photo by Gerry Tetzlaff
UP Staffer Gerry Tetzlaff explores America’s past, with the Negro Motorist Green Book as his guide.
It’s 1950. The influence of Jim Crow laws stretches well beyond the post-slavery South. Traveling is rarely safe and never easy if you’re an African-American. Being refused service is more common than being welcomed at many, if not most, establishments throughout the U.S. Finding a place to stay away from home is incredibly difficult. AirBnB is still a ways away.
That’s where the the Negro Motorist Green Book comes in. First published in 1936, the Green Book lists safe havens in just about every major American city where African-American travelers wouldn’t be refused service. It includes everything from hotels and personal homes to hair salons, diners and auto shops.
The first edition covered the New York City metropolitan area. It was so well received that the following year’s edition was expanded to cover the entire U.S. and was published continually until 1967.
I track down a reproduced copy of a 1940s edition on Ebay, eager to discover what role the Midwest played in combating discrimination during the Jim Crow era. But I am especially interested to see what parts of this history are still around today.
When my copy arrives in the mail, I begin searching for the properties listed both in county property records and on Google Maps. I start near my home in Des Moines and fan out from there. I don’t have to look far. Exactly two hours west on I-80 is a hotbed of African-American culture and at least one surviving Green Book location. Eric Ewing, an African-American historian and executive director of the Great Plains Black History Museum, agrees to meet with me. I am headed to Omaha.
The museum itself is a piece of history. It’s situated on the first floor of the Jewell building, a 1920s-era building that once housed a jazz club — greats like Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole performed in the space. With jazz music running through my head, Ewing begins to tell me about the history of North Omaha and The Broadview Hotel, a property known to locals as “The Castle.”
Photo by Nate Sohn
The Broadview Hotel was featured in the first national Green Book and every edition that followed.
According to NorthOmahaHistory.com, The Broadview was owned and operated by Charles Trimble until the time of his death in 1959. Even after more than a century, the almost 9,000-square-foot home is captivating. This building has stood the tests of time, unlike many of its counterparts. And that is what makes my search so difficult.
The Green Book is full of locations in the Midwest. But as cities become more gentrified, the number of surviving locations decreases. My research reveals that many Green Book properties were just regular houses. And many of the listings have become either empty lots or new developments. This is the situation I am presented with in Des Moines.
I meet with local historian Laura Sadowsky to revive history, not just for my own edification, but to see how much of it still stands.
We try to find the properties listed in my copy of the book, but don’t have much luck. Most have been destroyed and one surprisingly has no official record of ever existing. Sadowsky wonders if perhaps the street name has a typo in it. But she keeps digging through Des Moines records. She helps me locate additional versions of The Green Book online, where we find a surprise. In the heart of downtown Des Moines, right across the street from the popular eatery Fong’s Pizza, is a well-preserved property: The Hotel Kirkwood.
Photos by Gerry Tetzlaff
Built in 1930, the art deco building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003 and now contains retail and residential spaces.
Standing in front of the Broadview Hotel, or in the lobby of the Kirkwood, holding the same book that others held decades ago, the story became more real to me. I’ve never been targeted when I’ve been on the road. An entire group of Americans had to pack a map and a Green Book when they were traveling. Here I stand feeling safe and secure. Others in history haven’t been so lucky.