Years after the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery, African Americans continued to suffer unequal treatment. Jim Crow laws, especially in the South, discriminated against blacks in most aspects of public life, including travel. Traveling by automobile became increasingly popular in the 1930s and 1940s. But the freedom of the open road wasn’t readily accessible to African Americans, even in Michigan.
Many hotels and restaurants served “whites only.” And many gas stations would not sell gas or allow African Americans to use the restrooms. Black travelers often had to bring their own food and carry extra cans of gasoline. There were thousands of “sundown towns” scattered across both the North and South that made it a crime for any African American to be out in public after sundown.
In 1936, Victor H. Green, a black postal worker, wrote a small book, “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” that listed hotels, restaurants, gas stations and other businesses that would serve African Americans in New York City. The book was so popular that he expanded the next editions to include other towns. Green reached out to other postal workers through the National Association of Letter Carriers to gather information about where African Americans could stop for gas, food and lodging. In some places, there were no commercial hotels or restaurants that would accept blacks, so Green listed many “tourist homes,” where individual families would rent rooms to travelers in their own homes.
This is evident in the Michigan listings for towns like Battle Creek, Muskegon and Saginaw, where only tourist homes, and no hotels or motels, were recorded.
The early editions of the “Green Book” sold for 25 cents at black-owned businesses and at Esso gas stations, which were some of the few stations that would serve African Americans. Esso Standard Oil Co. was owned by John D. Rockefeller Sr., and Rockefeller’s wife Laura Spelman Rockefeller was a philanthropist who insisted the “Green Book” was available at all Esso stations. Standard Oil eventually provided funding and offices for Victor Green to produce his work.
Publication of the guide was suspended during World War II. By 1952, the guide had been renamed “The Negro Travelers Green Book,” cost $1.25 and contained many more pages, expanded to cover all of the United States, Mexico, Bermuda and Canada.
African American travelers in Michigan would find the “Green Book” an invaluable guide. Detroit saw a great influx of blacks during the Great Migration, generally considered from 1916 to 1970. They moved to Detroit and other northern cities for jobs and to escape segregation.
As newcomers to the city, they could find Detroit listings in the “Green Book” for lodging, restaurants, service stations, taverns, night clubs, drug stores, barber shops, beauty parlors and tailors. African Americans were made to feel welcome at places like the Hotel Fairbairn, which billed itself as “Your home away from home,” and the Hotel McGraw that proclaimed, “You will always feel at home at the Hotel McGraw.” The Gotham Hotel, with its 200 rooms and elegant Ebony dining room, was a social center for many African Americans in the Paradise Valley neighborhood in its heyday.
Idlewild, known nationally as a resort for African Americans, had quite a few listings for lodgings, restaurants, taverns and other businesses. There were larger hotels like the Casa Blanca, Paradise Hotel, McKnight’s Paradise Palace and several others. Smaller venues like the Lydia Inn and the plentiful tourist homes and cottages accepted a limited number of guests. Idlewild also had a vibrant entertainment scene with night clubs, taverns and restaurants.
Towns with a growing population of African Americans, like Baldwin, Covert, Cassopolis and Vandalia, had several listings. Most other Michigan towns had only one or two places listed. For example, Ann Arbor only listed two hotels, the American and the Allenel, while Grand Rapids had only one motel listed, the Villa Motor Court.
Other accommodations could be had at farms, including Hamilton Farms in Grand Junction and Flora Giles Farm in Lawrence. Heavyweight boxer Joe Louis’ Spring Hill Farm near Utica featured a restaurant that had many black patrons. After the 1950s, more motels were listed in the guide including the Elms in Flint, the Mona Lisa in Inkster, the Motel Morocco in Pontiac and the Town Motel in Detroit.
Looking back to the introduction in the first edition Green had written, “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal rights and privileges in the United States.” Green passed away in 1960 and did not live to see the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in hotels, restaurants, gas stations and other public places. The “Green Book” was published by other hands until the final 1966/67 edition.
BLUE Vintage Views columnists M. Christine Byron and Thomas R. Wilson reside in Grand Rapids. They are authors of the book “Historic Leelanau: Recognized Sites and Places of Historical Significance.”