Earlier versions of this article, including in Sunday's print edition, misidentified the gender of Lonnie G. Bunch III. He is the director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Road through segregation
Sunday, September 12, 2010
The old Holleywood tavern at Ninth and U streets NW, one of just eight bars in Washington listed as open to blacks in 1949, is now the indie-rock bar, DC9. Where the Brass Rail restaurant once served blacks who were excluded from most downtown eateries, there is now a day-care center for toddlers and infants. Green's, a beauty parlor on 18th, south of U, is now a Peruvian restaurant.
Half a century after the edition of the Negro Motorist Green Book with those D.C. listings was published, playwright Calvin Alexander Ramsey stumbled upon the book, which was once a kind of Fodor's Black America - a travel guide for African Americans road-tripping in an era of racial segregation.
Ramsey was at a funeral in Atlanta eight years ago when an elderly New Yorker first mentioned the book to him. That exchange launched Ramsey on a journey that arrives Wednesday at the Lincoln Theatre for a Green Book-centered night including a reading of his play, also called "The Green Book." Ramsey has also written a children's book about the guide that became the bible of black travel during Jim Crow - and he's making a Green Book documentary, too.
With a quotation from Mark Twain - "Travel is fatal to prejudice" - on its cover, the guidebook was published annually from 1936 until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 rendered it obsolete. The book, inspired by guides that told Jewish travelers which hotels and restaurants were restricted, covered places from Mexico to Montreal, identifying restaurants, service stations, hotels, "tourist homes," taverns, liquor stores, beauty parlors, nightclubs, drugstores and tailors that catered to blacks who'd grown weary of wandering into "whites-only" establishments.
During segregation, it wasn't uncommon for African American travelers to pack meals, blankets and even containers of gasoline in their cars for long trips. "We didn't want to stop anywhere and get into a situation where we didn't know how it was going to turn out," says Ramsey, who is 60.
"This is an unknown chapter in American history," says Bonnie Nelson Schwartz, the theater producer who put Ramsey's project together for the Lincoln. "Most people haven't heard of the Green Book. I certainly knew nothing about it."
This week's reading at the Lincoln, a repolished jewel of Black Broadway in the center of the old city within a city, will feature civil rights leader Julian Bond - whose father used the Green Book during his travels - in a small role as Harlem postal worker Victor H. Green, the book's publisher.
"It's coming full circle," says Ramsey. The play tells the story of an African American tourist home in Jefferson City, Mo., where a Jewish Holocaust survivor spends the night with a black family after walking out of a hotel that had a "whites only" sign.
A rich D.C. past
But the drama could just as easily have been set in Washington, in the Lincoln's neighborhood of Shaw, which was the city's hub of black urban life - before riots, the great Green Line tear-up and gentrification did a number on U Street, once known as the Black Broadway.
The 1949 edition of the Green Book vouched for Aunt Brenda's Pit Barbecue in Albuquerque and suggested that African American travelers looking for a friendly barber in Tulsa might stop by Swindall's. The District had more listings than many entire states - more than 60 addresses, many of them on or around U Street and Florida Avenue, including three restaurants and a tavern on the same block as the theater.
They're all long gone: An office building now covers two of the old addresses (goodbye, Earl's and Capitol), and a third (Chicken Paradise, at 1210 U) seems to have simply disappeared. The other restaurant, the Casbah, is now Ben's Next Door, on the other side of Ben's Chili Bowl from the Lincoln.
Many D.C. addresses listed in the '49 Green Book are boarded up. Several buildings have been replaced by parking lots, softball fields or office complexes, as with the beauty parlor, Apex, which was on U Street where the city's massive Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center now sits. Harrison's, a tavern on Florida Avenue, is now a transitional house for homeless men. Service stations became custard shops and hipster clothing stores. The old barbershop at 1803 Florida is now a printing shop.