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Tracing Black History in Boston with the Green Book

By Isabella Labbe

As the 20th century blossomed, Americans found themselves amidst a technological revolution that gave way to consumer goods. With the birth of the automobile, freedom of transportation became a reality for millions of citizens who no longer felt tied down to train schedules. What seems like a new period of exploration of the country for all was, in fact, an opportunity to see America for some. People of color lacked the overall safety enjoyed by white travelers, given intense and violent segregation of the mid 20th century. Through laws created and enforced by white people, many spots along popular routes including hotels, restaurants, bars, garages, and service stations were closed off to black travelers. In addition to segregation policies, people of color also experienced an increased risk of harassment, humiliation, and physical violence while traveling through the United States.

Victor Green, a postal worker from New York, founded The Negro Motorist Green Book (later The Negro Traveler’s Green Book) in 1937 as a travel guide for African Americans. Each edition, published annually, included locations that were verified to serve black patrons safely and without hostile or exploitative policies. One of the most significant concepts we can draw from the prevalence of the Green Books, which were published until 1966 (two years after the United States criminalized segregation with the Civil Rights Act), is the fact that racial discrimination was not limited to the southern United States. In fact, the Green Books included locations in every state, illustrating the need for safety and tolerance across America. 

Unfortunately, popular mythology has erased histories of northern intolerance toward people of color, frequently constructing a simplified version of racism as belonging to a certain compact era and place. The truth is that racism did and does exist in the north, including Boston.

The Boston Preservation Alliance is committed not only to preserving the historic fabric of Boston neighborhoods and communities, but also educating others about the rich and complex history within the city. As such, this blog post will focus on a sampling of the Boston spots included in the Green Books in an attempt to spotlight community-building and civic engagement among Boston’s African American communities during the 20th century. 

Green Book cover from 1955

Featured consistently in Green Books from 1935 onward, the Harriet Tubman House was founded in 1892 by six black women of Boston and remains an important community space over a hundred years later. The Tubman House, named after the legendary abolitionist who would become its honorary president four years before her death in 1913, served as a lodging for young black women moving to New England from the south during the Great Migration, providing its borders with a safe place to live, eat, and adjust to new surroundings. Initially established at 37 Holyoke Street, the Tubman House moved to 25 Holyoke Street in the early twentieth century, where it stood for 60 years. In 1975, the Tubman House moved to 566 Columbus Avenue, where it stands today, though under the care of new owners. Today the Tubman House is operated by the United South End Settlements, which provides programming in the South End, living up to its original mission of empowering black communities in Boston.

While it’s easy to find historical information for standing properties and organizations like the Harriet Tubman House, other places have been lost to time and urban renewal efforts. The Green Books featured other places of lodging in Boston, including Mother’s Lunch at 510 Columbus Avenue, The Lucille Hotel at 52 Rutland Square, and The Melbourne Hotel at 815 Tremont Street. None of these locations remain today, and it is difficult to find any records of them online. More robust research is in order and likely to reveal some fascinating Boston history.

Though some lodgers chose to stay at hotels, hostels, and boarding houses catering to African Americans, others chose to take advantage of so-called “Tourist Homes,” houses owned by friendly community members, primarily black women, and open to black travelers. One can trace the legacy of women who opened their homes, most of whom are never listed with first names, by looking through archives of Green Books chronologically: Mrs. Holman at 212 W. Springfield Street was featured nearly annually in Green Books between 1938 and 1962; others, like Mrs. Williams at 555 Columbus Avenue and Ms. Julia Walters (who may have also owned a restaurant) at 912 Tremont, are also featured consistently as Tourist Home hostesses. By showcasing the contributions of these Tourist Home operators, Green Books allowed for the recognition of black women business owners on the historical record.

Three Boston restaurants and bars feature prominently in the Green Book across its 30-year publication lifespan: Slade’s Bar and Grill, Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe, and Estelle’s

Slade’s, opened in 1935, remains a popular and important gathering space for Boston’s black community members. Standing at 958 Tremont Street in Lower Roxbury, the restaurant has stayed in the same building for over 80 years, and continues to provide quality entertainment, including live R&B music, and authentic soul food. Significantly, Slade’s has maintained consistent ownership by people of color since its founding, speaking to its mission of empowering black business ownership in Massachusetts. 

Despite not being founded by black Bostonians, Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe in the South End has had a significant impact on black history nationwide. Publications like the Green Book allowed Charlie’s to build a reputation as a safe and friendly spot for black jazz musicians and entertainers during segregation. As a child, Sammy Davis Jr. tap-danced in front of the restaurant for change; inside, musicians like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway performed for enthralled audiences. The floor above Charlie’s was also used as a union hall for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the nation’s first black porter’s union. Despite closing briefly in 2014, Charlie’s was purchased and re-opened in 2016 and continues to serve Boston’s South End community, having stood at 429 Columbus Avenue since its establishment in 1927.

Unlike Slade’s and Charlie’s, Estelle’s no longer exists as a business, but the building remains. Initially established in the 1920s as Boston’s Cotton Club, 888 Tremont Street served as a speakeasy for some of Boston’s most notorious bootleggers, including Charles “King” Solomon, who was later murdered in the club. After The Cotton Club closed, Estelle’s (also known as Tinker’s) was established as a nightclub featuring some of the most prominent jazz, R&B, and soul singers of the mid-20th century, including Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, and Dionne Warwick. Tragically, history repeated itself in 1982, when the club’s owner, John Tinker, was murdered inside the club by a disgruntled custodian. The building at 888 Tremont was transformed into housing developments in 2014, making way for adaptive reuse in Roxbury.

Massachusetts listing in the 1947 Green Book

While many people think of the Green Book as primarily a resource for safe housing and dining options while on the road, it’s important to note that each Green Book included a plethora of other resources for black travelers including information on salons, garages, and even newspapers and media. Today, these guides serve as a valuable and privileged look into the past. One can find the names and addresses of dozens of Boston businesses, organizations, and individuals that comprised Boston’s African American community in the mid-20th century. 

The National Trust for Historic Preservation estimates that only around 20-30% of Green Book sites still exist nationwide, stating, “Many of the Green Book sites are located in historic districts that have faced years of disinvestment and decline.” Significantly, many of these lost locations were specifically targeted by community renovation initiatives and gentrification projects over time. While segregation was technically criminalized, efforts to “clean up” historic black neighborhoods remain common and destructive practices in Boston and beyond. Thus, Green Books can show us not only the legacies of black businesses in our city, but also the ways in which demolition and insensitive development of historic neighborhoods can erase them. 

Many editions of the Green Book can be found online through the New York Public Library's Digital Collections. For more information on the Green Book and its place in history, we recommend you look at the NTHP website

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