I was born 1948 in Pittsburgh. My parents separated and, when I was six months-old, my Great Aunt Thelma Wttten Stone came from Bluefield, W.Va, to get me for a while but ended up raising me there. In 1947, she built a hotel with a restaurant (the best food ever) on the corner of Wayne and Logan Streets called Hotel Thelma. Due to segregation, we hosted not-so-known acts in the ’50s and ’60s on the “Chittlin’ Circuit” such as Ike and Tina, Little Richard (one of my aunts styled his hair), Ella James, Fats Domino, etc., because they could not stay in the hotels for whites.
By 1960, my parents had reunited and wanted me back. So, when I was 12, near the height of the Civil Rights Movement, my Mama Thelma took off with me (and fried chicken, deviled eggs, and some canned foods — Vienna sausage, sardines, potted meat, and pickles) for El Paso, Texas, where my father David was stationed in the Army. My mother Jacqueline was a Licensed Practical Nurse. Mama Thelma took the southern route but knew where we could stay and eat. She had a Green Book!
Victor H. Green, a New Yorker, was the editor and publisher. The Green Book also included Bermuda, the Caribbean, Canada, Mexico, and Central America. Mr. Green first published in 1936, word of mouth was used before, and yearly thereafter because he saw a “rising African American middle class having the finances and vehicle for travel but facing a world where social and legal restrictions barred them from many accommodations. At the time there were thousands of ‘sundown towns’ where African Americans were legally barred from spending the night at all.”
I was able to obtain a 1954 copy through Amazon and voila — listed is Hotel Thelma on Wayne Street. By the way, the structure in Bluefield, although fragile, is still standing. Listed also is Travelers’ Inn on Raleigh Street. The Inn moved to a building on Wayne Street years later which Mama Thelma purchased and operated. She ran several businesses simultaneously.
One of the West Virginia pages in the 1954 edition of The Negro Travelers’Green Book.
The Green Book was full of history and listings of where “Negroes” could stay and eat in each state. Mama Thelma was fair-skinned and could “pass” in some southern white restaurants. Of course I couldn’t, being dark-skinned, so she would tell me to stay down in the car while she went in to get takeout. There were times she would go into a grocery store and buy food that she would cook roadside at a rest stop or wherever we would see a roadside grill. God certainly protected us. We arrived in El Paso and, after a week’s visit, I told my parents my home was with Mama Thelma. To celebrate my decision, this brave, entrepreneurial woman drove on to California (she had friends in Anaheim) and we went to Disneyland! The farther west we went, the less segregation. Mama Thelma and I had such a love for each other. Driving herself, with the Green Book and me (I was the navigator sometimes), she motored across country and back to West Virginia – about 5,000 miles round trip. What lessons I learned along the way.
Carolyn Foster Bailey Lewis, PhD is Director and General Manager Emerita,
WOUB Public Media, Ohio University