Guest Commentary: ‘Green Book’ reveals bits of Black history in Delaware


Carlton Hall is a Cultural Preservation Specialist and Historian for the Delaware State Historic Preservation Office. He was named to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 40 Under 40: People Saving Places List in 2018.

The greatest experience of my life was learning about and researching the Delaware listings of the “The Negro Motorist Green Book: An International Travel Guide.” I decided to get into the field of historic preservation for research projects like the “Green Book” to increase awareness on important, little-known pieces of history from the segregation years in this country.

I was tasked by previous Division of Historical & Cultural Affairs director, Tim Slavin, to research the “Green Book” listings in Delaware and to see if any were still in existence. I had never heard of it and was very curious about it. This was three years before the movie “Green Book” came out, and a lot of people didn’t know much about it.

“The Negro Motorist Green Book: An International Travel Guide” (the “Green Book”) was a yearly travel guide for the motoring African American community that included listings for hotels, restaurants, gas stations and tourist homes during Jim Crow segregation years in the United States, which ran from approximately 1890 to 1965. During that time, access to public accommodations was extremely restricted for Black travelers.

Victor Hugo Green created the “Green Book” in 1936, and it included a list of places where African American travelers were accepted. Victor Green was an African American letter carrier for over 20 years, beginning in 1913, and was living in New York when he saw the need to keep people of his race from running into difficulties on trips. The then-American Automobile Association didn’t allow African Americans to obtain membership due to discrimination during that time.

During those years, Esso Oil, later known as Exxon, franchised some of its service stations to African Americans. One of my colleagues who used to work at The Old State House in Dover remembered taking trips with her godfather as a child, and he only stopped at Esso gas stations when they traveled from North Carolina to New York. The purpose of the “Green Book” was to help African Americans find places to eat and sleep on the road, and to avoid being discriminated against while traveling.

Archival research at Delaware Public Archives, site visits at the locations of the listings and oral interviews were conducted for the research, beginning in January 2015. I had two grandmothers who were over 80 years old, and I first planned to talk to them about what they had to do and their experiences while traveling during the Jim Crow years. I received help getting interviews from Dr. Don Blakey, who attended then-Delaware State College during the segregation years. He introduced me to a lot of people at the Modern Maturity Center in Dover and told them about the research I was working on. I also interviewed Dr. Blakey with his wife, Dolores, about life as college students at Delaware State College during segregation.

My research was concluded in January 2016, when I gave my first presentation on the Delaware listings in the “Green Book.” Delaware State Historic Preservation Office historians Bev Laing and Madeline Dunn, along with the Blakeys, helped make the presentation great with their support and guidance. Ned Fowler of the Laurel Historical Society helped facilitate oral interviews in Laurel. I’m also grateful to have had the full support of the deputy state historic preservation officer Gwen Davis and the current Historical & Cultural Affairs director Suzanne Savery.

The presentation includes slides of photographs of the “Green Book” locations throughout Delaware, the only known photograph of “Green Book” creator Victor Green, a photo of an Esso service station, a 1949 photograph of Black representatives James Jackson and Wendell P. Alston of Esso Standard Oil Co., and pages from a children’s book called “Ruth and the Green Book” by Calvin Alexander Ramsey.

“Ruth and the Green Book” is about a little girl named Ruth, who was taking a long trip with her parents from Chicago to Alabama in the early 1950s to visit her grandmother. Ruth soon found out during their trip that Black travelers weren’t treated well in some towns in the Deep South. Hotels and gas stations refused service to Black people. A friendly Esso station attendant, who was also Black, showed Ruth’s family the “Green Book,” which listed places that would welcome them. I read a passage from “Ruth and the Green Book” toward the end of the presentation.

The research project focused on selected Delaware listings in New Castle, Kent and Sussex counties. The listings researched included the Miss Willie Ann Brown Tourist Home, then located at 1306 Tatnall St. in Wilmington; the Rodney Hotel, along DuPont Highway in Townsend; Weston’s Hotel on Division Street in Dover; Joe Randolph’s Restaurant in Laurel; and Rosedale Beach in Millsboro. I only examined the Delaware listings in the 1949 and 1954 editions.

The Delaware properties researched are interesting examples of how people of color acquired land and established businesses during and after the Great Depression. The history of these owners shows that they were businesspeople who broke stereotypes as taxpaying owners, with their businesses surviving until the late 1960s.

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