Introduction to the Green Book Self-Guided Tour

Welcome to Black & Tan Hall’s Seattle Green Book Self-Guided Tour!

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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.

Listen for these themes as we go along:

  • Migration & Railroads;
  • Black entrepreneurship;
  • Employment & Discrimination; and
  • Prohibition & the police payoff system.

Interconnections in the Chinatown-International District Neighborhood

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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.

Racist Restrictions on Immigration and Ownership

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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 1790, the US Congress passed the Nationality Act which granted only 'free white persons' a right to naturalize and established a designation of 'aliens ineligible for citizenships' which barred all other immigrants, as well as Native Americans, and Black people brought to the US against their will, from naturalizing and barred them from all rights which flowed from citizenship. By contrast, white immigrants could become citizens after just two years' residence in the US. The Naturalization Act of 1870 extended citizenship rights to African Americans, but not to Asian immigrants; Native Americans born in what's now the US were granted US citizenship in 1924.
  • The Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred all immigration from China, was passed in 1882 at the federal level. Several years prior, in 1875, the US had banned Chinese women from immigrating here. The Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943 by the Magnuson Act, which still imposed harsh quotas on Chinese immigration - just 105 people per year.
  • So-called 'Alien Land Laws' were passed in a number of states to bar anyone who was ineligible for citizenship from owning land; Washington’s law dates to 1886. These varied across the Western states which implemented them, and often went through several iterations in each state. These laws were finally ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1952.
  • Until 1940, Filipinx people were not able to own property either. That changed when a Filipino Seattleite named Pio de Cano challenged Washington's Alien Land Law’s applicability on the basis that Filipinx people were nationals, not aliens. Washington’s State Supreme Court agreed, and de Cano became Seattle’s first Filipino homeowner.
  • The neighborhood we today call the Chinatown-International District included an extensive area called Nihonmachi (Japantown) until federal Executive Order 9066 forced the removal and incarceration of Japanese American community members, who were dispossessed of their homes and businesses on a massive scale. We will discuss this further at our 12th and Jackson stop.
  • Redlining, in short, describes discriminatory lending practices which made it impossible to take out federally-insured home loans in neighborhoods where people of color resided. White families were given access to FHA loans to buy homes in majority-white areas, but Black families could not access those loans. This is a major contributor to household wealth disparities by race, which continue to grow and persist.
  • Redlining’s counterpart was the racial restrictive covenant, a clause added to property deeds which specified who was not allowed to buy that home. The covenants attempted to ensure that white neighborhoods remained white. These restrictive covenants only became unenforceable after the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
  • Zoning laws functioned as an additional layer shaping our city. Multi-family housing could be built anywhere in the city prior to 1923; today, 70 percent of Seattle is zoned only for single-family homes, which heavily concentrates the value of Seattle's land among homeowners of single-family residences, including in areas where racial restrictive covenants and redlining practices limited property ownership to white people for many decades.

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.

  • <p>A 1936 Kroll Map of Seattle overlaid with a map legend and color-coding showing the redlining practice of grading land value based on which racial groups lived there.</p>

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.

  • <p>Close-up view of the color-coding legend in the 1936 Kroll map.</p>

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