The Green Book

Carry your Green Book with you … you may need it.”

is the cautionary tagline found on the front cover of the

nearly three dozen issues of Victor Hugo Green’s “The

Negro Motorist Green Book” (and later “The Negro

Travelers Green Book”). At a glance, this caveat could be

perceived as a thinly-veiled attention grabber, perhaps the author

or publisher’s push to sell a few more copies to nervous travelers.

Sadly, these words weren’t unscrupulous fear-mongering, but

rather a warning to African American travelers. A warning born

out of years experiencing embarrassments, disappointments and

disasters while on the road.

Getting Started

First published in 1936, “The Green Book” was the brainchild

of Victor Hugo Green, a postal carrier in Harlem, NY. Having

seen troubles brought on by segregation – whether announced on

signs in the South or spoken of in whispers up North – Green

thought of a way to avoid the inconvenience of being barred from

a restaurant or the danger of finding oneself with no place to sleep

in an unfamiliar town.

With his connection to other postal carriers throughout the city,

Green and his colleagues began compiling a list of restaurants and

hotels in Harlem and other areas of NYC that were friendly and

accommodating to African Americans.

The book’s first issue was met with such popularity that

Green included listings from other states in the very next issue.

He gathered information by mail-in contributions and through

the research of his small but growing staff. Through this work,

“The Green Book” eventually expanded to include most states and

several other countries.

Though Jim Crow-type laws are often thought of as exclusively

an American problem, the need to include countries like Canada,

Mexico and Barbados illustrates how far racist restrictions truly

reached.

Initially created to be a guide for people of color travelling for

any reason, by the 1948 edition Green began to gear his publication

toward those traveling for pleasure. He included a travel service

which assisted African Americans in locating hotels and summer

resorts and reworked the title to “The Green Book: A Classified

Negro Motorist & Tourist Guide.”

In a Smithsonian Channel documentary entitled “The Green

Book: Guide To Freedom,” some of the most popular resort areas

mentioned include Idlewild, Michigan; Atlantic Beach, South

Carolina; and the A.G. Gaston Hotel in Birmingham, Alabama.

The A.G. Gaston Hotel wasn’t just a place to spend the night, but

also served as a meeting and lodging place for civil rights leaders.

Travelers could order “Green Books” through the mail, find

them at local churches, or buy them at roadside retailers like Esso

Standard Oil, which was the first large chain to sell them. Green

and Esso had a formal agreement for the retailer to sell the guides

which created an ideal partnership. As the post-World War II

economy grew, so did the black middle class. For the first time,

African Americans enjoyed the luxury of disposable income, were

able to purchase automobiles and able to travel for pleasure. African

Americans who could afford to purchase a car would often do so to

avoid the potential dangers of public transportation.

Driving a personal vehicle was a fairly new phenomenon, so

Green included pages with vehicle maintenance tips, driving tips,

information on the latest car models and tips to avoid distracted

driving along with lists of rights and laws by state and myriad other

pieces of advice and anecdotes.

No Travel Guide Is Perfect

An explanation of the book was provided in the first few pages

of each issue. Green began speaking to would-be critics by boldly

stating “No travel guide is perfect!” He went on to detail the process

he and his staff abided by when collecting listings but admitted

that the information didn’t always come from reliable sources and

things like addresses, locations or whether a place was even still

open could change from the time they received the information

to the time the book was published. He also welcomed feedback

from users of his guide, driving home an underlying point of this

book – it was to aid in safe travel and encourage recreation but

it also sought to be a well-written guide that only included clean

reputable businesses within its pages.

In the Movies

A renewed, or for some brand new, interest in Green’s travel

guide has been fueled by the 2018 film “The Green Book”. The

movie tells the story of Don Shirley, a famous African American

concert and jazz pianist and his hired driver and bodyguard Frank

“Tony Lip” Vallelonga as they travel to Shirley’s concert bookings

in the segregated South in 1962. Throughout the film, the viewer

is able to see the despicable and outright ridiculous nature of Jim

Crow. Shirley wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom, dine or stay the

night at the places he was performing. Instead, the duo relied on a

“Green Book” they’d been given by Shirley’s manager.

Nick Vallelonga, one of the film’s screenwriter’s and Tony Lip’s

son, said he always knew that this was a story he wanted to tell.

While he admits it was an emotional project for him because of

his close ties with the main characters, he always felt that he “had

something” with the tale. The younger Vallelonga imagined he

might make an independent film about his father’s 1962 journey

someday, but never dreamed that it would turn into a box office hit.

