Mapping the Black Road: Segregated Driving and the Indianapolis Roadside
In a 1936 study of life in segregated rural Georgia, Arthur Franklin Raper captured the anxiety posed by the African-American car and the political implications of African-American travel. Raper saw the roads as spaces in which White privilege was being undermined if not contested, noting that “only on automobiles on public roads do landlords and tenants and white people and Negroes of the Black Belt meet on the basis of equality. … [T]he tenant can go where he pleases on the public road, and after he gets twenty or thirty minutes from home he travels incognito and is subject to his own wishes.”
The story of segregation is often told in spaces that hosted civil rights confrontations: lunch counters, bus stations, and school steps are concrete spots where the denial of privilege was contested. Nevertheless, all public space was regulated, and Black movement inspired particularly neurotic fears. One White farmer interviewed by Arthur Raper “advocated that the cars be taken from the Negroes or that the county maintain two systems of roads, one for the whites and one for the Negroes!” Movement evoked freedom, independence, and agency outside White surveillance, so it inspired anxiety over more than a century: an uneasiness that African Americans were operating outside White control was shared by antebellum ideologues viewing the Underground Railroad, Northern cities witnessing the Great Migration, and Georgia farmers watching African-American cars on the public roadway.
Among the most fascinating artifacts of American segregation is Victor Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book, which charted a path across America for Black drivers between 1936 and 1966 (see the New York Public Library’s wonderful digitized collection). Green’s manual provided African Americans a guide to places travelers could secure accommodations, food, restroom access, and essential services that were routinely denied along the Jim Crow road. The Green Book provides an interesting geography of Black travelers’ refuge in segregated America (compare the interactive map of all the 1956 Green Book locations or the Mapping the Green Book blog). The Green Book is a fascinating guide to Black space, but it is perhaps equally compelling for its illumination of hidden codes and un-avowed privileges that remain largely unexamined today.
The Green Book’s enormous popularity reflected the increasing growth of car culture in African America as well as middle-class African-American ambitions if not affluence. Gretchen Sullivan Sorin’s 2009 dissertation on African-American travel in Jim Crow America underscores The Green Book’s focus on a readership that was sufficiently affluent to afford leisure travel. For wealthy African Americans, segregated rail cars, disagreeable roadside accommodations, and the dangers of life on the road underscored the limits of wealth in the face of racism.
Nevertheless, many of the social and material ambitions of the African-American middle class were shared well beyond the affluent, and over the 1940s and 1950 the family car and The Green Book would reach beyond a narrowly defined Black bourgeoisie to upwardly mobile and ambitious neighbors. By 1928 there were by one count 21.6 million passenger cars registered in the United States, roughly one for every six individuals (PDF here); John Henry Mueller’s 1928 dissertation on the car concluded that one in five American households already had a car. Despite the increasing number of cars, though, many people remained without family automobiles into the 1940s or later. For instance, a 1941 study of automobile consumption in the southeast in 1935-1936 found that 80 of 801 wage-earning Black households owned cars; of 171 professional or clerical workers’ households, 81 (just less than half) had an automobile.
In 1937 Victor Green published his first The Negro Motorist Green Book, a modest manual that focused on the New York City area. In the 1938 edition he had more widespread coverage of the country east of the Mississippi, and in 1939 locations throughout the country were included. Eventually at the peak of its popularity in the 1950’s the Green Book included locations throughout the country and a handful of international destinations as well.
In 1939, the first locations in Indiana were included, and they are relatively typical of the sorts of businesses that appeared in the Green Book. More entries were for Indianapolis than any other Indiana location, and they reveal the details of African-American consumer space in the Hoosier capital. Indianapolis was a crossroads for rail lines since the mid-19th century, and the city had an African-American community of restaurants, hotels, and businesses serving African Americans by the turn of the 20th century. Indianapolis lay along well-trafficked roadways reaching into Chicago, Gary, Michigan, and northern Indiana, so it was a convenient stopping point for Black motorists on leisure vacations, family trips, and business travel.
Five of the seven 1939 Indianapolis Green Book entries were for “tourist homes,” private houses with rooms available to travelers, but most of Indianapolis’ Green Book entries over a quarter-century were for restaurants. In 1939 two eateries were included in the Green Book, and one of the two sat at 510 Indiana Avenue, roughly a block from the well-traveled north-south North West Street. Identified in 1939 as “Hambric’s Café,” the restaurant was long managed by Elizabeth Lasley Hambric. Lizzie Lasley and her husband Arthur came to Indianapolis in 1914, and in 1920 he opened a restaurant on Indiana Avenue. After his death in 1927 Elizabeth and her sister Jennie Crabtree began to manage the “home cooking” restaurant Crabtree and Lasley at 510 Indiana Avenue.
