The movie “Green Book” won Best Picture at Sunday’s Academy Awards. From 1936-1967, the Green Book was an essential guide for black travelers, providing information about the establishments where they would be safe and welcome while navigating their way across a segregated country. Patty Wetli dug into the legacy of Green Book sites in Chicago in this Block Club series. [Read parts 2, 3 and 4]
BRONZEVILLE — Over the course of the Oscar-nominated film “Green Book,” the historic travel guide that lends the movie its name gets just a cameo, appearing onscreen for just a few fleeting moments.
The book’s big scene comes early on, when Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (played by actor Viggo Mortensen) is handed a copy of the guide in advance of chauffeuring acclaimed African-American pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) on a concert tour.
The book, Vallelonga tells his curious wife, lists places were black travelers can safely stay.
But the Green Book, published from 1936 through 1967, was more than a list. It was a lifeline, an essential reference bible for black motorists navigating their way through not just the Jim Crow South, but the entire segregated U.S. In cities like Chicago, the Green Book would have been required reading even for celebrities and affluent African-Americans, who were barred from Downtown hotels solely on the basis of the color of their skin.
Author Isabel Wilkerson, in “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” describes how fraught the simple act of driving could be for blacks, particularly in the South: “If [a black motorist] reached an intersection first, he had to let the white motorist go ahead of him. He could not pass a white motorist on the road no matter how slowly the white motorist was going and had to take extreme caution to avoid an accident because he would likely be blamed no matter who was at fault.”
Those traveling any great distance, be it for business or leisure, faced additional indignities and dangers — or, as Green Book publisher Victor Hugo Green politely termed them, “difficulties and embarrassments” — that ranged from the commonplace refusal of service at hotels and restaurants to the hazards of sundown towns, where people of color risked harassment, arrest, assault or worse if they were caught within city limits after dark.
Distributed via mail order and sold at Esso gas stations, the Green Book provided African-Americans with vital intelligence on the places where they would be welcome, or at a minimum safe, to lodge, eat or gas up their cars. Friendly drugstores, tailors and beauty shops were among the other businesses scouted for publication by Green Book agents. Many, but not all, of the featured businesses were black owned.
“It has been our idea to give the Negro traveler information … to make his trips more enjoyable,” Green wrote in his introduction to the annual guide.
A misconception regarding the Green Book, perpetuated in part by the recent movie and its emphasis on the threats black travelers encountered in the South, is that the guide wasn’t needed in the North or the West.
But racism didn’t stop at the Mason-Dixon Line or cease to exist once blacks crossed the Mississippi.
Cultural documentarian Candacy Taylor has been researching Green Book sites since 2013, with a particular focus on Route 66, now relegated to the realm of kitschy nostalgia but at one time the country’s Mother Road. Taylor found that nearly half of the counties along the highway harbored sundown towns as the route snaked for 2,448 miles through Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico on its way from Chicago to California.
At the start of the route in Chicago, the Green Book would have pointed travelers to more than 100 listings, the vast majority of them located in the South Side’s “Black Metropolis” (or Bronzeville). This hub of the city’s African-American community was built in large part by the scores of blacks who flooded the city as part of the Great Migration (see map, below).
Confined to a narrow stretch of land by restrictive real estate covenants and redlining and prevented from patronizing whites-only establishments, African-Americans in Chicago responded by creating businesses by themselves, for themselves.
“This community had its own agency. It’s strong testimony that we are business leaders in our own right,” said Sherry Williams, founder of the Bronzeville Historical Society. “It just shows the enterprise that was going on in the neighborhood.”
Count Basie played the Parkway Ballroom, Duke Ellington stayed at the Southway Hotel and Joe Louis celebrated his heavyweight championship at the Palm Tavern — all Green Book sites.
“This was our Harlem,” said Cliff Rome, who runs the Parkway’s current banquet operation and also owns Peach’s restaurant a few blocks up the street on King Drive.
