‘Green Book’ film puts spotlight on a little-known piece of Southern history

For African-Americans traveling throughout the United States, especially in the South from 1936-1966, “The Negro Motorist Green Book” was a must-have.

The book provided listings of businesses — lodging, tailors, barber and beauty shops, gas stations and restaurants — who would welcome them in a time when discrimination was rampant.

“It was a tool for people of color,” says Earl L. Ijames, a curator and historian at the North Carolina Museum of History. “It was almost like a modern day version of the Underground Railroad, except it was written down.”

The book — for many an unknown slice of American history — is in the national spotlight, thanks to the new film “Green Book” starring Viggo Mortensen and Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali. The film, inspired by the Green Book, opens Nov. 21 and is based on the real 1962 concert tour of Jamaican-American classical pianist Donald Shirley and his Italian-American chauffeur Tony “Lip” Vallelonga.

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This updated photo courtesy of The New York Public Library shows an undated copy of The Travelers’ Green Book from 1960. Black travelers for decades needed a guide known as the Green Book to help located the few motels and restaurants that would serve them. The New York Public Library via AP

While the film focuses on the friendship of the odd couple, forged while traveling through the Deep South in a 1962 Cadillac Sedan de Ville, it doesn’t shy away from showing how the renowned musician faced discrimination.

In one scene, Shirley is shown entertaining in the home of a white family in Raleigh. He sits at the dining room table with the white guests, but is showed the outhouse when he needs to use the bathroom.

Shirley and Vallelonga became lifelong friends, said Nick Vallelonga, Tony Vallelonga’s son, who wrote the film with Brian Hayes Currie and director Peter Farrelly.

“They were two guys in the car,” Tony Vallelonga said in a phone interview. “My father had street smarts. He knew how to navigate the world in the street. Dr. Shirley was an introvert. They found common ground.”

Nick Vallelonga said the road trip was a turning point for his father.

“It changed his whole life,” he said. “It changed the way he treated people. Once he saw what was going on in the South, he didn’t like it. He was a product of his environment and time. But when he came back, there was a massive change in him.”

The pianist Don Shirley, backstage at Carnegie Hall in New York, Jan. 23, 1979. Facing racial discrimination in classical halls, this midcentury pianist applied his prodigious talents to a career that encompassed jazz, cabaret and chamber music, one explored in the new film Green Book. FRED R. CONRAD NYT

The Negro Guide Book

The Green Book was conceived by Harlem postal employee Victor H. Green in response to discrimination, Ijames said.

They were often used by black middle-class professionals, including lawyers, doctors, teachers and musicians, who traveled for professional reasons to places where they didn’t have a network of friends or relatives. For those men and women, the Green Book provided a safe haven from Jim Crow.

Green Books are divided by state and then cities and town, said Lisa Withers, research historian for the Green Book Project, a project by the North Carolina African-American Heritage Commission.

Business owners sent ads to the Green Book to market their businesses. From 1936 to 1966, there were 53 listings for Charlotte businesses, 38 for Raleigh and 38 for Durham.

Several well-known Hayti eateries were listed in the Green Book, including Biltmore Hotel & Grill, College Inn, Elvira’s Blue Dine-et, and Papa Jack’s Congo Grill. But many of Durham’s oldest African-American businesses were demolished during urban renewal.

Ijames has obtained a 1959 copy of the Green Book on loan at the N.C. Museum of History. Some of the Raleigh businesses listed included black-owned businesses on Hargett and Cabarrus streets.

Lightner Archade and Hotel in Raleigh
Calvin E. Lightner, a prominent Raleigh builder, businessman and funeral home operator, erected the Lightner Arcade and Hotel at 122 E. Hargett St. in 1921. State Archives of North Carolina State Archives of North Carolina

One of those featured is the Lewis Hotel, which eventually became the Deluxe Hotel. Hotel owner Lucille Griswold describes the place in rich detail in “Culture Town: Life in Raleigh’s African American Communities,” by Linda Simmons-Henry and Linda Harris Edmisten. She and her oldest sister lived with their aunt, Hattie Wooten Lewis, who owned the hotel at 220 E. Cabarrus St., before they took it over. They helped her around the hotel while they were students at Shaw University.

“With two buildings together, it contained 26 rooms,” Griswold writes, according to an excerpt published in The News & Observer in 1999. “At first, the building was a home. It was a very large, two-story home, and then later on they built what they call the Lewis Hotel. ... In the one part, there was a cafeteria downstairs. In fact, it was divided into two sections. In one section there was a shoeshine parlor and a cafeteria in the other one.

“We had some very dignified guests to come to the hotel,” Griswold continues. “Because at that time we were not allowed to stay in the white hotels. There were only two places in Raleigh for the blacks to stay, and that was Lewis Hotel and the Arcade Hotel on Hargett Street. Some of the guests were Cab Calloway’s band, Louis Armstrong’s band, Nat King Cole’s band, Louis Russel’s band, Erskine Hawkins, Lewis Jordan and Fats Waller. We also had the Soul Stirrers, Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward and many others.”

The named changed to the Deluxe Hotel after Hattie Lewis died in 1948.

As for that second hotel in Raleigh, the late Calvin E. Lightner, founder of Raleigh’s Lightner Funeral Home, once said he built the Arcade Hotel because his wife got tired of him bringing so many out-of-town friends to their house to spend the night, according to The News & Observer archives.

Lightner is often credited with establishing Hargett Street as the center for black business in Raleigh. By the time he built the Arcade, Lightner was already a successful businessman.

Preserving the book

Nick Vallelonga, 59, joins the ranks of writers, academics and curators examining the stories of the people using the book and the businesses listed in them.

That includes the North Carolina African-American Heritage Commission’s Green Book project. Angela M. Thorpe, acting director of the NC African-American Heritage Commission, hopes to capitalize on the interest raised by the “Green Book” movie to encourage people to share their personal stories or artifacts with the commission.

Eventually, the material will be used in an online portal that will allow visitors to explore each North Carolina site in depth through historical vignettes, stories and images. A traveling exhibition and a series of public programs will highlight the experiences of African-American travelers during the Jim Crow Era.

The staff at the North Carolina Museum of History is offering their time to support the project in an advisory capacity. This two-year project is funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

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This updated photo courtesy of The New York Public Library shows a copy of The Travelers’ Green Book from 1947. Black travelers for decades needed a guide known as the Green Book to help located the few motels and restaurants that would serve them. The New York Public Library via AP

Janelle Jennings-Alexander, an assistant professor of English at William Peace University, said it’s sad that many of the Raleigh sites once listed in the Green Book are now “vacant lots, grassy spaces and parking lots.”

“It’s a grand erasure of history,” she said.

Her students are researching some of the businesses on the list and are trying to find relatives to help fill in some of the historical gaps.

“The past is not the past after all, if those stories can be reclaimed,” she said.

Bridgette A. Lacy is a freelance writer and the author of “Sunday Dinner: A Savor the South cookbook” by UNC Press of Chapel Hill. Reach her at bridgettelacy@att.net.

More on the Green Book

The NC African American Heritage Commission will hold a Facebook Live chat on the Green Book Nov. 20 from 11 a.m. to noon. Go to the NC Department of Natural & Cultural Resources’ Facebook page at facebook.com/NorthCarolinaCulture.

The commission is seeking stories and artifacts related to the Green Book. Contact Lisa Withers at greenbooknc@ncdcr.gov.

Green Book,” the film, is in theaters Nov. 21 and is rated PG-13.