Bygone Alexandria Businesses Listed In Smithsonian Traveling Exhibit – The Town Talk

Traveling the open road has always been part of the American dream. But for Black Americans living in the era of segregation, the road was perilously paved with danger.

For them to safely navigate their way across the country, many relied on the “The Negro Motorist Green Book.”

“It was a lifesaving guide,” Rodneyna Hart, Louisiana State Museum Division Director said in a phone call from Baton Rouge to discuss the Smithsonian Institution’s Traveling Exhibit Services’ exhibition, “The Negro Motorist Green Book” currently at the Capitol Park Museum until Nov. 14.

“From 1936 to 1967, most of that time overlaps with the Jim Crow era,” she said. “During that time it was a dangerous environment for Black people to live. And whenever you’re traveling, you don’t know the lay of the land. You don’t know what perils exist.”

The guide let Blacks know where they could shop, get gas, eat, rent a room for the night, get their hair styled or any other services they might need that amounted to quality of life.

“Some of the information that we’ve been producing highlights different places within Louisiana that were in the Green Book,” she said.

Former businesses in Central Louisiana that used to be in the Green Book included The Orient Hotel, formerly on Lee Street in Alexandria; The Greystone Hotel, previously located on Harrison Street; and McClung Tourist Home which was located on Winn Street. None of these exist anymore.

Alexandria artist Morris Taft Thompson, 85, is originally from New Orleans but moved here in the 1960s. 

“The Orient was on Lee Street,” he said “Lee Street was the hub for the gathering of Blacks during that time.”

What’s fascinating about that era, said Thompson, was that Blacks owned nearly everything on Lee Street. Hotels, eateries, barbershops.

Iles Cool Spot, which was located on 3rd Street, was another place Blacks who were traveling from out of town could find a meal, said Thompson. It was owned by the late David F. Iles who was principal of Peabody High School from 1937-1972.

“When you had individuals traveling through, one of the things Blacks had to do, they had stay at someone’s home because there was only one hotel which was The Orient that I knew of that was still active, that they could actually go to and stay,” said Thompson.

And the way they would find out about places to stay as they traveled was mostly through verbal communication.

“You know here in the South, they’re a lot more upfront about racism which makes it seem like there’s more here than other places but that ‘s not true,” said Hart. “It’s just there were signs. And there were places you were allowed and not allowed.”

In the North, there was the same amount of rejection and being made to feel uncomfortable but there was no real warning, she said.

“So the Green Book was a necessary guide to know how to traverse the United States in a safe way,” said Hart. “Where you would face more dignity than embarrassment.”

The exhibit features lots of photographs and lots of text, said Hart, that allow people to feel a kinship with the people they see.

Though the Green Book came about to keep Blacks safe, the exhibit doesn’t linger in despair.

“It’s a very triumphant and joyful exhibition,” said Hart. “Even the pictures that they’ve chosen to use, there’s a lot of people smiling. Not exclusively. Like it’s definitely the reality of the world, but it is that people found a way to find joy. And it’s a celebration of that kind of stick-to-itiveness and attempting to have the best life you possibly can despite all odds.”

There are a few artifacts in the exhibition, such as a dinner plate, that Hart says makes people understand that these items were not meant for museums. Living breathing people interacted with these objects just as people do now.

Victor Hugo Green, a postal worker in Harlem, was the founder of the Green Book which was distributed at Esso stations across the country.

He partnered with a Black executive for Esso, James “Billboard” Jackson who taught entrepreneurship and Esso-business owning to a lot of people across the country, especially Black people, said Hart.

“With these efforts, it was a very successful travel guide,” said Hart. “And also it led to a lot of stories of entrepreneurship that would not have necessarily have happened otherwise.”

The exhibit highlights women entrepreneurs who were featured in the pages of the Green Book, which also had women editors. Many of the businesses, such as the tourist homes, were run by women.

Also highlighted are beauty parlors and barber shops because it showed ways people were innovative in supporting their financial growth.

What has become of the sites listed in the Green Book now?

“The vast majority no longer exist,” said Hart. There were a lot of contributing factors to this.”

With the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there was no longer the legal separation of races in public spaces. Black companies also had to compete with better funded, politically connected and policy connected white industries. And a lot of discrimination still existed by custom or law.

“Just because it was no longer legal doesn’t mean it stopped happening,” said Hart. “So there was a lot of systematic disenfranchisement of Black industries.”

With urban renewal, a lot of thriving Black communities were destroyed to build highways and other things, she said.

“Another really interesting thing that I like to highlight when I’m talking about the exhibition, is that there is a quote that says, ‘We got what we wanted but we lost what we had,'” said Hart.

The exhibit shows the desire Blacks that had do things such as live a good life, travel, go to the beach, spend time with family and have fun was not diminished by a lack of access.

“Where there was not a road that was paved for Black Americans to have these kinds of experiences, they created their own paths for this,” she said.

Hart describes the exhibit as a multigenerational experience that is a wonderful one for grandparents and grandchildren to take part in.

“There are stories that are told in ways that you can only experience in museums,” she said. “But it sparks conversation that really is quite important that it happens.”

There is no one word to describe the exhibit, said Hart. 

“It’s triumphant. It’s exciting. It’s interesting. It’s heartbreaking at point,” she said. “It’s infuriating at points. But ultimately you walk out and you feel there is a difference that this made.”

Though the viewers may feel remorse that a guide was needed for the safety of Blacks to travel, they’ll also be proud that such ingenuity existed for them to find a way to have a good life, said Hart.

“Because we deserve it as humans,” she added.

The Capitol Park Museum in Baton Rouge is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. The museum’s PechaKucha Night on Oct. 14 will be about a theme in the Green Book. For PechaKucha  Night, 10 speakers will each have 20 slides that are up for 20 second s apiece. Each speaker will give a 4-minute intensive talk about a topic.