by Joe Elliott –
I was recently watching a documentary about the history of The Green Book travel guide, and the story was told about legendary entertainer Nat “King” Cole being attacked on stage in the 1950s by some white racists. It brought to mind something my mom told me when I was a little kid.
First, for anyone who doesn’t know, The Negro Motorist Green Book, known also as The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, or just Green Book for short, was a road guide published between 1936 and 1966 to aid African American travelers in locating places where they could lodge, eat, shop, attend church, get their car repaired, along with a host of other listed services. The guide was needed in part because traveling posed certain challenges and dangers for blacks, especially in the highly racially segregated Jim Crow South.
The front of the guide read “Carry your Green Book with you—You may need it,” and that was no joke. Walk into the wrong establishment, be it a restaurant or laundromat, and a person of color could suddenly find himself in a lot of trouble. People were beaten and even killed for less. The travel guide recently came to prominence with this year’s release of the Academy Award-winning film The Green Book.
Now back to my story. When I was a little kid growing up in McDowell County, my mother worked as a waitress at a local diner. In addition to the usual crowd, the café was occasionally visited by entertainers passing through the area while traveling to Asheville or Charlotte to perform. Most were looking to grab a quick bite before traveling on. She waited on Carolina music legend Arthur Smith and his group on more than one occasion, for example.
Mama told me about one particularly memorable night when a man came into the café and asked to speak to the owner. When he came out, the visitor, who was white, told him that Nat “King” Cole was outside in the car and would like to come in for a bite to eat. By this point in his career, Cole was internationally known as one of the most gifted singers and jazz pianists on the scene. Moreover, he was one of the first American entertainers of color to develop a large crossover fan base, including blacks and whites. He was also the first African American to have his own weekly nationally broadcast television show, a historic achievement in itself.
However, despite all his success, Nat Cole was still routinely harassed wherever he went. He was attacked and beaten in the 1950s in Birmingham, Alabama, and was the victim of a Ku Klux Klan cross burning, in Los Angeles of all places. Through it all, he was known to conduct himself with dignity and restraint.
Upon being asked if the entertainer might come in, my mom said the owner just shook his head and told him no. When the man left, she asked him about it. “Nat King Cole,” she said, “You know, he’s known all around the world.” Her boss shrugged. “He’s still a (racial slur), and I don’t allow them in here,” he said.
My mother was disappointed since she would have liked to have met him. Besides, she said, he might have turned out to be a really good tipper.
Remembering this story helped me to better grasp just how much The Green Book was needed. Not incidentally, it wasn’t until racial segregation ended that the South in general began to really grow its economy. Previously, many businesses, including large chain motels and restaurants, were reluctant to invest here. As a result, the South lagged behind for generations in economic development and growth.
In the end, the segregationist laws just ended up hurting everybody, including the white community.
Joe Elliott grew up in McDowell County and now lives in Asheville.