'Green Book' sites in Detroit and throughout Michigan on display at MSU
Detroit — When Walter Davenport came up from Georgia 66 years ago, he said the situation for black residents in Metro Detroit reminded him of what he thought he had left behind.
“I left segregated Georgia,” Davenport said. “I was 19. To my surprise, it was almost as segregated here as it was in Georgia.
“I noticed when I started at Chrysler, there were jobs that I couldn’t get,” said the 85-year-old deacon, one of the founders of the Mt. Hebron Missionary Baptist Church, just over the Ferndale city line.
“After the riot, you know, things opened up. Michigan, it was better than Georgia, but not that much.”
In those days, "The Negro Motorists’ Green Book," a guide to traveling amid segregation from 1936 to 1966, listed dozens of businesses in Detroit and around the state where black visitors could sleep, eat, shop, get a haircut and clothes cleaned in safety and comfort.
They are all part of an exhibition on display at the MSU Library in East Lansing.
The exhibit presents side-by-side, before-and-after pictures of the businesses, showing what they looked like 50 to 80 years ago and today. The historical display follows the release last year of "Green Book," a film that highlighted the guide for African American travelers published during the later decades of the pre-Civil Rights era.
One of the Detroit businesses in the book, bearing a name that may arrive harshly in racially sensitive ears, was Uncle Tom’s Plantation, a popular, elegant night club just to the east of Deacon Davenport’s church.
“I know how popular it was,” he said. “But I never went into it.”
The church-going Davenport said he might have been young, but he was not “young and wild.”
“It was very popular! All the who’s who was there,” Davenport said. “All of the young people, at the time, went there. All of the stars of the day were there.
“When I look at who as popular in that day, it brings my memory back. Ella (Fitzgerald)? Yes, she was there. Louis (Armstrong)? I don’t recall. Count Basie? Yes.”
The night club thrived in a more segregated time in Metro Detroit as a “black & tan,” catering to an integrated clientele.
Victor Green’s travel guide cumulatively listed 86 sites in Detroit and five in Lansing. All the locations and before-and-after photographs are in the Map Library, on Two East, in the Main Library at Michigan State.
Green, a postal worker in New York City, began with listings in New York, after encountering difficulty traveling and hearing about the potential for mistreatment, humiliation and even violence from other blacks. He got the inspiration from a Jewish acquaintance who showed him a similar travel guide for Jews.
Green eventually expanded his book to include the Jim Crow South and then harshly segregated areas of the north, beyond New York.
The guide became so popular, he eventually quit his day job.
“Victor Hugo Green had serious concerns about the freedom of African Americans in this country,” said Joe Darden, a professor of geography, environment and spatial sciences at Michigan State. “He wanted to provide them freedom to travel throughout the United States, especially in places in the South, where they had racial segregation by law.
“He wanted to provide them the opportunity to be free, like the white population. So he put the book together,” Darden said. “A one-man effort, very intensive.
“The book is a guide to freedom, so they wouldn’t be humiliated when they got turned away, and so forth. They could carry that book and say, look, I’m free now, to stop where I wish because there are places that will accept me,” he said.
“Victor H. Green has not gotten the credit that he deserves, in the consideration of civil rights.”
As much as there was segregation by law in the south, until the 1960s, there was segregation by practice in Detroit.
“The city was even more segregated then than it is now,” said Ken Coleman, an author, historian and journalist from Detroit.
“A publication like the Green Book would be very helpful to someone, if they were visiting from another part of the country and happened to be African-American.
“It was really a road map to where you could find entertainment and lodging and a good restaurant to have dinner.”
The lion’s share of the black population of the city in those days lived on the lower east side, in Black Bottom (named many years previously for the rich soil, not the race of its eventual residents) and near Paradise Valley, according to Coleman and other resources.
“By 1936, Conant Gardens had begun to attract African Americans of means,” Coleman said. “And, the old West Side, the Northwestern High School area, had a sizable African American population in the mid-1930s.
“A publication like the Green Book needed to list organizations and institutions because African Americans just were not welcomed in a lot of white-owned businesses downtown,” he said.
“That’s why you saw so many hotels in the Black Bottom area, because often times African Americans could not be patrons. Some may be able to work, get a job at the Statler Hotel. But they certainly weren’t welcomed as somebody lodging or patrons.”
Davenport said he first lived in a section of Royal Oak Township that, in those days, was almost entirely black.
“Royal Oak Township was what we called a black heaven,” said Davenport, who retired after working for 43 years for Chrysler at the Warren Stamping Plant, at Nine Mile and Mound.
“Everyone who lived there was black, and it was almost like a country town. When I moved here, the streets weren’t paved.
“In Detroit, there were blacks along Hastings Street, Dexter Avenue, Eight Mile and a few other places.”
Places like the Carlton Plaza Hotel and the Town Motel in Detroit became havens, to which Green directed black travelers.
Fewer than one-third of Green’s sites are said to be standing and occupied.
Two in Detroit are the Carlton Lofts and the Town Motel.
As she helps resurrect the glorious past of the city, while hoping to make developers some money in a gorgeous old building on John R that was the Carlton Plaza Hotel, Suzi Drewoir said she has gathered some tidbits.
“I’m not the biggest jazz fan, but I know Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald stayed here,” Drewoir said.
Some black visitors had little choice.
Kathleen Weessies said she came upon the idea for the exhibit as she worked to develop a collection of early road maps, saw the Academy Award winning movie “Green Book,” and watched a documentary called “The Green Book: Guide to Freedom.”
The director of the documentary, broadcast on the Smithsonian Channel in February, Yoruba Richen, had been invited to MSU by the group Supporting Women in Geography, said Weessies, the head geosciences librarian, at Michigan State. She was asked to assemble a complementary exhibit.
“I just took the nine editions of the book, mined all of the data out of it, made a big Excel spread sheet and started mapping it,” she said. “It just came together really fast from there.”
The purpose of the exhibit is to show how library resources can be used to illuminate a topic.
But the impact is more profound.
“I’m white,” Weessies said. “I didn’t live this. My parents didn’t live this. My grandparents didn’t live this. I’m just using the database in an objective sort of way. But you hear things, how it was,” she said.
Richen will speak Nov. 14 at the Wharton Center at Michigan State.
She has said the subtler prejudices of the North sometimes made it more difficult to travel, than in the Jim Crow South, with its “Whites Only” policies on full display.
“It was much harder to navigate in the North and the West because you didn’t have the signs,” Richen told Smithsonian Magazine, earlier this year.
She also said the business of operating the establishments helped to create a black middle class.
“These really helped build a middle class and serve a middle class,” Richen said.
“Yes, it was for safety, obviously. But by the early '40s, it was called the Guide to Travel and Vacations.”