Traveling while black
The Green Book told visitors where they would be welcome in Springfield
Imagine taking your family on vacation or traveling to visit out-of-town relatives, but not knowing where you would be able to stop to eat, use the restroom or spend the night. For decades, that was the reality for African-American travelers throughout the United States. Many of them traveled Rt. 66 through Springfield, Illinois.
Jim Crow laws were prominent in the South, but even in the North there were few options for African-Americans. Many restaurants, hotels, gas stations and hospitals did not provide service to blacks. Segregation in the South was legal; signs were posted indicating where blacks were allowed. In the North, segregation was more hidden. Signs weren’t posted, which made it harder in some ways for the black traveler to navigate into safe areas.
The movie Green Book, which highlights this dilemma, just won Academy Awards for best picture and best original screenplay. The movie’s title refers to the series of books published from 1936-1967 that listed safe places for African-Americans to frequent while traveling. The story focuses on an African-American entertainer who hires a white driver to take him to his performances because he could not stay, eat or buy gas in many towns.
For African-Americans, travel required huge preparation: packing food for lunches and dinners and sheets to conceal an area next to a highway when no welcoming bathroom could be found.
Traveling was also dangerous due to sundown towns, towns that rang bells or posted signs that all blacks should be out of town by 6 p.m. Whites often antagonized black travelers, even after enjoying black entertainers at clubs and bars. In 1946, Nat King Cole recorded “Route 66,” encouraging people to travel. Although he was a nationally known and popular performer, Cole himself wasn’t allowed to stay in certain hotels, eat in restaurants or use a restroom in many places along the route.
To help African-American travelers, the Green Book was born. Victor Green, a New York postal worker, compiled a list of places in New York City where African-Americans were welcome. He drew upon the knowledge of other black postal workers who were familiar with locations of welcoming establishments. The first edition, published in 1936, was titled The Negro Motorist Green Book.
Soon the book expanded to cover much of the nation. For 31 years, Green published an annual Green Book, ending publication a few years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Up to 15,000 copies of the directory were published each year, listing towns within each state and places in each town where African-Americans could stay in a motel or tourist home, refuel at a gas station, eat in a restaurant, get a haircut, have a car repaired and visit establishments that would be welcoming.
Over the years, the Green Book was called by different names – The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, The Negro Motorist Green Book and The Traveler’s Green Book – but all were meant to provide information about places that were safe and that offered leisure and vacation for African-American travelers. Later, Green published similar books covering Europe, Canada and Mexico.
Listings throughout the country often mentioned female African-American entrepreneurs who rented rooms in their homes or ran hotels and other establishments. Some became well-known, such as the resort in Idlewild, Michigan, where up to 25,000 people would visit in a week to dance and party at the Flamingo Club. Senators and politicians were guests at the club where Louis Armstrong performed, men dressed in fancy suits and women sported mink coats. It was not uncommon to see someone drive up in a new convertible. Springfield was no different from other areas of the country. Blacks were often prohibited from many establishments. A newspaper article from Aug. 8, 1935, announced the opening of a “bathing beach for colored citizens.” Segregated beaches didn’t end locally until 1952. Illinois was first included in the 1939 Green Book edition. In Springfield, the list included a hotel and several tourist homes.
The Dudley Hotel at the intersection of 11th and Adams was listed in the Green Book for over 20 years. It began as the Brown Hotel in 1914, built by A. Morris Williams and Firman Brown. At the time it opened, Williams announced, “The need of a hotel and place of amusement for the colored people of this city has been a vital one for some time. Constantly people have complained to me about the treatment they have received at the theatres and eating places of the city and asking that legal means be taken to secure redress. But I am of the opinion that persons should not patronize places where they are not welcome. That trouble will have been remedied when the theatre which Mr. Brown and I are going to build is put up.”
The theater never came to fruition and the partners split in a dispute, resulting in Brown taking over. A July 1918 State Journal ad said, “Finest and largest colored hotel in Illinois. Steam heat, gas and electric lights. Everything new and up-to-date. Rooms by the day or night, 50c, 75c and $1.00, including free bath. Rates by the week $2.50 and up. Café.”
Hotel Brown operated from 1914-1920 and changed hands several times, later becoming a homeless shelter through the 1930s. In 1934, Alexander L. Dudley, a dime-store janitor, founded the Dudley Hotel at 1007 E. Washington. When the former Brown Hotel building on 11th Street became available in 1936, he moved into the premises. Dudley was later killed while trying to stop a fight between an estranged couple who were living in separate rooms at the hotel. The Oct. 6, 1939, Illinois State Journal reported Dudley “was slashed across the throat with a butcher knife.”
Dudley’s wife, Madell, then became the proprietor of the hotel. In 1944, she was charged with a public nuisance for burning trash; she was freed on bond. From 1953-1956 she was listed in the Green Book as renting rooms at the hotel at 1211 E. Adams. The Dudley Hotel was destroyed by fire in 1957. It sat vacant and boarded up until it was demolished in 1960.
In addition to hotels that catered to African-American clientele, many women ran “tourist homes,” offering rooms and meals to travelers. According to Floyd Mansberger, an archaeologist with Fever River Research who has done research on the topic, African-American women in Springfield had let out rooms as early as 1930, prior to the existence of any of the Green Book directories. According to Mansberger’s research, these included: Mrs. Mary Holman at 1208 S. 14th; Mrs. Julia Johnson at 1144 N. Seventh; Mrs. Rufus Nelson at 742 N. Second and Mrs. Elizabeth Cohier at 1125 E. Washington.
