History Matters: a segregation-era travel guide for African Americans
Summer is the time many families hit the road - heading to the beach and elsewhere.
But many vacation destinations like Rehoboth Beach weren’t always a welcome place for African Americans. And simply traveling on the open road during the segregation era wasn’t very safe for them.
But there was a booklet of safe havens created specifically for African American travelers – called The Negro Motorist Green Book - to help guide them.
Megan Pauly examines the book and its First State connections in History Matter, produced in collaboration with the Delaware Historical Society.
The year was 1954 – and Don Blakey was headed from Washington, D.C. to Dover to attend Delaware State University, then known as Delaware State College.
Blakey doesn’t remember feeling the impact of segregated life in D.C. – but says that changed once he reached Delaware.
“You felt it when you got off the train in Dover,” Blakey said.
He arrived before Labor Day weekend that year – and school didn’t start until after the holiday.
To pass the time – and make some money - he and some buddies drove down to Rehoboth Beach where they worked as busboys in the white-only hotels and restaurants.
That’s where Blakey heard about Rosedale Beach – a resort and hotel owned and operated by African Americans, for African Americans.
After a long day at work – he’d head over to Rosedale, where he could relax and listen to some jazz from some of the great musicians of the time, like Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald – all night and into the wee hours of the morning before resuming another day of work.
“Can you imagine Duke Ellington’s orchestra leaving Philadelphia and traveling all the way to Rosedale? Well Rosedale was not the primary place – it was Rehoboth where they actually played for their funds. But they were going to have to leave there and try to find their way back home on these dark Delaware roads with no signs, no lights and police all over the place,” Blakey said. “So someone said – why don’t you go over to Rosedale? They can put you up. Welcome – can you play for us. And they’d say – yeah, we’ll do a whole set for you. They played for the opportunity to have food and a place to sleep. Now, that becomes a drawing magnet for customers. Duke Ellington’s going to be here this weekend – and everybody’s flocking to this place from all over the place.”
And when Duke Ellington and others played that second set at Rosedale, Blakey said boats full of white people would pull up near the beach shore to listen to the music as it drifted out to sea.
Not only was Rosedale on the Chitlin’ Circuit – a national circuit of performance venues that were safe and acceptable for American musicians, comedians, and other entertainers - it was also listed as a vacation spot in the Negro Motorist Green Book.
“Because it was a safe area – and that’s what they were,” Blakey said. “The Green Book was outlining safe areas for African Americans to drop in on, to stay, get comfort, get information, feel good and then move onto the next.”
But entertainment venues like Rosedale and the Rodney Hotel weren’t the only Delaware safe havens listed in the guide.
“Gas stations, restaurants, barber shops, beauty salons….” said Carlton Hall with Delaware’s Division of Cultural Affairs, listing off examples of the establishments included in the Green Book.
Hall began researching Green Book stops in Delaware in 2014 – such as Randolph’s Nest restaurant, operated by Joseph Randolph and his wife for over 30 years in southern Delaware.
“Two doors down from Randolph’s Nest – which was the restaurant – he had a tourist home which he named Randolph’s Rest with an R,” Hall said.
Tourist homes were like the bed & breakfasts, or airbnbs of today – most tourist home listings in the Green Books had live-in hosts.
Hall says it’s likely there were many additional tourist homes that existed in Delaware but that weren’t listed in the Green Book but instead utilized via word of mouth.
“And when I talk about the Green Book a lot of people think that there are all the listings in the area, but they’re not,” Hall said. “They’re only the listings of those whose owners decide that they want to advertise in the Green Book.”
Today, Hall gives presentations about it across Delaware. He describes the Green Book as being about the same size as a Jet Magazine.
“You would have listings and a vacation section, and you’d have a little bit about the owner of the guy Victor Green who started the Green book,” Hall said.
Calvin Ramsey – a New York writer and playwright - began looking into Victor Green’s legacy after he came to know about the Green Book at a funeral in Atlanta in 2001.
