Introducing Green Book Cleveland

Introducing Green Book Cleveland

Green Book Cleveland is an emerging digital history project that seeks to document and narrate the stories of places in Northeast Ohio where African Americans sought entertainment, leisure, and recreation primarily in the middle decades of the 20th century. The project draws its concept and inspiration from the Negro Motorist Green Book (later Negro Travelers’ Green Book), an annual guide published in New York from 1936 to 1966 by former postal worker Victor H. Green. The Green Book included thousands of listings of businesses and services that welcomed Black patronage.

Green Book Cleveland is working to recover a more complete understanding of the approximately 100 sites in Cleveland, Akron, Alliance, Canton, Lorain, Massillon, Oberlin, Warren, and Youngstown that appeared in one or more editions of the Green Book. It also extends to a broader goal—recreating a spatial sense of the full range of sites of leisure that African Americans visited in Northeast Ohio in the age of the Green Book. These include not only hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, theaters, beauty and barber shops, service stations, and other Black businesses in cities but also rural resorts, camps, picnic grounds, beaches, lakes, and other attractions.

The Wilkins’ School of Cosmetology was listed in the Green Book under tourist homes because Edith Wilkins offered room and board for travelers. | Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection

The project had its inception in August 2021 in my Introduction to Public History course at Cleveland State University. Students researched related sites and wrote short essays accompanied by images such as photos or advertisements. Then the students added these elements on the project website, which uses the new PlacePress plugin that CPHDH developer Erin Bell built as part of our National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) digital humanities grant in 2020-22.

In one sense, the project’s mapping component helps website users visualize a familiar racial geography. Indeed, most Green Book listings hewed closely to the contours of African American business districts such as Cedar Avenue and East 105th Street in Cleveland, North Howard Street in Akron, or South Broadway in Lorain. But the map also forces a reconsideration of any assumption that Black history may be “contained” in historically Black communities.

Green Book Cleveland‘s map highlights an important but mostly hidden historical presence of sites that African Americans used and, in some cases, owned in less expected places like rural Geauga, Portage, and Ashtabula counties. Among the stories the project is helping to recover are Burton’s Bathing Beach, a 1930s African American–owned resort along Lake Erie near Ashtabula, and Johnson’s Farm, a 1940s-50s riding academy and family leisure spot near Northfield that once stood on a spot now occupied by a railroad yard along Route 8.

The project seeks to address the longstanding problem of erasure or marginalization of Black history. This loss is a product of past indifference by historical “gatekeepers,” physical erasures resulting from urban change (including official policies such as urban renewal), and Black land loss and dispossession in rural areas. By reintroducing the full range of places that African Americans built and sustained community through the enjoyment of leisure-time gatherings, Green Book Cleveland encourages a more inclusive history as a foundation for a more inclusive present.

To this end, while the project is a documentary exercise that mines available newspaper and archival materials, it also welcomes community involvement, including public comments on location narratives, community-based research and authorship, digital sharing of personal or family photos and documents, oral history collecting, and community-driven outcomes that use Green Book Cleveland as a point of departure for their own purposes. By helping to bring these stories back to light, Green Book Cleveland might inspire efforts to celebrate, commemorate, reclaim, preserve, and activate places.

As of this writing, the project team is exploring both community-based collaborations driven by participants’ own interests and talents and larger, more programmatic opportunities to align with institutions and organizations that also hope to embed this more inclusive history more firmly in their missions.

To learn more about the project, you can:

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