New London woman penned precursor to Green Book

A Niantic researcher has tracked down an interesting tidbit for local history buffs: The famed "Negro Motorist Green-Book" that helped African Americans survive Jim Crow America may have had its genesis in New London.

Tom Schuch, a former social services leader who grew up in New London, has been on the prowl for historical nuggets since his retirement, focusing on what he calls the region's "hidden history." About a year before the Academy Award-winning movie "Green Book" came out last year, he began researching places in New London that might have been listed in the pamphlet as serving people of color.

He was particularly intrigued about whether his father's former Sunoco station in New London would be listed, because he remembered serving African Americans there as a young man in the 1960s.

"We served everybody," Schuch said, addressing his father's business philosophy. "The only color he cared about was green."

Schuch never found a listing for his father's business, nor for any other gas station in New London, but he did discover something perhaps more intriguing.

In 1930, a few years before the Green Book made its appearance in the mid-1930s in New York City, New London resident Sarah D. "Sadie" Harrison had come out with a similar publication, initially titled Hackley & Harrison's Hotel and Apartment Guide for Colored Travelers, that listed only lodging establishments, unlike the more famous guide published later that also included hotels, bars, gas stations and more.

Harrison, a member of one of the most prominent Philadelphia families of color and an officer of the New London Negro Welfare Council, was living on Hempstead Street at the time and coincidentally had been contacted by famed black orator and writer W.E.B. Du Bois the previous year as he was searching for a "colored" boarding house in New London.

But by then, Schuch said, Harrison already had been researching her apartment guide, having contacted well-connected African-Americans across the country. Their efforts resulted in a guide, sold for only 50 cents, listing hundreds of lodging establishments in the United States and Canada.

"She was working on it before (Du Bois) contacted her," Schuch said. "He happened to write to her right when she was in the middle of compiling it."

According to an online source, 300 cities were represented in the Hackley & Harrison guide, which was published in Philadelphia. Edwin Henry Hackley, a prominent African American journalist and lawyer from Philadelphia, apparently bankrolled the project, and the first guide included a reproduction of Du Bois' letter to Harrison.

"Every single thing that Sadie Harrison has (in her guide) is in the Green Book," Schuch said during a "Recorded History" podcast available on theday.com. "The Green Book expands on it."

Schuch added, however, that there is no direct evidence indicating the Green Book was inspired by Harrison's earlier effort. Her guide was published for only two years, likely because of the death of her business partner.

Schuch noted that Harrison's pamphlet listed the same five tourist homes that later appeared in the Green Book's first edition. The Mohican Hotel and Crocker House also are listed in the Harrison guide, though there is a notation indicating these establishments were for whites only at the time.

It's unclear why the whites-only Mohican and Crocker House, both on State Street, were listed in a guide intended for African Americans to find lodging, but Schuch speculated that "under certain circumstances," perhaps for someone lighter skinned, travelers would be accommodated.

"Maybe she's saying it's worth a shot," he said.

Later, in 1960s editions of the Green Book, the Lighthouse Inn joined the Mohican and Crocker House on the list of places where African Americans could stay without trouble. By then, however, laws were starting to change, and by the mid-1960s, when discrimination in accommodations and other parts of life was made illegal due to the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, the Green Book ceased publication because it no longer was deemed necessary.

Still, Schuch said that those who provided housing for African Americans during the decades of discrimination deserve credit for being part of history.

"I have never seen anybody talk about this," he said. "And to me this is a huge story."

Many of the houses listed were tourist homes, essentially private houses with an extra room, often operated by older women to supplement their incomes.

He cited one woman, Eva Whittle, who appeared in both editions, offering African Americans lodging first at 785 Bank St. and later at 46 Hempstead St. continuously for almost 30 years.

Harrison, later known as Sadie Harrison Fulford, also offered up her home at 73 Hempstead St. for several years, and it was there where Du Bois stayed during his trip to New London in 1929, according to Schuch's research.

Other listings for the Harrison guide in New London included homes at 45 Shapley St. (no longer there), 20 Brewer St. and 88 Bank St., in the building where the Flavours of Life fair trade store now operates.

In addition, in the Green Book there was Boone's Beauty Shop at 96 Main St., now a parking lot, where tourists could stay upstairs.

"Every house has an interesting story," said Schuch, who revealed the local Green Book connection last spring during a panel presentation at Groton Public Library.

Coincidentally, Schuch learned just before the panel discussion that a 1955 listing for the beauty shop apartments happened to be the former residence of fellow panel member Spencer Lancaster, a beloved longtime manager at Linder Dodge. The apartment was his first residence after being discharged from the Army, he said.

The Green Book, started in the mid-1930s by mailman Victor Hugo Green in New York City as a guide printed in the few thousands, eventually became a national phenomenon, with reportedly up to 2 million copies in circulation at its height. And while many have equated the Green Book with the horrors of the Jim Crow South, Schuch said it's a lesson for those in the North who sometimes forget discrimination was a nationwide phenomenon.

"The Green Book is more than a travel guide," he said. "It's a survival guide for people of color."

Schuch said Green started his publication after taking a trip to the South and encountering what he charitably called "embarrassing situations." He equated such mistreatment with apartheid, the former South African policy of keeping the races separate.

"It was degrading, debasing, humiliating, racist ... dangerous," he said. "God forbid that you run out of gas on a dark road."

And that's why African-American travelers had to carry so-called Jim Crow kits, which included extra gas, food and a "pee can" in case they were refused access to a bathroom.

"You have to read between the lines; it tells a story," Schuch said of the Green Book. "It's a chronicle of midcentury America for people of color. It tells us a lot about ourselves and what kind of country existed at that time."

It was a place where Hattie McDaniel, the black actress who won an Oscar in 1940 for her role in the previous year's "Gone With the Wind," couldn't sit with the rest of the movie's cast, which included Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, because the Cocoanut Grove hotel in Los Angeles where the awards night was held had a strict whites-only policy. Producer David O. Selznick had to call in a favor just to get her a seat in the back of the room, and when McDaniel died a dozen years later, she couldn't be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery because of her skin color.

One of the Green Book references was to Jack’s Chicken Basket, which turned out to be owned, Schuch discovered, by former black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. He died in a 1946 car accident, according to accounts at the time, after driving off in a fury in North Carolina when he was refused service at a diner.

By contrast, the Green Book tells positive stories as well, including the fact that Esso gas stations offered franchises to African Americans. One of the stations Schuch found listed in New Orleans was owned by the grandfather of famed jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, he said.

To Schuch, the story of New London's claim as the possible progenitor of the Green Book, through its ties to the Hackley & Harrison guide, is one that should be remembered.

"It's an untold story," he said. "There are significant people who are heroes. And I would like to see them get some recognition. ... That started in New London, and that's something to be proud of."

l.howard@theday.com

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