By Cady Berardi
This article first appeared in the 2016 Circa magazine
Ever since the motor vehicle was popularized in the first decades of the 20th century, the family road trip has been a North American tradition. The increasing affordability of cars, the rapidly expanding network of highways and the appearance of motels (“Motor Hotels”) helped to bolster this method of travel. Families could consult paperback guide books to get information on the best places to sleep, eat and go sightseeing. But this information was not complete for some travellers.
In the United States, this same time period was also characterized by the pervasive, institutional racial segregation and subjugation of Black people, both through codified laws (called Jim Crow laws in the Southern states) and unwritten (but violently enforced) social conventions. While a Black family would know the places in their own area where they were welcome to patronize, they would have no such knowledge of the places farther afield through which they were travelling.
Every stop was a potential minefield; the penalty for unwittingly entering an unfriendly establishment could be embarrassment, harassment or even death. George Schuyler reported in 1943, "Many colored families have motored all across the United States without being able to secure overnight accommodations at a single tourist camp or hotel." Black travellers would plan ahead by packing their own meals and bringing their own gasoline. Some even resorted to keeping a bucket in their trunk because they could not be certain that they would find somewhere that would allow them to use the bathroom facilities.
As the numbers of middle-class Black car owners increased, the demand for a travel guide that would inform them of safe locations became of paramount importance. In 1932, a New York City postal worker and World War I veteran named Victor H. Green saw this need and resolved to publish such a guidebook. He solicited his information from his readers, initially offering a dollar for every location they submitted, and from his fellow postal workers across the U.S. His guidebook was called The Negro Motorist Green Book, named after both himself and the colour of the cover, but was often just called “The Green Book”.
The Green Book was published from 1936 to 1966, with a break from 1940-46 during World War II. While its existence was little known outside of Black communities, it was considered an essential purchase for Black families who wished to travel. Originally covering only the New York City metropolitan area, it eventually covered facilities in most of the United States and parts of Canada (primarily Montreal), Mexico and Bermuda. At its height, it eventually sold around 15,000 copies per year.
Over the course of its publishing run, six Niagara Falls accommodations were featured in the Green Book.
The earliest of these, first appearing in the 1955 edition, was Mrs. M. Newman’s tourist home at 1090 McRae Street. The operator of the accommodation, Margaret Newman, lived there with her husband, John, a scrap metal dealer who also worked from the home. With the research resources currently available, we don’t know if the Newman’s were Black, but many of those offering “tourist home” accommodations in the Green Book were. Today, the house is still standing and is currently in use as a Bed and Breakfast once more; not surprising for a home with five bedrooms with en suite bathrooms.
In the next edition, two more Niagara Falls properties were listed, having taken out paid advertisements: Maloney’s Guest House and the Ohio Motel.
Maloney’s Guest House, at 1058 McRae Street, was just up the street from the Newmans’. In fact, McRae Street had many similar tourist homes at this time, though these are the only two that appear in the Green Book. Their proximity to the tourist area of Niagara Falls afforded the residents, largely working class, an opportunity to supplement their incomes by renting rooms to visitors.
The Maloney’s were Lillian and her husband Joseph, who was a recently retired bus operator for the Niagara, St. Catharines and Toronto Railway. Though the guest house was a featured listing in every Green Book until 1962, it only seems to have been in operation in 1956. This seems, unfortunately, to be due to Lillian’s death— these accommodations were typically operated by the woman of the house. Joseph stayed in the home and re-married, but it does not appear that the guest house was still open for business.
The Ohio Motel was operated by Atila Toth, a Magyar (Hungarian) immigrant who came to Canada from Czechoslovakia in 1923 to work as a farm labourer. He farmed in Welland through the 1930s and 40s before moving to Niagara Falls. He applied for and received a license to open a motel in 1954, and operated the 25-room Ohio Motel until it was sold in 1977. Most recently, the motel operated as the Dutch Inn, which was torn down in 2013 to make way for a boutique strip mall.
Three larger, and more famous, Niagara Falls hotels were listed in the 1963-64 “International Edition” of the publication: Foxhead Motor Inn, Park Hotel and the Sheraton-Brock (misspelled “Breck”). Unlike those featured in earlier editions, these were all luxury properties operating on a large scale. That these prestige accommodations were being listed as friendly to Black patronage can perhaps be looked at as evidence of wider societal acceptance of civil rights.
The first of these, the Foxhead Motor Inn, stood on a site that has housed a hotel for more than 120 years. Appearing in various incarnations as the Parkside Inn, the Clifton Inn, The Inn, and the Sheraton-Foxhead Motor Inn, the site has been, since 2000, the location of the Sheraton on the Falls. Unfortunately for Green Book readers who wanted to stay at the Foxhead in 1964, the building was demolished that year and did not reopen until 1966.
The listing for the “Park Hotel” refers to the Park Motor Hotel, which was built by Harry Oakes in 1956. The Park Motor Hotel, later known as the Comfort Inn, was one of the first in Niagara to offer an indoor swimming pool. The building was demolished in 2015 to make way for new attractions and expansions on Clifton Hill.
The Sheraton-Brock Hotel, now the Crowne Plaza Niagara Falls-Fallsview Hotel, was built in 1929 as the Hotel General Brock and, over its lifetime, has also been called the Skyline Brock and Brock Plaza Hotel. As the first and perhaps most prominent luxury hotel in Niagara Falls, it has been host to guests such as Walt Disney, Shirley Temple, Jimmy Stewart, Princess Margaret and Queen Elizabeth. Most famously, Marilyn Monroe lived in Room 801 of this hotel in 1951, during the filming of Niagara.
Victor Green is one of the few business owners in history who has wanted a decrease in demand for his product. In the introduction of the 1949 Green Book he wrote, "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 as we please, and without embarrassment." Unfortunately, Green did not live to see that day. He remained editor of the Green Book until his death in 1960, after which his wife Alma took up the post. After the Civil Rights Act was passed in the United States in 1964, discrimination on the basis of race became illegal and the Green Book publishers decided to discontinue the guide.
After it ceased to be published, the Green Book suffered a long bout of obscurity and has only recently been “rediscovered” by academics who have used it to reconstruct the hidden webs of relation that constituted “Black America” during the Jim Crow era. Those interested in learning more should look to the New York Public Library’s digitization of all the editions of the Green Book.