Zephyr Wright refused her boss’s request because she didn’t want to squat beside the road and pee.
Her boss was Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson, not yet the 36th president of the United States. Wright was his cook, a position she later held at the White House. Her husband Sam was his chauffeur. Planning to fly to his home state, Johnson asked the Wrights to drive his limo there ahead of him.
“Recipes from the President’s Kitchen,” a 2008 NPR article, attributes the following response to Wright:
“When Sammy and I drive to Texas . . . I am not allowed to go to the bathroom. I have to find a bush and squat. When it comes time to eat, we can’t go into restaurants. We have to eat out of a brown bag. And at night, Sammy sleeps in the front of the car with the steering wheel around his neck, while I sleep in the back. We are not going to do it again.”
In the years before Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, African-Americans on road trips faced worse things than embarrassment. The dangers of “driving while black” are as old as driving and cops weren’t always the greatest threat.
“People,” wrote novelist, essayist, and journalist John A. Williams in 1964, “have a way of disappearing on the road.” By people, he meant black ones like himself.
Williams was commissioned by Holiday magazine to drive across America “in a shiny white new station wagon” with “a fistful of credit cards.” The resulting essays became his 1965 book This is My Country Too (a title Williams hated).
In the 1960s, according to HuffPo journalist Kate Kelly, the US included over 10,000 “sundown towns” that were “whites only” after dark. (North Carolina’s included Carrboro, Pine Bluff, and Southern Pines). Even in areas that allowed black people to remain after dark, most hotels, gas stations and restaurants refused them. Just stopping and asking, “do you serve Negroes?” could get a black traveler insulted, threatened, beaten, or killed.
On his 1964 trip, Williams said he carried “a shotgun, a road atlas and Travelguide, a listing of places in America where Negroes can stay without being embarrassed, insulted, or worse.” Published from 1947-57, this was a hipper and slicker competitor to the more popular and better-remembered publication informally known as “the Green Book.”
The Green Book started 11 years before Travelguide and lasted nine years longer. It first appeared in 1936 as The Negro Motorist Green Book, was renamed The Negro Traveler’s Green Book in 1956 and, in its 1966 final edition, dropped “Negro” to become Travelers’ Green Book. By then, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was making it obsolete.
Which is what its creator Victor Hugo Green had always wanted. In his introduction to the first edition, which focused on hotels in the New York metropolitan areas, Green wrote that he hoped for “a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published.” Green, who died in 1960, never saw that happen.
By the 1950s, the Green Book was covering facilities in most of the United States, as well as parts of Canada, Mexico and Bermuda. Much of its distribution was via Esso service stations, which welcomed black customers (and even franchise holders), and promoted the Green Book as enabling them to “go further with less anxiety.”
The North Carolina African American Heritage Commission project “Green Books’ ‘Oasis Spaces’: African American Travel in NC, 1936-1966” is presently documenting the over 300 North Carolina businesses listed in the Green Book during its three decades of publication. North Carolina State University public history doctoral student Lisa R. Withers is the project’s research historian.
“The position is an opportunity to work directly with community members to bring awareness of the African American lived experience during the Jim Crow Era,” Withers wrote in a recent email. “I hope this project can help bring attention to the role local communities across the state played in a national historical narrative and to remember those who helped African Americans travel safely through North Carolina.”
Withers has identified 36 Triad Green Book sites: 19 in Forsyth County and 17 in Guilford. The Forsyth locations, all demolished, were in Winston-Salem. The Guilford locations include five still-standing ones; three in Greensboro, one in High Point and one in Stokesdale.
The most famous is the Historic Magnolia House at 442 Gorrell St. in Greensboro, which has been restored as closely as possible to its condition in the days when its guest list included Ray Charles, Jackie Robinson, Ruth Brown, Satchel Page, Ike and Tina Turner, and James Baldwin. While no longer a hotel, it’s available for private events and corporate functions and serves Wednesday and Thursday dinners (walk-ins welcome) and Sunday brunches (reservations recommended). On Sunday nights, it hosts Magnolia’s Juke Joint, “an upscale dining and jazz jam experience,” from 6 to 9 p.m.
Built in 1889 by Daniel D. Debutts, the Magnolia House wasn’t listed in the Green Book until 1950. Much of its early 20th-century history remains obscure, but by the 1940s, it was the property of Nina Starr Plott, the widow of J.T. Plott. In 1949, Mrs. Plott sold the house to Arthur and Louise Gist, parents of Herman Gist, the state legislator and popular leader in Greensboro’s black community known, as his 1994 obituary in the News and Record noted, “for his swagger, biting wit and pointed orations.” The Gist family turned it into the Magnolia House Motel, and it was soon a stop on the circuit of R&B and Soul clubs that ran from Harlem and D.C. to Atlanta, Richmond and Jacksonville.
Sam Pass, who purchased the Magnolia in 1995 and began restoring it in 2007, is from the neighborhood. Born in 1950, he grew up around the corner from it on Martin Street. In the early ‘60s, he and his friends would walk down Gorrell to catch Sunday matinees at downtown cinemas like the Carolina and the Center.
