The movie, “Green Book,” is playing at Chattanooga movie theaters and has become one of the frontrunners to win an Academy Award for Best Picture next month after garnering several other prestigious film honors so far.
The actual “Negro Motorist (later Travelers) Green Book” that was the inspiration for the movie title was much less known outside the traveling black community in America during the days of segregation.
However, many yearly editions of the book can be easily accessed in their entirety online, and I went and looked through several.
And I was almost surprised to learn that the book mentions several places in Chattanooga where a black traveler could have stayed during that era.
With the old books’ accessibility and the movie’s attention, perhaps these businesses of long ago in Chattanooga and elsewhere are receiving a little belated recognition for trying to help black people, I realized.
I also thought it might be interesting to document these places and see if they are still there.
One recent TV news story related to the movie’s release and the book said a small number of these businesses nationwide were white businesses, and that seems to be the case with two businesses here – a pharmacy then on Market Street and a parking garage also in downtown. But most of the places in Chattanooga were apparently black operated, as was the norm.
They included such places as the Martin Hotel, the black YWCA and black YMCA and several homes on East Eighth Street, among others.
The movie that has brought all this attention to the almost-forgotten paperback book is based loosely on the true story of accomplished black pianist Don Shirley (played by Mahereshala Ali). In the early 1960s near the end of segregation, he hires a white man, Tony Vallelonga (played by Vioggo Mortensen) to be his chauffeur on a show tour that goes through the South.
To help them have safe travels in the Jim Crow era, when trying to find accommodations or service at an unwelcome business might result in trouble, they carry a copy of the “Green Book.”
The real “Green Book was published from 1936 to ’66, and was begun by New York mailman Victor H. Green to list places friendly to black travelers at that time.
Marty Mitchell, a curator and exhibition director with the Bessie Smith Cultural Center in downtown Chattanooga, said the books were very important for black travelers in that era.
“If an African-American was traveling, he had to know where he could stop on the way,” she said. “You needed to know where to stop, otherwise you could be in real danger.”
The movie might cause the price of actual copies of the “Green Book” to go up for eBay and estate sale shoppers, although an online search found a number of the paperback books for sale in the area of $10 or just slightly higher.
But a number of editions can be easily perused online for free due to digitization efforts by libraries and universities and others.
A sample check of the books revealed that several of the Chattanooga businesses stayed listed for several years, with others appearing only briefly.
And a cross check of the Chattanooga city directories at the Chattanooga Public Library downtown from the same years showed a few discrepancies at a time when the “Green Book” likely relied in part on word of mouth for information.
The 1938 “Green Book” says that three hotels were available for black travelers in Chattanooga – the Lincoln at 1101 Carter St., the Martin at 204 E. 9th St. (now M.L. King Jr. Boulevard), and the Peoples at 1104 Carter St.
Chattanooga tourist homes listed in 1938 as offering accommodations for visiting blacks were the residences of Mrs. J. Baker at 843 E. 8th St., Mrs. E. Brown at 1133 E. 8th St., Mrs. D. Lowe at 803 Fairview Ave., Mrs. A. Jackson at 1416 College St., and the YWCA at 839 E. 8th St.
A check in the Chattanooga city directory from 1938 does not have a listing for the Lincoln, but does say that N.L. Bonner furnished some rooms at 1101½ Carter. And at the Peoples, it does not have that name, either, but says E.M. Johnson furnished rooms at 1104½.
And for the tourist homes, the Mrs. J. Baker is apparently Irene Baker, Henry Pickett is listed as living at the Brown address, Hoyt Hill lives at the Lowe address, and W.T. Bryson lives at the Jackson residence. It is likely these homes still provided accommodations to travelers, but the residents apparently changed at some point, or the publisher got some wrong or outdated information. That would be the case in subsequent editions as well.
By 1949, the “Green Book” lists that Chattanooga accommodations for black travelers could be found at the James A. Henry Branch of the YMCA at 793 E. 9th St., and again at the Lincoln, Martin and Peoples hotels. Tourist homes were at 843 E. 8th St., 1129 E. 8th St., at 1022 E. 8th St., and at the YWCA at 839 E. 8th St.
Not in the 1949 book but listed in the one in 1947 are such additional places as the Chief restaurant at 215 W. 9th St., May’s beauty parlor at 208 E. 9th St., the Mann Bros. service station at 528 E. 9th St., a taxi service at 915 University Ave., and the Volunteer parking garage that is still standing behind the Volunteer Building. That was definitely a white operated business, so that was unusual.
The 1955 “Green Book” shows an increase of places in Chattanooga being listed. Besides the previously mentioned hotels and the YMCA, there was also the Dallas at 230½ 9th St.. And the Peoples was actually referred to as the Harris Hotel in the 1955 city directory.
