Angela Thorpe, acting director of the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission, has a lot to be thankful about Hollywood.
The release and popularity of the movie “Green Book” has made it a lot easier for her to advocate for, and talk about NCAAHC’s Green Books Oasis Spaces project.
In the movie, a working class Italian-American with a few prejudices of his own hires himself out to be the driver for an African-American classical pianist who is taking his show through a decidedly segregated 1960s South.
Their guide as they travel is the Green Book, an annual publication that listed restaurants, hotels and other businesses that were willing to cater to blacks.
Thorpe talked about the Green Book and its entries for New Bern at a recent Lunch and Learn hosted by the New Bern Historical Society. Thorpe said her commission – “There are two of us. Not very many people for such a big name” – has been tracking down the hundreds of places across the state that appeared in the publication when it ran from 1936 to 1966. Most of those places are gone.
New Bern had three listed, and two of them still stand:
• Palm Garden, a colored-owned restaurant near Five Points at 192 Broad Street, owned by George Downing and Walter A. Godette, is the one not still standing.
“George also owned Down East Café at 193 Broad,” apparently next door, she said.
• The Rhone Hotel, at 42 Queen Street (now 512 Queen Street) which now serves as an apartment house. The hotel was built by the three Rhone sisters, Charlotte, Carrie and Harriet in 1923 to cater to blacks who arrived in the city by train – the station is just down the street.
It was rare for blacks to own hotels, she said, “so this is incredibly special.” The hotel, she said, broke many social barriers.
•The third was the H. C. Sparrow Tourist Home, built by Henry Clain Sparrow. A prominent and well-to-do black, Sparrow was a brick layer. ‘His brick was work almost exclusively for white customers,” Thorpe said, though he is said to have done the brick work for St. Peter’s AME Zion church.
His home was not actually a hotel, but he did rent out rooms to traveling blacks, hence the “Tourist Home” title.
The home stands at 731 West Street.
Thorpe said the Green Book was originally started by a New York City postman named Victor Hugo Green in 1936. “He got tired of encountering embarrassment as he traveled New York City because he was black,” she said. And so he began scouting places that catered to blacks and placed them in the book so other African Americans wouldn’t have to worry about the embarrassment and humiliation of being turned away from businesses that wouldn’t serve them.
The book quickly spread, and he used other mail carriers to gather information.
The Green Book was sold at numerous locations and had a contract with Esso gas stations that gave it higher visibility. Most states had a Green Book edition, and special editions were also printed for countries such as Canada, Mexico, Haiti, France and Guatemala. “And so this showed there was racism beyond just the U.S.,” she said.
The popularity of the Green Book was also due to a growing popularity for families to travel with the rise of the automobile. Because there were no interstates, travelers would have to go through many towns when they were on the road.
The Green Book didn’t warn of “sunset towns” – towns where blacks were not allowed to enter after sundown, but word of those spread by mouth.
Many businesses in the Green Book were owned by whites, she said, though none of the New Bern sites were.
She said the Green Book wasn’t always accurate with addresses and sometimes didn’t even include them. It would, rather, give an intersection or name a store or place where the travel could find the location once they arrived in the right town.
She said that New Bern’s having two of its three Green Book entries still standing is remarkable, since so many statewide are gone. “In Charlotte, of 53 listed only four are still standing,” she said by way of comparison.
Thorpe said most editions of the Green Book can be found on line by Googling; she added that the New York Public Library has a large digitized collection of them.
As to Project Green Books Oasis Spaces, she said the 326 sites statewide are being carefully researched. She is collecting both information and artifacts and is holding meetings in numerous towns for that purpose. Beginning in March, 2020, a traveling exhibition is expected to be presented along with an interactive website.
“We’re trying to fill in the gaps,” she said. “What are their stories? Are the descendants still alive? Who were the people who patronized the businesses? We want to do oral histories and find archival material and 3-D objects.”
You can contact the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission through its website at aahc.nc.gov.