Navigating segregation: African-American tourists in upstate New York

Vi Ferguson of the Wicky Wacky with Peg Leg Bates at a party at the Depuy Canal House to celebrate the release of a film about Peg Leg.

Peg Leg Bates, the one-legged vaudevillian and dancer born in 1907 to a South Carolina sharecropper, performed all over the country. But when the show was over, Bates – despite the fact that he was nationally famous – had to struggle to find accommodations, since African Americans were barred from booking rooms in white-owned hotels or eating meals in white-owned restaurants. Having experienced personally the hassles that blacks had to endure when traveling, he opened the Peg Leg Bates Country Club in Kerhonkson in 1951 as a way to provide a safe, fun vacation spot for blacks: one of the first such facilities to open in the Catskills.

The property, which included a variety of accommodations as well as a pool, roller-disco rink, bike path and Broadway floor show, served vacationers for more than 30 years. “While you’re here at the Peg Leg Bates Country Club, you are secure, you are protected,” Bates was quoted in a New York Times article about the resort in 1987, the summer before it closed (Bates died at age 91 in 1998). “You will not be robbed; you will not be mugged.’” (By that time, Bates noted in the article, his business was in decline, thanks to integration. He lamented that fact that, though whites visited his club and bar, “not one will stay in my rooms.”)

Advertisement

Dr. Gretchen Sorin will offer a fascinating context for the Bates Country Club and other black tourism spots in the Catskills with an upcoming lecture, “Navigating Segregation: African American Tourists in Upstate New York and Beyond,” that sheds light on the indignities, hardships and prejudice suffered by traveling African Americans from the 1930s to the mid-1960s. The lecture will be presented on Friday, September 15 at 7 p.m. at the Dutch Reformed Church in Accord, located at 5142 Route 209. It is sponsored by the Friends of Historic Rochester and the Town of Rochester Historic Preservation Commission.

Sorin has worked as a museum consultant for more than 30 years and is director and distinguished professor at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, one of the leading training programs in the country for museum curators, educators and directors. She is currently collaborating on a film with Ric Burns’ production company, Steeplechase Films, that has the working title Driving while Black, which is an outgrowth of her PhD thesis focusing on the experience of African Americans on the road during the era of Jim Crow.

Sorin will be accompanied by Rene Bailey, the talented and moving gospel singer who was the house singer at the Peg Leg Bates Country Club for many years, and Connie Beckley, who currently owns the Wicky Wacky Club, an African American resort located in High Falls; Beckley interviewed proprietor Vi Ferguson before she died and will talk about the resort’s early years. Bailey, who recently performed at Kingston’s Midtown Arts District’s “Celebration of the Arts” concert on August 3, will perform a few songs from her repertoire.

It may be a surprise to some to learn that stringent segregation practices for travelers occurred not only in the South, but also in the North. While there may not have been any “Whites Only” signs, in the North “it was de facto segregation; it was understood African Americans were not welcome at mainstream white-owned resorts,” said Sorin in a phone interview. “They had their own places. In between, they had to transverse these white spaces, where they were not welcome.”

If a black ventured off the segregated beach at Atlantic City, for example, into the white section, “the police might come or people might say terrible things to you or throw rocks at you,” Sorin said. It wasn’t until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which followed the Supreme Court decision declaring segregation of public schools to be illegal in 1954, that the situation began to change. Ultimately, legal challenges brought by the NAACP against the segregationist practices of Hilton and Howard Johnson’s were successful, Sorin said.

“That does not mean that people immediately threw open their doors and welcomed African Americans,” she added. “Certainly not. You might go to a hotel and be told, ‘We just rented the last room,’ or ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have a reservation for your dinner so we can’t seat you,’ and how would you know if that was true?” But it did mean that separately designated sections of restaurants, clubs, libraries, hotels and other businesses and institutions catering to the public were outlawed, which paved the way for change.

Blacks weren’t entirely alone: In the resort industry, anti-Semitism was also prevalent, although it might at times be more subtle, since “you couldn’t always tell who was Jewish,” said Sorin. “If someone called for a reservation and had a surname the hotel staff thought was Jewish, you might be discriminated against.”

