Black travelers and families took road trips in the segregated South, knowing danger lurked in small towns where they weren’t welcome.
They dared not stop unless they spotted the “colored” signs. Long trips seemed even longer. They couldn’t use many public restrooms or refuel at white-only diners or truck stops. Black travelers toted brown bag lunches with cold chicken, pie or last night’s leftovers.
If only there was a road map to help, thought Victor H. Green, a black postal worker in New York City’s Harlem.
In 1937, Green published “The Negro Motorist Green Book.” After consulting with a legion of fellow carriers and inspired by a similar effort by Jewish travelers, he assembled the subscription-based guide on black-friendly businesses, hotels and restaurants.
Just 15 pages long, it was a godsend. By 1967, the final year it was published, the guide spanned 99 pages and included golf courses, beauty salons, night clubs and state parks.
Fast forward 50 years. At Sunday’s Academy Awards the critically acclaimed movie, “The Green Book,” based on the guide, will be up for five Oscars, including Best Picture.
James “Jack” Hadley doesn’t need to see the movie to imagine what those days were like. He lived them.
At 82, he remembers the discomfort of having to drive without a break, 18 hours straight from Massachusetts home to Thomasville when he was in the Air Force. Back then, Hadley didn’t know about the Green Book. He wishes he had.
It wasn’t until two years ago that the curator of his namesake Jack Hadley Black History Museum learned of the Green Book. A year later, he discovered one of its noted safe havens: his hometown’s black-owned and operated Imperial Hotel. It was the only one of its kind in the region at the time.
Now Hadley is on a mission to use what time he has left to restore and preserve the Imperial’s legacy.
“It’s like a gift dropped in my hands,” he said. “But it comes with a big responsibility to be able to get this thing right.”
A welcome place
The masonry facade didn’t age well. The Imperial Hotel is stained by dirt and grime. Located at 738 W. Jackson St., it’s in great disrepair. Water and termite damage ravaged the interior.
In its heyday, the Imperial Hotel was a jewel to blacks. Children played in a nearby ditch and watched the parade of travelers pulling up in Cadillacs and Buicks. The Imperial Hotel welcomed black musicians on the Chitlin’ Circuit with open arms. Big names stayed there: Blues icon B.B. King, R&B group the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and saxophonist Earl Bostic, among others.
The two-story hotel was owned by Harvey and Dorothy Lewis Thompson. Built by her five brothers, it first opened in 1949, and included a barber shop and a cafe. The Green Book listed the Imperial Hotel in 1954 and the hotel remained open about 15 more years.
Hadley leads a team of historians on a quest to raise $1 million to restore and repurpose the landmark hotel for the next generation.
The idea is to convert the first floor into a satellite site for Hadley’s museum, which was advised to relocate to Thomasville’s downtown that is buzzing with boutiques and restaurants. The museum is working toward a business plan to cultivate concepts for the top floor. Options include an Airbnb, office space or a training center.
No matter which option is chosen, it must generate money to keep the doors open. That’s possible, museum officials believe, with downtown foot traffic from visitors. They hope the additional revenue stream will spill over into the flagship site on Alexander Street at the former campus of Douglass High School, a segregated black school that operated from 1902 to 1970 in the town’s Dewey City Community.
“You can go to some communities, and there’s no pull at all to do stuff like this,” Hadley said. “But Thomasville is playing its part.”
As of last week, the museum had raised an estimated $150,000 from cash, grants and financial commitments. The team already has spent $60,000 to purchase the hotel and adjacent shotgun house in April, with help from the Williams Family Foundation, Thomasville Landmarks, Inc. and The Thomas M. & Irene B. Kirbo Charitable Foundation.
The roof is now being replaced but the long road to resurrect the Imperial lies ahead.
Man behind the mission
Hadley, in his twilight, hopes he’s up for the challenge. His personal experience speaks to the importance of the effort.
The 10th of 14 children, he grew up on Pebble Hill Plantation. His grandfather was a slave, who woke up every morning to the blaring sound of a bullhorn blown by the plantation’s master, Simon Hadley Sr., one of the founders of the county.
In the 1960s, the historian remembers driving his family from Thomasville to Dallas. He was with his expecting wife and daughters ages 3 and 4. After 13 hours, they arrived and the girls were hungry. Hadley, in the Air Force, happened upon a restaurant. The owner was white and didn’t allow the black family to enter. He let them go around back and eat in the kitchen.
“I didn’t have a choice,” he said, remembering the shame.
His youngest, asked, “Why do we have to eat in the kitchen?”
How could he explain racism to his little one, he thought. The right words didn’t come easily. He shooed the question away, but still feels the sting of that day.
“When I think about it, I bubble up inside how I went through all of this stress,” said Hadley, who worked for the Postal Service after the military. “How we, as a people, weren’t given an opportunity to live and sleep any place we wanted to. In the military, you could do it. But once you got outside those gates, it was a whole different story.”
So much black history in America is lost, Hadley said. His museum, founded in 1995 with 100 pieces, was created to rescue some of that past. It’s now plastered with more than 5,000 pieces and 4,000 books, and he has a 700-piece traveling exhibit in storage.
School children who enter the museum often say, “Wow.” He lives for that.
His all-consuming effort to save the Imperial is a part of that legacy. He stops short of crying when he thinks about the historic significance of the hotel, the Green Book and the movie hurling it and Thomasville onto a national stage.
“I try to be calm and cool about it,” he confessed. But he can’t.
A call for action
While he didn’t know of the Green Book until recently, Hadley knew the Imperial Hotel, which he listed in his Thomasville black history heritage guide. In high school, he delivered the New Pittsburgh Courier, a weekly black-owned newspaper, and Ebony and Jet magazines to the hotel.
Hadley’s museum staff are trying to piece together the hotel’s history, such as the names of the barber shop and the cafe, which are lost to time. The museum hopes to get the Imperial Hotel listed on a national historic registry.
On Thursday, the public shared memories of the hotel and helped identify people in pictures discovered by relatives of Dorothy Lewis. Elizabeth Elzy grabbed the cordless microphone and filled in gaps.
The Imperial Hotel and her teenage years went hand-in-hand. The 63-year-old and her friends hung out with the owners and their siblings. She lived a few blocks away and going to the Imperial was part of her childhood.
“Attention should have been given to it a long time ago,” said Elzy, a lifelong resident. “It was the only place we had to stay.”
Lindsay Battle, 63, another Thomasville native, was one of those neighborhood boys who played in the ditch by the hotel.
“That place brings back memories for me, because it was a safe place for black people,” Battle said. “It was the only place they could hide.”
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SOURCE: Tallahassee Democrat, by TaMaryn Waters