by Troy Landrum Jr.
“The House of the Rising Sun,” a traditional folk song made most famous in 1964 by the band The Animals, bellowed through Chiyo’s Garden in the Chinatown-International District. On the stage stood a young musical apprentice. Through his technical range and vocal discipline, this student transported everyone in the audience. It was this and many other live performances during the opening ceremony of Black & Tan Hall’s “Seattle Green Book Self-Guided Tour” that moved our bodies and took us back to that time period between 1936 and 1966, a time when the Green Book symbolized the Bible to Black folks traveling throughout the United States. The Green Book gave travelers the knowledge of which businesses, cities, and states would be accepting of them and their money while traveling to their final destinations.
The name of the group gracing us with their presence was The Rhapsody Songsters, a program produced by one of the partners of the legendary Black & Tan Hall, Joe Seamons. The Rhapsody Songsters’ mission is to help lift up the musical arts and place them in the hands of local youth. As I closed my eyes, my feet were no longer planted in the present, but seduced by the blues into a past that the elders of my family knew so well — some elders finding it hard to forget, while others placed it in their treasure box, never to be opened again.
The highly anticipated grand launch of Black & Tan Hall’s “Seattle Green Book Self-Guided Tour” took place on Sunday, March 27. This multiyear project was dreamt of and thoroughly researched by the Tour’s main players, Karen Toering and Ashley Harrison, longtime partners of Black & Tan Hall in Hillman City. It took a whole community of partners — partners such as Sadiqua Iman, the current arts and culture manager of Black & Tan Hall, who planned the entirety of the event. Other partners include Chinatown-International District business owner Tanya Woo of the Louisa Hotel; the Wing Luke Museum; and Chiyo’s Garden, who all contributed time and major logistical support. Lastly, many researchers and willing performers set the stage for such a fabulous event.
The “Seattle Green Book Self-Guided Tour” started out as an idea to shift the narrative of how the historic travel guide has been portrayed. It began to take on a life of its own when the focus was centered around the question “Who really built this city?” — a question app developer and researcher Ashley Harrison had at the center of her mind while working on this project. Then, the effects of COVID-19 led to delays in production and shifted the way they envisioned the project. Eventually, these shifts resulted in a tour with more accessibility: All that is needed is your phone and the wonderful Chinatown-International District as your playground. Black & Tan Hall partners considered the needs and safety of the community and potential tourists. A self-guided walking tour was the best option for pandemic precautions, like maintaining social distance and avoiding crowded, confined spaces. And they offered the app for free, removing any monetary barriers. With the shifting of our communities and world, we all needed this type of accessible inspiration — a chance to learn, find ourselves in history, and be supportive of organizations that work hard to preserve it.
We began at King Street Station, where we downloaded the app on our cellular devices. While connecting to the app, we were guided by the audio voices of the many contributors to this project. The depth of researched history throughout the landscape cemented me in the time period when these Black business owners solidified their importance to these neighborhoods, to their communities, and to their nation. Now, graffiti-stained buildings cover up the old signage from long ago, and the mind attempts to put together the fragmented pieces of the past. It is through the guidance of the app that we unlock evidence of that past and try to understand it.
Those attending the grand launch made stops among the key areas of the self-guided tour. The stops included Chiyo’s Garden, a place between 6th and Maynard that once held Ruth Whiteside’s famous beauty parlor and school, the Louisa Hotel, and the Theatre Off Jackson, right next to the Golden West Hotel. We were electrified by the performances of the Suitcase Dance Theatre and the musical excellence of Ben Hunter and Reggie Garrett. The performances not only soothed and transported our souls with music from the time period, but also guided our footsteps toward the preserved 1920s murals of the historic Louisa Hotel.
Every key site was filled with thoughtful, grounding music and performances that pointed to a history that Black & Tan Hall is fighting to keep alive — a history of Americans who contributed in major ways toward a city that often rejected them as citizens, a people still contributing and building this city. This was the grand and first of many steps toward helping the community remember who built this city. This app is truly a testament of the past and the present coming together to make a history whole.
If South Seattle Emerald readers are interested in learning more about the Green Book, a traveling exhibit is currently on display in Tacoma at the Washington State History Museum. Together with the Black Heritage Society of Washington State, the museum is coordinating Green Book programs throughout the spring.
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: Ben Hunter (left) and Reggie Garrett (right) perform both classic blues and some of their own songs outside the Theatre Off Jackson during the Grand Launch event for the Seattle Green Book Tour on Sunday, March 27, 2022. The Theatre Off Jackson is next to the former site of the Golden West Hotel, which in 1939 was the only location in Seattle listed in the Green Book. (Photo: Susan Fried)
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