New walking tour revisits Seattle sites from ‘Green Book,’ a segregation-era guide to safe harbor for Black Americans

Black people who traveled to Seattle in the late 1930s through 1960s might have come with a copy of the “Negro Motorist Green Book” in tow. Started by New York postal carrier Victor Green and his wife Alma Green, the Green Book was published from 1936 to 1966 as a nationwide directory of businesses and other establishments that gladly served Black people. Black travelers in the segregation era were often met with open hostility and racism on the road. The Green Book was a lifeline, connecting them with safe places to eat, sleep, drink and find community. 

Starting in 1939, Seattle had its own listings in the Green Book, including places like the Golden West Hotel, the Rocking Chair Club, the Green Dot Barber Shop, and more where Black patrons could find lodging, get a meal, and see legends like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. Now with Black & Tan Hall’s Green Book Self-Guided Tour app, the histories of these businesses come alive through audio files and photos, arranged as a 13-stop walking tour along the South Jackson Street corridor. 

“Black folks have always known this history,” said Karen Toering, the general manager of Black & Tan Hall, the community-owned hub in the works in Hillman City that created the tour. Toering recorded some of the audio segments for the tour. Thinking of her childhood home in the Midwest she said, “I remember the Green Book being in the house. It was common in the ’50s or early ’60s for someone in your family to have a Green Book.”

Basing the walking tour on the Green Book connects Seattleites to the history of the Great Migration, which saw Black people moving from the South to Northern, Midwestern and Western states, including Washington, from roughly 1910 to 1970 and to Seattle’s past and future. 

More Seattle Black history

“There has always been a Black Seattle,” said Black & Tan Hall arts and culture manager Sadiqua Iman. “Going through the tour, seeing all the history — Black people didn’t just get here yesterday, we’ve been here for a while, a long time and we’ve been doing things, building community.”

Compiled by partners of Hillman City’s Black & Tan Hall, slated to open this year, the tour comes full circle with the inclusion of the original Black & Tan Hall, a jazz club which was formerly located at 12th Avenue and Jackson Street and operated from 1922 to 1966. 

The current Black & Tan Hall is run by a group of partners. When the venue opens, it will be home to a performance and arts space that reflects the ethos of Seattle’s original Black & Tan Hall. The term “Black and tan” came from segregation-era clubs where patrons of all races commingled. The Green Book tour makes an important link between both the old and new Black & Tan Halls, and uplifts the histories of Black communities in Seattle from the early 1900s to the late 1960s.

The tour starts at King Street Station, also often a starting point for Black travelers who came to Seattle in the early to mid-1900s. Chinese immigrant laborers were employed to construct the railways, and when many workplaces wouldn’t hire Black people, railroad companies did, mostly employing them as porters or cooks. It was these Chinese, immigrant and Black communities who shaped the immediate areas around King Street Station, especially the after-hours scene. When prohibition laws went into effect, Chinatown’s underground speak-easies and gambling clubs welcomed Black and mixed-race audiences. 

“I think it’s important for white residents of Seattle to understand that the Green Book was necessary here,” said Black & Tan Hall partner Ashley Harrison who was the primary researcher and writer for the Green Book Tour app’s content. “Looking through Green Book entries really brought that home. It was necessary here for places to say, ‘Yes, we will serve Black patrons.’ For [Black] families with long histories here, they know this. These were all things I learned.” 

Some historical sites are still standing, like the Golden West Hotel (owned in the 1920s by E. Russell “Noodles” Smith who later owned Seattle’s original Black & Tan Hall) and the Louisa Hotel. Some sites are gone, like the Coast Hotel which was demolished to make room for Interstate 5. (The tour notes that in the 1960s it was common for highway construction to bulldoze right through Black or low-income neighborhoods of color).

Both the former Black & Tan Hall that was once on the corner of 12th and Jackson, and the Rocking Chair Club — housed where the Bailey Gatzert Elementary School is today — hosted jazz and soul greats like Ray Charles, Count Basie, Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin.

Harrison curated a playlist of musicians who frequently played at those clubs. A link to the playlist is included in the app. 

The work of Black historians Esther Mumford and Dr. Quintard Taylor informed the tour, as well as Paul de Barros’ book “Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle.” Black & Tan Hall partners first discussed the idea of a Green Book walking tour in 2019, originally intending an in-person tour. When the pandemic led to restrictions on public gatherings, the tour pivoted to an online format. The outcome led to a few incidental benefits: more information, photos, recordings and additional resources could be included; and the app is accessible anytime, whether readers are in the neighborhood or not. 

For Iman, the Green Book tour is a powerful testament to Seattle’s vibrant, creative Black community that found ways to thrive during a time marked by racism and unofficial segregation.

“It was not a good time. We made good times. We were able to come together in that terrible era for Black people and have fun, eat food, listen to music, create,” Iman said. “Legends were here in Seattle. It’s not something that needs to be recreated, it’s something we can return to.” 

RELATED EVENTS

“The Green Book: More Than A Guide,” Feb. 19, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., free with admission ($17- $22), Museum of History and Industry, 860 Terry Ave N., Seattle, 206-324-1126, mohai.org.

Black & Tan Hall’s Green Book Tour launch, March 27, 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., Louisa Hotel, 669 S. King St., Seattle, 206-809-4407, blackandtanhall.com/greenbooktour.