian Interwar Dictator’, in Fischer (Ed.), Balkan Strongman: Dictators and Authoritarian Rulers of South Eastern Europe, (2007)
[4] That Zog established a measure of central authority in an anarchic, faction-riven, still embryonic country was a formidable achievement … especially when one considers the depth of the traditional rivalry between the Ghegs in the north (Zog’s own clan) and the Tosks in the south (the latter forming the brunt of the communist elite from 1944)
[5] Besides, the Kosovars located within the borders of Albania were in conflict with Zog’s government, so it was not in his interest to reunite the two groups under the Albanian flag, Fischer, op.cit
[6] Die Stunde, (Vienna, 22-Feb-1931, 22-Feb-1931), cited in R Elsie, ‘Texts and Documents of Albanian History’, (1931 The Balkans in the Operngasse), www.albanianhistory.net
[7] Fischer, op.cit
[8] R Wintrobe, ‘The Tinpot and the Totalitarian: An Economic Theory of Dictatorship’, American Political Science Review, 84(3), Sep 1990
[9] Fischer, op.cit

Viennese Houses of Learning: A School for Stallions and a School for Artful Dodgers


One of the tourism high points and cultural gems on a visit to the Austrian capital is the Spanish Riding School (Spanische Hofreitschule) with its history of over 450 years of continuous operation. The white show-horses are bred in Piber (Western Styrian region of Austria). In Vienna they perform in the Winter Riding School at the Hofburg Wien.

The Lipizzaners with a brace of Napoleons
The Lipizzaners with a brace of Napoleons
We didn’t catch the famous horsey show but we managed to spot them in their exercising yard prancing up and down. Whilst we were there the Lipizzaners (as the Spanish horses are known) were taken out for a canter through the cobblestone streets of the plaza. There was a brief moment of excitement when one of the white stallions did a runner, giving its handler the slip and tried to gallop off in pursuit of free range, riderless freedom. Its liberty was short-lived however as it was quickly reined in. The riders in the military outfits must feel a bit like Napoleon, parading about on slick steeds wearing their bicornes (loopy-looking two-cornered hats). Here’s hoping the practice doesn’t lead to a complex!

Another, very different (street) ‘school’ in Vienna, devoid of the glamour of show-horses but with the same ‘professional’ levels of dedication and expertise, is the ignoble art of pick-pocketing. The part of Vienna we stayed at, Westbahnhof, was obviously not the “old moneyed”, elité part of Austria’s capital. Quite the reverse, it was pretty scabrous and untouristy, clearly a migrant area. The entrance to the Westbahnhof train station which was sporting a new modernist facade (somewhat brutalist in taste) was a bit of a magnet for unsavoury types, assorted crazies and dodgy guys milling round it, as well as the standard gypsy beggars. Westbahnhof was also well fixed for grimy lowbrow Turkish eateries.

imageI was returning to the city centre having already been in earlier in the day and seen Stephansdom (St Stephan’s Cathedral) with its distinctive-patterned mosaic tiled roof; the Stephansplatz, densely populated with Mozart-themed totes flogging tickets to The Marriage of Figaro outside the subway exit, and on the other side of the square, lined up on the street, a row of fiakers (gaily decorated, horse-drawn hire carriages).

I boarded the U-Bahn for the journey to Stephansplatz. Standing up for the short distance (five stops) I suspiciously cast my eyes round the carriage which was sparsely populated. Just the single, odd, scruffy character five metres across the carriage. Just before we reached the Stephansplatz station, the guy darted back past into the heart of the carriage, I thought nothing of it at the time. I exited the train. As I walked along the platform I had a vague sense of passengers following behind me. As I passed a garbage bin I heard the noise of a clanging of metal-on-metal, but again, it didn’t occur to me that there was anything untoward happening.

Wien West U-bahn
Wien West U-bahn
Up the top of the station stairs I once again sidestepped my way through the strategically placed Mozart hawkers and paused to take a photo of the fiaker horses against a backdrop of Stephansdom. I reached for my Samsung but it wasn’t there! Incredulous that I couldn’t find it, I checked and doubled checked all of my pockets, but to no avail. I proceeded to search my carry bag compartment-by-compartment … same result! I remembered clearly I had it on the train, I had glanced at it on the way to my destination and had returned it in clear sight of all in the carriage to my side pocket (in hindsight, the fateful error!).

I caught the train back to Westbahnhof, retracing the course of the journey in my mind to try to fathom where exactly I parted company with my digital device. All I could be sure of is that it happened somewhere betwixt leaving the train and climbing the escalator – a deft, invisible hand, a blink of an eye and like magic it disappeared from my pocket. I truly didn’t feel a thing!

