Middle Tennessee has an unlikely connection to Sunday's Academy Awards

Feb 21, 2019

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Mike Osborne)  --   There’s a Tennessee connection to the movie Green Book, the film won 2019's Academy Award for Best Picture.

Viggo Mortensen (left) and Mahershala Ali appear in a scene of the Oscar nominated film "Green Book."
Credit universalpictures.com

Green Book stars Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen and centers on the development of an inter-racial friendship. It also highlights the discrimination African-Americans faced while traveling around the United States during the Jim Crow era.

For white Americans, the years following World War II were a time of growing prosperity as evidenced by big cars, brand-new interstate highways, and easy travel. However, discriminatory laws of the time made it challenging, even dangerous, for black motorists to move around the country. They simply were not welcome in most restaurants, hotels, gas stations, or other businesses.

So enterprising New York City mail carrier Victor Green began publishing a travel guide, listing businesses where black motorists were welcome. He called it The Negro Motorist Green Book. 

This sign standing at the corner of Ed Temple Blvd. and Buchanan Street is all that remains of Nashville's Green Book listed Eldorado Motel. The Eldorado was one of the few mid-state motels that catered to African-American guests prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
Credit wmot.org

A team of historians at the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University recently documented Green Book sites statewide. They did so in conjunction with architectural historians in Nashville and Chattanooga. Doctoral candidate Tiffany Momon was part of that team.

"Think about what that life meant that you needed to have a guide book to tell you how to get around a country where you were supposed to be equal,” Momon said, “to tell you which establishments were friendly to you, and just imagine what it was like to stop in a town that wasn't in the Green Book."

A number of Green Book sites once stood along or near Jefferson Street in downtown Nashville. To this day, Jefferson remains at the heart of Nashville's African-American community.

Many of those black-owned businesses were bulldozed in the late 1950s when Interstate 40 pushed through the heart of North Nashville. Others were lost to the gentrification of historically black neighborhoods.

A handful have found new life. For example, a motel that once catered to black motorists is now a nail salon and day spa. One of the few Nashville Green Book sites still in business is Jefferson Street's R&R Liquor.

Dr. Ginna Cannon stands in front of a Green Book listed Guest House located in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The private residence is one of the few Green Book listed sites still standing.
Credit wmot.org

Historian Ginna Cannon also worked on the Green Book project. Dr. Cannon helped document sites in Rutherford County. She points out that the Green Book had listings for nearly every state in the union.

"Usually, segregation is thought of as a Southern thing, a Southern problem,” she explained. “Really, it was a national issue, and one that we all need to understand and come to terms with and do better in the future."

For Tiffany Momon, documenting Green Book sites in Tennessee and elsewhere is about more than fixing locations on a map.

"Black businesses that through the Jim Crow era, through the era when the Green Book was published, persevered and survived and paved the way. So the preservation of these sites is important so that we can continue to tell those types of stories," she said.

The story that the Green Book film tells seem especially timely given that the country is once again wrestling with racial discord. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: A video version of this story was produced for Voice of America by WMOT News Director Mike Osborne. You can see that video here.