A guide to safe spaces for African-Americans during the Jim Crow era
Peter Farrelly's new film, “Green Book,” follows a black pianist and his white driver/bodyguard on a tour through the Deep South in the 1960s. It was released last week to fairly positive reviews, with critics praising its timeliness — given the current political climate — and the performances of lead actors Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen.
The buddy comedy/drama takes its name from the real-life Green Book, or The Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual guide of hotels, restaurants, beauty parlors, etc. for African-American travelers. Created by New York postal worker Victor Hugo Green and published from 1936 to 1966, the resource helped its users find safe places (both black- and white-owned) that would serve them during the Jim Crow era of legalized segregation.
“It has been our idea to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable,” states the introduction of the 1949 edition.
Beginning as a New York-only guide, the Green Book eventually expanded to include most of the U.S., along with other countries. Local civil rights historian Rory Krupp has studied the document as part of his efforts to get more historic African-American sites registered as national landmarks.
“I ran across one instance where people got: ‘We'll serve you, but we'll give you a sandwich that consists of, like, a cabbage core and tomato peels,'” Krupp said during a mid-November interview. “And it was like nine times the price of anything on the menu. ‘And if you want to buy it, we're calling the police.' So you could avoid that whole scene through the Green Book.”
Perusing the editions online in the New York Public Library Digital Collections, one can see Columbus has a healthy representation of hotels, restaurants, taverns, night clubs and service stations. Given misspelled listings, torn-down buildings — especially due to highway construction — much of the history has been erased. However, some stories live on.
For example, one Green Book entry, the Deshler Hotel, was a mainstay at Broad and High Streets from 1916 to 1969, and hosted President Harry Truman. Another, the Neil House Hotel, once located at the site of present-day Huntington Center on South High Street, opened its first iteration in 1842.
Other safe havens were hotels in the King-Lincoln District. Now an apartment complex, St. Clair Hotel was a stop for jazz performers like Ella Fitzgerald. Musicians also stayed at the Macon Hotel, built on East Main Street in 1888. The establishment later became the Macon Lounge, which hosted acts like the Boodie Green Revue of female impersonators in 1950.
The Columbus Police Vice Squad even paid the troupe a visit, citing an ordinance that required people to dress according to their sex. As stated in an Ohio State News article, a lieutenant “insisted that his men would see that the troupe goes on stage either in pants or not at all.”
In addition to commercial buildings, personal residences — or tourist homes — were also listed in the Green Book. For example, the “Cooper Tourist Home” on North 17th Street and “Hawkins” house on North Monroe Avenue were included in multiple editions.
“[It's] like an early Airbnb,” Krupp said. “People rent out their rooms. … There's not a lot known about them.”
Following the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which banned segregation in public places, the Green Book ceased publication. Given present-day events, like the October fatal shooting of two African-American people in a Kentucky grocery store (the assailant tried to enter a black church prior to the crime), or the numerous incidences of white people reporting innocent black people to the police, the conversation around safe spaces is still needed.
“It's worse than it's ever been,” Krupp said, sharing his opinion on race relations then and now. He cited language in 1920s Ku Klux Klan newspapers, which he'd read recently. “The rhetoric is the same as it is now. It's shocking.”
It's a complex reality that one wonders if Victor Hugo Green could have foreseen.
“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published,” the introduction of the 1949 edition states. “That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. … For then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.”