When discussing the film, Nick Vallelonga is careful to point

out that the intent of this project wasn’t to be a documentary about

the “Green Book” but more so to encourage people to look into it

themselves.

In an interview with film review website Screenrant, Vallelonga

said “People have told me it made them Google it, and made them

go, “Oh my God, what is this book?” So, we layered things out to

have the social issues and the racism exposed. I mean it’s horrible.

You say a man can’t go to the bathroom where he’s playing, the

theater he’s playing. This wasn’t the movie that we were going to

go hammer you with all that. It’s there enough and it showed how

it affected him as a person, and how it affected my father seeing this

happen.” Akin to the “Green Book” itself, the film simply intended

to put the information out there – it’s up to the recipient to decide

how to use it.

Though the film won Best Picture at the 91st Academy Awards,

it has been negatively received by some. One of Shirley’s relatives,

Carol Shirley Kimble said the film is “once again a depiction of a

white man’s version of a black man’s life… To depict him and take

away from him and make the story about a hero of a white man

for this incredibly accomplished black man is insulting, at best.”

Some have also accused the film of skewing Shirley’s relationship

with his own family, depicting it as extremely strained or almost

nonexistent when in reality he served as best man at his brother’s

wedding just two years after the events portrayed in the film.

The Green Book and Eastern North Carolina

According to acting director Angela Thorpe, the NC African

American Heritage Commission is currently working on a project

called “The Green Book’s Oasis Spaces Project” that will explore

all 326 Green Book sites in North Carolina. Even though the vast

majority of them are now vacant lots or roadways, the commission

plans to use photographs of these areas to tell the story of “The

Green Book” and the perils of travel for African Americans in the

segregated South. The traveling exhibition is slated to launch in

March, 2020.

Just a short trip up Highway 70 from the Crystal Coast, New

Bern boasted three “Green Book” sites, two of which are still

standing. Thorpe held a lecture on the New Bern sites in February

which was full of little-known facts about these historical sites.

One site, which is now a traffic circle, was the Palm Garden.

Listed in the “Green Book” as a tavern, it was located at what was

then 192 Broad St. in New Bern and appeared only in the 1949

issue of the “Green Book.”

Owned by George Downing and Walter Godette, it is

somewhat unclear what actually happened to the Palm Garden as it

stopped appearing in New Bern city directories in 1951 according

to Thorpe.

Appearing in at least seven issues of the “Green Book” (1950,

1953, 1954 and 1960-63) was the H.C. Sparrow Tourist Home at

what was originally 68 West St. in New Bern, though the address

was changed to 731 West St. in the 1960s. This home still stands

today and is owned by the granddaughter of the original owner

and builder, Henry Clain Sparrow. Sparrow was a skilled bricklayer

and is said to have been a “man of sufficient means” who was well established

in New Bern around the turn of the century according

to Thorpe’s research. Thorpe has found conflicting records indicating the home was

built in both 1916 and 1925. However, she did mention that both

of these dates could technically be accurate if the house was burned

in the New Bern fire of 1922 and then rebuilt.

It is thought that the owner’s son Charles Sparrow, who would have

only been in his 40s, was responsible for advertising the home as a safe

haven for African American travelers.

The longest appearing and perhaps most interesting site in

New Bern was the Rhone Hotel

No alt text provided for this image

listed at 42 Queen St. in the books

and now standing at 512 Queen St.

The Rhone Hotel was built and

owned by three sisters – Charlotte,

Carrie

and Harriett Rhone – and appeared

in the 1938-41, 1947-57 and

1959-63 issues of the “Green

Book” according to Thorpe.

The Rhone Hotel stands out for a number of reasons. Not

only was it unusual for blacks to own a hotel at that time in the

South, it was especially unusual for a black woman to own one.

Also, accommodations that were friendly to African Americans

were overwhelmingly termed “tourist homes” – private residences

that had extra rooms or additions built on for boarders, not actual

hotels.

The Rhone sisters, however, had the means to build and a

passion to encourage more black travel. With its close proximity

to the railroad, it brought in droves of people passing through for

business and for pleasure. The original Rhone Hotel building

is still standing today and is currently used as apartments.

