Traveling While Black in 1900s USA

UPDATE (10/29/2015) – Scroll to the bottom of this post for an interactive map.

The recent announcement that the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has digitized their Green Book collection is exciting news. Published between 1936 and 1966, these books provided a growing African American middle class with useful guides for navigating Jim Crow America. The digitization of these books reminds me of a 1942 Afro-American Travel Map that I came across a few weeks ago. This map conveys much of the same information as the Green Books.

1942 Travel Guide of African American-Friendly Hotels & Guest Houses

This map records the names and addresses for approximately 350 hotels, motels, guest houses, and other establishments that provided overnight housing for African Americans. Seeing all this tantalizing spatial information, I couldn’t resist geocoding it. For those who are unfamiliar with geographic information systems (GIS), geocoding refers to the process of assigning geographic coordinates to postal addresses. Geocoding a spreadhseet of addresses is fairly straightforward with QGIS, my preferred open source GIS.

Using QGIS's MMQGIS Plugin to Geocode Addresses
Using QGIS’s MMQGIS Plugin to Geocode Addresses

While entering the addresses into a spreadsheet is a time intensive process, it did allow me to check many of the addresses using Google Maps. Many of the addresses need to be adjusted or updated. The most common reason being that streets change names over time. For instance, several of the locations in Chicago list South Parkway as part of their address. Today, South Parkway is known as Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

The Grand Hotel on South Parkway, Chicao
The Former Grand Hotel on South Parkway, Chicago

These sorts of maps hold great promise for researchers and students interested in learning about African American history. They expand our knowledge of the variety of African American activities in the past. How many are aware of the Royal Breeze Hotel at the Woodland Park Resort in Bitely, Michigan? The history of Woodland Park is fascinating. It was founded as an African American resort in 1921 and the Royal Breeze Hotel opened its doors two years later. It looks like a great place to stay with a beautiful lakeside view, but unfortunately the Royal Breeze is no longer standing, having burned down years ago.

Exterior of the Royal Breeze Hotel, Woodland Park, Michigan
Exterior of the Royal Breeze Hotel, Woodland Park, Michigan

Another aspect of this map (and the Green Books above) which catches my attention is the practice by many African Americans of opening their homes to travelers. Whereas the historian in me really enjoys learning about these places, the archaeologist in me wonders about the material culture of a mid-20th century African American guest house. This map helps point us to some possible sites for examining these topics. The sad reality is that many of these structures – in use 50-60 years ago – are no longer standing, presumably victims of the same gentrifying forces responsible for displacing countless African American communities. Fortunately, in a few locations the structures appear to be intact.

842 North Florida Ave Lakeland, FL and 3 Boynton St Swampscott, MA.
Top: The empty lot at 842 North Florida Ave, Lakeland, FL, formerly Mrs. Davis’ guest house. Bottom: Location of the Allen House (built ~1890s) at 3 Boynton St., Swampscott, MA.

There are numerous potentials for historic documents like the Green Book series and the Afro American Travel Map. These possibilities reflect a growing interest in researching African American travel during Jim Crow. While these guides and maps are often associated with the acquisition of cars by African Americans, I can’t help but wonder if many places were located near highways and major railroads. Did many of these locations offer both middle class and working class African Americans a safe place to stay while traveling. These are the sorts of questions we can answer by exploring various forms of spatial analysis (e.g., distance analysis) and new digital history resources. We now have access to the 1940 census!

Comparing Map Locations with Railroads
Comparing Map Locations with Railroads

Other projects have taken information from the Green Books and mapped them. The University of South Carolina Library’s Digital Collections has provided an interactive display of locations from the 1956 Green Book. I am also currently working on mapping all the Green Book locations for the state of Florida between 1936 and 1966 (the complete run of the series). Once completed, this dataset will allow me to visualize the average length of operation for different types of establishment (e.g., hotel, guest house), analyze their locations in reference to other social factors, and forms of analysis I’ve not even thought of yet. Stay tuned, it’ll be exciting stuff!

In regards to the 1942 Afro American Travel Map, I still have to check some of the addresses, and a few will require mapping their locations by hand. At present, I have mapped 348 of the 352 locations on the map. Once I’ve checked the few remaining addresses I’ll make the data available via this website. Watch for updates via Twitter.

Thanks for reading,

A final image! Points Superimposed over a georeferenced version of the Afro American Travel Map.
A final image! Points Superimposed over a georeferenced version of the Afro American Travel Map.

UPDATE – Explore the data yourself below. If you find errors, feel free to contact me.

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