During the nineteenth century, abolitionists helped African-American slaves escape to free states or Canada through a network of secret routes and “safe houses.” The network was called the “Underground Railroad.”
During the twentieth century, slavery had been abolished, of course, but racial segregation—both by law and by custom—continued to divide white Americans and black Americans largely into separate—but unequal—universes.
For example, African Americans were restricted in where they could buy a house, get a job, dine, shop, swim, play golf, go to school, see a movie, sit on a bus, wait for a train, find lodging, find a restroom, even get a drink of water.
In Fort Worth, African Americans were identified by race in the newspaper and city directory.
By the 1930s Americans—of all colors—were traveling more by automobile. For both business and recreation, Americans embraced the freedom of private travel by automobile. But automobile travel brought a freedom to African Americans that whites could not fully appreciate: the freedom from being expected to sit at the back of a bus, the freedom from having to sit in a “colored” waiting room and drink from a “colored” fountain at a train station. (Shown are the floor plan of the 1931 Texas & Pacific passenger terminal and the water fountain of the terminal’s “colored” waiting room.)
In 1930 African-American writer George Schuyler wrote: “All Negroes who can do so purchase an automobile as soon as possible in order to be free of discomfort, discrimination, segregation and insult.”
But with that freedom came a challenge—a challenge that whites did not face: finding a welcoming—or at least tolerant—place to eat, sleep, and buy gasoline while motoring.
In fact, many African-American motorists packed food, blankets, and even containers of gasoline in their car. They slept in their car on the side of a road.
Perhaps the most intimidating locales for African-American motorists were “sundown towns”: whites-only towns that were intolerant to the point of demanding that African Americans who were passing through town be gone by sundown.
It was in that bifurcated culture in 1936 that Harlem mailman Victor Hugo Green realized that the spirit of the Underground Railroad was needed again, if only in book form. (Photo from Wikipedia.)
That year Green published the first edition of The Negro Motorist Green Book “to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trip more enjoyable.”
Green wrote: “The White traveler has had no difficulty in getting accommodations, but with the Negro it has been different. He, before the advent of a Negro travel guide, had to depend on word of mouth, and many times accommodations were not available. Now things are different. The Negro traveler can depend on the “GREEN BOOK” for all the information he wants . . . Hence this guide has made traveling more popular, without encountering embarrassing situations.”
Green pointed out that similar travel information was provided for Jews and gentile whites.
Green Book historian Gretchen Sullivan Sorin wrote: “There’s an entire other world, a black world, that African Americans lived in that was totally invisible to white Americans.”
Playwright Calvin Alexander Ramsey, who wrote two plays inspired by the Green Book, recalled, “We didn’t want to stop anywhere and get into a situation where we didn’t know how it was going to turn out.”
(The title of the Oscar-winning movie refers to Victor Green’s book.)
It was not just in the South that African-American travelers faced hostility. Filmmaker Yoruba Richen, who made a documentary about the Green Book, said, “This country wants to say segregation and Jim Crow only happened in the South. It happened all over. The Green Book was created by a New Yorker, with listings in New York. [There were] places in Harlem, where black people were not allowed to go to. So this was something that was everywhere.”
The first edition of the Green Book in 1936 indeed covered just the New York City area. But the book sold so well that the next year coverage was expanded to the eastern half of the country.
And in 1939 the Green Book crossed the Mississippi River and covered coast to coast.
So, you ask, what about Fort Worth? Was it a stop in this printed “underground railroad”?
Indeed it was.
Here is the listing for Fort Worth in 1939. Most prominent among the entries was the Jim Hotel. Banker and Republican politician William Madison “Gooseneck Bill” McDonald, the most powerful African American in Texas if not the entire South, had built the Jim Hotel in the 1920s and named it for his wife Jimmie. The hotel was located on East 5th Street next to the Fort Worth Press building.
Oscar and Levi Cooper bought the Jim Hotel from McDonald in 1934. Under their ownership the Jim became a major venue for black blues and jazz musicians, famous for its cabaret with floor shows and late-night jam sessions.
Musicians who performed at the Jim included Paul Whiteman, King Oliver, Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Billy Eckstine, Errol Garner, Woody Herman, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Billie Holiday, B. B. King, the Ink Spots, Louis Jordan, Pigmeat Markham, the Andrews Sisters, Buddy Rich, Art Tatum, Count Basie, and Louis Armstrong. In the early 1930s T-Bone Walker led the hotel’s house band. Thus, the Jim provided travelers food, lodging, and entertainment.
The Jim was demolished in 1964. A parking lot stands on the property now. Listing is from the 1952 city directory. Photo shows a detail of artist Paula Blincoe Collins’s mural depicting Fort Worth African-American history at the Intermodal Transportation Center.
Here is a sampling of later Green Book Fort Worth listings (1947, 1956, 1957, 1958, and 1966).
Predictably, most of the entries were located in the African-American business district, which was located on the east side of downtown beginning at Calhoun Street and extended eastward and southeastward along arteries such as East 1st and East 4th streets, Rosedale Street, and Evans Avenue.
Like the Jim Hotel, most of the other buildings on this list are gone, taken by freeways, the convention center, and parking lots (starting at East 7th Street, nine of the ten blocks southward between Calhoun and Jones streets are now parking lots).
The Del Rey Hotel was located on Jones Street near today’s Intermodal Transportation Center.
