JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – To truly understand what it was like to be a Black tourist during segregation, you have to go back to that era and open a book: The Green Book.
It was a Black traveler’s guide to finding hotels, restaurants, filling stations, entertainment venues, and other businesses across the country that would serve them.
This was a time when it was common to see signs that said “Whites only.” For African Americans who could be targeted for stepping foot in the wrong place, the Green Book was something of a safe haven.
Adonnica Toler, museum administrator at the Ritz Theatre and Museum in LaVilla, explained more.
“White business owners, white-run hotels did not serve the Black community,” Toler said. “So, a gentleman by the name of Victor Green published the first Green Book in 1936.”
The book was published each year and contained the names and locations of businesses Black travelers could visit. It was organized by city and state, making it easy for people to navigate.
Inside the Ritz museum, you will find memorabilia and information on some of the best Jacksonville spots most likely featured in the book. Among them was the Richmond Hotel in the city’s LaVilla neighborhood. The museum proudly displays one of its original fans. The hotel itself featured 48 upper floor rooms and an elegant dining room.
“The Richmond Hotel was like a five-star hotel of its day,” Toler said. “Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway would always stay there when they were in town.”
The original building still stands on Broad Street. Today, it is occupied by the Delo Studios.
The Hotel Rita was another lodging facility Toler said was featured in the book. Its original sign now hangs in the museum, and according to Toler, it was named for the proprietor’s wife.
For entertainment, Ashley Street in downtown Jacksonville was hot on the list. Toler said other famous entertainment spots included The Ritz, The Strand Theatre, and The Roosevelt.
But Toler said the entire journey could come with safety risks. She said to keep themselves and their families safe, Black travelers had to plan out their entire trip from start to finish. Even when it came to filling up their vehicles or even using the restroom.
“It really was for their protection and their safety to have something like this guide them as they traveled on the road,” Toler said.
Toler said some would pack their food in a shoebox, or another small box. This way, they could eat in the car without having to stop until they reached their destination.
“I have heard people say everything was packed in the car, and food, and they just went straight to where they were going,” Toler said. “They didn’t make any stops, if they could help it. It was just safer for them.”
Also prominently featured in the book were “tourist homes.” These were homes owned by community members willing to take in Black travelers. Included were some of the most famous entertainers of the era.
“One woman talked about how she’d get up in the middle of the night and her mom is cooking, and there’s Ray Charles at the table,” Toler said. “There’s James Brown at the table. Dad brought them home and they’re hanging out with them.”
Toler said it didn’t matter how famous some of the guests were, the difference in how Blacks were treated was palpable.
“They were not allowed to come through the front door or stay in that hotel or sit at the front in the club where they were performing,” Toler said. “They came in the back door, they performed, and they left by the back door.”
For Toler, to know this history is to understand the push for equality even today. Toler hopes in reading about the Green Book and why it was needed, people will come away with more knowledge and better understanding.
“You will understand some of what you’re seeing manifested today into society, when it’s related to the African-American community,” Toler said.
Victor Green remained hopeful. He is quoted as saying:
“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal rights and privileges in the United States.”
Green died in 1960, but the books continued to be published through the decade. To learn more, visit: https://publicdomain.nypl.org/greenbook-map/.