By now you’ve probably heard about Green Book’s controversial Best Picture win at the Oscars Sunday. The biographical drama is based on a true story about the relationship between an African American jazz pianist and the Italian-American bouncer who chauffeured him throughout the Deep South.
Set in 1962, Green Book takes place two years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The title of the film refers to a guidebook that was published annually to help African-American travelers find lodging, restaurants and other accommodations during the Jim Crow era. The books were essential for navigating the South while business owners were still able to turn away patrons on the basis of race, religion or sex.
Related coverage: St. Augustine haunted by ghosts of civil rights turmoil 50 years ago
After this kind of discrimination was outlawed with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the then-St. Petersburg Times sent an African American reporter on his own trek through the South. Samuel Adams’ seven-part series, “Highways to Hope,” chronicled a 4,300-mile journey that he took with his wife Elenora. The couple ventured out in the fall of 1964, just four months after the act passed.
The trip spanned 15 days and took Samuel and Elenora through 12 states: Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia and West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.
At the time, Samuel was 38. He had three degrees and a decade of reporting experience under his belt. He joined the St. Petersburg Times in 1960 and covered the race beat for the paper’s “Negro news page," wrote Robert Hooker in “The Times and its times: A history.”
Editor’s note: The Times used to use language to describe black people that is now outdated or, in certain cases, offensive.
Samuel’s wife, Elenora, was 35. She raised two children and attended Spelman College in Atlanta and the Los Angeles City College.
“We were middle class tourists with no serious money problems who normally would stop at top quality motels and seek out fine restaurants," Samuel wrote. "We were to forget, if we could, our color. We were to report what happened to us, but to precipitate no trouble.”
The couple left Florida on a cool October morning. They drove straight into states where thousands of people of color had been harassed, arrested, beaten or lynched. Several friends offered to loan them weapons, but Samuel and Elenora chose to go unarmed.
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“I have lived with fear so long I am hardly aware it’s there,” Samuel wrote. “But Elenora couldn’t hide her fears as we drove north from St. Petersburg.”
Under the Civil Rights Act, businesses were no longer allowed to refuse service on the basis of race. Samuel’s assignment was to travel throughout the 12 states and observe what happened. Early on, he discovered the many loopholes that Southern businesses found to deter people of color.
Restaurant owners claimed that they were closing as soon as they saw black customers approach, even if it was 3:30 in the afternoon on a Thursday. Others placed a “reserved” sign on every table.
Some business owners would insist it wasn’t personal. “We don’t have a thing for you. This here is a [private] club,” said a clerk at a hotel in Kentucky.
If they did find seating, it was often in a hidden room tucked away from the white patrons. Other establishments charged them inflated prices.
The same racist policies were often in place at hotels and other establishments across the South, much to the frustrations of the couple, who were exhausted after long days of driving. In Mobile, Ala., one motel said they only accepted large families. Another claimed that they had no vacancies. Samuel and Elenora were only able to get a room in Mobile by booking one on the phone. When they arrived at the hotel, the clerk placed them in a unit next to a squeaky elevator shaft and noisy heating system.
In Huntsville, Ala., a sharp object from a filet mignon got stuck in Samuel’s throat. He spent three and a half hours waiting to be seen in an integrated emergency room.
Still, the couple also was received with indifference and even kindness in some historically segregated towns. In a honky tonk in Danville, Va., a white man asked politely if he could put his beer on their table while he played shuffleboard. A man named Hagy of Hagy’s Farm Restaurant in Pembroke, Va., was “warm and genuinely glad to serve us."
Some of the worst moments happened as their trip was dying down.
“Negroes have their place in Arkansas," Sam wrote. "But it’s not in ‘White Only’ restaurants, hotels or rest rooms. Even so, a Negro tourist probably encounters less trouble in Arkansas than in much of Louisiana.”
New Orleans was “an oasis.” The couple enjoyed shopping and dining throughout the French Quarter.
“We lived fabulously in that wonderful city, and raised some eyebrows in the process…" Samuel wrote. "What is just a social treat for the typical white tourist in New Orleans was a fabulous wonderland for us.”
Though they were seated at a table filled with dirty dishes at one establishment there, it was nothing compared to the frustrations they endured throughout the rest of Louisiana. Toward the end of their time in the state, a Holiday Inn worker told them, “The reservation’s here, all right, but we didn’t know you was colored when we took it. I could give you a room here but it wouldn’t be safe. For your safety and mine, I shouldn’t.” They spent hours trying to buy breakfast the next morning, facing rejection over and over again.
“Elenora became depressed and I developed a splitting headache for want of food,” Sam wrote.
Later in Mississippi, the couple was trailed by a police car. Locals gave them advice on how to avoid arrest.
After the journey
Before embarking on the trip, the couple had been scared to venture through states where there had been documented violence against people of color. Samuel had spent nearly five years reporting on racial disturbances for the Times, and he knew what dangers might await him and his wife. But they returned to St. Petersburg safely.
“We completed the trip without violence or major incident, a feat which would not have been possible six months ago,” he wrote.
Samuel’s reporting was generally well received. Other papers picked up the series, including the Miami Herald, the Washington Post, the Chicago Daily News and the Denver Post. Newsweek magazine named him as one of the top reporters working on the race beat, which they called “the most dangerous assignment in U.S. journalism."
The response from St. Petersburg Times readers was mixed, but overall positive. Here’s a sample of reader reactions:
- “This is by way of expression my admiration for Sam Adams’ series also running in the Miami Herald. As a beat-up and beat-down ‘WASP’ and sometime mass-magazine editor, I must confess I would not have had the guts to follow his itinerary, nor had the objectivity to write his pieces so dispassionately.” — Allen Marple, Ft. Lauderdale
- “We surely must protest your vicious scheme with Sam Adams — trying to find or make, a story by deliberately stirring up resentment by having a Negro travel around looking for trouble — by trying to go where knows he is unwelcome. This upsets race relations to no end — as you surely must know.” — R. Fischer, Pinellas Park
- “I have been reading Sam Adams’ articles with a great deal of indignation. It does not seem possible that in a great country like America there can be such ignorance and bigotry. In the articles, a certain filling station in Greenwood was mentioned. I have used a credit card from this nationally known gasoline company for quite a number of years but this morning I returned it to them with a cover letter explaining the reason. I also informed them that henceforth I would not refer any of my motel guests to them.” — Ray Smith, Indian Rocks Beach
- “Sam Adams has shown to the open-minded public what it means to be a Negro in the United States. He has done this without any rancor or hate, but just described what happened — as though he were a critic at a motion picture theatre.” — Saul J. Cutler, St. Petersburg
- “There must be thousands of white people in this area like myself who are not interested in your traveling Negro writer.” — E. F. Todd, Largo
- “A friend of mine from New York City sent me a clipping of Sam Adams’ article in which she was most interested. I think he was very courageous to go through with such an assignment. I’m not sure I could have done it in his place.” — Clarice Sampson, St. Petersburg
While the couple experienced rejection, frustration and even danger, overall they were happy they completed the trip.
“Racial prejudice isn’t going to evaporate because Congress passed a law," Samuel wrote. "It will be many, many years before a Negro driving through the South can forget his fear. But the Negro has hope now.”
Editor’s note: Because so many readers expressed interest in reading the original series, we pulled all seven installments from the archives and published them online. You can read them here.
UPDATE: Samuel and Elenora retired in Waycross, Georgia. Samuel died in April 2019. Elenora died a year later in April 2020.
Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. This article was compiled using content from the Times archives.