The Legacy of The Green Book in a slave trading center
As the smallest state in the nation, it is not surprising to find that Rhode Island had relatively few Green Book listings, a total of 24 for the publication's entire run. The sites clustered in the state's two major cities, Newport and Providence, with the very minor exception of the Orchard House in Westerly, listed only in 1957. Newport had eight sites, while Providence had fifteen.
On the one hand, given the state's small size and its proximity to other cities like Boston and Hartford, the number of sites is not surprising. But, on the other, in light of the state's long participation in the slave trade, it is. One would expect Rhode Island to be home to a relatively large population of African-Americans since its early days. But, according to the US Census, Newport's African-American population never reached more than 8.5% and Providence's was never higher than 15%.
Despite these figures, Rhode Island's African-American population was increasing between 1930 and 1960, precisely the years that The Green Book was in operation. In Providence, the African-American population rose from 2.2% in 1930 to 8.9% in 1970. Newport's rose from 5.6% to 7.3% in that same interval.
Rhode Island was not without its twentieth-century racial strife. The KKK was active in rural parts of the state and the Watchman Institute, a school for African-American children founded to follow the educational theories of Booker T. Washington, was targeted several times in the 1920s and 1930s. Throughout the twentieth century, racial tensions between the state's African-Americans and other ethnic groups sometimes ran high. But in general, the state's prosperity during these years helped it avoid any major problems.
Rhode Island's Green Book sites have a high rate of survival. About half are still standing, 4 of 8 in Newport and 7 of 15 in Providence. Relative to other states, this is remarkable. In contrast to other areas, there is no single factor accounting for those that have been lost. In Newport, for example, the four houses were replaced with new construction, a new police department, a park, and a public housing development. The sites lost in Providence have similar explanations.
Between its small number of listings and their high level of survival, Rhode Island's Green Book sites are ripe for a close analysis. Research from census data, city directories, deeds, and other public sources have highlighted how ephemeral and changing The Green Book sites often were. This recaptured history also yields insight into what it might have been like for those running the sites, and those using their services. It is a fascinating tale.
Twentieth-century Providence bustled with all types of commercial and industrial activity. The city had strong foundations in textile manufacture and banking from its early days as an eighteenth-century center for shipping. These activities reached a height between 1890 and 1920, creating significant demand for immigrant and African-American labor. By 1920, just as the Biltmore Hotel was being constructed, Providence was one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country.
After the Great Depression, as the textile industry began to wane, several new industries developed and helped keep the city relatively prosperous. Paradoxically, jewelry manufacturing expanded and diversified during the Great Depression, as demand for costume jewelry and related commodities, like cigarette lighters, wristwatches, and metal bands/bracelets, increased. Jewelry manufacturers and silversmiths, who included the Gorham Manufacturing Company, occupied a major portion of the city around Friendship St., and, over the course of the twentieth century, expanded to areas around Chestnut St. between Clifford St. and South St.
These activities made Providence a travel and a work destination for African-Americans. The city's Green Book listings reflect that diversity. Among the fifteen sites listed, there are three hotels, five tourist homes, four beauty parlors, a restaurant, a tavern, and an automotive service station. Several of the sites clustered around the intersection of Benefit St. and North Main St. Listings in this part of town included Dinah's Tourist Home, the Hines Tourist Home, and Lucille's Beauty Parlor, all on a single block of North Main St., Marie Wells Beauty Parlor and the W.W. Joyce Tourist Home on Benefit St., and the Retlaw Tourist Home and B. Boyd's Beauty Parlor on nearby Camp St. Another cluster was located on Meeting St. to the south.
The sites outside these clusters suggest that some Green Book listings catered to existing populations, rather than to travelers. Geraldine's Beauty Parlor, on Thurbers Ave., for example, was located across the street from the Roger Williams Housing Development, an early clearance project. George's Service Station was likewise removed from the center of town. These sites reveal Providence's African-American community as far more diverse, and far more active, than most people think.
Relative to its Gilded Age prosperity, twentieth-century Newport was very quiet. One significant challenge to visiting Newport was transportation. The Fall River Railroad, which brought visitors to the northern part of the city, went bankrupt in 1937, followed not long after by the Old Colony Railroad. With the construction of the Pell Bridge yet to come in 1969, getting to the city required taking the ferry from Jamestown. As a result, once the resort era passed, Newport remained only a minor travel destination.
It was, however, a good destination for work. In the early years of the century, the US Navy stepped up its presence in Newport and constructed a new base in the northern part of the city. Following this action, several military-related industries were established in the city, the major part of which revolved around torpedo manufacturing. Then, during the 1950s, the Naval Station was expanded to accommodate Cruiser-Destroyer Force ships, and made CDF headquarters in 1962. All of this activity created a significant number of working-class and manufacturing jobs that appealed to African-American laborers.
Newport's Green Book listings reflect these realities. Aside from The Glover Hotel, a three story apartment-like block, all the entries were tourist homes located in private houses. There were no listings for restaurants, service stations, salons, or other businesses that might support African-American travelers. African-Americans did not travel to Newport for pleasure. They travelled to join the community. All they needed was a point of entry—a place to live.
Yet, to see Newport through the lens of "less" is to sell its African-American community short. Oral histories suggest that "places would be found" for African-American travelers who arrived at one of The Green Book sites. Directions would be given and safety ensured through word of mouth. Newporters would take care of their own.