When Hank Hendrix was a teenager in Fresno in the 1950s, his family would embark on road trips to visit extended family in Arkansas. “My mom would cook everything before we left,” he says. “We’d got water, food, everything, and that’s the way we would travel.”
If they’d turned on the radio, they could have had their pick between a baseball game or radio drama—and a dose of reality. “Just the other day, one of the fine citizens of our community, Mrs. Rosa Parks, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat for a white passenger,” Martin Luther King, Jr. said in a 1955 address to the media.
In 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower would need to send federal troops to escort the “Little Rock Nine” into a desegregated school in Arkansas. It would be another seven years before the Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination based on race.
The Hendrixes had left Arkansas during the Great Migration, alongside millions of other African-Americans fleeing the South. They eventually settled in Fresno in 1949, when Hendrix’s father got a job in the fields picking cotton and grapes.
Spending days on the road wasn’t easy. Hendrix, his parents, and his four siblings had to sleep in their car. “There was no such thing as accommodations along the highway,” he says. “The only thing they wanted from African Americans at that time was some money for some gas. Sometimes you couldn’t even use the restrooms at the gas station.”
Dining out wasn’t even an option. “I’m telling you, the restaurants, the gas stations and any of those conveniences, they were absolutely not allowed to use them,” Hendrix says.
His parents didn’t know that there were guidebooks that listed diners, hotels, auto garages and beauty parlors that welcomed African Americans. The most widely distributed was the Negro Motorist Green Book, which by some estimates was publishing millions of copies by the 1960s. “They needed a Green Book and a lot more, truthfully,” Hendrix says. “Those things would have made a heck of a lot of difference.”
The Green Book was published almost every year from 1936 to 1967. It listed thousands of businesses across the country, including 30 in the Valley, mostly in West Fresno and Fresno’s Chinatown. Dorythea Williams and George Finley, both around 90 years old, remember almost all of them—like Buddy Lang’s garage and Ruth’s beauty parlor on F Street, and Sportsman’s barber shop on G Street.
Williams recalls a restaurant where she had won a speech contest as a teenager. “Oh, the 20th Century Tavern—those were the Elks,” she says fondly.
Most businesses on the list were black-owned, unlike the Fresno Hacienda, a motel at Clinton and 99. “I remember Nat King Cole coming out there,” Finley says. “They had the swimming pool and you could see the people swimming in the pool from the bar.”
Finley was born in Alabama. When he moved to Fresno in the 50s, he thought he’d left Jim Crow attitudes behind. “It amazed me because thinking that if I came to the west, I would have full access to everything everybody else had, which wasn’t true when I arrived here,” he says.
Despite having a teaching credential, it took him years to get a job in a school.
Williams, a retired speech pathologist, grew up in Fresno after her family had been run out of Mississippi. The fear of violence remained, even in California. “Bakersfield was terrible,” she and Finley agree. “Oildale, you wouldn't want to go to Oildale even right now,” adds Finley.
The Ku Klux Klan has had a history in the Valley. “Klaverns,” as they were sometimes called, were founded as late as the 1930s in Visalia, Selma and Taft.
Neither Williams nor Finley knew of the Green Book, but for the most part they didn’t need it: By living here, it was obvious where they should and should not go. For instance, Finley remembers not being able to stop in Clovis at night. “You could not stop in Clovis in the daytime,” Williams corrects him.
But the Green Book was for travelers. Candacy Taylor is a cultural documentarian putting together a book and Smithsonian Museum exhibit on the Green Book, and she says the most dangerous places were so-called “sundown towns.” “Some either rang a bell at 6 p.m. telling the domestics who were working in the town that they had to leave,” Taylor says, “or they would have a sign at the county line saying ‘n-word, don't let the sun go down on you here.’”
By some accounts, many Valley cities were sundown towns. Driving through, Taylor says, was a matter of life and death. “You may be inconvenienced, that happened a lot, humiliated and embarrassed, that happened a lot,” she says. “But the reality was that you could be not just harassed but tortured and lynched and killed.”
In a period of 80 years, nearly 5,000 lynchings were reported in the U.S., and some reports estimate the tally is even higher. Most occurred in the 1800s, but they persisted until 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act was passed. The final edition of the Green Book was published just a few years later.
Today, so many of Fresno’s historical safe havens are gone. They’ve been replaced by warehouses, highway on-ramps, and big, empty lots—like one in West Fresno which Hank Hendrix tells me used to be a neighborhood called Jericho. “It’s a desolated area,” he says. “It’s been abandoned.”
Hendrix describes what used to be a bustling strip of black-owned bars and hotels, and one restaurant that had been listed in the Green Book called New Jericho. Hendrix, who eventually worked for the city and county, and was a long-time school district trustee, says a developer demolished it all in the 70s.
When that happened, Hendrix says, African-Americans lost a central part of their community. “There was a political nucleus over here,” he says, lamenting that blacks no longer have representation on the Fresno City Council. “They kind of splintered that and they’re all over the place now.”
It’s a story that still holds true today: Even as many doors have opened over the years for African Africans he says, many remain closed.