Portion of a 1930s mural featuring a Black couple dressed up for a night out. FFrom the 1930s jazz scene in the basement of today’s Louisa Hotel in Seattle. (Photo: Ashley Harrison)

Seattle Green Book Tour App Aims to Keep Local Black History Alive

by Troy Landrum Jr.

As the product of the Great Migration, a historical period in American history where millions of African American citizens left all they knew and took all they had from the Jim Crow South to cities up North in hopes of a better life, my grandmothers took their rightful place in that movement in hopes of a Promised Land that wasn’t always so promising for them. What was stronger than the reality of that promise was the hope they brought with them. They came with hopes that one day their kids and grandchildren could reap the future benefits of their elders being uprooted. 

Some of those benefits can be felt in the work of Black & Tan Hall, highlighted along with local Black history in the upcoming Seattle Green Book Self-Guided Tour app coming in March.

Hearing Naudia Miller, one of the partners of Black & Tan Hall, state, “It is really exciting to see how the work of the past is being carried forward in the present day. It is so much of what our ancestors and elders were hoping that we would be able to do” brings me a certain pride and purpose as we speak about a past that connects us and the certain brave people it takes to keep these moments alive, reigniting the light for us to move forward into a brighter future. It has begun to sink in for me that we could one day be the Promised Land our elders and ancestors hoped for. 

The Promised Land imagined by those brave souls was a tumultuous journey, like that of any migrant or immigrant escaping from their homeland. One had to travel by bus, train, or car hundreds of miles depending on how far north you were going. Any traveler who knows what it means to travel long distances knows you have to accommodate for the time in between the stops. It was rare for travelers to get to where they were going in one straight shot, and for African Americans, travel was especially difficult, as a lot of places did not welcome African American travelers. It was hard for them to find gas stations, restaurants, restroom stalls, hotels, bars, or lounges to take their mind off their troubles or rest up from the travel behind them and the travel they still had in front of them. Stopping in any of these places, towns, or cities without knowledge of which establishments were safe more often than not led to embarrassment, harassment, or, even worse, the tragedy of losing their life. 

But just like art itself, out of tragedy comes beauty. The Negro Motorist Green Book, published by Victor Hugo Green from 1936 to 1967, was what African Americans called “the Bible of Black travel.” It gave travelers the blueprint to which establishments and businesses they could safely patronize without the fear of backlash from customers or business owners. It served as a companion in many Black households during segregation. Karen Toering, also a partner at Black & Tan Hall, said, “I can actually remember a Green Book at my auntie’s house — actually, there were several Green Books in my family’s house.” It was something you held onto and something you did not want to be caught without.

Toering’s reflection on her family’s history and her and her family’s migration story, along with a justified anger toward the portrayal of the legendary traveler’s guide in the 2018 film The Green Book, starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, sparked an idea that pushed her to ponder: How could the historical Black & Tan Hall manifest this idea of the work of the past being carried forward to the present day, and how might we finally tell the story correctly? 

The Black and Tan Club, in its vibrant past, was known as a famous Seattle club that brought beautiful jazz to the city and welcomed all types of people — more specifically, Black people — who could leave all their worries at the door and enjoy the exuberance of what life had to offer. Now known as Black & Tan Hall, it’s recreating itself as a multiracial cooperative hub that focuses on anti-gentrification and displacement through cultural arts and programming. How can this historical center cultivate and answer such a question as the one posed above? Brilliant ideas spark other brilliant ideas, and then there is the work of making these ideas move. The idea to revisit the Green Book landed upon the ears of Ashley Harrison through a direct conversation with former Black & Tan Hall partner Kirsten Harris-Talley, who is now a State representative for the 37th District, where Columbia City is located. Harrison was grateful to work on such a project and became the engine of Toering’s idea, soaking up the history of the Green Book, consulting with local historians, and truly working to answer the question in her head: Who really built this city? 

Other partners at Black & Tan Hall, including Naudia Miller and Joe Seamons, joined forces to make this idea a reality, with additional input and support provided by Esther Mumford and Paul de Barros, along with the Black Heritage Society of Washington State, the Wing Luke Museum, and MOHAI. Through this hub of brain power and yearning for true history, they created the Seattle Green Book Self-Guided Tour, an app that guides you through Seattle history and its connection to the Green Book. This multimedia tour presents Black-owned and Black-friendly businesses that operated along Seattle’s Jackson Street Corridor between 1920 and 1960, the area mostly known as the Chinatown-International District (CID). It functions as your very own tour guide as your phone operates as a map filled with locations and directions, complete with audio and visual history that will share the entrepreneurial brilliance, resilience, and Black history that echoes throughout Jackson Street, the CID, and beyond. The concept stacks history upon history and brings the voices and the spirits of the past to our fingertips. It stands to change the way we see this part of our city and furthermore settles us into being a part of our history’s present.

