Please note: A pdf of the published article is available at the bottom of this post.
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.
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 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 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 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 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 popular 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 décor 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.