I had never heard of “The Green Book” until this summer when I was doing some research in the Needham Public Library. I was looking for a point of entry for my next body of artwork. I wanted to work with local history, but I wanted to tell a new story. My focus was on buildings, and the hidden histories that help create our communities. And so it happened that I came across a listing for a “Tourist Home” in Needham, Massachusetts.
In 1927, the house at 799 Central Avenue was owned by B. Chapman. Few details were given in the “1938 Needham Dover Directory”. The 1940 census filled in some information about Mrs. Chapman, her son William, and his wife Annie. They were listed as “Negro” and she as the proprietress of a “Lodging House”.
I’ve lived in Needham, MA most of my life. When I was growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s, there were maybe a handful of black families living here. The idea that a woman of color was running a business in Needham from at least 1938 until 1954 or beyond, was very unexpected.
I found a listing in “The Negro Motorist’s Green Book” of 1936. In 1936 (until the 1960’s) Victor Green published a travel guide for African Americans documenting where they could safely find gas stations, restaurants, tourist homes and other businesses that would welcome people of color. The Massachusetts listings were not extensive, but there was Mrs. Chapman’s house in Needham.
The artwork I’m planning is still taking shape. At this time I think it will be a room-sized art installation. It includes a model of the original home in Needham, and a series of laser-cut paper panels. I’ll post sketches and prototypes as I continue working.
I’m looking for anyone with information about the properties or the people associated with the listings. I have been reading and researching independently, but I’d love to find a historian who would like to collaborate. If you have documents, stories, or anything you think could be relevant to this project, please do drop me a line at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks so much!
If you are interested in this history, here are a couple of resources that have been helpful to me:
Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh,
You can download the original article from this website. It’s a great place to start.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson