Several years ago, Reginald Robinson found himself at Buckroe Beach in Hampton, Virginia, trying to point out to his wife exactly where he’d spent so much time playing in the sand as a young kid.
Living in Richmond in the 1960s, Robinson and his parents would travel often to then-Bay Shore Beach and stay at the Bay Shore Hotel, like thousands of other Black Americans up and down the East Coast.
Back then, there were few options. Black families weren’t allowed at beaches in Ocean View or Virginia Beach, and “you still had no access to public pools or anywhere to cool off,” said Robinson, now 59.
But Bay Shore was like a mecca for young Reginald, he recalled, complete with a merry-go-round and bumper cars. As a kid, he didn’t even notice the fence that ran down the sand, segregating Bay Shore from the much larger and whites-only Buckroe.
Before his time, noted acts such as Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald often played at the hotel.
When Robinson was trying to point out the spots to his wife a little over a decade ago, however, he couldn’t quite remember. Until a few years ago, there was nothing there to indicate Bay Shore ever existed. (A historical marker was put up in 2018.)
Few mementos remain of Bay Shore, which closed and was torn down in 1973 after integration. Buckroe memorabilia is much easier to find.
But there’s one place where you can find Bay Shore’s name reliably in print, preserving its importance to local Black history: the famed “Green Book” that advised Black Americans throughout the Jim Crow era where it was safe to travel, eat and sleep without fear of harm or harassment. (The book was also the subject of the Oscar-winning film of the same name in 2018.)
“A fine resort on the Chesapeake Bay,” an advertisement for Bay Shore reads in the 1962 edition.
A new project from a small team of historians seeks to document every site in Virginia — and eventually, the country — that was listed in the “Green Book,” to ensure places like Bay Shore don’t disappear without a trace.
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The “Negro Motorist Green Book,” more commonly referred to as “Green Book,” was created by Victor Hugo Green, a Black mailman from Harlem in New York City. It first published in 1936.
Expanding access to automobiles in the early 20th century theoretically enabled Black Americans to be able to travel more freely and safely than when they relied on public transportation, said Susan Hellman, an architectural historian in Northern Virginia who’s leading the new project.
But state-sanctioned segregation, especially Jim Crow laws throughout the South, meant that they faced the constant threat of harassment or assault if a car broke down in the wrong part of town, for instance.
Travel guides popped up to help African Americans safely navigate through that landscape. Green’s, which ran through 1966, became the preeminent, with an ever-expanding list of establishments that ultimately spanned all 50 states and even some foreign destinations, Hellman said.
“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published,” the authors wrote in the 1948 edition, according to History.com. “That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.”
About five years ago, Hellman was chatting with a former graduate school friend, Catherine Zipf, now a historian in Rhode Island. Zipf had begun researching all the “Green Book” sites in her state, and inspired Hellman to do the same — a bigger undertaking, considering the commonwealth’s size and southern location.
Since then, Hellman — who does the work outside her day job for the city of Alexandria — has found 315 sites in Virginia by poring through digital copies of the books available through the New York Public Library. She made a Google map with all included, listing the building status, years they were in the “Green Book” and a photo if Hellman’s traveled there yet.
The University of Virginia also has come on board recently and will serve as the new home of the data, not just for Virginia but eventually nationwide when enough volunteer historians can be recruited to do the same for their states. A team at the university’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities is working to develop a centralized platform and eventually will supplant Hellman’s homegrown website devoted to the effort.
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About a third of the state’s sites are in Hampton Roads.
There are a handful of recognizable names, such as Bay Shore and Norfolk’s Attucks Theatre, then called the Booker T. Theatre.
But a majority of the sites are not big and flashy. They were simply everyday businesses where someone could grab a bite or spare tire.
Ye Single Inn, for example, was a restaurant in Phoebus in the late 1930s, according to Hellman’s research. Google the name, though, and nothing appears but for the Green Book’s rosters. A barber shop now sits in its place.
Pearlie’s Restaurant on Jefferson Avenue in Newport News is one of the few surviving joints, though at the time of its listing in 1939-50 it was listed as Tavern Rest.
Many are simply houses that were listed as “tourist homes,” where owners rented rooms to people passing through.
In traveling to various sites, Hellman said she often meets people who have no idea of the history hidden in the buildings in which they live, work or pass by daily.
“A lot of it is educational, and awareness,” she said. “The fact these sites existed, and the fact they had to exist — I want people to be aware of that.”
She’s runs into issues with changed addresses, or general locations with no specific address, like a Sportsman’s Restaurant & Motel in Portsmouth listed simply as “on Route 2.”
And many buildings already have been torn down.
By their very nature as spaces devoted to Black communities, they were more vulnerable to neglect by city leaders more interested in preserving white history.
Louis Nelson, vice provost for academic outreach at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture, said that’s a large part of why the university got involved with Hellman’s project.
The field of historic preservation, including at U.Va., has historically “done a great job elevating the stories of white people.” It’s time to catch up and tell everyone’s stories, he said.
“Historic preservation has often been used by white communities as a weapon,” Nelson said.
The development of the interstate, for example, often ran through Black neighborhoods in order to preserve white ones.
His goal for the “Green Book” documentation project is not only to educate the public, but provide resources for historic preservation offices across the country, so they have the proper information when making policy decisions or drawing up historic districts.
“Part of this is not just to preserve individual ‘Green Book’ sites but to see where important Black communities operated in their states” that may have since been leveled or gentrified, he said. “This is an important means by which we can reinscribe Black history.”
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Robinson still lives in Richmond where he runs a small cleaning company but travels to Hampton often. He’s not involved with the Green Book project but works to preserve Bay Shore history in his own way.
He started digging into Bay Shore in 2013, when he attended a Hampton History Museum event about Buckroe. During a Q&A session, someone asked, “What about Bay Shore?”
The guest speaker responded, “Oh, that was just a little place for the coloreds.”
Robinson was stunned. “We’re still ‘colored’ in 2013.”
And a “little place?” Robinson thought. “It was mighty large to me.”
That sent him on a research journey through the Hampton University archives. (Bay Shore Beach was originally opened in 1898 when a group from the university’s precursor, the Hampton Institute, pooled its money to buy a recreation spot for students, according to Pilot archives.) He now holds an annual Bay Shore event at the museum.
Young people are often shocked to learn about the fence that divided the beach between Black and white people, Robinson said.
“Without this (Green) book and the businesses that appeared in it, we could not impress upon the younger generations of today the freedoms that they enjoy this very moment,” he said.
Now, he said, anyone can head to a beach day over in Virginia Beach or down in Nags Head.
“You can walk in the sand, eat at the restaurant, sleep in a room. That freedom was not afforded to (Black) ancestors, less than 60 years ago,” he said. “Young people need to understand: Do not take the freedoms you have today for granted.”
You can find more information, including a map of all the Virginia sites, at virginiagreenbook.com. You can also find archived versions of the “Green Book” in the New York Public Library’s Digital Collections.