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Thursday, April 15, 2021

In Market: When Fort Worth was Green Booked

The Green Book is all the rage. Most recently a movie centered around the book won an Oscar as Best Picture. Not bad for a guidebook written to help African-American travelers navigate their way safely around the then-segregated U.S. in the mid-20th century.

Corporate America is getting on board. ExxonMobil will sponsor a Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition showcasing the history of The Green Book.

ExxonMobil has some claim to the revival. ExxonMobil predecessor Standard Oil Company of New Jersey was the only major retail distributor of The Green Book through its network of Esso stations, which welcomed African-American travelers and provided business opportunities for black franchisees. More than a third of Esso dealers in the 1940s were black and the company employed African-Americans in other roles such as chemists, pipeline workers, mariners and office clerks. Did not know that.

The guidebook was first published in 1936 by Victor Hugo Green, a postal carrier in the Harlem section of New York. Green’s wife, Alma Duke, was from Richmond. Green was inspired to write the book in part by the discrimination he and his wife faced on trips to her racially segregated hometown.

“With Green’s wife being from Virginia, he decided to make trips less humiliating and reached out to fellow mailmen all over the country,” Calvin Alexander Ramsey, an author and playwright who has done research on the subject, told The New York Times in 2015.

The film Green Book has spurred interest in the original Negro Motorist Guide that many African-Americans consulted when traveling in the South during the Jim Crow era.

The movie depicts African-American pianist Don Shirley’s concert tour in 1962 in the Deep South and the friendship that developed between Shirley and his cab driver, Tony Lip. The movie ends with Shirley giving Lip a copy of the book.

Only a third of the travel guide’s sites still exist, according to the Smithsonian Channel, which has produced a documentary about the book.

The final edition of the Green Book was published in 1966 — shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited racial discrimination in public accommodations. In earlier issues of his publication, Victor Green said he looked forward to the day when the Green Book would no longer be needed.

“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published,” Green wrote. “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 as we please without embarrassment.”

In the documentary, Dr. Henrie Monteith Treadwell, a civil rights activist, said Green’s travel guide reflected a significant and troubling time in U.S. history when many businesses openly discriminated against African-Americans.

One of those that no longer exists is the Jim Hotel in Fort Worth. The Jim Hotel was built in the late 1920s by black millionaire William Madison “Gooseneck Bill” McDonald as a three-story, 50-room hotel at 413 E. Fifth St. McDonald is worthy of a column – if not a movie –himself, but suffice to say, there weren’t many black millionaires in the 1920s and many say he was the first in Texas.

McDonald named the hotel after his second wife, Jimmie Strickland.

In 1934, Levi and Oscar Cooper bought the hotel and they hired Texan “T-Bone” Walker, best known for “Stormy Monday,” to lead the house band that played in the hotel lobby, known by guests as the College Inn. Who played there? Everyone. According to the Texas State Historical Association the list included: Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Lowell Fulson, Errol Garner, Woody Herman, Al Hibbler, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Billie Holiday, the original Ink Spots, Louis Jordan, B. B. King, Andy Kirk, George E. Lee, Pigmeat Markham, Bennie Moten, Red Nichols and His Five Pennies, the Andrews Sisters, King Oliver, Buddy Rich, Art Tatum and Sarah Vaughn. While the hotel catered to African-Americans, plenty of white musicians were welcomed there for late night jams.

Yeah, you shoulda been there.

The hotel changed hands several times and during the early 1950s the place was renamed the “New Jim Hotel.” In 1964 the structure was razed to make room for a freeway. A ramp, driveway, and parking lot now occupy the site where black–white crossover music found a foothold in segregated Fort Worth, according to the historical association.

You can catch a glimpse of that time in Fort Worth Intermodal Transportation Center’s main building. In 2001 the Fort Worth Historic Exhibit Committee approved the construction of a tribute to east downtown Fort Worth’s black-owned business district. A bas-relief by Denton sculptor Paula Blincoe Collins depicts McDonald and the Jim Hotel.

But where’s the music? Man, when Elon Musk invents the time machine, I’m going back there to check it out.

Robert Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.

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Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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