“The grandfather came down for the funeral,” Ramsey said. “The grandfather was African American, his first time in the Deep South – and he thought he still needed the Green Book. After the service he mentioned he was looking for a Green Book and I said – well what’s that? And he started telling me all about it.”
Ramsey says Green realized there was need for such a travel guide while making trips every year to visit his wife’s family in Richmond, Virginia.
“I think that’s how he knew how hard it was on the open roads for blacks to travel,” Ramsey said. “And from that experience with her, a Jewish friend gave him the idea that maybe he should start a travel book of his own because the Jewish community had their own travel guide as well.”
Green launched the book in 1936 in the New York metro area, eventually expanding its reach to 46 states and even internationally.
During that time, he kept his day job as a union postal worker – using his connections in the National Association of Postal and Federal employees - to expand the booklet’s listings.
“Today the mail carriers know more about our neighborhoods than anyone else. And he’d screen people on their routes – he knew who to ask,” Ramsey said. “Who he thought may have an extra room or a house that could accommodate people traveling. So it just grew from there. There were no phone numbers in the book, just addresses.”
Eventually Green’s business got so big he had to move it out of his home, and into an office.
He also utilized the emerging Esso gas stations network to help advertise Green Books – in New York, Esso employed at least two African American representatives whose sole responsibility was to advertise Green Books.
Blakey says he thinks that’s how his football team’s bus drivers discovered safe spots for the team to frequent while on long journeys to and from away games.
“We left in the morning – at like 4 o’clock in the morning – and we were going to Charlotte, North Carolina – which we could have made in one day,” Blakey said. “We stopped four hours after we had begun in Richmond. At that time, I didn’t understand it – I thought maybe we’re just stopping for a break. But it was a safe haven stop, to stop in Richmond – downtown Richmond at the same restaurant for the whole four years where we could eat, discuss our plans for the game, talk about education and other things – and it was safe.”
Blakey met his wife Dolores at Delaware State – she was a cheerleader who helped make sandwiches and snacks for these long trips, and welcomed the team home.
“It was great – under those circumstances,” Blakey said. “That does not happen today because the people on campus – the young people on campus – don’t even know the team is gone or when they return, they just know that they played a game. It was a different situation altogether, completely different.”
Gone too is the need for temporary beds Blakey would make up for visiting teams in attics and abandoned buildings.
Rosedale Beach has also disappeared. Blakey says it was severely damaged by a hurricane in the early 1960s. And with segregation illegal at that point, they didn’t rebuild.
“I can go anywhere –so why would I wanna go here? I’ll go to Rehoboth, I’ll go to Lewes, I’ll go to this place,” Blakey said. “So now I can’t rebuild because I don’t have the customer base to provide the money to rebuild so – they closed.”
Even though Dolores never made it to Rosedale because her mother was too strict and wouldn’t allow it, she and her husband are trying to keep its history and its connection to the Green Book alive – they perform historical reenactments across the First State.
“People come up to us all the time saying – yeah I remember that, I remember so and so and such and such,” Blakey said. “So we did strike a chord, and it was just by chance that I was there, remembered it and then later on in life we began to do these kinds of things and said, let’s reflect on Rosedale.”
The Green Book continued after Victor Green’s death in 1960 -- lasting until 1967, thanks to his wife and an all-female staff.
Hall says the language on the book’s covers in the last few years of its existence reflected the still hostile environment that continued after Brown v. Board of Education.
“You still have ‘for vacation without aggregation.’ 1964, right around the civil rights act and basically at that point segregation is not really the law anymore, but it’s not really enforced,” Hall said.
And Ramsey says Victor Green envisioned a time the Green Book would become obsolete.
“He felt like one day laws would change and blacks would have open accommodations on the open road and the Green Book would no longer be needed,” Ramsey said. “He was looking forward to that day, so he was doing the Green Book as a necessity, he didn’t want to do it forever, he was just doing that to help.”
The Green Book’s legacy is being preserved - with many copies digitally catalogued and available for viewing online through the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library.
And – you’ll find many Delaware tourist homes in the Green Book are still there at the address listed.