Beyond the Green Book: Recovering historic Black-owned businesses in Elizabeth City

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Posted at 5:36 AM, Feb 03, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-03 09:39:05-05

ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. - At nearly 90 years old, Joyce Long has lived a full life, but the memories of her childhood are still colorful.

"I was born and raised here right on Herrington Road. It was called Euclid Avenue at the time," she said from her Elizabeth City home. "It was just a beautiful neighborhood."

Despite growing up in segregation-era North Carolina, Long recalls a friendly neighborhood with Black and White neighbors generally getting along...but for visiting Black families driving through the South, friendly encounters weren't guaranteed.

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Joyce Long (L) talks with Dr. Melissa Stuckey (R), whose Beyond the Green Book project is rediscovering businesses and homes in the neighborhood where Long grew up.

"Stopping at the wrong place could be the difference between coming home safe after a trip or not coming home at all," said Dr. Melissa Stuckey, an Assistant Professor of History at Elizabeth City State University.

And so the "Green Book" became a lifeline.

"The Green Book is a directory created by Victor H. Green," said Stuckey. "(It was) a guide to African American businesses or businesses that welcomed African Americans."

The book was the inspiration for "Green Book," the winner of the 2018 Oscar for Best Picture, and according to the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission, Elizabeth City had just...two published locations in the local version.

But Stuckey believes that number only scratches the surface.

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A photo of a 1940 edition of the Green Book.

"You would stop at those first two places, but it opened up an entire world of Elizabeth City to a traveler who came here," she tells News 3.

For the past year, Stuckey and her students have been digging deeper with their project called "Beyond the Green Book."

Now in its third semester, the project uses old city directories, maps, African American newspapers and interviews to piece together Black life in Elizabeth City's Shepard Street-South Road Street Historic District. Stuckey says they're focusing on 1942, the year of the Green Book that inspired the project. She tells News 3 she and her students have taken the two official Green Book businesses and added 73 other locations in and around the neighborhood.

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Dr. Melissa Stuckey and her history class are using Google Earth to map all the locations they've found. The two original Green Book locations in Elizabeth City are marked with green pins, but almost entirely covered by the added locations marked in yellow and blue. Stuckey says, so far, they've mapped 73 additional locations.

Kept in a Google Earth file, the locations include grocery stores, restaurants, barber shops, a funeral home and more. Many of the businesses have been uncovered by students taking Stuckey's class.

Long says she heard about the project through the Museum of the Albemarle, through which Stuckey gave a presentation on her project in the fall. She tells News 3 she was thrilled to hear the younger generations are taking an interest in her old neighborhood.

"I said, 'thank goodness, thank goodness. I will help you any way that I can,'" said Long while hosting Stuckey in her dining room.

Long had brought out old letters, newspapers and pictures. Stuckey also shared what she'd uncovered about the printing business Long's father had run.

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Dr. Melissa Stuckey in front of her class as it works to uncover Black-owned and Black-friendly businesses in 1942 Elizabeth City.

"As more folks know about the work, I get the chance to talk to senior citizens who have very vivid and powerful memories," said Stuckey. "(We need) to have conversations, to do interviews and to really get this story together before it's too late to tell it with living memory."

With her latest batch of students, Stuckey says she's hoping to expand the scope of her project and digitize the materials she's finding.

Eventually, she's hoping to create a research center on the ECSU campus devoted to the study of African American education and life in majority-African American neighborhoods.