A shameful history of racism links Fresno to Oscar-nominated film 'Green Book'

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- A dark part of American history comes to light in the movie "Green Book".

The Oscar-nominated film tells the story of two men and a special travel guide.

The "book" was designed to help people of color safely travel across the U.S. at a time when racial segregation and discrimination were common.

The movie is set in the deep south, but it also has a connection to Central California.

The film tells the story of Dr. Don Shirley, a world-class black pianist who embarks on a concert tour in the Deep South in 1962.

To make it to each gig safely, Shirley hires a man named Tony Lip to be not only his driver but also protector, as they navigated through segregated states.

But the Green Book was not exclusive to the Deep South.

One of the states listed in the guide is California.

And among the Golden State cities - Fresno, which has fifteen locations inked on pages 10 and 11.

Ed Burke, a 76-year-old musician whose family owned two of the Fresno locations mentioned in the book, explains the significance of the city. "For black entertainers and musicians and people coming through who might be using a green book, Fresno was a place to stop," he says.

New Jerico at 101 Church Street was his grandfather's restaurant, and Sportsman's at 855 G Street was the barbershop his uncle ran.

Burke is not sure how his family's businesses ended up in the book, but he believes it happened by word of mouth.

"When black entertainers would come through Fresno, they would be made aware there is the place you can go. They knew they could come to my grandfather's. They were going to get the food they were familiar with, they were going to get the drinks they were familiar with, they were going to see people they felt comfortable with. So that was one of the destinations," he says.

Burke says that was important because there were places in Fresno that were not welcoming.

"We went into this place and it was open. Half hour goes by and nobody comes... lady comes over, throws water on the table, threw menus on table and walked away. And we stood up to walk out and the people applauded. They were in agreement that they were leaving," he recalls.

Professor Thomas Whit-Ellis, Department Chair of Africana Studies at Fresno State, tells us that is why the Green Book was needed - to pinpoint exactly where African-Americans could safely eat, sleep and get gas while on the road.

"The American automobile industry encouraged people to drive their cars across the country to see their USA in their Chevrolet, but they didn't realize a lot of African Americans were trying to do that too. So modern-day 'green book' is AAA because - keep in mind! Even though we were in California, there were businesses that simply would not serve blacks."

Dr. Fitzalbert Marius echoes those sentiments.

He moved to Fresno from the south in 1958 to begin his residency at Fresno Cottage General Hospital.

"This city was very prejudicial during those days," he says.

The surgeon recalls a time when he and his wife were denied housing at an apartment complex that was supposed to be for all physicians in training.

"They gave all the white interns rooms and then they got to us four blacks and they go, 'jeez, we're sorry. We're run out of room.'... I'm able to laugh about things now because that is in the past and I can't change anything in the past," he says.

It's a past that spotlights Fresno in this book, and a book that was necessary back then, even if you were visiting what was considered "The Best Little City in the U.S.A."
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