“Green Book” movie has local relevance

The winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2019 was Green Book. It is based on a true story — and the book at its center had relevance to Williamsport.

In 1962, Tony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, a bouncer, was looking for work when his nightclub is closed for renovations. The most promising offer turns out to be the driver for the African-American classical pianist Don Shirley for a concert tour into the Deep South states. Although hardly enthused at working for a black man, Vallelonga accepts the job and they begin their trek armed with The Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide for safe travel through segregated America.

In the segregated United States of the mid-twentieth century, African-American travelers could have a hard time finding towns, hotels, restaurants and service stations willing to serve them. There were restrictions not only in the South, but also in the North, including in Williamsport.

It could be dangerous driving while black. Some towns were called “Sundown towns,” where black Americans were forced to remain inside after dark. If a black man was caught outside after sunset, he stood a chance of assault or even lynching and death. There were hundreds of such towns.

In 1936, Victor Hugo Green, a black man from Harlem, published the first annual volume of The Negro Motorist Green-Book. It was published annually until 1956. The guide was partially modelled on directories for Jewish travelers, who, like blacks, were not welcome at all establishments. In the 1936 edition, the directory listed 9500 establishments where people of color could be served.

“This is a sad reminder of the racial hatred that existed so many years after slavery was abolished,” city resident Lucille Evans said.

Williamsport listings

The names of the tourist homes in Williamsport that served black visitors are included in each of the annual editions of The Green Book. In the 1950s and early 1960s, there were at least five places in Williamsport for blacks to stay overnight. These were private homes whose owners opened them to travelers. Black entertainers and athletes could not stay at the white hotels, so they stayed in these homes. There were three such tourist homes within one block of Walnut Street.

The parents of Sonja Mellix, who lived on the corner of Walnut Street and Park Avenue, operated Mellix’s Tourist Home. The parents of the late Peter Tzomes, who became the first black commander of a nuclear submarine, operated a tourist home directly across the street from the Mellix’s. At 636 Walnut St. was Sherman’s Tourist Home. In these places, travelers felt safe and mingled freely with the neighbors.

Mellix recently said she loved having tourists stay at her home. She met famous entertainers including The Ink Spots and famous athletes including Tony Curry and Ferguson Jenkins. Some of the friendships she formed lasted a lifetime.

Black students

Students also stayed at these homes while attending school. When black girls were finally admitted to the Williamsport Hospital School of Nursing, they attended classes, but could not stay overnight in the dorms with the white students.

“Sherman’s Tourist Home is close to my heart,” Evans said. “My father, John Clipper, a student at Williamsport Technical Institute, stayed there and met my mother, Thelma, who lived three houses down at 630 Walnut St. They fell in love and the rest is history.”

Many of the hotels, clubs and service stations listed in the annual Green Book are no longer standing, but there has been a revival of interest in preserving some as part of our cultural heritage.

Although there are no records of when segregation ended in Williamsport hotels, when Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Williamsport on April 23, 1958, he stayed at the Lycoming Hotel, which is now the Genetti Hotel).

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