“My grandmother used to tell me about the nights she would hang out at the Parkway Ballroom and who was there and how it felt. It was all about elegance and white gloves and top hats and tuxedos,” said Rome. “If the streets were talking, could you imagine what they would tell you?”
In the 1960s, Civil Rights legislation brought about the day Victor Green had hoped for when he started the Green Book, the one that put him out of business.
“It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment,” is the sentence that concluded the introduction to each edition of the guide.
African-Americans, at least on paper, were now free to lodge and eat and shop where they wanted and began taking advantage of their hard-won freedoms.
For entrepreneurs like Herman Roberts, founder of an eponymous chain of black-owned motels (Green Book 1963-67), the end of institutional segregation spelled the beginning of the end for his business.
He’d opened his motels in the first place to lodge entertainers like Redd Foxx and Sammy Davis Jr., who were barred from whites-only hotels while passing through Chicago to perform at the Roberts Show Club.
“When they opened up the doors downtown [with passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964], I lost a lot of business—all the top-money people. Smokey Robinson and all those people, they’re checking in downtown at the Hyatt,” Roberts told the Chicago Reader in a 2014 profile.
“We would see people come through the neighborhood with a green Marshall Field’s bag and it was, ‘Damn, we can go Downtown,'” recalled Fernando Jones, a longtime Bronzeville resident who grew up to found the Blues Ensemble and Blues Camp.
“We didn’t think things [in Bronzeville] would go away, but money and music leaves the community and depletes the resources,” Jones said.
Urban renewal, job losses, disastrous public housing policy and flight from the city further contributed to the decline of Bronzeville. Many Green Book establishments that had once been a point of pride were abandoned or demolished.
“I feel so much of that hope is gone, it’s so disheartening,” said Libertyville-based photographer Sarah Hoskins, who’s been chronicling Green Book sites for the past two years.
“Going out and seeing it is rough,” said Hoskins, speaking of her trips to Cleveland, Indianapolis and Milwaukee, among other cities. “Roads dead end or neighborhoods are completely gone. Detroit wiped out Black Bottom [an equivalent to Bronzeville]. It’s just gone.”
Yet Bronzeville managed to escape wholescale dismantling.
“We are still here. There’s still pride,” Williams said. “It’s a tribute to the resilience of the people who live here.”
Today, there are pockets of revival and renaissance, signs of renewal and reinvestment — often found in surviving Green Book sites that once served as beacons of welcome to weary travelers.
The Green Book in Chicago, mapped
The first edition of the Green Book, officially known as the Negro Motorist Green Book, was published in 1936, initially as a guide solely to the New York City metro area.
The popularity of that inaugural issue prompted publisher Victor Hugo Green to expand the Green Book to cover the entire U.S., and eventually destinations outside the country. Aside from the years 1942-1946, when publication was suspended during World War II, editions were released annually until the final double issue of 1966-67.
To map Green Book sites in Chicago, we drew on digitized versions of the guides available through the New York Public Library Digital Collections (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division).
We’ve included sites whether they were listed in just a single guide or appeared throughout the duration of the Green Book’s publishing life. Where a street name has changed — most notably Park Way is now King Drive — we’ve used the current name.
As you look over the sites, keep in mind that Victor Green took pains to inform his readers that the Green Book was far from an exhaustive directory of every business open to people of color.
“There are thousands of first class business places that we don’t know about and can’t list, which would be glad to serve the traveler, but it is hard to secure listings of these places since we can’t secure enough agents to send us the information,” Green wrote.
Those agents were often mail carriers, who passed along locations along their route to Green, himself a longtime Postal Service employee.
By the mid-1960s, the final issues of the Green Book included listings for previously whites-only hotels including the Conrad Hilton, the Ambassador East & West and The Drake.
In its own account of its history, posted on the hotel’s website, The Drake says of this momentous change: “Throughout the 50s and 60s the political and social climate of Chicago was evolving and The Drake was inclined to develop alongside the city.”
For more images of buildings with ties to Chicago’s past, check out the website Chicago History in Postcards.