Lasley married George Hambric in 1931, himself a restauranteur, and after their first appearance in the 1939 Green Book the couple had two entries as both Lasley’s Restaurant and Hambric’s Café in the 1940, 1941, and 1947 Green Books at the same 510 Indiana Avenue address (there are not digitized copies of the 1942-1946 Green Books). The Green Book listed Lasley’s alone from 1948 through 1957. George Hambric died in August, 1950, with his obituary identifying him as Manager of Lasley’s Home-Cooking Restaurant “for the past 15 years.” His wife died three weeks later, and her daughter Thelma managed the restaurant after her mother’s death. Lasley’s last appeared in the city directory and Green Book alike in 1957, when Thelma died.
Lasley’s was a local institution before the Green Book, but the nationally known travel guide probably did not hurt the restaurant’s popularity. When Elizabeth Lasley died in 1950, the Indianapolis Recorder recognized the venue had hosted many travelers, observing that the “Lasley Home Cooking Café which she operated became a mecca for many of the country’s notables of all classes while visiting this city.” The list of luminaries who had eaten at the establishment included “such theatrical and entertainment celebrities as Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Cab Calloway and numerous others. Political leaders included Oscar DePriest, Congressman William Dawson, [and] Robert R. Church.”
Indiana Avenue was home to many well-known venues that hosted nationally known African-American musicians, and Black musicians were reportedly among the most devoted users of the Green Book. Some of the Indiana Avenue venues appearing in the Green Book were managed by people who had traveled widely, including a few musicians. Perhaps the best examples were William and Margie Benbow, who opened the Stormy Weather Café in about 1943 at 319 Indiana Avenue. Run by two vaudeville veterans, the Stormy Weather appeared in the 1947-1951 Green Books. William Benbow also became the manager of the Log Cabin Supper Club in 1944, a venue that appeared in the 1947-1957 Green Books (it opened in 1939); he managed the Chief Club on Senate Avenue; he was President of the Rhumboogie Social Club (536 ½ Indiana Avenue); and he was a manager and emcee at the Cotton Club, which opened in 1931 but never appeared in the Green Book.
William Benbow began his career headlining minstrel, vaudeville, and musical troupes, and he would go on to become one of the best-known Southern vaudeville performers. In 1897 he joined the Old Virginia Cheroots tobacco company show performing the cakewalk. The cakewalk was an improvisational dance contest that became popular in the 1870s, was performed at the 1876 Centennial of the American Independence, and continued into the early 20th century. Cakewalk has sometimes been viewed as a sort of “reverse minstrelsy” originating with African-American performers whose dance was an over-exaggerated mimicry of White formal practice; nevertheless, it became popular among White audiences and dancers alike and was a staple of early 20th-century vaudeville.
After serving in the Spanish-American War Benbow managed a series of vaudeville troupes, including Benbow’s Minstrel’s (also known as William Benbow’s Old Plantation Minstrels); the Alabama Chocolate Drop Company (1909-1911); and Benbow and String beans (i.e., the vaudeville performer Butler “String beans” May). The troupes included the likes of Jelly Roll Morton, who indicated that the multi-talented Benbow “would do straight, blackface, dance, sing duets.”
Like many other Black travelers, Benbow’s troupes faced a host of everyday racist humiliations and some profoundly serious dangers that would later fuel the need for the Green Book among fellow Black travelers. In 1906, for instance, Jelly Roll Morton was part of a group of Benbow’s performers who escaped an attack after a show in Pine Hill, Alabama. Morton observed that “Will Benbow was the kind of fool that never thought anything was the matter that he couldn’t talk his way out of.” Morton himself witnessed two lynchings in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1908 and Greenwood, Mississippi a year later.
By 1927 Benbow had taken his “Black Bottom Follies” troupe to Cuba, Jamaica and Panama, and he eventually toured the Canal Zone and the Caribbean for much of 12 years. In June, 1928 the Indianapolis Recorder reported that the “Get Happy Revue” was in San Juan “headed by William Benbow and Margie Cohne [sic].” A month later William Benbow returned to New York City from Puerto Rico with Margie Cohen Benbow and one-year-old son Richard, providing a home address in Chicago. By 1935 the family had moved to Cincinnati, and after being briefly jailed in 1939 for a shooting (PDF here), he and Margie moved to Indianapolis by April, 1941.