Travel in Carteret County

Though no businesses in Carteret County were ever

found to be listed in the “Green Book,” there were two that

probably could have been. It is

No alt text provided for this image

speculated that people of color

didn’t often visit this area for

beach recreation because there

were black beaches such as

Seabreeze in Wilmington and

Ocean City on Topsail Island

nearby, however, the black population along the Crystal

Coast swelled during the summer when white families on

vacation would bring along their hired help.

When in Morehead City for the summer, one option African

Americans had for recreation during their downtime was the

Edgewater Hotel. The building is still standing at what is currently

1100 Edgewater Place in Morehead City, however, in old city guides

from the late 50s and early 60s it is listed as being at the far end of N.

11th Street.

The Edgewater Motel in 2019

The Edgewater Hotel was founded, owned and operated by Harkless Wooten, well known

in the county and beyond for being an extremely talented chef, and his

wife Clifford McGhee Wooten. As reported by an entry in The

National Register of Historic Places, “Morehead City, North Carolina,

was the location of the Edgewater Hotel, built in 1950, in the

northwest section of town known as “Colored Town.” This hotel, like

the few others scattered along the east coast, served the black traveler

in the mid-20th century who was unwelcome at the white hotels.

In the first part of the century, the

black population of Morehead City was only about one-sixth of the

total. Most individuals were employed in the fishing industries or

at white resort hotels as porters, cooks, maids and laundresses. The

black population rose in the summer months when white visitors

to the resort community brought their maids and butlers, none

of whom were able to attend any of the local white venues. Here

was a definite need for a recreational venue for the black community, and the

Edgewater Hotel, built by Harkless Wooten, a local

black man, filled the void, remaining in operation until

1979. In contrast

No alt text provided for this image

to the grand resort

hotels of the white

community that

had been built into

the early years of

the 20th century,

the Edgewater

Hotel was located

in a simple frame

building with a

kitchen, dining

room, lounge, pool hall, patio and pier. Charter fishing boats took

visitors on excursions nearby.”

A column called “On the Tarheel Beat” featured in the New

Journal and Guide also discussed the lack of recreational options for

people of color in Morehead City and said of the hotel: “The most

p o p u l a r and widely patronized is the

Edgewater Hotel owned by H.E.“Papa” Wooten.

Dancing on the patio is ‘the thing’ and each

Thursday night a small local combo is featured.

It is then that those who have served the other

fellow all week come out to be served.”

In the same article, another Morehead

City business that catered to the African

American population is mentioned – Amy’s

Grill. In a 1963 edition of “Hill’s

Morehead City and Beaufort Directory”,

Amy’s Grill, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Jack

May, was listed as being located at 1212 Bridges St.

Mention of Amy’s Grill was also found in the Negro News

column of the April 1, 1955, issue of the Carteret News Times.

Amy’s hosted a sixth anniversary meeting of The Ladies Home

Instruction Club and a rundown of the club meeting also

contained a description of restaurant. The article detailed the decor

and menu at the meeting: “Tables were decorated with japonicas

and jonquils, centered with candles. Club

members wore corsages of white carnations, the club flower, trimmed

with orchid and white ribbons, the club colors. They were served turkey,

cranberry sauce, dressing, peas, carrots, pickles, hot rolls and muffins,

creamed potatoes, coffee, ice cream, and cake.”

In a 1948 issue of the Carteret News Times, there was an

advertisement for “mercantile apartment, Amy’s Grill, Morehead City.” It is unclear

if the rental was for long-term use only or if this was a unit available

to travelers, but it indicated that, along with the Edgewater, there

were some accommodations for people of color.

Impact of The Green Book

On the first page of the 1948 “Green Book,” Victor Hugo

Green expressed regret that there was ever a need for his guides.

“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. But until that

time comes, we shall continue to publish this information for your

convenience every year.”

“The Green Book” ceased publication after the 1966-67 issue,

having reached the day Green hoped for in his 1948 introduction

with the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The signing of the

Civil Rights Act saw many of the once-thriving businesses listed

in “The Green Book” decline sharply. People of color now had the

option to patronize any establishment they desired and many of the

businesses couldn’t compete with places that had more money and

resources at their disposal.

“The Green Book” sites that historians and preservation

committees are seeking to save “allow us to see a parallel country”,

according to The Smithsonian documentary. Not only do they

provide a historical record but they tell a story of entrepreneurship

and in many ways show a seldom-seen side of the civil rights

movement. One where the ultimate goal was still equal rights but

where the deep need for rest and relaxation – or as Mr. Green put

it, “vacation without aggravation” – was recognized, sought after

and ultimately achieved.

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