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Wednesday March 20th 2019

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“The black experience through music, with a sense of dignity”

A deeper look at Don Shirley and the real “Green Book”
By C. S. Satterwhite

Late last year, an unusual road trip movie about race hit theaters. “Green Book” is based on the true story of a gifted pianist named Don Shirley and his driver Tony Vallelonga as they travel in the Deep South during the Jim Crow years using a guide for African American travelers. Despite multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, the film has received mixed reviews.

With a screenplay co-written by Vallelonga’s son, the Shirley family disputes most of the story as inaccurate and a misrepresentation of their family member. More symbolic debates about the film expose great differences in the way white and black audiences see their stories portrayed.

Whether or not the film is accurate, though, the story undoubtedly brought new attention to a vital publication in African American history called “The Negro Motorist Green Book.” Equally important for locals is the fact the film also shined a light on one of the most gifted and underappreciated pianists of the last 100 years—Pensacola’s own Dr. Donald Shirley. Prior to the film, lots of people—including some local history and music buffs—had no idea Shirley was born here.

As the stories of Shirley and “The Green Book” are interwoven in the controversial film, Pensacola’s connection to both speak to broader issues of inclusion and the ongoing segregation of our history, stories and lives.

“Painful embarrassments”
The film takes its name from an actual publication that was a vital part of the African American experience in the 20th century.

The first editions of Victor H. Green’s publication, a small pamphlet with a green cover, start with an innocuous statement of purpose—“The idea of ‘The Green Book’ is to compile facts and information connected to motoring, which the Negro motorist can use and depend upon.”

As the publication’s growth coincided with the rise of the modern Civil Rights Movement, Assistant Editor Norvera Dashiell spoke more frankly for the 20th-anniversary edition. “The idea [behind the travel guide] crystallized when not only [Green] but several friends and acquaintances complained of the difficulties encountered, oftentimes painful embarrassments suffered, which ruined a vacation or business trips,” said Dashiell.

Green’s publication became an essential item for the black traveler. In the years following the Great Black Migration, where millions of African Americans fled racial terrorism in the South, most who uprooted their lives left family behind. Travel from the somewhat-less-hostile North was common, but few places in America were without peril for the black traveler.

The most banal disagreement, whether in a restaurant or gas station, could easily result in physical violence, sometimes even death. Racial prejudice throughout the North and South forced many African American families to sleep in their cars at rest stops instead of risking a physical attack by white racists, angered by the motorists whose only crime was traveling while black.

Green found his calling helping black travelers to move freely about the country with less fear. An employee of the postal service, he married a woman named Alma from Richmond, Va., who moved north as part of the Great Migration. After marriage, they moved to Harlem as thousands of African Americans converged on the famed neighborhood in New York City. during a period of incredible activity known as the Harlem Renaissance. Victor’s wife wanted to visit family still living in Richmond. To lessen the dangers of travel, Green asked his fellow black postal workers for places to stay and areas to avoid between New York and Virginia.

Through these trips to Richmond, Green came up with the idea of compiling a directory to help other black motorists reduce the very real risks of racial violence while traveling. As the list grew, so did the popularity of his burgeoning publication.

“In the early years,” the 1956 edition reads, Green “personally traveled across the United States to check the accuracy and conditions of the places listed.” He felt deeply about this publication, and it was a business enterprise, but more importantly, the publication allowed thousands of families to stay connected with their families, travel the country freely and live dignified lives.

Originally focusing on the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region, “The Green Book” quickly grew to include the Deep South, eventually spanning the entire continent, the Caribbean and even parts of Central and South America. At the dawn of the Space Race, the authors continued to dream even further than the planet.

“Looking ahead…the moon?”
Optimistically spanning the skies, the editors also understood their racial reality—if the same people who forbid African Americans from eating at a lunch counter on Earth colonized the moon, restaurants in space would likely have signs for “Whites Only.”

