Early in Dr. Dudley E. Flood’s distinguished career as a North Carolina educator, he and his wife, Barbara, were to embark on a two-day road trip from Hertford County to
Early in Dr. Dudley E. Flood’s distinguished career as a North Carolina educator, he and his wife, Barbara, were to embark on a two-day road trip from Hertford County to Missouri. The couple, both teachers, were headed to the National Education Association’s annual convention, held that summer in St. Louis. But the year was 1959, and Jim Crow laws were still in full effect: If you were Black, the highways and back roads of North Carolina and the South at large could be menacing and potentially life-threatening. What’s more, the vast majority of hotels and restaurants would not serve Black guests. The owner of an Esso gas station that Flood traded with suggested that the couple take along a copy of The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, the travel guide that many African-Americans consulted during the pre-civil rights years to avoid danger or embarrassment when looking for food, lodging, and other basic necessities.
The air was already thick and muggy in Flood’s tiny hometown of Winton on that late-June morning when he cranked up his little six-cylinder Ford and headed north on NC Highway 13. He and Barbara had prepared for the trip as best they could, packing fruit and other snacks to nibble on while they drove. “The interesting thing about the Green Book was that it helped you determine which routes you should take,” remembers Flood, now 89, “because some routes would not have provided you with access to places that would be accommodating.”
Using the guide, the Floods mapped their way north, into Virginia, then west, toward Kentucky. The couple stopped along the way to order meals from Tastee-Freez or Dairy Queen, two of the few restaurant chains that they knew would serve Black customers through outside take-out windows. In Louisville, the Floods drove to Brown’s Guest House, a little fleabag they’d seen listed in the Green Book. It was a mess, but they stayed for the night, and the next morning, they awoke early and continued into lower Indiana, making time for a few detours for antiquing. The Floods were wiped out by the time they reached the town of Vincennes, and they decided to stop over again before driving into St. Louis the next day.
But the Green Book had no listings for Vincennes. “I wasn’t worried about it, though, because the myth that I had grown up with was, ‘You’re in the North now; you’re going to be OK. Things are different here,’” Flood recalls. They saw a vacancy sign on a hotel and pulled into the lot. “I walked up to the desk and asked the lady if we might be accommodated, and she said to me, very curtly, ‘I’m sorry, but we don’t have anything.’ I said, ‘Excuse me, but I noticed your sign, and the light is still on that says you have vacancies.’ She said, ‘Well, that’s a mistake.’” After some wrangling with the manager, the Floods moved on, exhausted and demoralized. They finally arrived later that night in East St. Louis, where they found another hotel listed in the Green Book and stayed for the night before heading to the convention.
Dr. Flood’s first big trip using the Green Book was eye-opening.
Flood’s first big trip using the Green Book was eye-opening. It wouldn’t be his last. As a future administrator with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction who, many years later, played a key role in desegregating the state’s public schools, Flood would travel hundreds of miles each year on the back roads of North Carolina. He became intimately familiar with the Green Book and the places listed in it. And he wasn’t the only one. From 1936, when Harlem postal worker Victor Green first introduced the Green Book, until 1966, when his wife quietly ceased publication two years after the Civil Rights Act rendered it less of a necessity, the little guidebook was an essential tool for Black travelers. But in the half-century since then, memories have faded, people have died, and old Green Book travel stories like Flood’s have been consigned to the footnotes of history.
A funny thing happened in 2018. That year, director Peter Farrelly released his Oscar-winning movie Green Book, the true-life tale of a Black New York City classical and jazz pianist and his white driver, who set out on a concert tour of the Deep South in 1962. Armed with a copy of the Green Book, the pair’s inevitable brushes with racists along the way made for a story that piqued renewed interest in the guide. Suddenly, historians and regular folks alike began looking for old copies of the Green Book and searching for the places that were listed in it.
At North Carolina State University, a group of students were ahead of the curve: Over the previous couple of years, they’d begun work on identifying Green Book sites in our state. Their research led to a $148,000 grant for the Green Book Project, which was set up to document each of North Carolina’s more than 300 locations, from the Mrs. S. Foster Tourist Home in Asheville to the Murphy Hotel in Wilmington. “We wanted to determine the status of these sites — whether they are still standing or whether they were demolished,” says Angela Thorpe, director of the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission, which oversees the project. “We wanted to understand where these sites were, in terms of the geography of the state, so that we could get a clear sense of what sites existed in what counties.”
Lisa R. Withers, a doctoral candidate in public history, managed the data gathering. She and the team compiled the addresses of businesses listed in the Green Book and drove to historic Black neighborhoods across the state to talk with people who lived near the old sites. Of the 327 Green Book listings in North Carolina, the team has located 66 still-standing buildings. A few of them — like Dove’s Auto Service, just off of South Queen Street in Kinston’s historic African-American commercial district — are still in business.
One of the more notable Green Book sites in North Carolina is the Magnolia House on Gorrell Street in Greensboro — a green-trimmed, two-story, 5,000-square-foot Victorian home, built in 1889 and restored at least twice in the past 130 years. The Magnolia had fallen into disrepair by the 1980s and remained an eyesore until a Federal Express worker named Samuel Penn Pass drove by it one day in 1995 and saw a “for sale” sign in the front yard. He bought it and restored it to its Green Book-era glory.
