Commemorating Hidden History in Arlington and Alexandria

Commemorating Hidden History in Arlington and Alexandria

Local 'Green Book' locations may soon be designated historic sites.

In the 1930s, traveling while Black could be dangerous. Service stations and hotels were segregated, and people traveling for work or pleasure needed to know where it was safe to pump gas or stay the night. Enter New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green. He started publishing the Negro Motorist Green Book in 1936, documenting destination sites for an emerging African-American middle class who owned cars. Now members of the General Assembly are considering a bill that would identify and commemorate all Virginia locations listed in the Green Book editions from the 1930 until the 1960s, when it ceased publication.

"The history of being an African American in Virginia is a history of all Virginians," said Del. Michael Mullin (D-93). "You're talking about a history of people who are still alive today and yet somehow that history is already being lost."

Some cities have many Green Book locations while others have only a few. Richmond, for example, has listings for two hotels, three service stations, a barber shop and a restaurant. Alexandria, on the other hand, has only two listings — both identified as "tourist homes" at the intersection Gibbon Street and South Columbus Street. Councilman John Taylor Chapman, owner of the Manumission Tour Company, says a "tourist home" was essentially a 1940s-era Airbnb.

"That's the Bottoms neighborhood, which is one of the earlier African-American communities in Alexandria," said Chapman. "It's not too far from Alfred Street Baptist Church, and the Odd Fellows Hall is right up the street. So this is one of the central locations for African Americans in the city at that time."

THE BILL TO IDENTIFY and commemorate all of Virginia's Green Book sites began as a casual conversation on the House floor during some down time. Del. Jeion Ward (D-92) was reminiscing with Mullin about the beaches in their part of Hampton Roads. Ward mentioned a hotel that was listed in the Green Book as a place where visiting African American performers would stay.

"Big stars, they were stars to us. They would come down, and there was only one hotel that they could stay at the beach," said Ward. "That was the one that was all the fun. It was fun."

As they talked, Mullin realized that he knows the location where the hotel was located. The building is gone, and there's nothing there to commemorate it. That's when the idea struck him: What if that location had a historical marker explaining what happened at that location and what we might learn from it.

"A 70-bed hotel that had some of the most prominent African American singers and entertainers in the country," said Mullin. "And that place no longer exists. In fact, there's no record of it."

The first step in commemorating all the places will be identifying them. The Green Book was in publication from the 30s to the 60s, and the Library of Virginia has none of them. Ward owns a copy from 1940 that has a couple of pages of Virginia sites. So if lawmakers approve Mullin's bill, the first step would be for the Department of Historic Resources to gather all the editions and identify the sites so they can go about the work of publicizing them and educating the public about this almost-lost chapter of Virginia history.