Category Archives: Green Book

Philadelphia’s 20th Century ‘Underground Railroad’

Victor Hugo Green, publisher of The Negro Motorist Green Book, was a visionary.

Victor_Hugo_Green_1892-1960_in_1956

Green envisioned a network of safe and welcoming places for African Americans. First published in 1936, the travel guide targeted the New York City metropolitan area. By 1938, the Green Book included all the states east of the Mississippi River.

Green Book - 1938

Over time, there were 9,500 Green Book listings across the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, Mexico, South America, Europe and Africa. The highest concentration was in cities with large African American populations including Atlantic City, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Chicago and Philadelphia.

Green Book Sites - 1956

Check out this WHYY podcast focusing on Philadelphia’s extant Green Book sites, “Philly’s ‘20th century Underground Railroad’ hides in plain sight.”

Mapping the Green Book in Philadelphia

Later this month, I will give a talk on the Green Book at the Paul Robeson House and Museum in Philadelphia. I first wrote about “The Negro Motorist Green Book” in 2015. That year, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture digitized Victor Hugo’s travel guide which was published from 1936 to 1966.

#GreenBook Collage

The now-iconic publication is experiencing a renaissance. Countless news articles, essays and blog posts have been written. A documentary, Driving While Black, will air on PBS next year. In June 2020, a Green Book exhibition developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service will begin a three-year tour. The first stop is the most famous Green Book site, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Lorraine Motel

Over the course of 30 years, dozens of Philadelphia businesses were listed in the Green Book. The businesses were clustered in South Philadelphia, then the heart of the African American community.

Mapping Green Book Philadelphia - Green Book Icon4

Almost 70 percent of Philadelphia’s buildings were constructed before 1945. So it’s not surprising there are 45 extant Green Book sites. A few are vacant; most have been repurposed. Five are in the same business including the Hotel Carlyle which was first listed in the Green Book in 1948 and is doing business under the same name.

Hotel Carlyle Collage

To arrange a presentation for your organization, university, school, etc., contact #GreenBookPHL Project at greenbookphl@gmail.com.

Club Harlem

Under the proprietorship of Stan Cooper, this West Philly jazz spot was popular in the 1940s and ‘50s.

Club Harlem

Club Harlem played host to jazz and blues greats such as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Lionel Hampton, Johnny Hodges, Ella Fitzgerald, Lucky Millender, John Coltrane, Dinah Washington, Bull Moose Jackson, Erskine Hawkins and Nat King Cole. On May 30, 1952, KYW broadcast a live concert by the Stan Kenton Orchestra.

Club Harlem closed in 1952 following a dispute with Union Local 274, the black musicians union.

Sixty miles north, Atlantic City’s Club Harlem was located at “KY and the Curb,” the block of Kentucky Avenue from Arctic to Atlantic avenues.

Club Harlem - Atlantic City

The legendary nightclub was jumping from 1935 to 1975.

On August 9, 1969, organist Lonnie Smith recorded a live album at Club Harlem.

Club Harlem is featured in the Atlantic City Experience, a multi-media exhibit which opened earlier this year in Boardwalk Hall. The exhibit includes a photo of The Apex Hair Co. Inc. founded by Sara Spencer Washington in 1920.

Apex Hair Co. Inc.

The former location of the Apex Beauty College is a stop on the Green Book Philadelphia Walking Tour: Lombard Street Edition.

Apex Beauty College

The walking tour is scheduled for Saturday, May 16, 2020, 10:00am to 12:00pm. To receive notice when tickets are available, send email to: greenbookphl@gmail.com.

Cinderella Café

The Cinderella Café or Inn was located at 16th and Lombard streets.

Cinderella Cafe - July 11, 1934

In response to efforts to delist the property as a contributing resource to the Rittenhouse-Fitler Historic District, archivist J.M. Duffin documented the historical significance of the building:

The Cinderella Inn or Café appears at 1601–02 Lombard Street in the early 1920s. African American band leader Bobby Lee and Ethel Duncan were the managers of the club. Lee started playing the piano in movie theaters in Richmond, Virginia at the age of 13. Around 1914 he formed his own band which by the early 1920s became known as the Cotton Pickers. The club he formed on Lombard Street was a very popular place in its time. It is mentioned in a number of African American newspapers across the country and served a racially mixed clientele. Lee hired an African American interior decorator from New York, Harold Curtis Brown, to decorate the club with orange and black silhouettes. Lee’s band had a regular Philadelphia radio broadcast at the time he was operating the club which no doubt contributed to its broader notoriety. His popularity and skill was so great that when he was asked to go to New York to be a regular at the Cotton Club he refused and Duke Ellington got the job instead. As late as 1937, there were still references to the Cinderella Inn in national publications.

The property is associated with Sarah Spencer Washington, founder of the Apex College of Beauty Culture.

Apex Beauty College

The building is a stop on All That Philly Jazz Cultural Heritage Walking Tour: Lombard Street Edition. To be added to the mailing list for 2020 tour schedule, send email to: greenbookphl@gmail.

#PublicMemory Playback

On October 22, PlanPhilly held a panel discussion on historic preservation, public memory, cultural heritage and displacement. PlanPhilly Managing Editor Ariella Cohen moderated the discussion. The panelists were:

PlanPhilly Panel Discussion - October 22, 2019

The conversation was lively and at times confrontational. You can listen to the audio here.

Happy Birthday to John Coltrane

John Coltrane’s eighth studio album, Africa/Brass, was released in 1961. The tracks include “Song of the Underground Railroad.”

To celebrate Coltrane’s birthday (September 23, 1926), All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson will lead the Philadelphia Jazz Heritage Walking Tour: Green Book Edition. A travel guide, Green Book listings were effectively an Underground Railroad 2.0, a network of safe spaces where African Americans could avoid the indignities and humiliations of racial segregation.

Douglass Hotel Bus Depot

Green Book Philadelphia walking tour stops include:

  • National historic landmark where Coltrane first heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie;
  • Supper club that was a hangout for the producers and musicians who created “The Sound of Philadelphia”;
  • Hotel that welcomed jazz luminaries to its stage from the 1940s to the 1980s, and where Coltrane recorded a live album;
  • Pep’s Musical Bar where Coltrane and other jazz and blues greats performed;
  • Jazz club that paid homage to postal workers and U.S. Postal Service;
  • Dive bar that was the setting for the Broadway play “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill”; and
  • Fraternal lodge where Bessie Smith’s funeral was held and an after-hours club was located on the top floor.

All That Philly Jazz Walking Tour: Green Book Edition will be held on September 21 and 22. Join us as we talk and walk in the footsteps of a jazz giant.

On Vacation

In September, I will lead a walking tour of Green Book sites in Philadelphia. The stops include the Douglass Hotel which offered transportation to Atlantic City, or more accurately, to Chicken Bone Beach.

Douglass Hotel Bus Depot

After complaints from white bathers, African Americans were restricted to a stretch of the Atlantic City beach near Convention Hall. The segregated area became known as Chicken Bone Beach.

Chicken Bone Beach Plaque2

This two-part audio doc provides an overview of Chicken Bone Beach and the entertainment district that became a magnet for black vacationers, day-trippers and luminaries such as Martin Luther King Jr., Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Sammy Davis Jr.

For more info, visit Chicken Bone Beach.