Finding a Fading Past

From the 1930s to the late 1960s, whether it was an African American family visiting relatives for the holidays or a globally recognized celebrity on a national tour, in an era when “Whites Only” signs were common, people of color were wont to travel with a “Green Book” in hand. “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” or “The Green Book,” was a guide for non-white travelers to move around safely in the deep South during the time of Jim Crow segregation.

Today, when we think of travel guides, we may think of Yelp or Google reviews. How many stars does this hotel have? Does this restaurant have good fries?

But the Green Book wasn’t about reviews or convenience. Instead, in a period of institutionalized division and accepted, open hatred, stopping at the wrong business could mean the difference between life and death for black travelers. The Green Book listed restaurants, gas stations, places of lodging and businesses, arranged by location, that would open their doors to non-whites.

Much of the nation may just be learning about this fragment of history from this year’s Golden Globe Award-winning movie “Green Book,” but Janelle Jennings-Alexander, an English professor at William Peace University, has been researching this topic ever since a small line in the Toni Morrison novel, “Home,” piqued her curiosity.

“It’s just a small, almost throwaway line at the beginning of the novel,” Jennings-Alexander says of a moment in the book where one of the characters helps another out by copying addresses from “Green’s traveler’s books.”

As a literature doctoral student (and huge Morrison fan), Jennings-Alexander says the line stuck out to her mostly because she had never heard of “Green’s’ book.” When she started looking into it nearly four years ago, she realized she wasn’t alone.

“There wasn’t much information, a lot less than there is now,” says Jennings-Alexander. “It’s exciting to see how quickly these conversations have blossomed.”

Uncovering this little-recorded history inspired Jennings-Alexander to create a research project for her students. As she assigned them local addresses from the originally published travel guides, she didn’t give them any background information. She knew they would come back frustrated because they wouldn’t be able to find much information online.

Jennings-Alexander says the project forced her students to learn how to research beyond the internet. She told them, “You’re going to have to go to the actual stacks, maybe talk to a librarian and learn how to pull property records, tax records.”

The students found that many of the places that were once beacons, safe houses, successful businesses and entertainment venues for black travelers no longer exist.

In her research, Jennings-Alexander discovered a website that estimated that more than 97 percent of all “Green Book” sites in North Carolina are no longer in operation, and that almost none have a historical marker or nod to the past of any kind.

It’s a fact that inspired City of Raleigh Museum director Ernest Dollar to highlight these histories.

“Looking at these places on a map and seeing that a lot of these places are gone urges people to say, ‘What other important African American sites are we losing?’” Dollar says. “What else is out there that we need to preserve and capture before these stories are gone?”

This month, the City of Raleigh Museum’s African American History Symposium will share stories that have gone untold for too long, with a presentation from Jennings-Alexander about the progress she and her students have made, and a look at how they will continue their research going forward.

Attendees will learn about Joe Winters, one of Raleigh’s first African American police officers who became a renowned music promoter and coordinated local shows for Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Chuck Berry, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Aretha Franklin, James Brown and many more.

Jennings-Alexander admits that these conversations can be difficult, but says that rather than seeing them as evidence to indict our past, we should use this knowledge to grow.

“If we can begin to learn from our neighbors, to understand experiences that maybe we just didn’t know about … as a community, we are much stronger for that.”

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