Back at the hotel I spent a frustrating several hours trying unsuccessfully both online and by phone to contact my mobile data supplier back in Australia. By the time I got through to the hotline they had just closed their service for that day … that meant another seven hours wait till 6am East Coast Australian time to try again.

Although holding zero hope for the recovery of my Samsung, for insurance purposes I decided to report the theft to the local constabulary. The inspector on duty had heard it all before, all too often! He explained how the thieves operate, in teams distracting the mark’s attention, sometimes using attractive young women, etc., universal formula really. I didn’t bother to read the police report of the incident the inspector gave me until I returned home, not realising till that time … it was of course written in German!

The Green Book for the Black Traveller: Coping in a Segregated America

Popular Culture, Regional History, Social History, Society & Culture

“Life is all right in America,
If you are all-white in America”

~ Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story

“Travel is fatal to prejudice” – Mark Twain (inscription on the cover of the 1949 edition of ‘The Green Book’)

“Carry your Green Book with you … you may need it!” (the publication’s motto)

imageIn the early 1930s an African-American postal employee from New York, Victor Hugo Green, came up with the idea of producing a book for Black Americans to guide them in travelling safely around their own country. Green got some inspiration from the Jewish-American press which for several years had been publishing travel guides for its community’s travellers, and from earlier, embryonic and less successful efforts to service the African-American community (eg, the Negro Business Directories)[1].

In the 1930s, with the era of “Jim Crow” segregation still very much alive, the experience of Black Americans migrating or travelling around the United States was a very precarious and outright dangerous activity. The notorious white-only “Sundown towns”* were in force, not just in the South but right across the country. The open and legally sanctioned discrimination practiced against Black people in their everyday domestic lives extended to their travel experiences. Victor Green understood that the emerging Black middle class aspired (like all other Americans) to car ownership which held the tantalising promise of individual freedom. For African-Americans, having your own vehicle was the means of escaping a degrading reliance on segregated public transport[2].

American Auto Dreamers
American Auto Dreamers
The project like many entrepreneurial dreams started small, The mailman-cum-entrepreneur Green initially focused his efforts on helping African-American motorists and travellers locate businesses (lodgings, restaurants and other food outlets and fuel stations) in the greater New York metropolitan area that would accept their custom. As the business grew (with assistance from the US Travel Bureau) Green expanded his guide to the rest of the US, and to Alaska, Bermuda and parts of Canada and Mexico. The Green Book’s aim was to help Black and Coloured travellers chart a safe path through a segregated America by pinpointing exactly where on route they could stop and get the services they required to make the trip a happy and pleasant one.

In 1947 Green retired from the New Jersey Postal Service, and together with his wife Alma, started their own travel agency in Harlem. International editions of the book followed with the firm also handling air travel business for the Black community. The Green Book gradually added extra service providers including drug stores, barbers and hairdressers, tailors, salons, garages, nightclubs, taverns, liquor stores and doctors’ offices.

According to the civil rights leader, Julian Bond, Green used his network of contacts in the Postal Workers Union to ascertain where Black visitors would be welcome[3]. Early on, Green visited the locations he would include in his Green Book to check them out personally, but when the book took on a national (and international) focus this became impractical[4]. Aside from hotels and motels, other accommodation options advertised in the Green Book included “tourist homes” (the private residences of African-Americans made available to travellers) and the Harvey House hospitality chain[5].

The Green Book, or to give it its full title, The Negro Motorist Green-Book (later called The Negro Travelers’ Green Book), had its debut edition in 1936 with a green-coloured cover. Green’s intention for the book was to equip Black travellers with the information to avoid the pitfalls, the very real dangers and manifold inconveniences of travelling across a landscape still largely hostile to their race. People could use the Green Book as a vade mecum to find African-American friendly services and hospitable havens on their journeys. It gave travellers the assurance that they could travel with dignity, and not have to suffer the ignominy of being constantly turned away and put down by racist accommodation providers. Green in fact advertised his book as making it possible to have a “vacation without humiliation”.

1949 'Negro Green Book'
1949 ‘Negro Green Book’
The Green Book circulation was initially 15,000 copies a year. It was sold, initially, by mail order through participating Black businesses, and later via Esso gas stations[6]. The cost of the 1936 edition was a Depression-conscious 25 cents, rising to $1.95 by 1960. Some Black enterprises, especially newspapers, eventually sponsored the book, as did Esso, whose gas stations had an unusually high number of Black franchisees in this period … this was reflected in its prominent place in the Green Book’s list of friendly businesses. According to historian Gretchen Sorin, under an agreement with Standard Oil, Esso service stations were selling 2 million copies of the Green Book annually by 1962[7].

