Accommodations “For Colored”

Accommodations “For Colored”

The Colbrook Motel on U.S. 1 and 301 between Richmond and Petersburg, advertised as “Virginia’s Finest Motel for Colored.” With W.E. Brooks as owner, might the first part of the motel name have been an abbreviation for “colored”? Images from the author unless noted.

Imagine that you are a proprietor of a tourist court back in the 1930s, and one day a car pulls in carrying members of a white family . . . but also a black maid. What do you do? In the March 1939 issue of Tourist Court Journal – once the major trade publication for “mom and pop” highway hostelries – the editor invited readers to share their answers to that question. The responses he got speak volumes today about what black travelers once were up against on the nation’s highways.

Of the seven court owners who responded, three would not accept black guests under any circumstances. For B.M. Bennett of the Freemont Auto Court, Las Vegas, New Mexico, this was just part of a more general policy: “We make it a strict rule never to take negro, Jap, Chinese, or any other sort of colored peoples, servants or otherwise …. Our court is for decent white people only.” O. T. Craver’s special concern at the Marshall Tourist Court in Marshall, Texas, was to keep up a reputation for tight quality control: “Since I positively do not allow negroes, the tourist is certain he is not renting a cabin recently occupied by one.” Also closed to blacks was Casa Linda Court in Gallup, New Mexico, but owner J.L. Ambrose claimed he at least always conveyed the rejection “in a nice manner” and offered to take the servant to a local hotel that did serve blacks.

Although the remaining four respondents were willing to let black servants onto their premises, three imposed conditions. At the Ocean Park Motor Court in San Francisco, according to owner C.L. Smith, “we allow colored maids to stay at our court if they wear uniforms.” Black servants could stay at the Eastham Camp in North Eastham, Massachusetts, but owner R.H. Whitford tried “to place them where they will not have to come into too close a contact with other guests” and also specified that they “not come into the restaurant while it is full of customers.” And at the Smoky Heights Resort in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, O.R. Medlin reported that he kept “one or two of our worst cot mattresses, also pillows and blankets especially for negroes and in a place to themselves.” Usually the white family will “want Mirandy to sleep in the kitchen, and her cot is placed there”; otherwise, she was sent to a storage room at the end of a garage.

Most at ease about having a black servant at his tourist court was a former Southerner, R.J. Kiker of the El Monte Court in Taos, New Mexico, who claimed a special deftness in interracial relations. Any black person coming into his court, he boasted, quickly “understands … that “he ‘done met up with white folks that knows niggers and conducts himself accordingly.” A white family traveling with a black servant, he believed, was likely to carry with them “a cot with the servant’s own bedding and [would] let him sleep in the kitchen, or else [would have him] sleep in the car.” [1]

Underlying these chilling comments was a belief, shared by editor and respondents alike, that no “respectable” tourist court would ever accommodate African Americans except as servants accompanying white motorists. Black motorists should expect to look elsewhere for lodging, but in the editor’s judgment, that posed no hardship: “In nearly every little hamlet in the South there are regular negro rooming houses, hotels and some tourist courts that cater exclusively to negroes,” which he claimed was also true in “nearly any city of five thousand or over in the United States.” [2]

On this point, the editor must have been willfully obtuse or self-bamboozled. Hoping to escape the humiliations and Jim Crow conditions of travel by train, some middle-class blacks indeed were buying cars and taking to the open road (or at least aspiring to do so) by the 1930s. [3] However, their enjoyment of long-distance travel by car was undercut by a widespread scarcity of lodging facilities available to black motorists. Writing about this problem in 1933, Alfred Edgar Smith, an early black motorist, referred to “a small cloud that stands between us and complete motor-travel freedom.” “On the trail,” Smith continued, “this cloud rarely troubles us in the mornings, but as the afternoon wears on it casts a small shadow of apprehension on our hearts and sours us a little. “Where,’ it asks us, ‘will you stay tonight?’” [4]

Interfering with Smith’s enjoyment of motoring were “the great uncertainty, the extreme difficulty of finding lodging for the night – a suitable lodging, a semi-suitable lodging, an unsuitable lodging, any lodging at all, not to mention an eatable meal.” As if in anticipation of the sanguine claims made by the editor of Tourist Court Journal about the ease of finding a room for the night, Smith spelled out the full size of the problem: “In a large city (where you have no friends) it’s hard enough, in a smaller city it’s harder, in a village or small town it’s a gigantic task, and in anything smaller it’s a matter of sheer luck. And, in spite of unfounded beliefs to the contrary, conditions are practically identical in the Mid-west, the South, the so-called Northeast, and the South-south-west.”

A 1943 study by Charles S. Johnson of “patterns of Negro segregation” in the United States backed up Smith’s main points about the nationwide scarcity of hotel accommodations for black travelers. “No Negroes are accommodated in any hotel in the South that receives white patronage,” Johnson reported, whereas in the North, “many of the hotels belong to syndicates or chains, and their policies are remarkably consistent. One or two Negroes, usually of national distinction, are accommodated on occasions at the well-known hotels [singer Marian Anderson seems to have been a frequent “beneficiary” of this policy], but in most cases some special arrangement has been made with the management. An ordinary applicant will be met with the statement that no rooms are available.” [5]

About the Author: Lyell Henry is a retired Mount Mercy College political science professor and serves as historian on several projects at Lincoln Highway sites in Iowa.

There’s more! To read the rest of this article, members are invited to log in (?). Not a member? We invite you to join. This article originally appeared in theSCA Journal, Fall 2005, Vol. 23, No. 2. The SCA Journal is a semi-annual publication and a member benefit of the Society for Commercial Archeology.

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