The Black & Tan Hall partners who birthed this project experienced that change from the inside out as they worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to somehow bring this all to life and be a further representation of what they want Black & Tan Hall to represent as it pushes to open as a new restaurant, music venue, cultural space, and preserver of Seattle’s history. 

“We didn’t know that we would be app developers,” Karen Toering jokingly explained. This group of designers have become that and more as they revive a history that continues to disappear as time passes, as new and foreign establishments take over and eventually change the DNA of a community. The direct changes that come from working on a project such as this set off a ripple effect in these individuals’ lives, in their own proximity of influence. Working on the tour inspired them to take the history they had learned and create something within their own sphere of influence. 

Joe Seamons, not only a partner of Black & Tan Hall but also a teacher and musician, created an eight-week course titled Face the Music. He says this course “sheds light on the true history of American music and draws lessons from erased musicians that everyone should know — but nobody knows — and how we can use those lessons to do anti-racist work in our own lives.” 

A Black organizer who migrated from the Midwest 20 years ago and who has been leading work like this for many years, Toering says being part of the Seattle Green Book Self-Guided Tour app project raised many questions in her mind. “Everything that we do at Black & Tan makes me think about those things,” Toering said. “What does Black leadership look like? Can Black leadership lead white people, multicultural people — and how does that work? So, for five years we have been collectively trying to build an understanding about what it really means for People of Color to actually lead. For People of Color to actually have real power.” 

The creation of the Seattle Green Book Self-Guided Tour app does more than show that Black folks can lead — it shows they can share this type of power with people of multicultural backgrounds and continue to gain true allies for the cause. Allyship has been one of the biggest inspirations and learning moments for Miller as she has helped to launch the app. “That we can be POC-led, we can be Black-led and have our true allies around us,” Miller said. 

Those insights awaken the power of ownership, leadership, and what makes a community strong and its history survive. The Green Book project and the future projects of Black & Tan Hall bring to life the truest representation of the building’s name: “Black” and “Tan” — a safe place for interracial connection. 

The deep connection I feel to my grandmother’s migration stories as I listen to these creators and preservers of history has been the connection I have been waiting for ever since making my own trek from the Midwest to the Northwest. Through the Seattle Self-Guided Green Book Tour, participants from far and wide — from those who have experienced this history firsthand or whose family has experienced it to those who are genuinely ready to learn about the true history of their city — will get a chance to educate themselves and be empowered by the importance of the Green Book history in this city. 

The question that stands for me is this: How do we take this empowering experience and move forward, connecting it with our daily lives? I think the first step is through supporting this event and tour. 

The Black Heritage Society of Washington State has invited the Green Book Tour creators and partners to join in a panel discussion called “The Green Book: More Than A Guide” at MOHAI on Feb. 19 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Included in that discussion will be The Negro Motorist Green Book, brought to you by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service that will be held in Tacoma at the Washington State History Museum starting March 19. The public launch event for the Seattle Green Book Self-Guided Tour will take place between King Street Station and Washington Hall on Sunday, March 27, and will include music and performances. This event will not only launch the app but will also be centered around putting money back into the local businesses in the area. People will have the opportunity to experience the tour at their own pace, starting on King Street and walking through the CID, stopping at locations such as the old Golden West Hotel and the grand Louisa Hotel.

Secondly, we can support the mission of Black & Tan Hall for its present and future work in our community. The Black & Tan Hall building is located at 5608 Rainier Ave. S. and is being remodeled to be not only a multiracial cooperative but also to become a restaurant, musical venue, and cultural space for the Hillman City community. To be everything it hopes to be, it needs us to support its path to completion by staying connected to the progress and giving to the cause through the Black & Tan Hall website. Ongoing efforts include restoration of the 1930s jazz scene mural in the basement of the Louisa Hotel, and readers can help by donating funds toward the cost of restoring the mural, which will one day be part of the tour. 

Lastly, the beauty in holding space, time, and money for such a wonderful experience is that it is solely up to you, with no pressure or push. 

What do we do as a community moving forward after an experience like the Seattle Green Book Self-Guided Tour? “I really think that it is up to the people to decide,” said Toering. “At the end of the day, it feels like our work is to tell the story and make sure we get it right. A big part of our oppression is not considering our stories as valid or valuable.” 

My understanding of the impact this tour could have on our communities is that we can, as People of Color, see our stories as important — and others who we share community with can do the same. When we see each other’s stories as important and finally understand the history behind who really built this city, we care about one another a little deeper, we hold each other a little tighter, and we then contribute to keeping that history alive. In doing this, we can be the Promised Land my grandmothers hoped for so long ago.

Troy Landrum Jr. was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, and is currently a program producer for KUOW’s “Radioactive” program. He has spent the past few years as a bookseller at Third Place Books in Seward Park and recently graduated with a master’s in fine arts at the University of Washington, Bothell. Follow Troy on Twitter at @TroyLandrumJr.

📸 Featured Image: A portion of the mural, artist unknown, from the 1930s jazz scene in the basement of today’s Louisa Hotel. (Photo: Ashley Harrison)

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