Audio on this page read by Benjamin Hunter
This historical tour is based on the Green Book, a directory created and published by New York postal carrier Victor Green and his wife Alma Green. The full name was “The Negro Motorist Green Book” and from 1936 through 1967 (with the exception of a wartime suspension of new editions between 1942 and 1946) the Greens compiled, published, and sold this national directory of businesses that would gladly accommodate African-American patrons.
The rampant discrimination of the times made the Green Book a necessity for Black travelers seeking safe passage to their destinations. The Green Book’s era of publication spans from the later years of the Great Depression to slightly beyond the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act. These directories also provide a historical record of businesses which played an important role in their time but are largely unknown today.
In this era, road trips gripped Americans’ imaginations as the country could now be explored by car rather than the set routes of railway tracks. The Green Book was small, intended to fit easily in the glovebox and be kept on hand. It featured a tagline on the front cover which said, “Carry your Green Book with you… you may need it!” This tagline referenced the book’s function of helping Black travelers find accommodations, but it also carried ominous overtones.
Travel outside or between large cities sometimes meant passing through "sundown towns", white towns with signs at the city limits telling travelers of color, “don’t let the sun go down on you here.” The potential for violence and intimidation from white bigots loomed large, and the Green Book offered safe harbor via the hotels and rooming houses listed in the directory. Even if threats and violence didn't occur on a given trip, for Black folks in this era, with travel came the constant risk of denial of service at hotels, restaurants, gas stations, restrooms, and more.
The first editions of the Green Book only covered the New York region, but it quickly expanded into a nationwide directory compiled through Victor Green’s connections at the United States Postal Service. His colleagues across the country helped gather listings for the directory in their respective cities.
The Green Book offers modern-day readers a glimpse of Black communities across the country, and a record of the venues where Black residents and visitors alike ate, drank, stayed, and were entertained over a 30-year period.
A hundred years ago, the Chinatown-International District was a primary point of entry to the city: it hosted two train stations and several cable car lines, and it was adjacent to the waterfront and to downtown. Much like today, the neighborhood served as a hub for transit and commerce.
Today we think of the Chinatown-International District as an Asian American neighborhood, and of the Central District and Madison Valley as historically Black neighborhoods. As local historian Esther Mumford notes in her book Calabash, “African Americans lived, and operated small businesses, in what is now the International District from the late 1880s [onward]. The businesses ranged from itinerant sandwich sellers to employment offices." Some of these early businesses had relocated to other neighborhoods by the time of the Green Book's publication, though some remained. Businesses featured in the Seattle Green Book Tour include Black-owned and -operated hotels, beauty parlors, barbershops, clubs, and more.
In the early 1900s, this area was home to Chinese, Japanese, Black, and Jewish communities, and a smaller number of other white people resided here as well. Next to the Chinatown neighborhood was a large neighborhood called Nihonmachi, or Japantown. By the 1920s a visible Filipinx community had formed in Seattle. Filipinx people were able to move to the U.S. mainland with fewer restrictions than people from other Asian countries because of the Philippines' status as a U.S. territory following the Spanish-American War, though they initally faced similar restrictions around property ownership and areas of residence. Over the following decades, the neighborhood became home to additional groups including Vietnamese and Hmong communities, and today, it includes Filipino Town and Little Saigon.
Yesler Way denoted a semi-official boundary, north of which was mostly restricted to white Christians through a combination of racist laws and policies affecting every facet of life. For the Black musicians' union, Yesler Way was the 'color line' imposed by the white musicians' union, AFM Local 76, which reserved the downtown and uptown venues for white musicians.
From a housing standpoint, racial restrictive covenants were added to the deeds of many homes to ensure that they could only be sold to white Christian families. The combination of federal 'redlining' lending policies (explained below), racial restrictive covenants, and city zoning laws instituted in 1923 meant that the Chinatown-International District and the Central District included residents from the many racial communities excluded from residing in white neighborhoods.
Census records from 10th and Jackson in 1920 list Chinese, Japanese, Black, white, and interracial households all in the same block. At that time, the neighboring Central District was the geographic center of Seattle's Jewish community. A synagogue built by one of the city's first Orthodox Jewish congregations is just up Yesler Way at 17th Avenue; today, it serves as the home of LANGSTON Seattle, an African-American cultural and performing arts space.
Neighborhood residents from diferent racial backgrounds also worked and socialized together, and collaborated artistically. For example, Al Smith, a Black photographer in Seattle who documented his community over an incredible 50-year span, was part of a Japanese camera club called the Kohga Club; he was the club's only non-Japanese member.
Filipinx musicians were closely connected to Seattle's jazz scene, forming their own jazz bands or playing in integrated Black and Filipinx bands.
An influential multi-racial organizing coalition called the Jackson Street Community Council formed here in the 1950s; Wing Luke was a member prior to his election as Seattle's first Asian American Councilmember.
Seattle’s neighborhoods have been shaped by discriminatory laws and practices wherein white people sought to reserve land and home ownership for whites only. Many of these acts reflected nationwide trends or were directly legislated by the federal government.
Locally and nationally, the legacies of these laws and practices persist in the racial wealth gap; in excessive policing; in the racist anti-Asian rhetoric and violence that has worsened during the pandemic; in our housing shortage and in gentrification pushing communities of color farther out of the city; in current policy decisions around which neighborhoods get upzoned to allow denser housing; and nearly every aspect of our lives. Their influence will continue to be felt until we as a nation, especially white communities, reckon with the systems of white supremacy, enslavement, and exclusion upon which the USA was founded, and commit to undoing these historical harms.
In some cases, migration was influenced by racist laws elsewhere: in neighboring Oregon, Black property ownership and even residence in the territory was outlawed; so too were interracial marriages. Neither law existed in Washington, which made it a more popular destination than Oregon for Black and interracial families migrating west. However, in both states, discrimination was common in places of public accommodation.
Last but not least, a different legal matter profoundly shaped this neighborhood’s history and how businesses flourished or withered: Prohibition, which was in effect in Washington much longer than the federal Prohibition period. We'll detail its impacts throughout the tour.
In the map above, the Central District is noted in red as 'Hazardous' and Rainer Valley is marked in yellow as 'Definitely declining'. Almost all of South Seattle is marked in red or yellow, except for areas along the waterfront in West Seattle and southeast Seattle.
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