But, there were places we did know were off limits. We could not eat downtown at Kresses or McCrory's and knew not to try. We had Elm Grove, and dare not venture for years into Creekmore Park. In the early part of the 20th century, we could not take a stroll into the Electric Park. We could have nice homes--but only on the north side, and only on certain streets. If visitors came from out of town, they were accommodated by certain people who would take them in. But how did strangers know who to contact to find a place to stay?
If one traveled how did one manage?
Well, in recent years I learned about a unique book that was posted on a genealogy list. Called the Green Book---it was a guide that black families knew to never leave home with out it---for it could ultimately save their lives.
This book was a guide book, published annually by Esso---the same company that would eventually become Exxon.
Its value was in providing information for black travelers to know what places would offer accommodation, and would save them the humiliation and the dangers of seeking refuge in "the wrong place". I became interested in the book and wondered if there was anything reflecting my home state of Arkansas and the two state area in which I lived---Ark/Oklahoma. There was.
Wonderfully---one edition of the entire book exists online. The 1949 edition is there, and it provides a wonderful glimpse into the communities throughout the nation----and reveals how many people coped with the laws of the day.
Arkansas had a good listing, but I must admit that I was so surprised how a small town like Hope Arkansas had a larger listing of businesses than Ft. Smith--the second largest city in the state. But---for my hometown of Ft. Smith, I learned that two homes--which still stand today, were recommended as places to find good clean and safe accommodation.
One was described as a "hotel"---the Ullery Inn. This lovely home of Mrs. Ullery on north 9th street was listed as a convenient place to find a warm bed and warm meal. Mrs. Ullery's home was known as a boarding house and there were people who did reside in her home over the years. What a surprise to see that her home was listed as a "hotel" in the 1940s---for it was a house.
Ullery Inn - Ft. Smith, Arkansas
Of course, it was logical that Mrs. Ullery's home was a place to stay. This neat home was only a block away from what was at one time, the entertainment community in the black part of the city. It was sometimes referred to as "The Block". Blues and jazz musicians often frequented the jazz clubs and juke joints there, and it is logical that Mrs. Ullery's home would provide a comfort for those musicians traveling through the city. Occasionally Negro League teams would pass through the city to play local baseball teams, and they too needed a comfortable place to stay. I still wonder if the Kansas City Monarchs may have stayed there when they came through---or when Willie Mays brought a black all star team to town, if they stayed there, or did they just keep moving through.
A second home surprised me, was also known as a "tourist home". This was the home of the first black high school teacher in the city, educator E.O. Trent. (Trent, born free in Ohio came to the city in the 1880s and established the first stable school and made it part of the city public school system.) It was, of course also the home of his son, the jazz band leader, Alphonso Trent. Alphonso Trent is considered a musical treasure and musical legend and is a native son in Ft. Smith.
The lovely Trent home still stands and is occupied by descendants of this illustrious family. I was surprised to learn that this home was a "tourist" home, and listed in the Green Book, but then again, son Alphonso, brought his band through quite often, and conceivably other musicians known to frequent the city probably had a relationship with him, and could have been offered accommodation there as well.
The Trent Home on North 9th Street
A "Tourist Home" in the 1940s and 1950s
My next question was of course----what about nearby Oklahoma? Was it reflected also in the Green Book? Yes, it was.
In fact, Oklahoma's listing was very impressive. Towns that I knew were included: Muskogee, Boley, Chickasha, Enid, Guthrie, Oklahoma City and more. Muskogee's listing was extensive, hotels, restaurants, barber shops, beauty parlors, and even places where one could get their car serviced. What a glimpse into the black community there!
Oklahoma Reflected in the Green Book
I learned later that "tourist homes" were basically private homes where individuals had a spare room and often would allow strangers into their home offering safety from hostile roads and hostile towns. They were, in fact the "safe houses" of their day.
Although the book catered to a horrible system of separation and exclusion, thankfully it does provide a glimpse into various communities, reflecting a degree of self sufficiency and support within communities forced to comply with the laws of the day.
It is from rare publications such as the Green Book that one can get a glimpse into the lives that our elders were forced to live. It gives us a base from which we can form questions when we speak to elders, and more importantly it helps us to tell the story better of our families---for they come from those communities reflected in that book. As we see the communities and business reflected, we also must learn how our own ancestors coped and we must honor them, even more.
I can go through the Green Book and look at the states from which my ancestors, came, and the cities and towns where people lived, and I know why I must---why all of us, must tell their stories.