WILMINGTON — When local historian Lettie Shumate first gave her lecture “Driving Without Privilege: The Negro Motorist Green Book” in 2019 for the Bellamy Mansion, 100 members turned out to listen. They learned about local stops listed in the historic travel guide and what it meant for Black people to freely move across the nation between 1936 and 1966 — the years Victor Hugo Green’s “The Negro Motorist Green Book” was in circulation.
Shumate will be reprising her talk virtually on Feb. 23, 4 p.m., as part of Preservation North Carolina: Shelter Series, in conjunction with Bellamy Mansion. Shumate serves on the board of Bellamy, and has been researching the Green Book and Wilmington’s Black-owned businesses listed in it throughout the mid-20th century.
The Green Book became the premier travel companion for Black Americans who drove to vacation or visit family across states at a time when they were living under the thumb of national segregation laws and the Jim Crow-era South. The pocket-sized book informed them where they could refuel and rest without worrying about refusal of service from white-owned businesses — or, worse, being threatened with violence.
“What people don’t understand is that the Green Book was actually for survival for Black people,” Shumate said.
“Sundown towns” were a real threat for “non-whites” who weren’t allowed to visit past sunset. “Or you would get brutally beaten, you could be killed, you could be raped, assaulted, or thrown in jail for no reason; it didn’t even matter,” Shumate said.
“There was racism all across the country,” she continued, “so what I focus a lot on in my lecture is really giving people that historical picture, so they know why the book was necessary.”
For Shumate, that means prefacing her talk with the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, going through Reconstruction, and covering major lawsuits, like Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896 which allowed segregation to exist under a “separate but equal” doctrine.
“I include it all and what that means, how it relates and builds up to the Green Book because these laws — and there were many, many more — helped restrict travel,” Shumate said.
A guide to safe spaces
Harlem resident Victor Green was a travel writer and U.S. postal worker that started “The Negro Motorist Green Book” initially in the New York area. As its popularity grew, the book expanded its locations of hotels, restaurants, pharmacies, nightclubs, beauty parlors, barber shops, and gas stations that served Black people across all states and cities, and eventually internationally.
“The way Green locations were known was through the postal service,” Shumate explained. “So it was the postmen who would report back.”
Shumate’s research hasn’t led her yet to discover who in Wilmington exactly was feeding local information into the book, but many stops were marked in the Port City. In fact, Wilmington had the second most locations (52) right behind Charlotte (53) across the state.
One of its popular stops was Payne’s Tourist Home at 417 N. 6th St.
“There’s also another, Murphy’s Hotel,” Shumate said, “but Payne’s was actually very well-known. There were a couple of famous people who stopped and stayed there – I think Duke Ellington — because Wilmington, you have to understand, was like an attraction for people to come play music.”
Ellington, Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong all were reported to have played Lumina Pavilion at Wrightsville Beach during the mid-20th century.
“What it shows is Black culture and Black community and Black resilience, and what it meant to be a Black entrepreneur,” Shumate said.
The Green Book was sold for 25 cents at Black churches or Black-owned businesses. The only major company to carry the publication was Esso gas station. One actually existed in the Brooklyn district of Wilmington, then located at the corner of 4th and Taylor streets.
“You also had places listed like Germany’s and Dixie’s beauty parlors,” Shumate added, “and Howard’s Barber Shop.”
Many of the businesses were run out of people’s homes. The Green Book pinpointed areas of Red Cross Street, Chestnut Street, Nixon Street, Castle Street, the Brooklyn Arts District, even downtown proper in the central business district. They essentially were considered “safe spaces” for Black consumers.
Yet, the book also exposes the economic impact and work ethic that existed among Black people then, according to Shumate. It not only showcases businesses that Black people owned, it points to the infrastructure, roads and highways that “wouldn’t have existed without free labor from Black people.”
Aside from the fact that purchasing a car indicated luxury and a status of hard work — in 1959 it would cost around $2,200 (comparable to $30,000 today), and at a time when the median income of a black male was 58% of a white male, according to Brookings Papers on Economic Activity — it also meant having the option to avoid public transportation. In turn, it would prevent Black people from facing public scrutiny and ridicule often endured on buses and trains.
“Those who did own a car, it may have been for a whole family,” Shumate explained, “grandma and granddad, aunts, uncles, cousins, mom, dad, siblings. . . . The Green Book shows that Black people were still trying to travel, and wanting to have their freedoms, even in the midst of the country trying its best to terrify Black people into not wanting to feel free at all. It’s that kind of history I like to trace for people so they can see the bigger picture.”
An anti-racism educator, Shumate said her research often leads her down a rabbit hole where she emerges essentially asking more questions. As she began digging into information about the Green Book in 1960, she said Wilmington locations started dwindling.
“So what happened?” Shumate asked. “Was the postal service not able to access which Green Book locations to put in the book? Or was it because the passenger line of the railroad wasn’t running anymore? Or was it because of urban renewal, quote-unquote, that the city was wanting to do? So there’s a lot of questions that require primary source research and digging and putting the facts with the oral histories.”
Filling in those gaps is high on her list as she continues to unfold information surrounding the travel guide and Wilmington. She’s been talking to locals who lived through it or who can point her to remaining family members that did. She’s hoping to gather their stories — and on a subject she admitted not even scratching the surface of.
“Locally, people look at 1898 and then they skip right to the Wilmington Ten,” she said. “Between, there was a flourishing Black community and businesses — like the NorthSide’s Food Co-op [currently underway.] That is not new. There was a black grocery store there before.”
Shumate’s lecture puts the Black struggle into context and frames the history of Black driving experiences that seemingly continue to pop up decades upon decades later — even after the Green Book stopped getting published in 1966.
“Just because the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, it does not mean places decided to just stop segregating their businesses,” Shumate said. “And that didn’t mean black people were not endangered anymore either.”
She points to the current climate and continuous coverage of police brutality and Black people that circulate news headlines in the 21st century.
“Driving while black is still an issue,” Shumate said, “and that’s a real conversation to be had. Even for me, there are places back home I know I shouldn’t be driving at night — and I am 32 years old in 2021. This is not something that’s just a far-fetched old-timey idea.”
Click here to register for Shumate’s free lecture.
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