UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 18 Spring 24 Library
The architectural historians researching the sites listed in “The Negro Traveler’s Green Book” would like to raise awareness and therefore protect them. (Collage by Alex Angelich, University Communications)

Architecture of the Negro Travelers’ Green Book

The 2018 Academy Award-winning film Green Book opened a lot of eyes to the brutal realities of what it meant to live and travel as a Black American in the 1950s and 60s.  It also provided a boost to a project that was started by three architectural historians who first met at the UVA School of Architecture in the 1990s.

The Negro Motorist Green Book was a literal lifeline for Black travelers during the Jim Crow era in America, connecting them with lodging, restaurants, gas stations, and other resources designed to provide safe passage across an unfriendly and often dangerous landscape.

Green Book Site: Harris' Grill; Thomas Harris, prop. at 412 W. Queen St., Tappahannock, VA
(Photo: Susan Hellman)

DETAILED HISTORY from the website: This was run by Thomas Delmas Harris. Thomas C. Harris had a different Harris’ Grill in Green’s Fork at Routes 360 & 17. The businesses used the owners' middle initials to differentiate them. T. Delmas Harris' wife was Esther Harris. The Harris family is related to the McGuire family, proprietors of McGuire's Inn. Many thanks to chef Rock Harper, Mr. Harris' grandson, for the foregoing information. In January of 2023, Chef Harper was named a Semi-Finalist for the James Beard Awards in the category of Best Chef - Mid-Atlantic region! Mr. Harper is also the cousin of Lillian McGuire of McGuire's Inn so these two sites were related. Do not miss Chef Harper's Queen Mother's restaurant in Crystal City/Arlington, VA. He uses family recipes to make the best chicken sandwich on the planet.

Wouldn't it be great, architectural historian and author Catherine Zipf thought, to do a deep architectural history dive into the buildings that filled these books to unlock the stories of these sites and what happened there?  Zipf, the Executive Director of the Bristol Historical & Preservation Society in Bristol, RI, found willing partners in fellow UVA School of Architecture alumna Susan Hellman, Principal Planner for the City of Alexandria (VA), and Anne Bruder, a Maryland-based architectural historian and former the senior architectural historian with the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration. 

And that is how the The Architecture of The Negro Travelers' Green Book was born.

According to its website:  The Architecture of The Negro Travelers' Green Book studies The states listed in The Green Book to discover their history and support their preservation. This project reveals the overlooked history of mid-twentieth century African Americans and the unsung people who formed the backbone of the African American tourist industry: the women who ran tourist homes, the men who opened motels to take advantage of increasing automobile traffic, and the business owners who offered beauty, entertainment, and style to middle-class African Americans. Seeking to document every site listed in The Green Book, this public database allows users to explore this history and its associated sites by year, state, establishment type, and owner.

Green Book Site: The Paramount Theatre in Charlottesville, VA

The trio started by creating posters that covered the three states where they were located. They presented their research to the Society of Architectural Historians in New Orleans in 2016, and they were off to races.

Their biggest race, they found, was against time. Many of the sites they had unearthed and researched had already been torn down. "I started photographing these sites in 2017," said Hellman. "Now I am finding some of those sites that I shot in those first couple of years are already gone!"

The effort got a major boost last March 24 when Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin signed House Bill 1968, introduced by Delegate Michael Mullin (D – Newport News) to commemorate and mark all the nearly 320 Green Book sites in the Commonwealth. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources went to work immediately, putting their first marker up at the Bayshore Hotel in Hampton.

Historic Marker commemorating the Bay Shore Hotel. Left to Right:   Susan Hellman, Architectural Historian, Alexandria, Virginia; Delegate Michael Mullin (D – Newport News); and Mullin's Chief of Staff at the time, Randy Riffle.

Inscription A group of prominent local African Americans formed the Bay Shore Hotel Company, purchased land here, and in 1898 opened a resort for black travelers. Ravaged by an Aug. 1933 hurricane, the resort was rebuilt and operated until the 1970s. Featuring a dance pavilion, café, private beach, and an amusement park, the resort hosted state and national conferences, sporting events, concerts, honeymoons, family vacations, and day trips. Jazz greats Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington performed here. The American Bridge Association held its first national tournament here, and the Tri-State Dental Association, later the National Dental Association, was founded here.

With the help of Louis P. Nelson, Professor of Architectural History and Vice Provost for Academic Outreach at UVA, the group has been able to ramp up its efforts significantly. Nelson supported the hiring and oversaw the work of two Architecture School interns, Olivia Pettee and Melanie York. He also connected the team with UVA's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and Worthy Martin to revamp the website and provide valuable tech support in real time as efforts expanded to include new states. The goal, Hellman said, is to cover all 50, and they are nearly halfway there. Each team member took on five or six small states, working with historic preservation offices to connect places, stories, people, and buildings, while larger states like New Jersey, with its 600 sites, have a team of 14 people on the job. 

Green Book Site: Dillard's Enterprises at 802 W. Fayette Martinsville, VA
(Photo: Susan Hellman)

"Mapping any community's Green Book sites is an important step in seeing the ways racism limited Black people's freedoms as citizens," Nelson said, "and it reminds us of the commitments to dignity and resistance that shaped everyday life for Black families and individuals. By seeking to re-see these buildings, these spaces, and these networks, we can also see the disproportionate impact of urban renewal on Black community spaces and the long-standing white bias in historic preservation. This UVA alumni led project is an ongoing commitment to equipping communities with the essential information they need to take the important step of owning their past as they consider their present and future. It is an expression of our commitment to the pursuit of a more equitable and sustainable democracy, one community at a time."

Green Book Site: Booker T. Theatre (Primary)
Crispus Attucks Theatre (Secondary)
at Church St. Norfolk, VA

Hellman said it has been particularly rewarding to make connections with descendants who can fill in important gaps in research and tell first- or second-hand stories related to the properties. "I got in touch with a descendant about Pine Oak Inn in Salem, and she was able to confirm an address and give me some information about the building, which was still there."

For Hellman, this work offers an important tie to her own family as well. "As a child, we always traveled by car. We had relatives in Ohio and often traveled there. We went to the Jersey Shore, and looking like we did, we never had a problem. It wasn't until my eyes were opened to these Green Books and what their very existence meant to those who had to use them that I became truly aware of these stories, and it made me want to get the word out." She also had a closer family tie that inspired her. "My paternal grandfather's family were Quakers who came to Virginia specifically to create a free labor colony," she shared. "So, I feel an obligation to do a project like this one. If they could do this work, so can I."

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