The first thing that the children noticed when “Sweet Daddy” Grace pulled up in front of the Magnolia House and emerged from his shiny European convertible were his freakishly long fingernails. It was the early 1950s, and Reggie Hodges and his buddies had been playing kickball in a field across the street when the famous faith healer — the founder of the United House of Prayer for All People — arrived with great fanfare. The kids stopped their game and bolted over to the curb for a closer look. Daddy Grace stepped out of the car, and it was as if God himself had arrived in the segregated black neighborhood at the edge of downtown.
“People were amazed when they saw him surrounded by all of his entourage,” Hodges remembers. “But what really stood out to me were his fingernails — they were two or three inches long — and he wore this military-type suit.” Hodges pauses. “And that car,” he continues with a muted gasp. “I’d never seen anything like it in my life.”
It wasn’t the first memorable display that Hodges, now 75, had witnessed in front of the Magnolia. His family lived around the corner on Martin Street, and he and his friends would pass by the big house almost every day on their way to the ballfield. He says Jackie Robinson once arrived at the Magnolia during the Dodgers’ trek back up to Brooklyn following spring training in Florida. Singer Nat King Cole stayed at the Magnolia while on a trip to nearby Sedalia to visit the Palmer Memorial Institute, a private school for Black kids that today houses the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum. And jazz pioneer Louis Armstrong once scarfed down a plate of country ham drenched in syrup cooked up by Louise Gist, who owned the Magnolia along with her husband, Arthur.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Magnolia was one of the hottest spots in Hodges’s neighborhood. “What I remember most was the quality of the cars that people drove up in,” he says, “because they were so different from other cars you’d see — they were red and shiny, and they were Cadillacs and convertibles. And I remember the hair — the processed hair. And I remember that the men who drove the cars wore black suits and caps, and they’d open the doors for these people to get in and out.” Hodges had never seen Black people treated like royalty, and it mesmerized him. “I didn’t know anything about the Green Book at the time,” he says. “I was just a kid. All I knew was that the Magnolia was the hotel where important Black people could stay.”
“For African-Americans, beauty salons were political and cultural hubs within Black communities.”
Sifting through the firsthand memories of people like Hodges and Flood was a key part of Withers’s research for the Green Book Project. One of her goals was to get a sharper picture of who used the travel guide, why they used it, and who owned the North Carolina businesses listed in it. In the Magnolia’s case, the Gists bought the house in 1949, a decade after the Green Book began publication, to convert into a multi-room hotel for Black travelers. Soon, jazz musicians, writers, and other notable Black Americans learned about the house and booked rooms there when passing through Greensboro for engagements.
“When you think about the Green Book narrative that’s generally told, it often comes from more of a middle-class perspective — people who would have been able to own a car and stay in a hotel,” Withers says. “So it makes sense that when I was interviewing community members, some of them were like, ‘I don’t have anything to contribute to your project, because my family didn’t take vacations.’”
As she explored the listings more scrupulously, Withers began to wonder why the Green Book included so many barbershops and hair salons — businesses that weren’t necessarily geared to travel. “From my 21st century perspective, I’m thinking that if I’m taking a trip, I’m going to have my hair done before I get on the road, not during the trip,” she says. “But what we have to remember is that, for African-Americans, beauty salons, particularly in the Jim Crow era, were not just about beauty. They were political and cultural hubs within Black communities. People would come into towns and go to these places to connect with other people. So the Green Book could have been about more than just avoiding danger on the road or having a safe place to stay — it also told you where Black people gathered.”
A tiny booklet, just 5 by 7 inches — small enough to stuff into your glove compartment or pocket — early editions of the Green Book cost a quarter and included a note from the publisher that read, in part, “We earnestly believe ‘The Negro Motorist Green Book’ will mean as much if not more to us as the A.A.A. means to the white race.” To Thorpe, of the NC African American Heritage Commission, it means a glimpse into the secret inner workings of Black social life from a time when African-Americans experienced constant harassment by powerful members of the dominant white culture. “So we also think of the Green Book as a resistance tool,” she says. “In many cases, it enabled a certain class of African-American people to create spaces for Black people to seek refuge in. And the folks behind these spaces were critical catalysts for pushing for civil rights and change in North Carolina in a really specific era of time that felt volatile to many Black people.”
It was an era whose ripples have extended well beyond 1966, the year the Green Book stopped publication. By 1970, a decade after Flood’s first experience using the guide during his trip to St. Louis, he was traveling an average of 50,000 to 60,000 miles a year in North Carolina for the NC Department of Public Instruction. His mission: to complete the desegregation of our schools.
“Even then, I knew where I would be treated well and where I wouldn’t,” Flood says. “If I wanted to go east from Raleigh — we didn’t have 264 then — I had to go through about eight or nine little towns before I would get to Wilson, and I knew every one of them; I knew which ones would like to have me stop and which ones wouldn’t.” Not that he would be refused service in hotels or restaurants; by the ’70s, those businesses had long been required to serve Black people. “But you would visibly see the distinction in how you were served,” Flood says. “We understood that the more remote the place was, the less interaction there would be between and among the races, and the less clarity folks would have on how human you might be. We knew that.”
But Dr. Dudley E. Flood wasn’t one to become enraged by such things. Like the researchers behind the Green Book Project today, Flood’s presence out in the field was to help shine a light on the blind spots in people’s lived experience. “My job was to teach,” he says, “not to complain. It was to teach people. So that’s what I did. And by about the mid-’70s, things got better.” He pauses, and then adds, “Not well, but better.”