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On April 15, 1940, 21-year-old Irene Orkin was one of thousands of census workers across the United States who took part in conducting the decennial national count. Orkin knocked on James and Frances Lewis’ door at 816 S. Butler St. in Lansing and gathered information on everyone staying in the house.
The Lewises had overnight guests — Cornelius Henderson, John Wittker and a man named Maurice, whose last name is not legible on the census form — a trio of Michigan Highway Dept. engineers, all of them college graduates based in Detroit. They were probably in Lansing on business.
You would expect three college educated state employees in Lansing on business to stay in a hotel. Instead, they stayed in a private home listed in the Negro Motorists’ Green Book.
Why? In the mid-20th century, over-the-top advertising was everywhere in America, but the Negro Motorists’ Green Book sold itself with painful circumspection.
“Carry your Green Book with you,” the cover copy suggests, leaving almost everything important unspoken. “You may need it.”
The Green Book, a directory of places where African-American travelers could stay or do business “without aggravation,” was published from 1936 to 1966.
A new exhibit at the MSU Library maps out all 86 Detroit locations and five Lansing locations listed in nine editions of the Green Book. The exhibit is in the Map Library on the second floor of the library’s east wing. The exhibit also has replicas of a dozen Green Books and historic photos of many of the locations that were listed.
By the 1940s, the Green Book included every state, with listings in Canada and Mexico. At its height in 1947, it contained over 15,000 listings and expanded from living quarters to doctors, drug stores, liquor stores and public swimming pools.
The book evokes an era when American musical icon Nat King Cole could sing “get your kicks on Route 66,” but couldn’t stay at many hotels and motels along the way.
“It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication,” Green wrote in the introduction.
Using the Green Books and Sanborn fire insurance maps, MSU Head Map Librarian Kathleen Weessies created an online, interactive map of all the Detroit and Lansing locations listed in the Green Book. Where the streets no longer existed, she used old maps to find the places.
All but one of the six Lansing locations mapped out by Weessies are “Tourist homes” — the AirBnB’s of the time, private homes that offered rooms to travelers.
People running tourist homes often used names other than their own. Mabel Beverly at 1212 W. St. Joseph St. was listed as “M. Busher.” Vesta Dickson of 1220 W. St. Joseph St. was listed as “Mrs. Cook.”
All of the Lansing places listed in the Green Book are now parking lots belonging to General Motors or the Union Missionary Baptist Church. Most of the lost homes are close to I-496, but none of them were removed to make way for the freeway.
The 1940 Census gives us a snapshot of who was staying at the Lansing sites listed in that year’s Green Book. In addition to the three engineers staying with the Lewises on Butler Street, Mabel Beverly at 1212 W. St. Joseph St. hosted two lodgers from Lansing, a janitor and a porter. Vesta Dickson at 1220 St. Joseph had four in-laws (two couples) on a long-term stay. Katherine Gaines at 1406 Albert St. had two unrelated children living with her, also on a long-term stay.
The Green Books in the MSU exhibit are all reproductions.
“These kind of material is hugely collectible,” Weessies said. “If you could find one for sale, it would be, minimum, $15,000.”
Weessies created the exhibit, in part, to coincide with a visit from documentary filmmaker Yoruba Richen, who will visit campus Nov. 14 to give a bigger picture on the origins and significance of the Green Books and meet with members of the MSU student club, Supporting Women in Geography.
Richen’s documentary is full of home movies and personal stories of African-Americans navigating a hostile and segregated nation while enjoying newly mobile status in the auto age. It’s also the perfect antidote to the sanitized 2018 fictional film, “Green Book,” which drew widespread criticism as a feel-good fantasy focusing on white redemption.
The Richen documentary recounts that many public pools set aside one day a week for African-Americans to use — often, the day before the pool was cleaned.
A surprising supporter of the Green Book was the Esso Oil Co., credited as forward-thinking in its effort to reach out to African-Americans. The 1947 guide includes folksy remarks from two African-American Esso “Special Representatives,” Wendel (also spelled Wendall) P. Alston and James A. Jackson.
The only reference to segregated facilities in the South is couched in almost painfully poetic politesse:
“Much of the equipment for bathrooms, such as are commonplace today, were unknown where Negro travelers might stop,” Alston remarks. “It seems that the major bit of bathroom equipment could be found anywhere from fifty to a hundred feet down the yard and on the way, a grape arbor afforded the only shelter from storm.”
Exhibit: Mapping the Green Book in Detroit and Lansing
MSU Map Library (Main Library, Two East)
Documentary Film: “The Green Book: Guide to Freedom” w/ filmmaker Yoruba Richen
7 p.m. Thurs, Nov. 14
Wharton Center Pasant Theater