Green Book travelers stopping for Benbow’s spectacular performances at the Log Cabin Club would have been greeted with a show that was perhaps not designed for mild-mannered travelers. In April, 1944 the Indianapolis Recorder celebrated that the club was “under the personal management of William Benbow, who is nationally known throughout the country as a topflight producer and promoter of theatrical productions,” and they noted that the Log Cabin was “currently presenting a sparkling floor show, [with] such outstanding performers as Bobby Lanay, strip tease dancer.” The Log Cabin had opened its doors at 524 Indiana Avenue in 1939, when it was touted as “a brand new modernistic tavern” that would “specialize in Barbecued meats.” Covered on its façade with logs and a neon sign, the first surviving Green Book with the Log Cabin came in 1947, appearing last in 1957 and standing vacant in 1958.
Indiana Avenue was famed for its jazz night clubs, but the Green Book largely avoided the Avenue’s rich night life. For most of the 1950’s the Green Book noted only three Indianapolis night clubs: the Savoy, the Blue Bird Inn, and the Blue Eagle Inn. The Savoy opened in November, 1947 at 1325 East 25th Street, first appearing in the Green Book in 1950 and last appearing in 1955. The eastside Savoy club was one of a handful of businesses in Indianapolis’ Black community managed by Jewish Americans. One of the Savoy’s two managers was Samuel Lawrence, who migrated to the United States as a two-year-old with his mother Deborah in August, 1906. Samuel and Deborah both were born in England, but her parents’ origins were identified as “Russia Poland,” and Samuel himself would eventually marry a Russian-born woman. When Samuel and his mother arrived in New York they were accompanied by her brother-in-law Morris Goldstein. The Russian-born Goldstein’s youngest son Ruby (Reuben) was Samuel Lawrence’s partner in the Savoy when it opened, but he was no longer managing the tavern by 1951. Samuel Lawrence, in contrast, continued to manage the Savoy until he retired in 1975. The club held events until at least late 1974, well after the Green Book had ceased publication.
The Blue Eagle Inn also was owned and managed by European immigrants, but unlike the Savoy the Blue Eagle sat in the heart of the Avenue. The Blue Eagle appeared in the Green Book between 1947 and 1963, but it opened in October, 1933. Its first owner and manager was Joe Sarbinoff, a Bulgarian immigrant who arrived in New York City in 1914 as Pande Sarbinoff. Sarbinoff managed a billiards hall and restaurant on Washington Street in the mid-1920’s, where he was twice arrested for liquor law violations by the prohibition police. The Indianapolis Recorder noted in 1933 that the Blue Eagle was among the Indiana Avenue venues opening in the immediate wake of Prohibition “to do a thriving wine, whisky and song business.”
The Blue Eagle sat at the corner of Indiana Avenue and California Street, offering up “sandwiches, chili, and chop suey” roughly a block from the main north-south thoroughfare of North West Street. The tavern’s advertisements featured a “special Bulgarian hot stew” until December, 1957. Within a year of opening Sarbinoff was operating the tavern with Greek immigrant Vasel Christ, who managed the space until 1960, when the club moved to 701 Indiana, remaining there until 1971 (after which it became Billy Mac’s Lounge).
In addition to the Blue Eagle’s Bulgarian offerings, Green Book diners stopping in Indianapolis could choose from a host of cuisine. Certainly no food was more common than barbeque, which was offered up in a number of places like Green’s Barbecue Castle (in the 1947-1948 Green Books). James and Rosetta Green’s barbecue restaurant opened in the early 1940’s, though in December, 1944 Rosetta stabbed her husband with a smoking pipe; the consummate business person, James “Green delayed going to the City Hospital for more than an hour, the pipe stem still sticking from his skull just above the left eye, while he attended to the business of securing provisions for the Barb-B-Cue restaurant which he operates at 701 Indiana Avenue.” The Greens apparently reconciled and ran the barbecue together several more years. Yee Lie Sen’s restaurant at 545 Indiana Avenue was one of a handful of Green Book venues offering up chop suey (as did Blue Eagle Inn and the Oriental Café).
The close relationships among African-American restaurateurs are illuminated by the Green Book. Barbara Edelen’s daughters Ella Crabtree, Lizzie Lasley Hambric, and Ophelia Welch Herron all ran long-lived restaurants along Indiana Avenue, and their brother Aratha worked at some of the same places. One of these restaurants, the Mayes Café, appeared in the 1939 Green Book. Susanna Mayes began operating a restaurant at 503 Indiana Avenue with her husband James in about 1919, and he had a neighboring barber shop until his death in 1938.
