Do You Know What a ‘Green Book’ House is? Learn About Two in Middle TN

franklin green book house

When Reverend Dr. Kenneth Hill of Franklin was a child, his family would drive from their home in the Mid-West to see relatives that lived in Virginia. He tells how his mother would pack a big picnic hamper and the family would have their meals on the side of the road. He always enjoyed those roadside picnics. It wasn’t until he was older that he realized that it wasn’t safe for their family to go to a restaurant because they were black.

During the time of the Jim Crow Laws, black travelers were often refused food and lodging from white owners, they might even be harassed or arrested if they went the wrong place at the wrong time. Especially in “sundown towns” where laws enforced racial segregation. Things changed little until the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

One man, an African-American postal carrier from New York City named Victor Hugo Green, decided to write a guide for black travelers telling them of safe places to stay, eat, get cars repaired, shop and more. He published the guide, which was popular among the growing black middle class, from 1936 until 1966. As the book became more popular, more business owners and even individuals, began opening their doors to these travelers.

Until the movie “Green Book” was made in 2018, many people had never heard that there was something called a “sundown town” or the book referred to in its title. The movie told the true story of African-American classical and jazz pianist Don Shirley and his driver and bodyguard, Frank Vallelonga, as they traveled through the Deep South in 1964. It was based on interviews of the two men by Vallelonga’s son, and letters written to his mother by his father.

Both Franklin and Murfreesboro were “sundown towns,” and both offered safe havens listed in the book for African-American travelers. Franklin had one location and there were two in Murfreesboro.

Currently, Shorter Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church owns Franklin’s Green Book House. Previously, it was owned by Ruth Gaynor, who opened her simple stone veneer house to travelers as a guest house. The house is located in the Natchez Street African-American Historic District, and is in the process of being converted into a heritage center with the help of Middle Tennessee State University.

“We had no idea of the historical significance of the home when we were going to tear it down in 2019 because it needed extensive repairs,” explained Dr. Hill. It was a group of preservationists that brought it to his congregations’ attention. Thelma Battle, a local grass-roots historian on African-American history in Franklin, is currently writing a book about the house that is due to be published soon.

According to research done by Abigail Coomes, Emily Huffer, and Samantha Brickel, three MTSU graduate students in public history, as well as Dr. Hill and Dr. Carroll Van West, the director of the MTSU Center for Historic Preservation, “the house was initially built circa 1900, with the prominent stone veneer exterior probably dating a bit later…In the late mid-1950s the owner, Ruth Gaylor (1902-1982), hired a contractor to add a side addition—which looked like a motel room—that she would rent to Black travelers. Ruth was a nurse while her husband E. B. Gaylor was the manager of the Gem Theater, which also stood on Natchez Street…Gaylor had one room at least in the house that she rented along with a detached garage (no longer extant) at the rear of the property that had an apartment over it. This apartment was used for lodging until Ruth’s sister and brother-in-law moved into it in the 1960s, shortly after the birth of their daughter…In the 1970s, the trustees of Shorter Chapel bought the home and rented out the house for a generation.”

Although many houses and other businesses that were listed in the Green Book are all gone, another still stands in Murfreesboro. According to a story on, Dorothy Orr’s great-grandmother, Jane Baugh-Hoover, ran a boarding house on E. State Street that became listed in the Green Book. “After Baugh-Hoover’s death in 1928,” according to the story, “Orr’s grandparents — Garfield and Fannie Hoover — took over the house.” Orr had no idea about the house’s Green Book history until she got a call from the African American Heritage Society of Rutherford County.”

The saving of these homes is only part of the preservation of African-American history that is currently happening all over Middle Tennessee.