‘The Green Book’ offered safety to African Americans traveling more than 70 years ago


Every old house has a story, but some have more chapters than others.

It’s a seemingly forgotten book that takes you across southeast Missouri uncovering little-known stories of the Heartland’s Black history.

Some incredible stories were uncovered in six months.

It starts with The Green Book.

A book first published in 1936 for African Americans traveling during Jim Crow laws.

Are the locations still here? Who are the people behind them?

It seemed like a simple trip, only three addresses to visit. However, none of them were there.

426 Short Oak – an empty lot.

And at 1800 North Alice – all you’ll find is a water tower.

As for Margarett Street – well…

“Never existed as far as we can tell,” said Poplar Bluff City Planner Dennis Avery.

When he was approached about the book and the location, he pulled out blueprints.

When asked if there had ever been a house there, he didn’t think so.

“No. It would have had to have been there prior to 1928 for it to have existed there,” said Avery.

It didn’t make sense, but Avery had another idea.

“I think that they are references for meeting points,” Avery said.

According to him, there was a place for travelers to stay.

“There is a house on Short 5th that was a black boarding home. We can’t find accurate records as to when that was in use for that purpose, but we do know that it existed,” Avery said.

Even though any connection to The Green Book seems to be gone, Avery said it’s an important part of Poplar Bluff, Missouri’s history.

“It’s a good thing to know that we didn’t just start doing the right thing a few years ago, we’ve been doing it for a long time,” he said.

An hour east of Poplar Bluff, in Charleston, Mo., there was more luck.

The Creole Café sat at the intersection of what is now Sy Williams Avenue and West Marshall Street.

Run by Helen Currin and her husband.

Helen’s son, Marshall, grew up in an apartment above the restaurant.

“Everyone came to the café on the weekends. It was a restaurant, it was a dance hall, it was a barbershop, it was a pool hall, and a hotel all combined. Just imagine about 300 people and dancing, and just having a good time,” Currin said.

Marshall said his mother’s door was always open.

“Everyone was welcome. Black, white, red, blue, green, you know, you was welcome. It was a spot where people knew they could come there and enjoy themselves, and not be hassled,” Currin said.

Helen Currin not only ran the café, but Marshall said she had a deeply positive impact on Charleston’s community, serving as the first black woman on the school board, and in 1970 the city honored her as Woman of the Year.

“It just gave her the recognition that she so deserved, and that was one way of the community showing that, and that being my mother, I felt really proud. It felt like I had got an award,” Currin said.

Helen was also an active member of the NAACP during a time that was uncertain, even for Marshall.

“We might get a phone call at two o’clock in the morning, you know, people threatening to come here and blow the place up.”

He said they were just idle threats and that it was mostly just intimidation, rather than action.

The Currin’s fought for civil rights in the ’60s. Marshall protested outside the now-closed McCutchen’s movie house.

“They didn’t allow blacks to sit downstairs, and we were demonstrating, boycotting, and we was arrested,” Currin said.

How old was he?

“About ten. I was arrested. I didn’t stay in jail long, but you know, it was the principal of the thing,” Currin said.

Looking back, Marshall said The Green Book puts a lot in perspective.

“I wasn’t aware of the book, but as you explained it, why this book was published, you know, to help travelers out, I could see our restaurant being in the book,” Currin said.

The restaurant closed in the 1970s when his parents retired, and the land was sold to make way for government housing, but the lot where Marshall grew up stays with him wherever he goes.

“Every time I see this I think about it, and it’s sad that it’s not here anymore, but I still have the memories. That’s something that I’ll always have,” Currin said.

Cape Girardeau, Mo. is the next stop on the journey, where history has a way of repeating itself.

The Green Book is long out of print, but for thirty years it gave traveling African-Americans safe places to stay, even here in Cape Girardeau.

“I think it’s important that Cape Girardeau have an awareness that we were in The Green Book. African-Americans could not buy gasoline here. There was a necessity for us to be in The Green Book, which tells us something about ourselves,” said Cape Girardeau Historian, Frank Nickell.

Three listings in The Green Book left little to go on.

Only a first initial and last name for each.

We wanted to know who these people were, and the stories behind the historical places we pass every day.

So, we cracked open the records at The Cape County Courthouse.

For two of the listings – the ones on Frederick and North streets – we had to dig a little deeper.

Two spots – now empty lots.

The house on Frederick Street – demolished, and on North Street only stone stairs remain.

“We’re sitting right here on the steps of one of the houses that was in The Green Book,” said Frank Nickell with The Kellerman Foundation.

Nickell was not surprised these two houses are gone.

“They’re very old and rundown, so that’s what we do. We tear them down, and I think that’s a great loss of history,” Nickell said.

Nickell learned about The Green Book years ago, and said he’s proud Cape Girardeau was a part of it during a time where the color of your skin could mean you were turned away.

“They couldn’t buy gasoline, they couldn’t stay all night unless they found someplace like 38 North Hanover,” Nickell said.

“I always knew there was something special about this house, ” Yvonne Cardwell Johnson said.

Johnson lives in the only standing ‘Green House’ in Southeast Missouri.

38 North Hanover in Cape Girardeau was built by William Martin in the 1930s – Johnson’s blood relative.

Both Yvonne, and her mother Louise, spent a lot of time there as children.

“As I got older I began to wonder – how were they able to afford a house like this,” said Louise Cardwell.

Louise said she would see people come and go, but never understood the importance of what her family was doing.

Until her long Doctor Nickell told her.

“She realized it when she saw that book. That’s why there were so many strangers in her house,” Nickell said.

“‘I knew it. I knew it was something special about this house,’ and I had always felt it. Ever since I was a little kid. I’d always felt that,” Johnson said.

Yvonne rented the house she knew as a girl, but was able to buy it shortly after.

“God made it possible for me to purchase the house. That was the real dream come true,” Johnson said.

“At 38 North Hanover the tradition was you were never turned away. I don’t think anyone’s turned away there now,” Nickell said.

“It’s always had an open door, and still has one, because sometimes the house is running over with grand kids, and great-grand kids, and friends,” Cardwell said.

Between the years that these women owned the home, it got a surprising upgrade – a painted green porch.

Yvonne said if she could talk to Martin today she would say thank you.

“I’m glad I’m related to you. You were about your father’s business, and I would ask them everything I could think of,” Johnson said.

Because while the other buildings are gone, their importance hasn’t faded.

“If we tear down all of our buildings we have nothing left but a shadow and a story,” Nickell said.

Buildings that were here in Cape – and across our nation.

“I would love to visit some of those places. I think our children should know this. I think young children, they should know what our ancestors had to go through,” Johnson said.

The other two homes left little to no local connection to current residents in Cape Girardeau, and were torn down years before this story was published.

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