Although some African-Americans never really knew about the Green Book, they experienced discrimination in various ways both while traveling and at home and quickly learned which businesses were friendly to black customers. Rich Bowen, who grew up in southern Illinois, remembers traveling to his grandmother’s home in Cleveland, Ohio.
“I never saw a Green Book, but we knew places that were friendly just through word-of-mouth,” Bowen says. “We would pack fried chicken and other items for our meal and stop at Standard Oil or ESSO gas stations.” ESSO distributed the Green Book and hired African-American workers; two of the company’s marketing executives were African-American.
Jimmie Voss, former president of the NAACP in Springfield, also never saw a Green Book, but says, “Being from Mississippi during the 1950s and 1960s, I knew my grandmother housed people overnight who were vaudeville performers and not allowed to stay at a hotel.” When Voss came to Springfield in the 1970s, he looked for a house or apartment. There were still places where “no blacks were allowed to buy or rent,” he explains. Voss worked in the governor’s office and so earned a decent income. One day he and some white colleagues went to the bank to cash their checks. “The white guys didn’t have to show an ID, but I did, and I was the only one who actually had an account at that bank.”
Doug King, who moved to Springfield in the 1980s, recalls several uncomfortable situations. “I took my family into Denny’s restaurant and we sat, and sat and sat, were finally served water and then sat, and sat and sat. We never did get waited on and left.” Another time when the Kings were in line to pay at a clothing store, a white lady ahead of them wrote a check. King’s wife then paid for their purchase with a check. The cashier wrote “BF” in the corner, and when King inquired, “The cashier sheepishly said it meant black female. Obviously, the white lady had not had anything written on her check.”
Nell Clay, president of the board of the Springfield and Central Illinois African-American History Museum, remembers traveling in Mississippi with her parents. “There were places we couldn’t go in to eat or use the bathroom. I couldn’t understand why we had to stop on the side of the road to go to the bathroom when we had just passed a gas station. My parents didn’t really explain. Now I realize they were protecting us from discrimination,” she says.
Kathryn Harris recalls a trip to California for a family funeral when she was 10. The family camped in the Grand Canyon, which she calls “a great adventure. We couldn’t afford to stay in a hotel with four kids, parents and a grandparent. But, maybe we couldn’t have stayed in a hotel anyway.”
Carolyn Blackwell says, “I remember we could go skating at Moonlight Gardens only on Monday nights. We didn’t see posted signs in businesses, but you just knew where you could go.” While living in Champaign, her parents opened up rooms for college students.
Ted Curtis says, “My family didn’t really travel, so I didn’t have any knowledge of the Green Book. I grew up during a time that we just had to know what to do to be safe.”
In 2010, a children’s book was published called Ruth and the Green Book, written by Alexander Ramsey Calvin. Ruth is looking forward to a trip in the family’s new car. She learns about the Green Book as they encounter Jim Crow laws along the way.
Green Book stopped publication in 1967, three years after passage of the Civil Rights Act, when many white-owned establishments began welcoming African-Americans. Ironically, as blacks began patronizing more places now open to them, many of the African-American establishments lost business and folded.
Springfield Green Book listings
A number of local women ran “tourist homes,” some for the full 28 years Springfield was included in the Green Book. Years of listings are in parenthesis, although some may have been renting rooms much earlier. Listings compiled by Fever River Research of Springfield.
Bessie Mosby – 1614 E. Jackson (1939-1967)
Helen Robbins – 1616 E. Jackson (1939-1948), home is still standing.
Sisters Bessie and Helen were next-door neighbors. Helen died in 1943 at the age of 78. Bessie married Asa Stewart, a janitor for the Secretary of State. She died at the age of 81 in 1961.
Mary Rollins – 1127 E. Mason (1930-1939-1940) and 844 S. College (1941-1958)
Mary E. Rollins – 1123 E. Adams (1939-1940)
Nellie Tate – 400 N. Chenery (1939)
Georgie Bell – 625 N. Second St. (1939-1967)
Elizabeth Brooks – 705 N. Second St. (1939-1956)
Jessie Rogers – 1004 E. Washington (1939)
Dr. Ware – 1520 E. Washington St. (1939-1967)
Sheppard A. Ware was a doctor (office at 102 ½ S. Ninth St.) for over 40 years, worked at the state health department and was active in the Springfield Urban League. He died in 1948 and is buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery.
Ann Eskridge – 1501 E. Jackson (1950-1967), home is still standing.
Married to Bernie, a driver for Pillsbury Mills, Ann was a clerk for the Department of Revenue for 30 years. She died in 1993, aged 86.
M. Rollins - 844 S. College (1939-1958)
Lula Stuart – 1615 E. Jefferson (1950-1960)
Lena Jones – 1230 E. Jefferson (1950-1967)
Worked for 16 years as an elevator operator for the State; died 1954 aged 55.
The 1950 Green Book adds Ideal Drug Store, 801 E. Washington
By 1952 beauty parlors, barber shops, service stations and taverns had been added to the list but weren’t always included in each edition.
Cansler’s Lounge – 807 E. Washington (1952-1961)
Cansler’s, a popular café and cocktail lounge where jazz musicians performed, opened in 1948. Owner Leslie Cansler died in 1967, age 53.
Cinda Ackerman Klickna is a former teacher and union leader who is always fascinated with Springfield’s history.