Where are the surviving Green Book businesses?

A historian with the National Park Service is searching for surviving buildings once listed in the “Negro Motorist Green Book” travel directory from 1936 to 1964, and he’s asking for roadies’ help in finding them along Route 66.

The Negro Motorist Green Book was an annual guidebook for black drivers during the Jim Crow era. Publisher Victor Green said the book would “give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trip more enjoyable.” A 1949 edition of the travel guide may be perused online here.

Frank Norris, historian for the NPS, says he’s tracked down businesses or buildings that housed them in the largest cities of Los Angeles, St. Louis and Chicago. He’s compiled a list — with addresses — of Negro-affiliated businesses in the smaller towns in seven of Route 66’s eight states (apparently there were no such businesses in 13 miles of the Mother Road in Kansas). The list in a Word document may be downloaded here.

Norris wrote:

I would greatly appreciate your help in driving to the street addresses where these businesses were located. (Some of the addresses, as you’ll see, are more exact than others.) Please find out IF there is still a business – or at least a fairly old standing building – at that address. If there is still a historical reminder (in any form) for this building, please take a photograph of it. Then send this information back to me. I am REALLY looking forward to hearing from you about this!

Norris may be emailed at [email protected] or calling 505-988-6005.

Giving the list a once-over, surviving buildings seem to be slim pickings. I suspect many are long gone because of redevelopment. Many in Tulsa, for example, were in the Greenwood District that was mostly razed during the “urban renewal” days of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Many of these Negro-sympathetic businesses also suffered, ironically, in the wake of desegregation. When black people on Route 66 finally could patronize whatever gas station, restaurant or motel they pleased after the Civil Rights Act, revenue for the Negro-sympathetic businesses plunged. And because those businesses served black people, a significant number of white people wouldn’t want to go there.

On a related note, “Route 66: The Mother Road” author Michael Wallis recently wrote a story for Oklahoma-based This Land Press about the Green Book, “The Other Mother Road,” that was posted online just a few days ago. Some choice excerpts:

As a boy, I saw the “No Colored” signs at gas stations on my Route 66 just as I did on the roads of the Deep South. I also saw signs in cafe windows declaring, “No dogs, No Bums, No Indians,” and only yards away a Native American craftsman sold his hand-fashioned art from the sidewalk. Black families traveling America’s byways packed their own food and often slept in their vehicles. They didn’t get their kicks on Route 66—or at least the kind of kicks I was getting as a youngster or a few years later as a hitchhiking Marine. At highway stops such as the Rock Cafe in Stroud, Oklahoma, during the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and into the ‘60s, black travelers went to the backdoor to get their food to go. None of them walked inside. […]

To many white, middle- and upper-class travelers, Route 66 symbolized the most positive aspects of American society—freedom, progress, and economic possibility. But to the minorities who encountered racism, prejudice, and exploitation along the road, Route 66 embodied a much darker version of American history. […]

For many years, with Howard Johnson being the sole nationwide chain where blacks could eat and sleep, and Esso (later Exxon) being the only major fuel outlet actually offering franchises to blacks, the pickings were very slim. In 1955, for example, 3,500 white motels would allow dogs to stay in guest rooms, but less than 50 stated they would even consider housing any black travelers. During this same period, an Oklahoma motel operator reluctantly allowed a black family to stay at his motel for two days if they agreed to “pass” as Mexicans. There are several reports that in 1961 so many black tourists along Route 66 in Illinois were refused restaurant service that they took to bringing their own food and eating in their cars rather than chance being embarrassed. Undoubtedly, that accounts for why most editions of the Green Book listed nothing between Chicago and Springfield as well as nothing between Springfield and East St. Louis. There were also large gaps for Missouri, Texas, and New Mexico.

In the current age, Wallis decries the “American Owned” signs along the Mother Road, “signs erected by the small-minded and the mean-spirited, by those who wear their religion and their patriotism on their sleeve and on their bumper. Signs that serve no good purpose except to divide us and slap us in the face” because they primarily target Asian-American motel owners.

Wallis’ screed bears strong echos to the anti-discrimination speech he gave during Route 66 Magazine’s Roadie Gathering in Tucumcari, N.M., in 2002. The speech may be read here.

(Images of the Cactus Motel of Albuquerque and Will Rogers Motel of Santa Rosa, N.M., courtesy of 66Postcards.com. Both were listed in the Negro Motorist Green Book.)

6 thoughts on “Where are the surviving Green Book businesses?

  1. I’m not sure where Mr Wallis encounters “Asian-American motel owners” because in our travels on 66 and any other road, the majority of mom and pop hotels seem to be run by Middle Eastern people. We don’t really care who owns/operates them as long as they are clean and in nice condition but in our experience, the number of places that are kept up well by these folks is very low. On 66 we’ve encountered several hotels that smelled so bad, I never even step foot into the office – and it was a white guy behind the desk. With bed bugs running rampant out there, we won’t take the chance on staying at a place like that. I’ll sleep in my car if I have to. In my opinion, it’s not about who owns it but how well it’s cared for.

  2. Thank you for this post, and the link to Mr. Wallis’ article.
    Although I am 50 years old, I have only been a fan of 66 for the last 4 or 5 years.
    Until the recent discussion about Stroud, OK., I had never heard the words “sundown town”. Now I wonder if there were sundown towns along 99 in California (Hey Scott P. Know of any?). I knew of the signs posted to keep out the “oakies”, but having been born and raised here, the idea of sundown towns (out of the south) is just…wow….
    If nothing else you have accomplished something by enlightening me about this unfortunate side of the road.
    I had run into Green Books before, but was ignorant enough to think they must be about the southern states.
    I enjoy learning history. Even the ugly parts.

    (so if “Asian-American” includes “Middle Easterners”, does that mean someone born in Israel is Asian?)

    1. Asian-Americans remains an imperfect adjective. Example: One of my college professors was a white immigrant from South Africa. I suspect the term “African-American” would technically be accurate, but not really.

  3. OK, after reading what Ron wrote, I had to do some digging and he’s right. I didn’t know that Asian-Americans is a broad term. From the Pew website;
    “The Pew Research Center survey was designed to contain a nationally representative sample of each of the six largest Asian-American groups by country of origin—Chinese Americans, Filipino Americans, Indian Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Korean Americans and Japanese Americans. Together these groups comprise at least 83% of the total Asian population in the U.S.”
    Thanks Ron! Learned something new today!

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