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The 'Green Book' Guided Black Travelers Through Jim Crow America (And to L.A.)

The Green Book
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How would African-Americans heading west in the 1930s and ‘40s find a safe place to swing? Where could they locate not just entertainment but refuge? They might look up Los Angeles in Victor Green’s “Negro Motorist Green Book” and discover three prominent nightclubs on Central Avenue within walking distance of each other: Club Alabam, Basket Room, and Last Word.

When Green first published his guidebook in 1936, his goal was to help African-American motorists avoid physical danger in Jim Crow America. At the same time, according to the introduction to the 1949 edition, Green envisioned a time when the Green Book would no longer be necessary for publication, a time when African Americans could have “equal opportunities and privileges in the United States.”

The Green Book was divided into sections for states and cities, designating friendly locations such as restaurants, hotels, clothing stores, and nightclubs. A traveler heading west could easily look up Los Angeles and find that Central Avenue, within a two-block radius, contained several such businesses that could safely accommodate their needs.

For Teachers: Lesson Plan

Cover of the 1940 edition of 'The Green Book'
Cover of the 1940 edition of "The Green Book," courtesy of the New York Public Library.
Los Angeles listings in the 1949 edition of 'The Green Book'
Los Angeles listings in the 1949 edition of "The Green Book," courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The Central Avenue Jazz Scene

Jazz, which originated from blues and ragtime in New Orleans, was defined by its upbeat rhythm that made people want to dance or “swing.” It inspired countless Americans, regardless of race, uplifting the human spirit with hope during a time when people needed it the most, the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Club Alabam was then the most celebrated establishment on Central Avenue, located next to the famous Dunbar Hotel (formerly known as the Sommerville). On Sept. 4, 1931, the club opened under new ownership and the direction of saxophonist Leo Davis, who would later become the president of the Local 767, leading the “Alabam Mi-Tee Orchestra.” In very close proximity was Jack’s Basket Room, operated by former heavy-weight boxing champion Jack Johnson; and the Last Word, owned by Curtis Mosby.

Club Alabam nightclub advertisement
Club Alabam nightclub advertisement, courtesy of the Shades of L.A. Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
Club Alabam Nightclub interior
Club Alabam Nightclub interior, courtesy of the Shades of L.A. Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
The bar at the Club Alabam, Los Angeles, ca. 1941-1945
The bar at the Club Alabam, Los Angeles, ca. 1941-1945, courtesy of the Charlotta Bass / California Eagle Photograph Collection, 1880-1986, USC Digital Library and Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research.
Jack Basket Room, Los Angeles, 1949
Jack Basket Room, Los Angeles, 1949, courtesy of the Tom & Ethel Bradley Center, California State University, Northridge.
Last Word nightclub advertisement
Last Word nightclub advertisement, courtesy of the Shades of L.A. Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
Last Word nightclub
Last Word nightclub, courtesy of the Shades of L.A. Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
Postcard of the Dunbar (Somerville) Hotel, Los Angeles, ca.1938
Postcard of the Dunbar (Somerville) Hotel, Los Angeles, ca.1938, courtesy of the Library Exhibits Collection, USC Libraries.

 The biggest and brightest artists to play these venues included the legendary Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Lester Young, and Cab Calloway. Among the musicians were Marshall Royal, Lee Young, Fletcher Smith, Buddy Collette, and the talented Clora Bryant – their stories richly chronicled in “Central Ave Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles,” a 1988 history that Bryant co-edited.

During the ‘40s Central Avenue began to “swing” more than ever, as the Second Great Migration brought more than five million African Americans to the West to work in defense industries during World War II. This migratory wave was accelerated by the first federal action in support of fair employment practices. On June 25, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 “to reaffirm the policy of the United States that there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in the defense industries or Government because of race, creed, color, or national origin.”[1] Though Victor Green’s dream of a world in which the Green Book would no longer be necessary was still decades away, Roosevelt’s order helped set the stage, giving African Americans a green light to head west, Green Books in hand.

Executive Order 8802
Courtesy of the American war posters from the Second World War collection, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

[1] James G. Fleming, “Historical Roots of Fair Employment Practice,” Phylon (1940-1956), vol. 7, no. 1, 1946, pp. 32–40., www.jstor.org/stable/271282.

This article was originally published Aug. 8, 2017. It has been re-published in conjunction with the broadcast of Lost LA's "Coded Geographies" episode.  

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