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History center offers a close-up of what it was like to be black in Rochester

History center offers a close-up of what it was like to be black in Rochester

Traveling as a black person in the not-so-distant, segregated past was perilous without the right information. Stopping at the wrong place might result in refusal of service, or worse, even here in Rochester.

Minnesota Nice or not, our area has racism in its history, same as any other place in America. The History Center of Olmsted County’s new exhibit, “Traveling While Black,” sheds light on some of that shamefulness.

The exhibit has a trio of focuses: the challenges of traveling while black, discrimination’s effect on Rochester and its black residents, and the Green Book, which was a guide to hotels, restaurants and other places where blacks would be welcome. It was created in 1937 by Victor Hugo Green, a New York postman. Before Green, that information was passed down informally, verbally, from person to person.

“I didn’t use the Green Book, but I knew about the system. I’ve been here for 51 years in this community. I came in 1968, which was the year that Martin Luther King was killed,” said George Thompson, who was interviewed for the exhibit. “When you’re traveling, you were always nervous about getting out some place — unfortunately my wife can tell you that now, I still am nervous about certain places.”

Three local businesses earned a mention in the Green Book, starting with the Avalon Hotel, 3301 North Broadway. The Avalon was built in 1919 and catered to Jewish travelers. In 1944, Verne Manning bought it and renamed it to the Avalon. Duke Ellington and Count Basie stayed there, as did Manning, who’d been denied a hotel room because of his race while his wife was in the hospital. The other two establishments listed in the Green Book, The Gatewood and Deluxe Motohome, have long since been demolished.

That Rochester has even one building still standing from this era is a stark reminder of just how recent it was. Northern states often point to being on the right side of the Civil War as proof that communities above the Mason-Dixon line have always been more racially-enlightened, but this exhibit skewers that assumption with its look at ‘sundown towns.’

“They’re towns that, if you were in the town after sundown and you were African-American or Jewish or any color besides white, you would get arrested and either get beaten or something bad would happen to you,” said Dan Owakowski, curator of collection and exhibits at the history center.

These towns were exclusively in northern states, including Minnesota.

Clipping from the Post-Bulletin newspaper dated August 23, 1963

The exhibit features an interactive map of Green Book locations throughout the U.S., and a bevy of information about the book. Artifact-wise, there is a bumper from a 1950s Chevy attached to a mural, which leads visitors onto a display of old automobile necessities like spark plugs and tire kits. A gas pump from Pure Oil, a gas station chain known for being helpful to black travelers, was also acquired. Rochester had a Pure Oil station of its own, but its logo is obscured in the only available photo of it. In another room, a collection of furniture was sourced to authentically recreate a hotel room at the Avalon from the day before the Civil Rights Act.

Perhaps the most powerful piece of the exhibit, though, is the quartet of interviews with people who lived and traveled during this era.

“That’s a really good dimension of this exhibit, that it goes beyond just the panels and the artifacts, but there are accounts from people who lived through it. It adds a very personal touch, feel to it,” said Kevin Whaley, collections manager at the History Center of Olmsted County.

In Thompson’s interview, he relates a conversation he had with his father as a child that continues to echo into 2019.

“I said to my dad, ‘why do white people hate us so much?’ And my dad used to know all kinds of things, I thought. He said, ‘that’s just the way it is.’ I thought, what kind of answer is that? He knows stuff, he’s going to tell me… But that was his answer, and that is what’s still the answer, unfortunately,” said Thompson.

George Thompson was among those interviewed for the “Traveling While Black” exhibit.

George Thompson was among those interviewed for the “Traveling While Black” exhibit.

Green himself had a question for his readers that rings of a similarly depressed optimism: he wondered whether or not his book would be needed by the 1970s. Unfortunately, he didn’t live long enough to see desegregation become the law of the land.

The History Center’s exhibit asks its visitors another question: is something like the Green Book still needed in 2019 America?

While visitors ponder that question, other pieces of the exhibit point to evidence of progress.

“It lets people know, we are moving forward, slowly, slowly,” said Thompson. “There are a lot of folks that don’t always understand that there is a problem.”

Exhibits like this, he said, chip away at that ignorance — personal experience by personal experience.

The exhibit’s formal opening begins with an open house at 3 p.m. on February 21. At 6 p.m., Frank White, a historian on African-American baseball in Minnesota, will give a special presentation.

Bryan Lund covers politics and culture for Med City Beat.

Cover photo: The Avalon Hotel and Avalon Fountain and Cafe in October 1949

Correction: A previous version of this story mistook the Frank White presenting at the history center for another Frank White who played professional baseball.

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