By 1943 Susanna Mayes was living at the property but the restaurant was managed by one of Catherin Edelen’s daughters, Ophelia Welch. Her sister Ella Crabtree joined Ophelia running the café into the late 1950’s. Susanna Mayes died in 1945, and while Ophelia Welch and Ella Crabtree managed it as the Royal Grill the Green Book continued to list it as the Mayes Cafe until its final appearance in the 1955 Green Book. Welch married Freeman Herron in 1955, and in 1957 Ophelia Welch Herron owned and managed the Panama Tavern Restaurant, the Speedway Restaurant, and the Royal Grill. The Mayes Café and its successor the Royal Grill were among the longest-living businesses on Indiana Avenue, with the Royal Grill in operation until its last appearance in the city directory in 1981.
More Indianapolis entries appeared in the Green Book in the mid-1950’s than any other moment. In the waning moments of Jim Crow segregation, the popular Green Book continued to have a practical value to many travelers, and the simultaneous expansion of car culture put ever-more travelers on the road. But the 1954 Brown versus Board of Education verdict striking down separate-but-equal facilities spelled the gradual decline of Jim Crow travel. While shifts in roadside equality eventually doomed the Green Book, the African-American Indianapolis neighborhoods it once focused on were transforming quite dramatically. By 1960 fair housing practices allowed increasingly more African Americans to move into other neighborhoods, and urban renewal took aim on the neighbors left behind, effacing many of the neighborhoods that had flourished for more than a half-century.
Increasingly more scholars have begun to examine the Green Book as a mirror for the realities of life lived along the color line in the most public of spaces. The highway would seem entirely outside racism, yet it was for that very reason that so many White observers were wary of Black drivers and travelers. The Green Book provided a distinctive literal and symbolic road map to Jim Crow America, charting both the ambitious reach of racism as well as the persistent resistance from African-American entrepreneurs seeking to make their little consumer spaces refuges from racism.
Myra B. Young Armstead
2005 Revisiting Hotels and Other Lodgings: American Tourist Spaces through the Lens of Black Pleasure-Travelers, 1880-1950. The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts 25:136-159. (subscription access)
The Carolina Times
1937 Travel Expert Sees Advance in Business. The Carolina Times 24 July:3.
1936 Guide for Motorists. The Crisis 43(7):221.
Michael Ra-Shon Hall
2014 The Negro Traveller’s guide to a Jim Crow South: negotiating racialized landscapes during a dark period in United States cultural history, 1936–1967. Postcolonial Studies 17(3):307-319. (subscription access)
2010 The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock n’ Roll. Norton, New York.
Day Monroe, Dorothy S. Brady, June F. Constantine, and Karl L. Benson
1941 Family Expenditures for Automobile and Other Transportation, Five Regions. Miscellaneous Publication No 415, United State Department of Agriculture. The Bureau of Home Economics, Washington, D.C.
1928 The automobile: A sociological study. PhD Dissertation, The University of Chicago.
Bernard L. Peterson
1997 African American Theatre Directory, 1816-1960: A Comprehensive Guide to Early Black Theatre Organizations, Companies, Theatres, and Performing Groups. Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut.
2013 Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.
Arthur Franklin Raper
1936 Preface to Peasantry: A Tale of Two Black Belt Counties. 2005 Edition. University of South Carolina Press, Columbia.
2006 “So That We as a Race Might Have Something Authentic to Travel By”: African American Automobility and Cold-War Liberalism. American Quarterly 58(4): 1091-1117. (subscription access)
Gretchen Sullivan Sorin
2009 “Keep going”: African Americans on the road in the era of Jim Crow. PhD Dissertation, State University of New York at Albany.
Thomas J. Sugrue
ND Driving While Black: The Car and Race Relations in Modern America. Unpublished online paper, Automobile in American Life and Society.
David Leander Williams
2014 Indianapolis Jazz: The Masters, legends and Legacy of Indiana Avenue. The History Press, Charleston, South Carolina.
Amy H. Wilson
1996 The Swing Era on Indiana Avenue: A Cultural History of Indianapolis’ African-American Jazz Scene, 1933-1950. Master’s Thesis, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis.
1929 Consumption and the Standard of Living. In Recent Economic Changes in the United States, Volumes 1 and 2, eds. Committee on Recent Economic Changes of the President’s Conference on Unemployment, pp.13-78.
Clifford M. Zierer
1922 Geography and the Automobile. The Journal of Geography 21(5):190-198.
1956 Negro Traveler’s Green Book image from University of South Carolina Digital Collections Library
Indianapolis Recorder images are taken from the Indianapolis Recorder Collection, IUPUI University Library’s Center for Digital Scholarship.