By Kevin Shannahan
It is the 1950’s. The completion of the Interstate Highway system is still a few years away. Chain hotels and restaurants do not yet dot the landscape. Computers take up whole buildings and use vacuum tubes. The internet and cell phones are not even a glint in a science fiction writer’s eye. While service in the Second World War had a broadening effect for millions of veterans, life was provincial and lived locally in a way difficult to understand today. America was a very different place in those days. There was one other way in which America was a different and a far lesser place. Racial segregation was the law of the land in much of the country and a social convention in most of the rest. A Black family traveling in those days could never entirely relax or take anything for granted. Every aspect of a trip was fraught with uncertainty, if not actual peril. Would they be able to buy gas at the next station? Would the restrooms be open to them? Would a restaurant allow them to buy food at the back door? As the day drew to a close, other questions arose. Where would they spend the night? It was far from a trivial question. Not only were most hotels segregated, many of the towns a traveler would pass through were “Sundown” towns in which Blacks were most assuredly not welcome after the sun went down. A traveling family faced the very real possibility of spending the night in their car on the side of the road outside of town. Black travelers faced everything from petty humiliations to physical danger at every turn.
As a small example of the extent to which segregation permeated society, the Alexandria, Louisiana city directories featured a © symbol to indicate a “colored” listing. The 1949 and 1951 editions even printed the following disclaimer: “Colored is shown by a ©. The publishers are very particular in using this, but are not responsible in case of error.” This article is about one such listing and of a world still in living memory.
Victor Hugo Green was born in 1892 in New York City. His family later moved to New Jersey where he grew up. After serving in the First World War, he returned home and worked for the Postal Service. In 1936, he published the first of the annual guides that were to be popularly known as The Green Book. The guides listed places such as hotels, rooming houses, restaurants, barber shops and gas stations that would serve African-Americans. The books’ covers bore two sentences whose understatement makes them all the more poignant: “Carry your Green book with you. You may need it.” The first edition in 1936 only covered the New York City area, but as its popularity grew, more and more of the country was covered, eventually expanding into Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. The guides, published between 1936 and 1967 ultimately became unnecessary as a hope expressed in the guides came to fruition.
“There will be a day sometime in the near future when the 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 wherever we please, and without embarrassment.”- from the introduction to the 1948 edition.
While Natchitoches never had an entry in any of the 22 guides available on the New York Public Library website, Alexandria did. Of the once thriving African-American business district along Lee Street in downtown Alexandria, a few buildings still stand among the empty lots. One of them is the Orient Hotel at 725 ½ Lee St., a few blocks, yet a world, away from its more well known counterpart, the Bentley Hotel. The building housed a barber shop in 1931, the Southern Cafe in 1938, the Gibson Products Company in 1947 and a photography studio in 1957, with half of the building opening as the Orient Hotel around 1959. The Orient Hotel first appeared in the Green Book in 1961. The 1973 City Directory is the last one to mention the Orient Hotel.
The Green Books and Alexandria City directories illustrate a parallel world that existed under Jim Crow. The Newstadt Building at 726 Lee St. was across from the Orient Hotel. First mentioned in the 1931 City Directory, it housed Drs. Julian Kelso and Frank Spillman, both identified with the (c) Colored designation. The building also housed the Liberty Ind Life Ins Company and LA Ind Life Ins Company. Segregartion even extended to dry cleaning, with Normans Cleaners serving customers at 708 Lee St. in 1947. In 1954, the Harlem Cab Company operated out of 810 Lee St. A dentist, Dr. Isiah J. Lawson © , moved into the Newstadt Building in 1947. The Newstadt Building held only two life insurance companies in 1959 and was vacant entirely in 1962. Dr. Lawson moved his dental practice to 706 Lee St. where he shared space with the Alexandria News-Leader, an African-American owned newspaper in 1976.
The world of Lee St. and its counterparts throughout Jim Crow America may have been parallel, but they were hardly equal. As I stood before the remains of the Orient Hotel and loked around, I wondered what it must have been like to practice medicine under segregation, unable to admit patients to facilities for Whites, to have your professional abilities always discounted. What was it like to have to stay at the Orient Hotel, a few blocks from the Bentley Hotel? As a photographer, I am fascinated by the 1957 listing for “Cecil Johnson, Photographer.” What did he shoot? Do his prints and negatives still exist somewhere?
You can see traces of the bricks that originally paved Lee St. underneath the overlaid asphalt. I remembered a few years ago hearing a preservationist say what a shame it was that the brick streets were paved over. I could think of a few things that were more of a shame on that street besides the covered bricks.