By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
The 2018 movie “Green Book” is a bio-comedy-drama telling the true story of a 1962 tour of the Deep South by Black pianist Don Shirley and his white-Italian driver.
The movie was inspired by the “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” used by Blacks travelers from the 1930s to the 60s, to locate 4,032 hotels and other public sites in 21 mostly southern states which they could safely patronize during the height of Jim Crow segregation.
New York Mailman Hugo Green compiled the “The Negro Traveler’s Green Book,” the first publication of its kind after hearing about the harrowing experiences Black travelers experienced.
There are over 300 such sites in Virginia, according to the website “The Architecture of The Negro Traveler: The Greenbook,” including hotels, restaurants, barber and beauty shops, and service stations, most all gone.
Thanks to the book, the movie, personal recollections of those still living and two state lawmakers, the first of 60 of the 300 sites in Virginia was honored recently with a historic marker placed at a stretch of Buckroe Beach where the Bay Shore Hotel and beach were once located.
Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, Hampton Mayor Donnie Tuck, dignitaries, and people with personal ties attended the event.
The state now has a law on the book directing the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to help locales to identify others.
The Bay Shore Hotel was listed in Virginia’s Green Book from 1947-1958, and again from 1962-1964 and 1966-1967. The property began as a four-room cottage in 1898 and by 1925, expanded into a four-story beachfront hotel with 70 rooms, long porches facing the water, and a dance hall that brought in conventions, tourists, famous entertainers like Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Redd Foxx.
The hotel attracted thousands of Black travelers from the mid-Atlantic region before it closed and was torn down in 1973.
“The Bay Shore Hotel was such a popular tourist destination and has an extensive history that many travelers do not know about,” said Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources Travis A. Voyles. “This is just one of many locations throughout the Commonwealth that tells the history of important places to Black Americans. We encourage residents and travelers to visit these plaques to learn more about these times in Virginia’s history.”
State Delegates Jeion Ward (92 district) and Michael Mullin (93 district) introduced House Bill 1968 to designate or approve supplementary plaques for historic site markers identifying Green Book locations and businesses in Virginia.
The bill also calls for additional funding to document surviving buildings listed in the Green Book. The study will help make the historic properties eligible for potential sources of funding, and highway markers, and increase public education about the Green Book and Black History in Virginia.
“I’m grateful for Delegate Jeion Ward, who inspired this bill and whose hard work helped in its passage,” Mullin said. “Thanks to the efforts of the agencies involved, visitors can now enjoy these historic sites and learn more about our state’s important past. We hope to see more of the Green Book sites in Virginia honored as the project continues.”
“Faced with the terrible institution of segregation, some very smart Black businessmen, in the late 19th century, turned this spot into the vacation paradise of the South for African-Americans,” said Hampton Mayor, Donnie Tuck. “They had an amusement park; a boardwalk and a legendary dance hall. They say the music was so good that the White vacationers over at Buckroe would jump over the fence to come listen.”
It was a home away from home for people not welcome in other places, a place featured in Green Books used by Black families, including Delegate Ward, who shared her story on the floor of the Virginia House of Delegates.
“And I do hope that Virginians, and Americans and friends from around the world who are traveling, will stop and read each one to learn about the places,” Youngkin said.
Helen Phillips Pitts, the granddaughter of John Mallory Phillips, one of the original investors in the hotel, said she had been emotional all week understanding the role her grandfather had.
Pitts is in her 70s now, and though the hotel is long gone, she says the new marker means history won’t go unnoticed here.
“I had no idea until I was grown that my grandfather was part of this group of men that started Bayshore Beach.”
“You think about your community – what you want for your grandchildren when they grow up – that to me is the most important thing,” Phillips Pitts said. It’s why we have kids to do better than we did in the past. “It’s about doggone time somebody realized that Bay Shore was important – and who it was important to,” she said.
The hotel and the “Bay Shore Beach” were separated by a white fence across Buckroe Beach, which was reserved for “whites only.”
In the September 6, 1930, edition of the GUIDE, a story announcing the funeral of Drank D. Banks, “Who began the famous resort with four room cottages, 40 years ago, developed a 70-room Sea shore hotel” on one and a half acre of land on the Buckroe Beach.
The former president of St. Paul’s College, the “principal” of Tuskegee Institute, Robert Moton, and other luminaries spoke highly of Banks at his funeral in the Hampton Institute Chapel.
Banks, a native of Danville, a bookkeeper, and other colleagues at Hampton Institute pooled their resources to buy the land to open the small resort.
The year he died, the 270 feet of waterfront next to the hotel was “the only beach area for Negroes in 1930 in Virginia,” according to a GUIDE article.
Until 1962, the hotel had several names and owners. The initial ones were The Knights Templars Club and the Bayshore Beach Club.
In 1945, it was bought from a group of whites by 21 Black businessmen who formed the Seaview Beach and Hotel Corporation which included Norfolk’s Real Estate Businessman W. T. Mason, president and lawyer and businessman, Wilbur O. Watts of Portsmouth, (Safeway Cab), Rev. J.A. Handy and others.
The group invested some $85,000 into expanding the resort complex into the largest one for African-Americans on the East Coast.
(According to the CPI Index) $85,000 in 1945 is equal to $1,453,448.06 today)
The company bought 50 acres of undeveloped land to build resort homes for $35,000.
Its last owner’s group was led by Charles H. Wilson, who among others formed the New Bay Shore Corporation. Williams was constantly fending off accusations that the operations were owned by whites.
The hotel was damaged by harsh hurricanes, but restored; two fires destroyed the dancing pavilion and other parts in the late 1940s; and occasional crosses were burned there by the K.K.K.
Content from WHRO News and the GUIDE Archives were used for this article.