1956 'Negro Green Book'
1956 ‘Negro Green Book’
The 1956 edition – whose cover bizarrely featured two unmistakably fair-haired, white motorists(!?!) – made the assertion “Assured Protection for the Negro Traveler”, and it did offer Black travellers some element of choice, where hitherto going to an unfamiliar town was a total lottery. In 1955 in Albuquerque only about six motels out of 100-plus on Route 66 took Blacks – so without a copy of Green’s road trip companion with them travellers could be faced with a long, frustrating and demoralising series of fruitless enquiries[8].

Ernest Green (a member of the defiantly brave band of schoolchildren known as the “Little Rock Nine” which ran the gauntlet of racist bullies at the first desegregated school in the South in 1957) used the Green Book in the 1950s to travel the 1,600km from Arkansas to Virginia. Green, no relation to publisher Victor, later described the book as “one of the survival tools of segregated life”[9]. Other accolades for the Green Book followed … “A credit to the Negro race” (William Smith); “The Bible of Black Travel”.

Undeniably, the book’s popularity for nearly 30 years (spawning imitators as well) is testimony to how appreciated it was by ordinary African-Americans … the practical guidebook was invaluable to travellers by minimising or avoiding inconvenience, embarrassment and harassment whilst on trips and vacations around the US.

Victor Hugo Green
Victor Hugo Green
Victor Green died in 1960 however his family kept the Green Book going until 1966. Rebranding was tried with the word ‘Negro’ dropped from the title to try to widen the publication’s appeal, but with the implementation of the landmark Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the outlawing of racial discrimination in public housing, its relevance soon dissipated.

When the resourceful Mr Green published the inaugural Green Book in 1936, he wrote in the preface that he looked forward to the day when “this guide will not have to be published”. That day was a long time happening (sadly not in Victor’s lifetime) … but it did come.

Footnote: In the decades after the publication folded, the story of the Green Books slipped more or less completely out of the public consciousness. It was only by happenstance that it resurfaced after playwright Calvin A Ramsey met an elderly traveller in the South in 2001 who asked him where he could get a “Green Book”. Curiosity aroused, Ramsey did some background research and eventually wrote two books – a children’s story and a play – on the topic. Since then revived interest in the Green Books has amounted to a bit of a ‘Renaissance’ … there has been the Schomburg Center’s GB digitization project (‘Revisiting a Jim Crow Era Guide for Traveling While Black’), the National Parks Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Project, as well as numerous recent articles, blogs, museum exhibitions, documentaries (including Ric Burns’ current Driving While Black project) and podcasts, all on the Green Books[10].

* so called because visiting Blacks were systematically warned to be out of town “by sundown” or risk violent reprisals from the local white population. This phenomenon was by no means restricted to backwater redneck, hick towns. Sundown towns included large suburbs such as Warren, Michigan (pop. 180,000), Levittown, New York (80,000) and Glendale, California (60,000).

[1] K Kelly, ‘The Green Book. The First Travel Guide for African-Americans Dates to the 1930s’, Huffington Post, 8 Mar 2014
[2] ibid. Although car ownership was liberating for African-Americans it did lead to other problems such as racial profiling by police (deliberate targeting, harassment and random arrest on suspicion of Black drivers on the street) … still very much a threat to the civil liberties of the African-American community today, T Owen, ‘Driving While Black: Cops Target Minority Drivers in this Mostly White New Jersey Town’, 11-Apr 2016, (Vice News) www.news.vice.com
[3] ‘ “Green Book” Helped African-Americans Travel Safely’, Talk of the Nation, 15-Sep 2010, www.npr.org
[4] C Taylor, ‘The Negro Motorist Green Book’, www.taylormadeculture.com
[5] C McGee, ‘The Open Road Wasn’t Quite Open to All’, New York Times, 22-Aug 2010
[6] Kelly, op.cit
[7] McGee, op.cit. Sorin, cited in J Driskell, ‘An Atlas of self-reliance: The Negro Motorist’s Green Book (1937-1964), 30-Jul 2015, www.americanhistory.si.edu
[8] ‘The Green Book Video Transcript – Route 66’, www.ncptt.nps.gov
[9] E Lacey-Bordeaux & W Drash, ‘Travel Guide helped African-Americans navigate tricky times’, 25-Feb 2012, www.edition.cnn.com
[10] See ‘Mapping the Green Book’, (MGB production blog), www.mappingthegreenbook.tumblr.com