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The effort to identify and memorialize Virginia Green Book locations

The cover of the 1940 edition of the Green Book.
The cover of the 1940 edition of the Green Book.

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would add historic markers on sites listed in African American travel guides.

Sometimes a casual conversation turns into a big deal. That was what happened during some downtime in the House of Delegates, when members were hunkering around waiting for the governor to arrive for a speech. Delegate Jeion Ward of Hampton was recalling a hotel she remembers from her youth.

"Big stars, you know, they were stars to us," Ward remembers. "They would come down, and there was only one hotel that they could stay at the beach. But it was right down on the Bayshore end of the beach. But that was the one that was all the fun. It was fun."

She told Delegate Mike Mullin of Newport News that the hotel was listed in the Green Book, a 20th century travel guide for African Americans that gained some recent notoriety in a 2018 movie.

"And that place no longer exists. In fact, there's no record of it, but for the fact that I was actually having a conversation with Delegate Jeion Ward who mentioned to me that she and her whole family used to go to that hotel," Mullin says. "The history of that is already being quickly lost."

Del. Mike Mullin browses a 1940 edition of the Green Book on the floor of the House of Delegates.
Del. Mike Mullin browses a 1940 edition of the Green Book on the floor of the House of Delegates.

That last part is key. That old hotel no longer exists outside the pages of old copies of the Green Book. So Delegate Ward dug up an old 1940 edition of the Green Book and brought it to the House floor.

"Well let me see; where is the pages that I already had turned back," Ward asks.

She opens the book and points out the listing for Newport News. Some of the places are still around.

"One place in downtown Newport News is Pearly's Grill," she explains. "People still go there. People who are running for governor, you know, they sometimes will still stop by Pearly's."

Now, Pearly’s might still be around, but most of these places are long gone. And like that hotel, there’s no record that most of these places were ever there. Inspired by that casual conversation, Mullin introduced a bill to put up historical markers at all the locations mentioned in the Green Book as safe places for African Americans to stay.

"The history of being an African American in Virginia is a history of all Virginians," Mullin says. "In particular, you're talking about a history of people who are still alive today and yet somehow that history is already being lost."

For Ward, Mullin's bill offers the same lesson as the pages of the Green Book.

"What it shows you is resilience," she says. "We are going to find a way. We will find a way."

The first step in commemorating all these places will be to identify them all. The Negro Motorist Green Book, as it was called at the time, was in publication from the 30’s to the 60’s, and the Library of Virginia has no copies of any of the editions. Now, 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 will 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.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.