Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Green Book: Reflecting Days From the Past

I often wondered how my parents living in Arkansas and Oklahoma copied during the years of legal segregation, in the Jim Crow South.  My hometown of Ft. Smith Arkansas was a western frontier town but it was also a segregated city.  Although this had not always been the city's past, and the harsh aspects of black people who lived in places like the Mississippi Delta were not as visible in my western frontier town. 

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.


Anonymous said...

Thank God for you, Angela. I knew times were extremely hard during secregation but I had never heard of the Green Book. I am sure that was a life saver for many. Thank goodness we have gotten to a better place and we need to keep working for a better way than even what we have today.

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

We can only be grateful that times have changed, and be grateful for the many things our ancestors did for us, to make our lives better today.

Anonymous said...

Angela, thank you so much for this post. I never heard of the Green Book and now I wonder if my grandparents did. They were also from Arkansas and Oklahoma and we would travel down there summers to visit their parents and siblings. I can't believe how much I learn reading your blog! And by the way, my grandfather was a Walton from Pine Bluff, Arkansas and we have often wondered if we are any relation to the Wal-Mart Waltons.

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

Hello Dionne,

Wow I didn't realize that you also have AR/OK roots. The world is small. Thank you for your very kind words. I am glad that you are enjoying the posts. I am happy to have this ability to share my research with others. Did your Ark relatives remain there, or have they relocated?

Anonymous said...

Although I never heard of or saw the Green Book when I was growing up in Ft. Smith, I was aware of a word of mouth network among Blacks that would provide inside info about where to stay and where to eat when traveling by car in the South. There were even certain cities we were forewarned about to drive straight through because they displayed banners indicating negroes would suffer harsh consequences if they remained in town after sunset.

Renate Yarborough Sanders said...

Hey Angela,
As soon as I read about this "Green Book", it reminded me of something similar that I'd run across not to long ago for Norfolk, VA, where many of my maternal ancestors ended up migrating to around the turn of the century. The item I found was called, "Norfolk's Thirty Six Percent". The volume I found was published in 1927 by the Journal and Guide. Although it seems a bit more historical in natural, I remember thinking that it almost seemed like a tourist brochure for Blacks. You can take a look at it here:

Thanks for sharing this information. Now, I'll have to check to see if the Green Book was available for any of the areas in which my ancestors lived. :)


Renate Yarborough Sanders said...

Oh, and p.s.... I'm glad you and Dionne have made a connection! For some reason, I thought you already had a while back, so I apologize to both of you for knowing, but not pointing out your similar areas of research!


Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...


Yes, you are speaking about Sundown towns and there were quite a few in NW Arkansas. These were towns were signs were posted warning people of color to leave. Some towns also recruited residents by boasting that they had "no Negro residents" thus making their communities, somehow more desirable.

Thank goodness, many of those days are now in the past.

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

Hi Renate,

The link on Norfolk is quite interesting. I wonder if any of those historic homes still exist today. It is always interesting to pull out old publications and really study the commununity that they reflect. There are stories waiting to be told from those pages.