The motion picture, “Green Book,” which recently won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2018, reopened the public’s eyes and hearts when it was released last fall. The movie tells the story of an African-American pianist, Don Shirley (played by Oscar winner Mahershala Ali) and his white driver/bodyguard, Tony Vallelonga (played by Viggo Mortensen) as they undertake an eight-week concert tour through the south during the Jim Crow days of 1962.
As February—and Black History Month—come to a close, it’s an appropriate time to look back at the happenings and heroes of that time—not all that long ago.
“The Negro Motorist Green Book” was first published in 1936. It was designed to provide African–Americans with tips on how to avoid discrimination in their travels, when it came to places to stay, dine or even how to find welcoming roadways on which to journey. In essence, it was the travel bible used by countless individuals and families as they drove the North American highways and byways – not just in the South.
Few realize that tennis had its own Green Book. The information was never published; rather, it was more of a word-of-mouth sharing, as those in the know offered insight for African-American players as they drove from place to place in order to play American Tennis Association (ATA) National Championships and other tournaments.
“When the Green Book movie came out, I began recalling the days of my travel from Southern California with Mrs. (Eleese) Thornton and Earthna Jacquet, who was an outstanding player,” said Beverly Coleman, whose talent as a Southern California junior player put her on the road at a young age to compete in a variety of tournaments. “I was only 15 and travel was new to me. I did not have to make the arrangements or plans – Mrs. Thornton did all that.”
You see, for Coleman’s journeys—and for the travel of so many others—Thornton served as a living Green Book. An all-around athlete, Thornton (pictured above, third from left, with Roumania Peters, Eoline Thornton and Margaret Peters) was born and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. As a youngster, she ran track, played women’s baseball and was an accomplished bowler. She was introduced to travel at a young age, spending summers with her aunt in Colorado. In 1926, Thornton, along with two of her best friends, moved to Los Angeles. After eleven years in her new home town, 1937 to be exact, she taught herself to play tennis. A few years later, she entered her first tournament, the ATA Championships, held in Orangeburg, South Carolina, where she won the Women’s 40 singles.
Coleman points out, “All I knew [when we traveled] was that homes for us to stay in – with tennis enthusiasts, or relatives—were lined up. People anxiously awaited the arrival of ‘the great ones’ who were driving all the way from California to ‘champion’ their local ATA tennis events. As is the custom throughout the south, our hosts prepared elaborate and filling meals for us.”
As a junior, Coleman was touted as the “next Althea (Gibson).” She went on to become a successful adult competitor, but she, like so many others, never became another Althea. Instead, Coleman focused her attentions on both healing and mental health. A resident of Sedona, Arizona for the past 24 years, she now draws on what she calls on her, “giving back experiences with Thornton,” as she operates Beverly Coleman’s Wellness Services, where she practices acupuncture, and provides herbal and wellness care advise.
Jean Richardson, who is now in her 90s, was talking with her good friend, Delores Simmons, a long-time Los Angeles based community tennis activist, about her experiences traveling with Thornton. Richardson told Simmons that their first trip together was to Albuquerque, New Mexico, “where Eleese had friends who took us in—as did their friends.” Over the years, they traveled to several other tournament locations throughout the country, and at every stop, Thornton would make the arrangements, ensuring a warm and welcoming reception for the young competitors. Richardson said, “Eleese always had friends that took care of us….”
As Coleman brought up, (and Richardson verified), “Eleese was the person who made all of the plans. In her ‘notes’, she had information about families that would provide housing.” Simmons, who knew Thornton well, noted, “She logged thousands of miles by car driving across the country to play tournaments. She knew so many people.”
For players of color, making a “road trip” during the Jim Crow era was very different than going on an excursion today. Looking back, Richardson told Simmons, “When we were on the road and got tired, we would pull over and sleep for short periods. At night, we often would go to gas stations, park in the back and sleep in the car. The next morning, we would use the facilities, wash up and continue on our way.
“While we were in different cities, we met people that would offer us housing, so we were able to build friendships and enjoyed the hospitality of the tennis community.”
Simmons admits, “Everyone understood the racial climate. The black community knew it well and this made the tennis community receptive to the tennis players coming to town.
And it wasn’t just in the Deep South where blacks felt the ugly hand of discrimination. Simmons says, “My parents were from Marshalltown, Iowa. My mother told me many stories about folks who stayed in her parents’ home when she was young. My grandfather worked on the railroad and the family had a large house, so when black entertainers came to town some stayed with them. The Mills Brothers did. I remember, as a teen, seeing a calendar with the picture of a man who became president of a black college and showed my mother. She said, ‘He lived with us for a while when he came to Marshalltown. Blacks couldn't even stay at the hotel downtown; they only worked as maids there.’ So, you see, it was not only in the south that discrimination was alive and well.”
Coleman recalled, “As a junior I also occasionally stayed at the local Black college dorms and did the same thing when my Tennessee State A&I tennis team traveled through the south. We stayed on campus.
“I have only one recollection of direct confrontation with white culture. It happened when we once had to go to the back of a restaurant and order our food ‘to go.’ I remember always having food in a cooler in the car – how it got there I don’t recall except that my parents had contributed money to Mrs. Thornton for my trip expenses. My mom regularly made a big box of food for us because we were aware that black people had difficulty getting food and accommodations on the road. We slept in the car while the two adults took turns sleeping and driving.
“Now, as I recall, I used to hear the black tennis players saying they often slept in their cars when they travelled the tennis circuit; that is, unless they knew someone who offered them a place to stay. I never heard them mention the Green Book.”
But to this day, many people of color who spent time on America’s highways as youth playing the sport that they loved will mention Eleese Thornton—a pioneer who became an icon to those she helped and to the sport that she loved. She was indeed a living, breathing “Green Book,” who worked tirelessly to help assure that those who wanted to compete in tennis could compete wherever they chose to.
As Simmons says, “For Eleese, tennis was life.”
[Photo: Courtesy of Bob Sparks and Bob Thornton/International Tennis Hall of Fame]