african-american travel guide
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African-American Travel Guide
July, 2011, Page 46
Image Courtesy Lyell Henry
1957 Green Book
The original ‘green’ travel guide wasn’t about eco-friendly resorts. Instead, it steered African-Americans toward friendly Arizona businesses during racial segregation.
With its brilliant sunshine and spectacular desert landscapes, Phoenix aggressively promoted itself as the “winter playground of the Southwest” starting in the 1920s. Tourists had a smorgasbord of exciting lodging options, including elegant downtown hotels, posh outlying resorts and folksy motor courts conveniently situated along the new highways heading through the city.
Such fashionable accommodations were only available, however, if the travelers were white.
The experience of Robert Foster, an African-American physician and Army veteran driving from Louisiana to southern California in 1953, reveals a less-than-welcoming city divided along racial lines. As recounted in
The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
, by Isabel Wilkerson, a weary Foster entered Phoenix looking for a place to spend the night.
Thinking he had left racial segregation behind at the Texas border, the well-dressed doctor selected an attractive roadside motel to spend the night, only to be told by the flustered owners that they had forgotten to turn off the vacancy sign. Driving to the next motel, Foster was politely informed that they had “just rented their last room.” His request for lodging was also rejected at a third motel.
At a fourth motel, Foster was refused again, and the couple behind the front desk finally told him the truth. “We’re from Illinois. We don’t share the opinion of the people in this area. But if we take you [an African-American] in, the rest of the motel owners will ostracize us. We just can’t do it. I’m sorry.”
Sadly, such racial prejudice in Phoenix wasn’t limited to just a handful of motel owners. African-Americans were segregated by law in Phoenix public schools from 1910 to 1953, and many local businesses weren’t integrated until passage and rigorous enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “Restaurants wouldn’t serve you, and we had to sit in the balcony of theaters,” recalls African-American and long-time Phoenix City Councilman Calvin Goode, who moved to Phoenix in 1944.
Faced with such discriminatory conditions, African-American travelers had difficulty finding overnight accommodations or a hot meal. As a result, like an updated version of the “underground railroad,” alternative means for supporting black travelers evolved across the nation. Hotels and cafés that catered to non-white tourists opened, often by African-American entrepreneurs. In areas without large African-American populations, however, there were few such businesses. But black families were aided immeasurably when, in 1936, a Harlem postal worker named Victor Green published the
Negro Motorist Green Book
. The publication came to be thought of as the AAA Travel and Survival Guide for African Americans.
The first “Green” book listed hotels, restaurants and other facilities where black customers were welcome around New York City. The guide – which featured the Mark Twain quotation “Travel is fatal to prejudice” – became an instant underground bestseller. Networking with other postal workers across the country, Green quickly expanded the guide to include the entire nation, Canada and Mexico. The guide cost 25 cents in 1939 with the cover price increasing to $1.25 by the 1957 issue. It was distributed by mail, at Esso service stations and at some black-owned businesses.
Many of the Phoenix businesses were located in the African-American neighborhoods that stretched along Washington and Jefferson streets, between Central Avenue and 16th Street. The 1939 edition of the Green Book recommended the Raymond Hotel at 607 E. Jefferson St. Lodging could also be obtained at Mrs. E. Gardner’s Tourist Home, a private black residence open to travelers, located at 1229 E. Washington St. The J. Mayse Lunch Room at 46 S. Second St. was suggested for African-Americans looking for a hearty meal. Today, these are the sites of a modern building that houses the Arizona Bridge to Independent Living and a parking lot, respectively.
The 1941 edition vouched for the Rice Hotel at 535 E. Jefferson St., which hosted such luminaries as jazz musicians Lionel Hampton and Louis Armstrong, as well as Major League Baseball’s first black player, Jackie Robinson. The guide also listed Downtown restaurants such as the Alhambra at 246 E. Washington St. and Tapps at 39 S. Second St. Today, the three sites are part of Chase Field, Phoenix Symphony Hall and Collier Center, respectively.
In the book’s introduction, Green wrote, “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.”
In Phoenix, small strides were made toward integration, such as at the Sky Chef restaurant at Sky Harbor Airport in 1952. The restaurant refused to serve local African-American band leader Louis Jordan for fear of offending white customers. But since the airport was a municipal facility, city officials decided the eatery was open to everyone, according to the book
Minorities in Phoenix
by Bradford Luckingham.
Baseball star Willie Mays and his black teammates broke the color barrier at Hotel Adams in 1959 when they were allowed to stay there with the rest of their New York Giants teammates. The hotel’s integration occurred only after Giants Manager Leo Durocher threatened to withdraw his team from spring training.
After the Civil Rights Act passed, publication of the Green guide soon ended. Few of its Phoenix locations are still visible today. But its history influenced Calvin Alexander Ramsey’s play
The Green Book
, which makes its world debut in Atlanta on August 17. Phoenix dates had not been announced at press time.
“I think young people, maybe for the first time, get a sense of how African-Americans pulled together, had an obligation to one another and were a community,” Ramsey says.
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