January 21, 2021

Sites of the Green Book: The Theresa Hotel

Between 1936 and 1967, the Negro Motorist Green Book was essential for the survival of thousands of Black Americans in an era of segregation cemented into the American legal system through Jim Crow laws, sundown towns where Black Americans were under threat of violence after sunset, and a sharp increase in lynchings and other forms of hate crimes. For the last year we’ve been working with Candacy Taylor, one of our African American Cultural Heritage Fund fellows, to further explore sites that were included in the Green Book.

The Theresa Hotel, located at 2090 7th Street in Harlem was one of those sites. It can be found in Green Book editions 1940-1941, 1947-1964, and 1966-1967.

The Theresa Hotel was called the “Waldorf of Harlem.” The white brick, terra cotta, 300-room, thirteen story, steel-framed hotel was the tallest building in Harlem when it was built in 1913.

The Theresa was located down the street from the Apollo Theater (which was also listed in the Green Book). It was a whites-only hotel until 1940, but once Black people were welcomed it became a vibrant and exciting place to be, hosting the who’s who of Black entertainment and intelligentsia. John H. Johnson conceived his magazines Ebony and Jet at the Theresa and called the hotel the “social headquarters of Negro America.” One of the more famous meetings was when Fidel Castro met with Malcolm X in 1960, but it was also teeming with showgirls, wealthy tourists, socialites, and gangsters who played the numbers in the basement.

Image of a large building that was once a hotel listed in the Green Book. Today it operates as an office building.

photo by: Candacy Taylor

The property had a 51-foot J-shaped bar on the street level and a clothing store that sold fabulous wares to celebrities like Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, and Dorothy Dandridge. Politicians and musicians, from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to Dwight Eisenhower, could be spotted there. Athletes such as Joe Louis, the heavyweight champion, lived at the Theresa. Louis held his victory parties there while people standing on the street would peer into the windows hoping to get a glimpse of him.

The Theresa is one of the two Green Book sites that was nearly seized by the United States government. During World War II, the army was so opposed to racial integration it organized segregated redistribution centers, or what the Chicago Defender called “Jim Crow Centers,” which were developed for returning soldiers to rest before they headed back into combat. Forty-nine hotels were selected throughout the country for white soldiers to swim and play golf, tennis, and shuffleboard. For Black soldiers, the army planned to seize two Green Book sites, The Theresa Hotel and the Pershing Hotel, located on Chicago’s South Side, both of which had no spaces for recreational activities.

“The United States Army enforces anti-racial laws in America while seeking to destroy them abroad. This incident proves conclusively that the Army has the power to abolish segregation within its own ranks. The fact that it does not do so proves that those in control do not want to do so; that they consider Negroes as less than men.”

The Philadelphia Tribune

When the U.S. Army set out to revoke reservations that had been made months in advance and to evict current guests from the Theresa, the NAACP, the Urban League, the YMCA, and Black newspapers throughout the country vehemently protested, demanding that President Roosevelt reverse the army’s decision. On September 30, 1944, four days after the army announced its plans, the Philadelphia Tribune published a scathing article, asking, “What kind of people do the officials who run the United States Army think Negroes are anyhow? . . . The United States Army enforces anti-racial laws in America while seeking to destroy them abroad. This incident proves conclusively that the Army has the power to abolish segregation within its own ranks. The fact that it does not do so proves that those in control do not want to do so; that they consider Negroes as less than men.”

Within a month of the publication of the Philadelphia Tribune article, the Roosevelt administration pressured the army to revise its plan to segregate returning soldiers. The army relinquished possession of the Theresa Hotel and agreed to integrate the redistribution centers. In the end, it was a notable victory for the Black resistance and a triumph against the armed forces in the struggle for racial equality.

The Theresa Hotel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. Although it is still standing, it is no longer a hotel and currently operates as an office building.

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Candacy Taylor is an award-winning author, photographer and cultural documentarian working on a multidisciplinary project based on the Green Book. She is the author of the bestselling book, Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America (Abrams Books). Taylor is also the curator and content specialist for the exhibition, The Negro Motorist Green Book which is being toured by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service from 2020 to 2024. Taylor was a fellow at the Hutchins Center at Harvard University under the direction of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and her work has been featured in over 100 media outlets.

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