The Green Book On Benefit Street

From the Colonial slave trader mansions on the south end, to the Green Book tourist home and beauty parlor on the north, Benefit Street is truly historic. The yellow house seen here on the left is 18 Benefit Street, built in 1864; the multi-unit dwelling on the right, at 12-14 Benefit Street, was built in 1889. It is not known whether the current residents know that they are listed on Page 72 of the 1947 Negro Motorist Green Book. Number 12 is identified as a tourist home run by W. W. Joyce, while number 18 is listed as a beauty parlor owned by Marie Wells.

Categories in the Green Book include tourist homes, beauty parlors, night clubs, service stations and such. It is heartening to note that in addition to The Bertha and The Hill Top Inn on Meeting Street, The Biltmore is listed under ‘hotels’ in at least six of the books I found between 1941 and 1954.

Newcomers to Providence might be surprised that by the forties and fifties, many houses at this end of Benefit Street had become quite run down (see Providence Preservation Society photos below) making them vulnerable to the urban renewal craze. This despite the fact that many were Colonial-era houses . . . and that there were people living in them.

This area — generally speaking from North Main Street up to Halsey and Pratt, and north across Olney street all the way up to Doyle Avenue — housed a vibrant, mixed-use, African-American community. South of Olney, the buildings have survived, but very few of the other Providence Green Book  addresses still exist. They are buried under the University Heights shopping center and University Apartments.

Fortunately, Ray Rickman, director of Stages of Freedom took it upon himself to hold public sessions and record the oral histories of people who had lived in that part of town: “Remembering a Lost Black Neighborhood, An Oral History Project on Lippitt Hill in Providence.” Participants made it abundantly clear that they had always referred to their neighborhood as the East Side. It was other people — the white East Siders, city officials, the developers — who favored the Lippitt Hill name. Having said that, in the interest of clarity, Mr. Rickman uses Lippitt Hill. Said Rickman of the project:

“It is extremely important to record this history from the people who lived, worked, and played on Lippitt Hill,” Ray Rickman, project director, said, “before it is lost. More than 5,000 people were displaced, and many religious institutions and businesses destroyed in the name of ‘progress.’”

This project wiped out an enormous area of single houses, three-deckers, shops, eateries, gardens, and even a pool. Most of these residents relocated to the streets adjacent to their former neighborhood, or they moved to South Providence or the Chad Brown area. It is heartbreaking to think of what we have lost. However, reading these recollections is actually quite joyous. Many of the participants were in their seventies and eighties but remember their former life in astonishing detail. It sounds like it was a rambunctious reunion.

(The stories were all transcribed by Ben Berke who also wrote up the project for the ProJo.)


The first floor of 18 Benefit was clearly a storefront of some type, but I can’t make out whether it was still a beauty shop at the time of these photos.


My initial post about Providence listings in the Green Book — the survival guide for Negro motorists first published in 1936 — was based on a piece by architectural historian Catherine W. Zipf. So she got me going on this.

The Providence Public Library does not have any of the Green Books in their collection, but the Curator of Rhode Island Collections, Kate Wells, sent me to the digitized collections of the New York Public Library where many of the Green Books are available online.

Marc Hutchison of the Providence Preservation Society gave permission for the use of these photographs, and more can be found on the Mary A. Gowdey Library of House Histories database. These notebooks were compiled by Gowdey and Antoinette Downing beginning in the 1950s.

And thanks to the crew at the Rhode Island Historical Society library for their patience. Among other things, they have hardcopies of the Gowdey notebooks.

Thank you all for your help.

And check out the Green Book documentary on the Smithsonian Channel which starts airing Monday night. Their stuff is always great — they have access to warehouses full of old, unseen footage and stills.


3 thoughts on “The Green Book On Benefit Street”

  1. Ida P Catlin

    I grew up not far from Benefit St. After my mom and dad married in 1951 they purchased a small grocery store from a Jewish woman nicknamed “Bunky”, located at 92 Lippitt Street approximately where University Heights is today. We lived there until 1960. During that time the redevelopment of the East Side started and my family moved to Camp Street. Smack in the heart of a Jewish Community!! My father also purchased a two family house on Pleasant St. which had a vacant corner store on the first floor.
    The redevelopment project was horrible! The city government forced many out of their homes via the eminent domain law.
    I remember my Grandmother crying because eminent domain took at least a third of her land. Her property taken to redirect and cut off Howell St. to make way for MLK Elementary School.

  2. Enjoy your story about old Prov. So much history in much not known by who live here. My grandfather bought a farm when he came here from Italy.There were 3 stone houses in Johnston, one of which he purchased at that time. He and my grandmother worked the farm then as their children grew they worked it also. My grandfather brought veggies to the produce market in Prov. for years. I would love to know where these houses were in Johnston. The building gs have been mentioned in other publications, never the locations.

  3. Karen Richardson

    Such an interesting history! Thank you for sharing This! I have gone on historical walks. Seems like much of this was left out.

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