“When travel of this kind becomes available,” the authors write, “you can be sure your ‘Green Book’ will have recommended listings.”

“The Green Book” authors probably wrote that line with a smile, but there’s a strong sense of reality within the joke. In the mid-1950s, discrimination was clear as the moon and stars, with an end to racism seeming light years away.

The same year editors wrote that line, racists lynched 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi.

Despite the tragic circumstances of its existence, the invention of “The Green Book”—along with similar publications—symbolized determination in spite of hostility.

“Our leaders and educators look forward to a day when as a racial group, we will enjoy the rights and privileges guaranteed us, but as of now withheld us in certain areas of the United States,” wrote Dashiell.

There are a few ways to view “The Green Book” in retrospect. The first way is how it was intended—a guide for African Americans to travel safely and with dignity throughout the country. In Pensacola, for example, various editions of the book list a handful of restaurants (Sugar Bowl Restaurant and Rhumboogie Cafe), hotels (Grand Hotel and Crosby’s Motel), a tailor (New Way) and a drug store (Hannah) where a black traveler could be served.

Another way to see it is not by what is listed but by what is missing. In a city where hundreds of businesses appeared in public directories in the 1960s, a black traveler moving through Pensacola could expect to be treated as a human being in no more than four locations.

The final edition of “The Green Book,” published in 1966, opens with a statement about changing Jim Crow laws throughout the country because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The editors listed no changes in Florida laws. The same edition listed no Pensacola establishments.

“A man by the name of Don Shirley”
The film “Green Book” ignited historical interest in Green’s annual publication for black travelers. The film also made pianist Don Shirley a household name, arguably more so than when he was alive. Reading his 2013 New York Times obituary, a point is made that Shirley was somewhat forgotten in his later years. Looking at the long story of African American music in this country, this is a sadly common trope.

Speaking at an event for the African American Heritage Society, Dr. Arica Coleman opened her talk about “a man by the name of Don Shirley, who most of you had no clue about until recently.”

Celebrated in his prime, Shirley himself felt forgotten until he learned of an admiring community on the internet in the years before his death.

As the film expresses, his music often defied genres. On his 1969 record “Don Shirley Trio in Concert,” listeners hear elements of Tchaikovsky mixed with jazz standards and a Beatles cover. Like one of Shirley’s heroes, Paul Robeson, his music doesn’t fit neatly into one category.

For better or worse, the film brought Shirley’s name and music back into prominence. The story, supposedly inspired by a “true friendship,” is problematic for some, especially those who think Shirley’s talent could and should be more of the focus. According to the Shirley family, the picture painted of him is a disservice to the memory of a man whose virtuosity “is worthy of Gods,” according to Igor Stravinsky.

Donald Walbridge Shirley was born to Jamaican immigrants on Jan. 29, 1927, in Pensacola. His father studied divinity at Howard University and later became an Episcopal Priest at St. Cyprian Episcopal Church in the segregated Belmont-DeVilliers district of Pensacola at the height of the Jim Crow years.

His mother, Stella, was his first piano teacher. She died when he was 9 years old.

At the age of 3, young Shirley played the organ at his father’s church with incredible skill that surprised many congregants. Sister-in-law Patricia Shirley wrote on the cinematic website Shadow and Act that an admirer “offered the opportunity for Donald to go to Russia at the age of 3 to study piano and live and study at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music and Fine Arts.”

His father wouldn’t allow the young Shirley to travel to Russia unaccompanied, so he continued to play in his church on Reus Street.

Shirley continued piano after leaving Pensacola. He studied under music professors at the historically black Prairie View College in Texas and Virginia State University before attending the primarily white Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

Though he studied classical piano, Shirley was discouraged by the lack of opportunities for a black musician who didn’t fit into the racialized musical expectations of white industry heads. He left his music career to study psychology at the University of Chicago, where he earned one of three doctorates and set up practice in post-war Chicago.

Shirley later returned to music. He released numerous records and toured the world. In 1962, Shirley toured the Deep South, as the film showed. Of course, this was only one of many tours for Shirley.

