How do you do historical research for a site few people previously considered historical? This was the question I was faced with when my program director at Preserve WV AmeriCorps, PAWV's national service initiative, put out a call for volunteers for a new project. The project centered around The Negro Motorist Green Book, a series of African-American travel guides published by Victor Hugo Green. The Green Books, as they were colloquially known, were published from 1936 to 1966. They listed locations for black travelers to eat, stay, and socialize without fear of complications or danger. Early editions of the Green Book contained places Victor Green knew of or had heard about through his travels as a New York City mailman. As the popularity of the guides grew, readers began submitting their own information; by 1949 the Green Book contained hundreds of entries spread across every contiguous state.
One complication to consider was changing addresses. Hotel Capehart in Welch initially had the address 14 Virginia Avenue, but the name of Virginia Avenue has been changed to Riverside Drive. Other locations moved from one site to another. Moss’s Garage in Beckley was located at 501 South Fayette Street for many years before moving to 135 South Fayette Street. Finally, one of the most common types of entry in the Green Book was private residences willing to rent a room. The homes of normal regular people rarely command attention or recognition, making finding these homes a tall order.
I employed several methods in my attempts to locate West Virginia’s Green Book sites. One helpful tool was comparing copies of the Green Book from different years to look for changes in address or operation. Historical city maps showing street names were similarly helpful when contrasted with modern ones. However, by far the most effective tool at my disposal was Google Maps. Beyond simply providing address information, the satellite imagery and street view technology were huge boons. Satellite imagery allowed me to check if a building was still standing, while street view let me see locations as if I were actually there. If the streetview of an address showed a modern office building, it was pretty safe to conclude that the Green Book site was demolished. Likewise, when the streetview showed a building that looked relatively older, it was often possible to use architectural clues to narrow down if the building was once a Green Book site. My work was primarily a broader overview that set the stage of other AmeriCorps members to dive deeper into the history of specific Green Book sites.
Iain MacKay is a West Virginia native and WVU graduate serving with Clio through Preserve WV AmeriCorps.
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