The Green Book was a kind of AAA Travel Guide for Black people who sought lodging, food or any of the services that whites could take for granted in the days before the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
In the 1949 edition of “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” the Seattle section lists nine hotels, 10 restaurants, seven beauty parlors, one beauty school, two barbershops, two nightclubs, one liquor store, nine taverns, three service stations, one garage, seven drugstores and a stationery store.
Those were the local businesses — some Black-owned, some not — where African-American visitors were assured they’d be welcome in Jim Crow-era Seattle. The Green Book was a kind of AAA Travel Guide for Black people who sought lodging, food or any of the services that whites could take for granted in the days before the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
On its first page, the Green Book offered its stated mission: “ … to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.”
Take, for example, Bon-Rob Drugs at East Yesler Way and 14th Avenue. It advertised products such “courteous fountain service” and “race papers and magazines.”
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Styne Slade is 90 and remembers well another business listed in the Green Book. When she was her in teens, Slade worked the summer of 1942 at a cafe known as Annie Smith’s near 22nd Avenue East and East Madison Street.
“I think I was all of 13. The restaurant was in (the owner’s) house. It was very good food and very reasonable. Southern fried chicken, homemade biscuits and beans. Iced tea. She was good and she knew it,” she says.
It was popular with all Seattleites, says Slade. “Sometimes you couldn’t get in for the whites.”
Slade enjoyed waitressing: “I made 50 cents a day, more than that with tips.” (That’s $7.79 in today’s dollars.)
The home that housed Annie Smith’s still stands. It’s shuttered with a “NO TRESPASSING” sign on the door, appraised by the county at $603,000 and awaiting development.
Most Americans, of any race, hadn’t heard of “The Negro Motorist Green Book” until the release of the Oscar-nominated movie, “Green Book,” and the accompanying news stories.
The guides, published annually for 30 years beginning in 1936, were started by a New York City mail carrier named Victor Hugo Green. Aimed at the growing Black middle class, the first one was a 16-page pamphlet with only New York listings.
It soon grew to include all states and more than 100 pages.
They were compact, measuring 5-by-7 inches, and could fit in a car’s glove box. Some editions included a warning: “Carry your Green Book with you … you may need it.” It wasn’t mere hyperbole.
For older African Americans, the Green Books are reminders of family trips spent sleeping in the car because many motels didn’t take Black people. Or the person behind the desk would insist there were no vacancies even though the parking lot was nearly empty. Families made sure to pack enough food for three days in case cafes turned them away.
Looking up the addresses of Seattle establishments listed in various editions of the Green Book tells a story of a Central District with Black-owned businesses that are long gone, and streets that have been gentrified.
The Black Heritage Society of Washington State has an old photo taken at the front of one such business, Stockard’s Barber Shop, at 2032 E. Madison St. It shows a smiling, nattily dressed young Black man in a double-breasted sports coat and stylish saddle shoes.
Google maps shows the barber shop now is the lawn in front of the Twenty20 Mad apartment complex, a studio priced at $1,660, with a two-bedroom in the $3,300 range.
The Rocking Chair nightclub was another Green Book listing.
Near 14th Avenue and East Yesler Way, the joint was where a young Ray Charles, who arrived in Seattle at age 17, played while he lived here from 1948 to 1949. He even wrote a song about the place, “Rocking Chair Blues,” with lyrics such as, “I’m telling you, it’s the gonnest place in town.”
Former Seattle Times jazz writer Paul de Barros, in his comprehensive “Jackson Street After Hours,” writes about the club, “Situated in a tall house with a fake-brick exterior and a tall chimney … The club ran from midnight till morning … If there was a raid, the doorman pressed a button under the carpet.”
That house, too, is long gone. It’s now the site of the Bailey Gatzert Elementary School.
Of the Seattle hotels listed in 1949 guide, there is one that still exists as lodging. It was the Atlas Hotel at 420 Maynard St., now the Atlas Apartment Building.
It’s managed by Barry Mar, 75, grandson of the original Chinese-American owner, Mar Shue, who invested in the building 100 years ago.
The 46 units are run as low-income rentals that range from $500 a month for a single-room-occupancy that includes a kitchen facility and shared bathroom, to $750 a month for a one-bedroom.
Mar didn’t know about the Atlas being listed in the Green Book.
“It pleased me,” says Mar. “I’m an old civil-rights crusader, very involved in the Asian-American community.”
For Black people traveling to other parts of Washington State, the guide book had considerably fewer choices.
In the 1949 edition, Everett had three “tourist homes.” Tacoma had one hotel, one restaurant and three tourist homes.
By 1959, the listings had expanded to include Spokane with one hotel, Bellingham with two and Yakima with two commercial lodgings.
For African Americans, cross-country travel without the Green Book could be difficult, if not perilous.
Esther Mumford, 78, remembers taking a road trip around 1962 from Seattle to Louisiana with her aunt and uncle, and a young man who was stationed at Fort Lewis who was going to visit family. The route took them from Seattle to Oregon, California and then east.
“They didn’t stop driving. There wasn’t any place we could have stayed. We gassed up, got food at a drive-in place and kept going. We carried our own water,” says Mumford, one of the founding members of the Black Heritage Society of Washington, who lives in the Mount Baker area.
Restrooms? Hopefully at a gas station, “There would be a place that said, ‘Colored.’ ”
Nearly six decades later, a particular memory stays with Mumford.
They had decided to stop at a cafe in New Mexico.
“We sat down, a young woman brought us menus, then she came back and I thought we were going to order. She looked like she was going to cry.”
The waitress said of the owner, “She won’t let me serve you.”
Mumford remembers the whites in the cafe: “They averted their eyes. Nobody said anything. That was the way it was. I never felt so humiliated and angry.”
She remembers then thinking, “Here was this boy, in the military, willing to serve the country. It was hurtful.”
Ron Sims, 70, ex-King County executive and former deputy secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), says it’s difficult for 20-something or 30-something African-Americans to relate to a book whose sole purpose was to identify hotels and other businesses that allowed Black people.
It’s important to know how it used to be, he says.
Sims remembers family car trips from Spokane, where his family lived, to New Jersey.
There was one time, says Sims, either in North or South Dakota, where for some unexplainable reason he decided to open the car door while on the highway to get a better look at a train. He fell out, “and bounced on my head.”
“There I was, needing health care, and doctors turned us down,” says Sims. “I remember my dad stopping and pleading with a nun (at a health facility) and she said, ‘Go around the back,’ and they bandaged me up.”
Even as the HUD deputy secretary from 2009-2011, Sims says those experiences on the road never left him.
Sims would be on a business trip, checking into a hotel knowing he had a reservation, he says, “And I’d expect people to tell me the room was filled. I used to laugh to myself. ‘This is a long ways from your childhood.’ ”