The Harlem-based author, who grew up in Columbus, explored the history of the “Green Book,” a guide for black travelers during segregation. She will visit Gramercy Books at 7 p.m. on Thursday.
From the 1930s through the 1960s, Charlie’s Place was a popular, African American-owned nightclub in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Billie Holiday, Ray Charles and Little Richard were just some of the legendary performers who graced its stage.
But the good times were interrupted one night in 1950, when members of the Ku Klux Klan injured several people by shooting 400 rounds of ammunition into the club; they also kidnapped the owner, Charlie Fitzgerald, and cut off parts of his earlobes.
“(Charlie) had a lot of power in that community as a black man. He was an ongoing threat. … They did not want black people demanding that they should be treated equally,” said author, photographer and Columbus native Candacy Taylor, who relates Fitzgerald’s story in her new book, “Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America.”
Now based in Harlem, New York, Taylor will return to her hometown to discuss her work during an appearance at Gramercy Books in Bexley at 7 p.m. Thursday.
The focus of her work is the “Negro Motorist Green Book,” aka the “Green Book,” created in 1936 by New York postal worker Victor Hugo Green. The annual travel guide for African Americans during the Jim Crow era of legalized segregation included restaurants, hotels, stores, banks and other businesses — many black-owned, including Charlie’s Place — throughout the U.S., where they could be served and protected from violence.
The guide was published through 1967 — three years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination and racial segregation in public facilities.
“It was almost like a ‘Yellow Pages’ for black businesses,” Taylor said. “It was tailored for our race at a very specific time in our history.”
More people have discovered the historic travel guide in recent years; it provided inspiration for the 2018 Oscar-winning film “Green Book.” Taylor’s research, which she began in 2013, also is helping to document the extent of its impact.
With fellowships and grants from institutions such as the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University and the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Taylor has been able to catalog nearly 10,000 locations culled from “Green Books.”
She spent seven months driving across the country, scouting and photographing more than 4,000 sites. Though abandoned, some of the buildings still stand. Eighty percent are gone, she said, and only 3 percent still operate.
“Gentrification, urban renewal, redlining — there are all these social forces that really changed the landscape of these neighborhoods that they were located in,” she said. “The few that are left need to be celebrated.”
Mapping the Green Book – Candacy Taylor from NGS Impact Media on Vimeo.
Taylor also is the curator and content specialist for a related touring exhibition by the Smithsonian Institution, which will open in June in Memphis. The exhibition is slated to come to Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in October. She also has plans for a mobile app and children’s book.
In “Overground Railroad,” Taylor examines Green’s motivations and the contributions of his staff, which included his wife, Alma Duke. The book provides an overview of each “Green Book” edition, placed in the context of U.S. history — segregation, black migration and the Civil Rights movement.
But it’s the stories about people such as Fitzgerald — based on Taylor’s own interviews — that make the history come alive.
There are a few places in the book where Taylor’s personal life and the book’s subject matter intersect. She discovered, for example, that her family had been interacting with “Green Book” sites in the King-Lincoln District for years.
Now an apartment building, Hotel St. Clair on St. Clair Avenue was once frequented by black entertainers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie. More recently, Taylor’s sister and brother-in-law worked for an architecture firm that helped rehab the building, Taylor said.
Another site, the Macon Hotel on North 20th Street, was built in 1888 and also hosted jazz luminaries. It eventually became a nightclub and lounge before closing in 2008.
“My mother remembers going there, my stepdad remembered going there, and my sister also went there and loved it,” Taylor said. “It was an iconic place.”
But Taylor worries about the fate of the now-abandoned properly, which made Columbus Landmarks’ most-endangered sites list in 2019.
“If anybody out there is listening who has the wherewithal or the resources to protect that building, I think it’s really important that we do,” she said.
Perhaps the most personal thread woven throughout “Overground Railroad,” though, is a result of Taylor’s relationship with her late stepfather, Ron Burford. Having grown up in the South at the height of segregation, he took an interest in her project and shared relevant stories.
“He died literally the week I sat down to start writing the book,” Taylor said. “I would just be crying because I was grieving him, and I called my agent and I said, ‘You know, all I can write are stories that Ron told me.’”
Taylor said neither she nor Burford were surprised by events such as the 2017 white-nationalist “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville, Virginia. For all the progress made since the “Green Book” era, African American communities are still struggling, she said.
“I realized I wasn’t interested in presenting the ‘Green Book’ as a historical time capsule,” Taylor wrote in her book. “I wanted to show it in the context of this country’s ongoing struggle with race and social mobility, because the problems black Americans face regarding police brutality, homicide, unfair drug sentencing and mass incarceration are arguably just as debilitating and deadly as the problems the ‘Green Book’ helped black people avoid more than 80 years ago.”
But the thriving black communities of the past do give Taylor hope.
“We need to take our power back,” she said. “If in the face of Jim Crow we could do it, I think we can do it now.”
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