Another “safe house” for African-American motorists was the YMCA on Jones Street. It was Fort Worth’s second branch Y for African Americans and was named after McDonald’s late son when McDonald donated a building to house the branch.
Motorists could both sleep and eat at the Y.
They could also eat at the Green Leaf Restaurant on East 9th Street, owned by Oscar Cooper. For more than twenty years the Green Leaf was the only twenty-four-hour eatery for African Americans downtown. It served a popular hash-and-rice dish, biscuits, and hotcakes, cooked by George “Greedy” Woods and Jesse “Chicken Fry” James.
Cooper’s nephew, Howell J. Atkinson, said the Green Leaf was a fixture “in the middle of our part of downtown, where we had our bank, our drugstore, our cafes. . . . During the Depression Uncle Oscar started a soup line at the cafe. He’d get meat bones from Mr. Woodard Humphrey at the 14th Street Market, day-old bread from Mrs. Baird’s Bakery, and throw-away carrots from the Jones Street Market and make a real good soup which he’d give away, free. Finally, though, he had to give up the soup line thing. He found out his customers were eating the free soup and killing his business.”
Oscar’s nephew Bob Cooper recalled: “I can remember going into Leonard Brothers in the ’40s and buying $500 worth of furniture with cash. That was a lot of money at that time, a lot more money . . . than a lot of people who weren’t black could pay in cash. But when I finished paying for my furniture, I couldn’t even walk over to the lunch counter and buy a cup of coffee. I had to walk over to the Green Leaf for my cup of coffee. Which goes to show how silly segregation seemed to us at the time.”
The Green Leaf also was a major ticket outlet for African Americans.
Another “safe house” was the Mohawk Hotel on Calhoun Street at 15th Street in the former Hell’s Half Acre. The Mohawk had opened about 1903 as a hotel for whites. (In the upper left corner of the Sanborn map, the three FB labels stand for “female boarding,” a euphemism for “brothel.”)
The Clover Motel was located on East 4th Street about where Interstate 35W is today.
The Monterey Hotel was located on Evans Avenue near Mount Zion Baptist Church.
The only entry not located in the African-American business district was the Rose Cliff Restaurant, located on far East Rosedale Street just inside today’s Loop 820.
So far we have seen that motorists could get a meal and a bed, even some entertainment. What about their car? There was a friendly service station on New York Avenue at East Rosedale Street just southeast of downtown.
And for the woman traveler, Dickerson’s Beauty Parlor was located across Rosedale from that service station.
Now look back at that first Fort Worth listing of 1939. What was a “tourist home”? Tourist homes were bed-and-breakfasts for traveling African Americans. To earn supplemental income, African Americans opened their homes to African-American motorists.
The 1939 Green Book listed the tourist home of N. M. Currey at 812 Stella Street. But Necia Morgan Curry had died in 1936.
However, daughter Willie Curry Starks continued to live at 812 Stella Street after her mother’s death and probably operated the tourist home in her mother’s name. The house was located just east of Interstate 35W and north of St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church on Missouri Avenue.
Because Willie’s father Thomas George Curry was born in Alabama in 1848, he may have been a slave as a youth. Perhaps that family fact, in addition to the extra income, motivated Willie Curry Starks to open her home to African Americans who, despite the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, could still hear the chains of their ancestors dragging from the rear bumper of the car as they drove from “safe house” to “safe house” across segregated America in the twentieth century.
Willie Curry Starks was a teacher at I. M. Terrell High School for African Americans.
Footnote: In 1905 Willie Curry had been “a 12-year-old negro girl” who presented flowers to President Roosevelt when he came to town.
Now look again at the Green Book Fort Worth entries for 1947-1966.
Mary Lou Evans operated a tourist home at 1213 East Terrell Avenue just two doors east of Gooseneck Bill’s grand home. She, like Willie Curry Starks, was a teacher at I. M. Terrell High School.
The house in which Mary Lou Evans operated her tourist home had been owned by Irreasa Drake, whose Drake’s Cafeteria was located a few blocks away on East Rosedale Street.
In 1948 Victor Green made a prediction in that year’s Green Book: “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment. But until that time comes we shall continue to publish this information for your convenience each year.”
The civil rights movement of the 1950s would indeed nudge America, however haltingly, toward “equal opportunities and privileges.” But by 1959 the challenges that African Americans faced in traveling in the South were still so daunting that Caucasian writer John Howard Griffin had his skin darkened, traveled as an African American, and wrote about the experience.
But five years later came the “great day” that Victor Hugo Green had foreseen in 1948: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin and prohibited unequal application of voter registration requirements, racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations.
Fast-forward two years. By 1966 the world had changed, and so had the Green Book. For starters it had a different look: That’s a white woman on those skis. It had even a new title: The word Negro was gone. It had broadened its scope to international coverage. And it had a new slogan: “for vacation without aggravation.”
More important, the 1966 edition of the Green Book included a section on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And with that milestone legislation, the time had come “when this guide will not have to be published.” This was the final edition of the Green Book.
Mary Lou Evans died in 1976 and is buried in the Old Trinity section of Oakwood Cemetery.
Willie Curry Starks is buried in New Trinity Cemetery.
Both women had lived to see passage of the Civil Rights Act.
The Evans house at 1213 East Terrell Avenue still stands. It is the only surviving reminder of Fort Worth’s role in the underground railroad of the twentieth century.