“We’d pass the Magnolia with its fine marquee and its ‘No Vacancy’ sign,” he told me recently, “and gossip about whatever celebrity was staying there.”
Pass was working for FedEx when he acquired the property. “I wanted to do safety at the new hub they were building at the airport, but they took too long getting it open, so I retired and started working at A&T as an environmental science health and safety specialist, and now do that at Duke.”
Meanwhile, the Magnolia had fallen on hard times. It remained in business until 1979, but the end of segregation had turned it into a boarding house. “When people of color were allowed to stay at the so-called white hotels,” Pass told me, “the black-owned ones had a problem staying open, so they reverted to renting out single rooms on a weekly basis.”
It had been closed for almost 15 years when he bought it from Herman Gist’s widow Grace. “She couldn’t keep the street people out of it, plus he wasn’t here to help her with it, so she decided to get rid of it.”
Restoring it took a lot of work and money, which is why he wasn’t able to open it until 2012. “The Southwest corner of the roof was caving in from years of neglect.”
Another reason restoration took so long was that it was all on a custom basis. “We got a lot of help from people like John Baird at Baird Lumber Company. Brooks Lumber also worked with us, helping us mill out siding for the house. North Carolina Granite Corporation gave us 160 tons of granite rock. Preservation Greensboro gave us $5,000 to go to Architectural Salvage and pick out what we needed in antique merchandise, materials or supplies.”
He described his two biggest challenges as funding and time. “The house is not renovated, it’s totally restored, and it took a lot of sweat and a lot of stress.”
He said he’s now reached that sweet spot where he can mix business with pleasure.
“Magnolia House is used for special events like bridal showers or graduation events or parties. But we also do a juke joint series, something I kind of created where we do live entertainment, dinner and a show. On Friday, [May] 31, it’s a tribute to Luther Vandross and Aretha Franklin.”
That show will feature “some very talented young men from A&T” and four local vocalists, including La Tonya Wiley and Pass himself. “I’ve been doing it since I was about 3 years old. Kind of runs in the family.”
Just a couple of blocks from the Magnolia House stands another less-heralded Green Book site. Like the Magnolia, the end of segregation transformed it from a popular stop for performers on the Soul and R&B circuit to a boarding house. Unlike the Magnolia, it still is one and has been in continuous operation since its glory days.
This is the Plaza Manor (formerly the Plaza Manor Hotel) at 511 Martin St.
When I asked Elise Allison of the Greensboro Historical Museum about it, she put me in touch with Anita Steele, whose aunt Annie Lee Hill opened it with her first husband Donnie Edwards in 1950, then sold it to current owner James Siebert in 1984. Steele had already provided the Greensboro Historical Museum and the North Carolina African Heritage Commission’s Green Book Project with photos and articles relating to her aunt’s history with the Plaza Manor. After I spoke to her in early May, she gave the Historical Museum permission to share several of these materials with me.
The earliest was a clipping from the March 1950 Greensboro Daily News, announcing that construction was nearing completion on “a new residence-hotel for Negroes.” The clipping describes the hotel as a 22-room, steam-heated cement block structure owned and operated by Donnie Edwards and constructed by F. A. O’Briant.
Steele’s other documents include the first page of a 1978 article in Black Business Awareness, which Allison told me was a local publication with little record in library archives. The article describes how Hill got her start in business making and selling sandwiches to local cafes, then opened the plaza with her husband. According to the article, the Plaza’s guests included Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and the Harlem Globetrotters.
“That was my aunt’s first husband,” Steele told me in a phone conversation. “They started it together.”
Steele told me that her aunt was born sometime around 1906 and that she ran the hotel by herself after Edwards died in 1966. Her aunt remarried to Charlie Hill in 1971 but owned the hotel until its 1984 sale.
“She still called it a hotel, but it was a boarding house by then, as it was when I came to live with her in her house on Beech Street in 1978. I don’t remember the days of Louis Armstrong and the Harlem Globetrotters, that was well before my time, but I remember her talking about them.”
Steele described her aunt as “tough and strictly business when it came to conducting business,” but a woman who loved her family. “She didn’t have any children, but me and my mother’s seven other kids would visit with her all the time. We never realized how much history we were walking into when we came to call.”
With the help of Elon University’s collections archivist Libby Coyner, I found a clipping about one famous guest at the Plaza Manor. On June 6, 1961, the Burlington Daily Times-News carried on Page 9 the article “Greensboro Police Holding Singer on Narcotics Count.”
This was Willie Edward John, aka Little Willie John, arrested at the Plaza Manor by “the Greensboro Vice Squad and federal narcotics agents” after they allegedly found “30 grains of marijuana” in a matchbox in his closet.
John’s biggest hit “Fever,” which he recorded in 1956 for his debut album of the same title, was made even more famous by Peggy Lee’s 1958 cover. But his version sold over a million copies, and he hit the charts again with 1960’s “Sleep” and 1961’s “Take My Love.”
The 1963 edition of the Green Book, printed two years after John’s arrest and the year before Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, is prefaced with “Your Rights, Briefly Speaking.” This opening section lists the states that recently introduced laws to protect the civil rights of minorities. Thirty-one states are listed, but North Carolina is not one of them.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of