Black travelers had to contend with outright discrimination and racism while traveling America's highways
Imagine a time when a vacationing black family could not use the restroom at a gas station, only could eat in certain restaurants or be would be denied a hotel room and instead be forced to sleep in their car.
To make it worse, these indignities were legal, codified under what came to be known as Jim Crow laws.
Enforced from the mid-1870s until outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, these laws essentially reduced African Americans citizens to second-class status. The laws were enacted and enforced from the smallest municipalities to the nation as a whole, and even legitimized by decisions from the Supreme Court.
A lecture about the Jim Crow era and black life during those years will be presented Saturday, Feb. 25 by historian Carlton Hall of the Delaware State Historic Preservation Office.
In his talk, which is free and open to the public, Hall will highlight the Negro Motorist’s Green Book, a paperback publication that for almost 30 years served as a black vacationer’s guide to state-by-state listings of hotels, restaurants and even service stations where black travelers could expect to be accommodated.
Avoiding difficulties, embarrassments
The Green Book was the brainchild of Victor H. Green, a New York City postal worker who published the first edition, which cost 25 cents, in 1936. Although it initially covered just the New York metro area, Green eventually expanded the publication to include all of the United States and, later, other countries.
According to an introduction in the 1949 issue, Green and his staff provided the information “to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.”
When first given the assignment to research the Green Book, Hall found himself in a quandary: he knew nothing about it.
“I’d never heard of it,” he said. “I asked my grandmother, who had traveled a lot, if she had heard of it, and she hadn’t.
“I thought maybe it wasn’t such a big deal,” Hall said, adding that he’d interviewed several dozen people who also didn’t know about the Green Book.
He changed his mind after reading copies available online.
“It was the product of where we were as a people during those times at the beginning of the Great Depression,” he said. “They had agents who went out and ate at the restaurants and stayed at the hotels.”
The Green Book was not a highly polished publication. It was written in a conversational, casual style that included safe driving tips and advice on how to react if involved in an accident.
“Green explained that some of the information may have been incorrect, but that they did their best, they laid it on the line,” Hall said.
As publisher until his death in 1960, after which the Green Book continued under his wife, Green generally avoided expressing outright opinions on the inequities black travelers suffered.
He acknowledged, however, the ongoing struggle, saying in 1949, “It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.”
Packing gas, food
Post-war prosperity allowed more people to buy cars, giving African Americans a chance to travel without some of the restrictions still imposed by the segregated railway systems.
But black motorists learned they still had to deal with Jim Crow.
“Before they would begin traveling, they had to know where they could stop and not stop,” Hall said. “They’d pack two or three days of food and take extra gas tanks.”
Black travelers were advised to avoid some towns after dark as they simply were not safe, he said.
“You had to be careful,” Hall said. “If you were in an accident, it was pretty much automatically your fault.”
Motorists usually had an easier time at nationwide Esso stations, as its parent company, Standard Oil, sponsored the Green Book, Hall said.
In reviewing Delaware’s listings in the Green Book, Hall noted a great number were in Wilmington, although places to stay also appeared in Laurel, Rehoboth Beach and Townsend.
The 1937 edition of the Green Book listed six venues in Dover, mostly around Kirkwood, Division, Forrest and Lincoln streets, which at the time were outside the city limits. The listings varied throughout the years; by 1963, only two of the six Dover addresses remained.
These, Dean’s on Forrest Street, and Mosely’s on Division Street, were listed as hotels, but most probably were private homes that took in black travelers.
Some preliminary research indicates Dean’s may have been operated by Jennie Dean, who died in 1967, and Mosely’s may have been owned by Wingate Mosely, who died in January 1954.
Another well-known spot was Weston’s Tea Pot on what now are the grounds of the Booker T. Washington school. It later was moved to its current location on Weston Drive.
Listed in several editions of the Green Book, the Tea Pot was owned by James D. and Ruth Weston.
“She ran a restaurant and a rooming house,” recalled longtime Dover resident Ann Thompson. Black residents in Dover who would be turned away from other restaurants often frequented the Tea Pot when they’d go out for lunch or dinner.
The Westons also put up black children from Harrington attending ninth- and 10th-grades at Booker T. Washington because there was no equivalent school there, Thompson said.
The 1940 census records the couple living there with their daughter, Mildred, and four teenage or younger boarders.
The Westons were members of her church recalled Cherritta Matthews, who lived on Forrest Street.
“I knew them as a little girl,” she said. “They were quiet, respected people in the community.”
The Tea Pot had a large picture window, still evident on the building, on which the business’ name was painted, Matthews said.
A Dover airman and the Green Book
Retired Air Force Technical Sgt. Richard L. Mitchell, who was stationed at Dover Air Force Base early in his career, used the Green Book while traveling in the early 1960s.
“I bought a copy after seeing it advertised in a Ebony magazine,” he said. “I had returned from Turkey and bought a 1960 Dodge Dart. My first wife was from the Harrisburg area, and we traveled from there to Texas and then to Washington state.
“The Green Book gave us a way to learn where we could stay.”
Although he and many other black travelers knew about some of the places they would be welcome, it was sometimes a hit-or-miss affair, particularly in the days before the Interstate Highway System.
“I knew about some of the places, you’d see a sign that said ‘motel for colored,’ or something on that order you knew you’d be accepted at those places.”
But while driving he had to stay on schedule, Richardson said.
“It was always a piece of timing to make sure you would get to a place that would accommodate you at the end of the driving day,” he said.
And sometimes he couldn’t find that “motel for colored,” Richardson said.
“We drove many long hours through the night of not being able to find a place to stay,” he said.
The Green Book helped solve that problem, Richardson said.
“It made it very much easier. There were places listed in the book where I knew we could stop,” he said.
Richardson later gave his Green Book to his brother when that family decided to travel across the country. In his later travels, he often stayed at Travellodge franchises, which accepted black travelers, but always made reservations for the next stop.
He experienced other forms of discrimination, such as when he and a white airmen -- both in their Air Force uniforms -- stopped for coffee and the staff refused to serve him.
“It is heartbreaking and it is disturbing,” he admitted.
But he’s not bitter.
“No, I’m not. But I just think it’s a shame at society was such that I had to experience that.”
Hall said his research challenged some of his previous thinking about what black travelers had to deal with in the days of legalized segregation.
“I was surprised at just how hard it was to travel,” he said. “I thought they could just travel and not be bothered, and I didn’t realize they couldn’t go into stores and couldn’t use the restroom anywhere they needed.
“I’ve traveled a lot, and I feel I just take it for granted,” Hall said.