Michael Burns remembers his parents using a booklet with a green cover to help direct their road trips from St. Louis to Chicago in the late 1950s and early '60s.
At the time, he did not understand why they had to depart before dawn, but he did know the black-owned businesses listed in the booklet would keep African Americans free from harm while traveling.
The booklet his family relied on was "The Negro Motorist Green Book" — more commonly known as the Green Book.
Burns’ childhood memories led back to growing up in north St. Louis’ the Ville neighborhood. He said the community was vibrant, and celebrity sightings were common in those days. And that was partially because of the Green Book.
“I think that [the Green Book] was a very necessary document because everybody wanted to be where you felt comfortable,” Burns said.
New York mail carrier Victor H. Green published the Green Book from 1936 to 1967. The first issue included business advertisements, articles about preparing for a trip, and points of interest for African Americans in metropolitan New York.
In the 1938 edition, Green filled the 24-page guide with the names of restaurants, nightclubs, hotel accomodations, service stations, hair salons, taverns and summer resorts in nearly every state. It also listed private homes that would welcome average travelers as well as prominent African American figures who were not allowed to stay in white hotels.
By the time it ceased publication, the Green Book contained approximately 100 pages. The edition included international destinations as well as traveling tips for overseas.
Not just for vacation
Since 2013, author and photographer Candacy Taylor has traveled across the country documenting nearly 10,000 sites listed in the Green Book and examining the legacy of the motorist guide. She stopped in St. Louis on a book tour Feb. 13 to discuss her latest work, "Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America."
“It was a critical tool that saved black people’s lives. Period,” Taylor said. “It was something used not just for vacation but also during the height of the second wave of the Great Migration.”
St. Louis was a popular destination for black motorists during this second wave. Most families that either passed through the city or settled in St. Louis were fleeing racial oppression in the South. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between the 1930s and the 1960s, the city’s population increased and averaged around 800,000 people.
With the rise in population and the increase in black travel, African American neighborhoods in the city like the Ville began to thrive.
Like Burns, local historian John Wright, grew up in the Ville area. In the early 1900s, his mother migrated from Louisiana, and his father settled in St. Louis after leaving Georgia. He said the Ville was a mecca for black entrepreneurship in the city.
“The Ville was about one square mile. You could walk pretty much to your barbershop, beauty shop, bakery shop, grocery store without getting transportation,” Wright said.
Many of the neighborhood’s black-owned businesses were listed in the Green Book. However, Wright, 81, said African Americans in the region who were not traveling but needed the same type of resources it provided used the Urban League of St. Louis’ business directory.
Wright owns a copy of the 1934 issue of the "St. Louis Negro Business and Trade Directory," which was published two years before the first issue of the Green Book. The business and trade reference guide listed local black doctors and dentists, movie theaters, nightclubs, restaurants and hotels.
Taylor said there were dozens of other black travelers’ guides and directories in other cities — like the St. Louis Urban League’s booklet — but the Green Book was the most popular.
Redlining and renewal
Because segregation kept African Americans confined to certain neighborhoods, those communities — like the Ville — were havens for black business owners, by necessity.
“Traditionally, 80% of the Green Book sites are in traditional black neighborhoods,” Taylor said.
Ironically, Taylor said, though the Green Book was supposed to protect black people while on the road, many of the businesses that were once featured in it are today in neighborhoods that are unsafe and underserved.
This is true in the St. Louis region as well. Abandoned homes and businesses are a stark contrast to what the Ville once represented. Burns, the president of Northside Community Housing, believes the current state of the Ville has many causes, but it’s mainly due to redlining and integration.
“[Integration] was a double-edged sword. As the laws changed, you were able to move where you wanted and learn where you wanted to learn,” Burns said. “It was good that there were more resources and more opportunities for folks, but there was no generational growth by the maintenance of those buildings.”
“So, although we gained a lot, a lot was lost as well,” he said.
Taylor also said many of the Green Book sites were driven out of business because of urban renewal.
“There were times when I would go into a neighborhood and see where there may have been 20 Green Book sites, and it was completely replaced by a freeway,” Taylor said.
Northside Community Housing is looking to preserve many historic locations in north St. Louis. Two years ago, the organization purchased St. Louis restaurant Sara Lou’s Cafe. The restaurant was listed in the Green Book from 1959 to 1963.
Though the well-known neighborhood cafe in the Ville felt the residual effects of integration, the structure is still standing today at the corner of Sarah Street and St. Louis Avenue. The cafe opened in 1955 and changed owners in the 1970s. It closed in 2002.
Like most remaining Green Book sites, the building that housed Sara Lou’s is deteriorating. There are falling bricks, broken windows and roofing issues.
Still, Burns and the Northside Community Housing organization see the beauty in the building and are working to restore it.
The group has partnered with Civil Life Brewing Co. to raise money for renovations. The brewery has dedicated a beer called Sara Lou Brew, and funds raised from the beer will directly contribute to the organization’s $300,000 crowdfunding campaign that started last week.
“I just personally believe that once we get that building stabilized and bring it back to its original grandeur, it's going to bring about so much pride not only for north St. Louis, but to the city of St. Louis in general,” Burns said.
Although the Green Book is now obsolete, Taylor believes that the community should celebrate young, black entrepreneurship and financially support the owners equally, so that they can receive the same opportunities as white owners.
Local entrepreneur and activist Ohun Ashe started a new-age business and trade directory for the region, which correlates to the Green Book. Her website, ForTheCultureSTL.com, grew out of not knowing where many safe spaces for blacks were in the city. The website is updated daily with events for African Americans, and it offers a catalogue of black businesses in the region.
"A lot of the times people didn't know where to go to find other black folks. You would go to events and it wouldn't be any of us there, and it would be a very uncomfortable feeling," Ashe said. "So, I just thought it would be important to bridge those gaps and give us something where we know that we are going to be there."
Since less than 5% of Green Book sites are still operating, Taylor said preserving what is left is extremely important.
“Even if they’re in shambles now, I still think it's important to rehab these places and bring some kind of pride back into the community about what these places represented and who they served,” Taylor said. “It’s a big part of our retelling of our history.”
Andrea Y. Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City and Portland, Oregon.
Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist
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