Walking through Philadelphia with ‘The Green Book’ as a guide
Seeing eight 'Green Book' spots that are still standing in Philly.
The African American Museum in Philadelphia is hosting an exhibit inspired by The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guidebook used by Black Americans from 1936 to 1967 to find hotels and other establishments where they would not face racial hostility. So, what does The Green Book’s history look like in Philadelphia? And, which sites are still standing?
Faye Anderson, a historic preservationist, jazz aficionado, and storyteller, has long had an interest in the city’s Green Book legacy. She led a weekly walking tour of Green Book sites in Center City until being temporarily shut down due to the pandemic.
Some of them are surprising. The Benjamin Franklin Hotel at 834 Chestnut St., for instance, was the regular hotel used by the Brooklyn Dodgers when they came to town.
Jackie Robinson changed that his rookie year, 1947. The hotel refused to allow him to stay there so the team found rooms elsewhere, at the Warwick.
Yet by 1952, Anderson said, the Benjamin Franklin, which is now offices and luxury apartments, was in the good graces of the Black community again and made it into The Green Book. The hotel, along with the Bellevue Stratford (200 S. Broad St.), advertised in The Green Book every year thereafter.
“Well, honey, money will do that to you,” said Anderson, when asked why the hotels made it into the book. “They saw the opportunity.”
In Anderson’s view, the Franklin and the Bellevue realized that the Black community, favored with rising affluence, represented a “business opportunity” and they seized it.
The Hotel Carlyle at 1425 Poplar St., a hostelry first listed in The Green Book in 1948, not only still exists as a building, but it still functions as a hotel. The Carlyle would provide lodging for musicians who played at the Uptown Theater on Broad Street and other venues.
Club 421, 5600 Wyalusing Ave., in West Philadelphia, is Anderson’s “absolutely favorite Green Book site” in the city.
“If you go into the interior, you will see you could see the same features, the same booth, the same stage as [where] Billie Holiday, and John Coltrane and all of the jazz greats performed,” said Anderson. ”All of the original fixtures are still there, including the ladies entrance.”
Another jazz club, The Postal Card, located at 1504 South St., featured musicians like organist Austin Mitchell Jr. and trumpeter Lee Morgan. The two-story building is still in use as offices of Campbell Thomas, an architecture and planning firm. Bob Thomas, chair of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, is a partner.
Anderson said that the original sign from The Postal Card is inside the building.
“I don’t even think I thought why the name Postal Card, but during the period when it was in business, the ‘40s, that job in the post office was still a pretty good job,” said Anderson. “During that time, it was so many Black Americans’ entrée to the middle class, the post office. Yeah. There’s this expression, ‘You can always find work at the post office.’ Any number of jazz musicians worked at the post office.”
Down the block at 1524 South St. is the facade of what used to be the Royal Theater, one of the city’s great Black venues. Around the corner at 801 S. 15th St. is what used to be the Attucks Hotel, named after Crispus Attucks, the first fatality of the Revolutionary War.
The hotel offered dependable lodging for Black Americans but could not always shield guests from the hostility of the wider world. It was here, for instance, in 1947, that federal narcotics police busted Billie Holiday, sending her to prison. The building is now home to Kenny Gamble’s Universal Institute Charter School.
Billie Holiday also stayed often at the Douglass Hotel, 1409-11 Lombard, another Green Book site along the fringes of Center City.
In all, Anderson estimates as many as 45 buildings with Green Book associations are still standing in Philadelphia.
“It’s such a layered history, not ancient history, it’s living,” said Anderson.
The Green Book walking tour of Philadelphia has been suspended for about two years because of COVID-19, Anderson said, but she plans on restarting it in May.