Sorin examines the period when the growth of an African American middle class following the Depression spurred more black people to travel for pleasure. “The government encouraged African Americans to travel, because it meant more money spent, which boosted the economy,” she said. To find a place to stay, people would write letters to the National Urban League or the NAACP for recommendations. Mostly, this was by word-of-mouth, and initially it would be in a tourist home, where the owner – usually a woman – would rent a room in her home. Or people would contact a black church in the area they were traveling to and either stay in the pastor’s home or get a recommendation from the pastor of a place to stay. “It was a network of people operating through word-of-mouth who were finding places for blacks to stay,” she said.

Guidebooks were published for African American travelers, including a series called the Green Book, which was published from 1936 to 1966 and listed tourist homes, guesthouses, motels, nightclubs and restaurants. Travelers were encouraged to contact the publisher if they’d had a good experience at a lodging or restaurant, which would then be listed. The Green Book, which started in the metro New York City area, eventually expanded nationally and even internationally. Sorin said that there was also an exceptional guidebook “that worked really hard to include places of integration in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, run by people of good will.”

Two corporations stood out as relatively forward-thinking: In the 1930s and 1940s, Seagram’s and Esso (which later became Exxon) began hiring African Americans as a way to market their products and services to blacks, which the companies viewed as a profit opportunity. Nonetheless, the black members of the corporate teams themselves had to find alternative housing when they were on the road; while their white colleagues stayed at the Hilton, they had to spend the night in a tourist home. Ditto for the traveling black entertainers and black members of traveling baseball teams, prior to Jackie Robinson finally breaking the color barrier – in sports as well as in the hospitality industry: In the 1950s, according to Wikipedia, he “openly criticized segregated hotels and restaurants that served the Dodger organization; a number of these establishments integrated as a result, including the five-star Chase Park Hotel in St. Louis.”

These professional people “didn’t want to say in a tourist home,” said Sorin. There were some black-owned hotels, including the Theresa in Harlem and the Majestic, which opened in Ohio in the 1940s. However, in some communities there were simply no options for blacks – not even a tourist home. That meant “African American traveling performers had a really hard time,” Sorin said. After performing for a white audience, “they might end up sleeping in their car or driving late at night to their next gig. Sometimes they got into car accidents.”

Before hitting the road, the performer might “go to the back door and get a sandwich, although you never knew if someone had spit into their sandwich.” Sometimes a non-racist white person might step in to help: Sorin recounted the time Marian Anderson performed at Princeton and ended up staying at Albert Einstein’s house when there was no place in the area that would accommodate her.

Sorin herself recalled the “peculiar” travel practices of her parents, who, while she was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, would drive the family from their home in New Jersey down to Fayetteville, North Carolina for a week each summer to visit Sorin’s grandparents. “My father would just drive straight through” without stopping overnight, she recalled. Her mother would pack up a green Coleman cooler, and the family would picnic by the roadside, never stopping at a restaurant. On the way back, her grandmother would pack up the same cooler. “You’re in this bubble, which is your car, and you just stay in it to go from safe place to safe place,” she said.

During those years of segregated travel, needless to say even buying gas could be a fraught experience. The attendant “wanted your money and so they would sell you gas, but they wouldn’t be willing to touch your hand and you had to drop your money on the counter,” she noted. Blacks couldn’t use the toilets. The exception was Esso, which welcomed African Americans and allowed people to use their bathrooms. “My father always bought Esso gas, and there were black-owned Esso gas stations,” she said. Esso was one of the companies that was originally part of Standard Oil, and she speculates that its liberal policy might have derived from John D. Rockefeller’s commitment to racial equality, which was rooted in his religious conviction as a Northern Baptist. (Rockefeller funded Spelman College, a female seminary for women of African descent, among other initiatives supporting black education and civil rights.)

Being on the road as an African American could also be perilous. “I interviewed a woman whose father got really nervous about the police when they drove outside of Boston and even in the city. His wife was light-skinned, and he was afraid people would think she was white,” she said, noting that groups of multiracial people in cars would get stopped in the South, unless the black person was the chauffeur. “You did have to be careful everywhere, unless you were in a safe community, which was a black community or black-owned resort.”

“Navigating Segregation: African American Tourists in Upstate New York & Beyond” lecture, Dr. Gretchen Sorin, Friday, September 15, 7 p.m., free, Dutch Reformed Church, 5142 Route 209, Accord.

There is one comment

Post Your Thoughts