Shirley also took an active role in the Civil Rights Movement. He attended the infamous 1965 march on Selma and was friends with Martin Luther King, Jr. Shirley resided in an artist colony-type setting in a lavish apartment above Carnegie Hall in New York City until developers evicted Shirley and the other long-time resident artists in 2010.

Dr. Shirley, whom the New York Times described as a “pianist with his own genre,” died three years later in 2013. He was 86.

“A symphony of lies”
The film neglects to mention Shirley’s Pensacola roots, but that’s not the only thing some critics think is missing.

“As it often happens with biographies and film, personalities from bygone eras are reintroduced to a new generation,” said Cheryl Howard, executive director of the African American Heritage Society. “Dr. Shirley and his family were well known and regarded here in Pensacola where he grew up.”

The inconsistencies and falsehoods of the film, described as “a symphony of lies” by Shirley’s brother Maurice, are well documented. In the film, Shirley is portrayed as a man without connections to his African American culture and his very own family. Told from the perspective of an Italian-American named Tony Vallelonga hired to drive Shirley through the Deep South, the screenplay is written by Vallelonga’s son Nick. According to the son, the road trip changed his father, and he insists the story is true and that Shirley agreed to the film. His only conditions were that he had to tell the whole truth and wait until after his death.

Never consulted during the process, Shirley’s family said this is not true and disputes nearly every aspect of the film—from Shirley’s approval, which his brother Maurice claims he adamantly refused, to the friendship between Shirley and Vallelonga. The family takes special issue with a point made in the film that Shirley had no contact with his family and was not in touch with his people, individually or culturally.

“At that point [in 1962 when the events of the film supposedly take place], he had three living brothers with whom he was always in contact,” said Maurice Shirley, originally quoted in Shadow and Act.

The majority of the film’s critiques center on the liberties the filmmakers took with Shirley’s story. For many critics, the trouble is that “Green Book” comes across as yet another “white savior story.” The film shows a racist Italian-American protecting Shirley from other racists, teaching Shirley how to eat fried chicken and teaching him about black musicians. In one dramatic scene, Vallelonga even claims that, because of his rudimentary knowledge of African American culture, he is “more black” than Shirley.

By focusing on the white driver, filmmakers sidelined Shirley’s own genius. Furthermore, the film treats the very publication where the film gets its name as a tourist guide instead of vital protection against racial terrorism.

Writing for Vice Magazine, Noel Ransome wrote that Hollywood has a long history of “rewarding films with a white savior complex.” With the release of “Green Book,” Hollywood’s attention to racial issues and black history is “only becoming a more grotesque caricature of itself.”

Coleman agreed, “You continue to find this everywhere.”

“W.E.B. Du Bois said that all art, all art, is propaganda,” said Coleman. “Don’t tell me it’s just a movie. It’s more than just a movie. Hollywood is wedded to the social ills, to promoting the idea of black inferiority. They are wedded to it from day one.”

As its Best Picture nomination illustrates, some people see the film differently.

Some film critics, such as Rex Reed, praised “Green Book” as the “one of the best films of the decade.” Associated Press critic Lindsey Bahr said about the film, “If there’s a big studio movie that’s more generally crowd-pleasing than “Green Book” this season, I have yet to find it.”

On the other hand, Brooke Obie, an editor for Shadow and Act, gave the film its first ever “zero stars.” Obie told NPR’s 1A Movie Club that to “consistently see our stories and our Black icons filtered through the lens of a racist white person like Tony [Vallelonga] does nothing to advance the understanding of Black history and only serves to perpetuate white supremacy.”

A quick look at the comment sections for each of these reviews reflects the very mixed reaction this film is receiving.

While Coleman said, “The narrative continues to prop up notions of white supremacy,” Pensacola’s Robin Reshard had another take.

