Prior to the demise of the Jim Crow law brought forth by the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, journeying across America proved to be extremely difficult and often dangerous for African American travelers. Victor Hugo Green, a black New York postal worker, created the Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide that mapped out black-friendly businesses.
Published from 1936 to 1967, the Green Book became an indispensable reference for black motorists traveling throughout the segregated South and all-white Sundown Town municipalities along the Route 66 cross-country highway. Complete with a vast network of black-friendly businesses ranging from hotels, restaurants and gas stations to barbershops, beauty salons and tailors, it not only provided help in finding safe roadside amenities but it allowed people of color to travel with dignity.
Less than a quarter of the Green Book sites still stand today, only a few of those are motels. The following motels have a story worth telling.
The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee
Due to the historical part it played during a dark American era of lawful racial segregation, The Lorraine Motel is surely one of the most recognised of the Green Book sites. Located in the heart of Downtown Memphis, the property was first named the Windsor Hotel in the mid 1920’s then later became the Marquette Hotel. It was in 1945 that black entrepreneur Walter Bailey and his wife Loree Catherine Bailey purchased it, rechristening it the Lorraine Motel in honor of Loree and popular jazz standard ‘Sweet Lorraine’.
In addition to adding a second floor, extra rooms, and an outdoor swimming pool, the couple also built an integrated restaurant and a drive-up motor court, converting the hotel into an upscale all-in-one motel. At the height of its prevalence in the 1960s, it was considered one of the finest lodging destinations hosting African American travelers, activists, and entertainers alike. You could expect to see numerous public figures including Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole.
In the spring of 1968, during a trip to support a Memphis sanitation workers strike, Martin Luther King Jr. stayed at the Lorraine Motel. On April 4th 1968, the day after delivering his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, King was assassinated while standing on the balcony of Room 306. Loree Bailey suffered a stroke a few hours later, succumbing to the trauma a few days later. Walter Bailey continued to welcome guests after the horrific event but never rented Room 306 again. He declared bankruptcy in 1982.
Today, the Lorraine Motel is home to the National Civil Rights Museum following its acquisition by the Save The Lorraine organization, part of the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation. Now memorialized as the “King-Abernathy suite”, Room 306 has been reconstituted just as it was left on the day King died and can be viewed through a plexiglass window. Parked across are replicas of the white and lime green 1959 Dodge Royal and white 1968 Cadillac that were outside on that fatal day.
The A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham, Alabama
Aspiring to provide upscale accommodations to black visitors during Alabama’s tumultuous segregated epoch, African American businessman A. G. Gaston built his namesake motel and lounge in 1954.
At the time, The A. G. Gaston Motel was the only modern motel in the entire city of Birmingham that welcomed and accommodated people of color. It became a symbol of pride among the black community and ultimately acted as an unofficial headquarters for many civil rights groups and figures like Martin Luther King Jr.
The A.G. Motel has since closed its doors. The City of Birmingham currently owns the motel and plans to annex it to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
Fortunately, even to this day, the A.G. or Lorraine motels have not been demolished and will remain standing as important heritage Civil Rights sites.
Later editions of the Green Book included the following introduction:
“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.”
Other motels listed in the Negro Motorist Green Book
The Hayes Motel 960 E. Jefferson Blvd. Los Angeles, CA
The Aster Motel 2901 S Flower St, Los Angeles, CA
The Cactus Motor Lodge 1316 E Tucumcari Blvd, Tucumcari, NM
The De Anza Motor Lodge 4301 Central Ave NE, Albuquerque, NM