The same three tourist homes plus the YWCA were offering accommodations that year, and four restaurants were also listed – the Thomas Chicken Shack at 235 E. 9th St., the La Grand operated by Mrs. Annie Ruth Conley at 205 E. 9th, the Manhattan at 324 E. 9th (which the city directory said was an amusement parlor and billiards room), and the Brown Derby at 331 E. 9th St., which was also a beer hall.
Additional taverns listed were Gamble’s at 108 W. Main St., Dandy’s at 1101 W. 12th St. And such liquor stores as Pat’s at the apparently non-existent address of 727 James Blvd., Cap’s at 422 E. 9th St., and Watt’s at 220 E. 9th St., which the city directory said was actually the address of Apex Beauty Shop.
The Volunteer parking garage and Simms taxi service were still listed in 1955, as were two drug stores – Rowland’s at 326 E. 9thSt. and Moore and King at 836 Market St., which must have been a pioneering white business in terms of reaching out to the black community centered a short distance away.
Places listed in the 1962 “Green Book,” the last one checked, include the Dallas Hotel, Kat’s Korner at 601 N. Lincoln St., the LaGrand Eat Shop, the M-Y-B Package Store at 320 E. 9th St., Martin’s Esso Center at 3701 Alton Park Blvd., Millender’s Pharmacy at 1800 E. 3rd St., the Peoples/Lincoln Apartments, Reuben’s Place at 411 E. 9th St., Ruby’s Drive-in at 101 E. 46th St., the YMCA at 915 Park Ave. (where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. attended an event two years before), and the YWCA at 924 E. 8th St.
Most of those in 1962 match up correctly with the city directories, so the record keeping among the “Green Book” editors must have been improving.
The times were changing, and this book was about to become obsolete as the walls of segregation and discrimination were breaking down. However, change was slow and many might argue on this long weekend celebrating the birthday of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that America still has not been made whole and still has some work to do in this realm.
The situation was definitely changing slowly at the time. As evidence, the 1962 city directory still listed Chattanooga black businesses and residents with the (c) symbol for “colored.”
A quick check in person of some of these old places in Chattanooga where black travelers could visit shows that a number are no longer there. Among those on East Eighth Street where a number of tourist homes were, UTC-related housing and the Tommie F. Brown International Academy have about taken over.
However, the turn-of-the-20th-century brick home at 1133 East 8th St. – listed as a tourist home in the 1938 “Green Book” -- is still there, although it is now boarded up with a “condemned” sign on it.
Homes at “Green Book” listed sites at 1022 East 8th St. and at nearby 803 Fairview Ave. are still there, but it is hard to tell if those are older homes that have been greatly remodeled with new siding, or new homes made to look old. A home at 1129 E. 8th St., which was long a tourist home, is obviously a rebuilt home of more recent years.
The old James Henry YMCA at 915 Park Ave. has apparently been torn down in recent years to make way for newer houses built in the older styles.
On M.L. King Boulevard – formerly known as 9th Street – at least two former buildings that were listed as the sites of former “Green Book” businesses remain. One is a tan building at 422 M.L. King Blvd., which was listed as being the site of Cap’s liquor store in the 1955 “Green Book.” Today it is the site of 2 Sons.
The building at 235 M.L. King is also still standing. It was listed as the site of Thomas Chicken Shack in the 1955 “Green Book,” and it now houses Chattanooga Barley.
Although a number of older – and renovated – buildings can still be found on M.L. King, many of them were not listed in the book, although the businesses likely were still frequented by black travelers.
The old Martin Hotel at 204 E. 9th St. – which was perhaps the best-known black motel in Chattanooga and where a number of black celebrities stayed in the days of segregation – was torn down in the 1980s in a controversial move.
It was located in the current grassy area in front of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, and a state historical marker tells its story.
The old hotel buildings in the 1100 block of Carter Street are now the sites of the newer part of the Convention Center and the Siskin Center for Developmental Pediatrics. And Miller Plaza is located where Moore and King Pharmacy was.
The Volunteer Parking Garage is, of course, still there. Many might praise it today as a white-operated business supporting black travelers. Whether it had separate areas of parking for black motorists is not known and would probably require further research to determine.
It and at least one now-condemned house on East 8th Street and at least two old business buildings on M.L. King Boulevard remain from the old days. But most of the other places listed in the old copies of the “Green Book” have been lost over the years.
But for the out-of-towners who were lost through travel or simply were ready to find a safe place to rest or eat while in Chattanooga, these places were a welcome sign of hospitality far from home.