“I loved it,” said Reshard. She and her husband, Lloyd Reshard, are the driving force behind the Ezra Gerry Museum and Research Center, a museum focusing on African American history in Belmont-DeVilliers.

“I like that [Green Book] has made people aware of Don Shirley,” said Reshard. “It made me dig deeper, and I hope it did the same for others.”

“This brother [was invited to] the Leningrad Conservatory and played in the Boston Pops … Don Shirley wasn’t the only one, but Don Shirley is the one people are excited about now, and this makes people discover other people,” said Reshard.

“I’m excited that it’s winning awards, and I’m excited that people are challenging some of the notions behind it because that’s how people grow,” she told Inweekly.

“We have not valued these stories”
The fact that most people were not aware of Shirley and his hometown roots prior to the film highlights a troubling, yet often overlooked, problem.

The absence of black history in Pensacola’s public spaces, especially outside of Black History Month, is glaring.

With the notable exception of General Chappie James, Pensacola celebrates few other African American figures, at least to the degree of their European American counterparts. There are no public statues honoring local African American figures. Local museums do refer to some aspects of African American heritage, but the space isn’t nearly proportionate in the size of the black contribution to Pensacola. Where recent efforts to memorialize African American contributions, such as the Mississippi Blues Trail marker listing Shirley, among many others, are noteworthy, examples like this are few and far between.

When telling Pensacola’s story, few offer references to the impact of slavery, the importance of Reconstruction, forced racial segregation and the devastation caused by racial terror lynching. Neither are there stories of the numerous heroes, strikes against slavery, great artistic contributions, Civil War from the black union perspective and ongoing struggles for political representation. Each of these eras in particular span Pensacola’s colonial era and move well into the 20th century.

But make no mistake—the African American experience in Pensacola isn’t a marginal part of the city’s history. The black experience in Pensacola is the story of this city.

Because whiteness dominates, rarely are stories, like Shirley’s, integrated into the main narrative.

The effect of this de facto separation is similar to the “Whites Only” signs of the segregation-era hotels in which Shirley was not allowed to sleep. Intentional or not, the result is the same—black exclusion.

“We have done such a great job in this country at excluding people,” said Reshard. “We have to do just as good a job at including people.”

Reshard sees a larger issue, which goes back to the biases of the original collectors, “They [narratives and collections] weren’t valued, and they weren’t seen as valuable.”

Still, Reshard sees a chance to correct the ongoing trend. “The challenges we’ve had in this country present opportunities to do better and find out more,” said Reshard. “We have not valued these stories.”

Reiterating the active need for black voices and black historians, she said, “We have to be intentional on how we include people.”

Institutional support from the UWF Historic Trust, history department and archives have been incredibly helpful, but the sources locally are very limited. To supplement her local research on Pensacola’s black history, Reshard uses Tuskegee University and Amistad Research Center in New Orleans.

For local historian Teniade Broughton, travel has also become a necessity for her own research into Pensacola’s African American history.

“The sources for Pensacola’s black history are severely underrepresented in our local repositories,” said Broughton. “I’ve had to travel to Alabama and Louisiana for information about Pensacola.”

Broughton said that there is growing interest in our city’s African American history, but without local attention to preserving black history, much of this history will be lost.

“I’m overwhelmed with opportunities to come share with groups and classes who want to learn about Black Pensacola,” said Broughton.

“Students and scholars always ask me where they can find more information. Unfortunately, a lot isn’t available because a lot hasn’t been saved. We have more treasures kept in our grandparents’ attics that need to be kept safe in archives.”

According to Broughton and Reshard, the reasons much of this history is not in the institutional archives come from the long and complicated history of exclusion. Furthermore, many of these stories are passed down through non-traditional means.

“African American community history is largely oral,” said Broughton. “As older generations pass on, the stories die with them. Because I’ve taken time to sit with elders and collect their stories, I know they’re willing to share,” said Broughton.

To aid historians and researchers, Broughton has long argued for the desperate need for a special archive specifically devoted to Pensacola’s African American history.

Reshard finds hope in building bridges between the institutions of higher learning but also connecting the local efforts.

“What we’re looking to do is join the other museums that focus on history and culture and broaden the scope of information and knowledge for all of Pensacola,” Reshard said.

The Ezra Gerry Museum plans to join forces with the Chappie James Museum and the Ella Jordan Home to highlight the black experience in Pensacola.

“Right now, we have a narrower view that is the story of Pensacola. We have this whole world, and we’re only looking at one particular segment of that,” said Reshard. “After hundreds of years of exclusion, we have to try to be more inclusive.”

Among Pensacola’s prominent figures who need to be included, Dr. Shirley is one who surely will be researched by present and future historians. But without a file dedicated to his name [which is the current case], the task will be a difficult one.

“But until that time comes”
In a 1982 story for the New York Times, Shirley described his lifelong struggle—“The black experience through music, with a sense of dignity, that’s all I have ever tried to do.”

Shirley’s wish—for him and his work to be treated with respect and “a sense of dignity”—reflects the intentions behind Green’s publication. A glance at recent headlines—like the political blackface scandals—demonstrate that respect for the black experience is still in short supply.

In the introduction to the 1948 “The Green Book,” the editors wrote, “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication, for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment. But until that time comes, we shall continue to publish this information for your convenience each year.”

After reading this statement, written over 70 years ago, Charles McCaskill said his feelings on “The Green Book” and Pensacola were “complicated.”

“While it is 2019 and the last person of color to be assaulted for going into a white space is a fairly distant memory, we could still use a guide on comfortable spaces,” said McCaskill. “Often, downtown feels like it is not meant for people of color.”

An outspoken activist and poet, McCaskill often tackles the subject of inclusion in his work.

“Obviously, there is no explicit segregation,” he said. “But it is telling that Pensacola, [for] all its diversity, rarely feels that way during Gallery Night or the Palafox Market.” McCaskill points to several “culturally insensitive” events and businesses, which he sees as playing a role in the exclusion.

McCaskill sees part of the solution as having more diversity at “the decision-making table.”

“When it comes to actively including minorities into the economy of downtown, no one seems to care,” he said. “Those who represent these businesses downtown should actively seek out and listen to minorities, if for no other reason than it makes smart business.”

Publication of the “Negro Motorist Green Book” ceased shortly after the 1964 Civil Rights Act ended legal segregation, but the death of Jim Crow didn’t end racism. After the film “Green Book” was released, several articles, forums and panels continue to ask one question—is there a need for a new Green Book?

“Right now, there are black people who avoid certain bars and restaurants because of how unsafe and unwanted they feel,” said McCaskill. “Without any meaningful dialogue and effort, this will not change. And without any official ‘Green Book,’ vast areas of the most visible part of this city will be marked ‘unsafe’ by entire communities of color.”

As a 1982 New York Times story and his 2013 obituary indicate, Shirley never received the respect he felt was due him. Often thwarted by Jim Crow, he later hoped for a comeback but instead suffered a series of indignities, died and missed this surge in recognition by five years. The recent spotlight on Shirley, however, has also placed “The Green Book” front and center in this discussion. As with any phenomenon, how deeply and for how long these stories will continue to resonate is unknown. But one thing is for sure—Shirley’s wish that the black experience be told and lived “with a sense of dignity” is still a feel-good story for which so many hope for but has yet to arrive.

DON SHIRLEY AND “THE GREEN BOOK”
WHAT: A talk by Cheryl Howard, Executive Director of the African American Heritage Society
WHEN: 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23
WHERE: African American Heritage Center, E. 200 E. Church St.
COST: $5 for members, $10 for non-members
DETAILS: facebook.com/aahspensacola
*Space is limited. Reservations are required by Thursday, Feb. 21. Reservations should be made by emailing aahspensacola@gmail.com or calling 469-1456.

Lauren Anzaldo contributed to this article.