When he came to Boise as a teenager in the 1970s, Chieshenam Westin, who is White, happily believed he lived in a kind place in a welcoming time. He read about racial troubles in the South, of course, but his town was immune to that sort of thing, so he thought. Last month he saw the film “Green Street” about a Black pianist traveling in the South in 1962 with a tough white driver and bodyguard.
The movie takes its name from the “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” which helped Black travelers find places to eat and sleep. Westin wanted to find out about the real “Green Book.” He wanted to know what kind of welcome Black travelers received in Idaho. He wanted to know what the “Green Book” could tell him about his state. According to the Idaho Statesman, he called local and state libraries, the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress, but couldn’t get his hands on a copy. At about the same time, Phillip Thompson at the Idaho Black History Museum told him the museum had just received a donated copy of the 1947 “Green Book.”
Westin went to the museum to see it. The book listed just three places for Black travelers in Idaho: a private home on River Street in Boise and two sites in Pocatello — a church parsonage and a “tourist park.” From his research, Westin also learned that several towns in Idaho were sundown towns that required Blacks to be out of town before nightfall. Even places that didn’t formally enshrine racism in law were able to control where Blacks lived, through property covenants that restricted ownership to certain neighborhoods. Those towns didn’t need sundown laws to keep out Blacks, Westin concluded, “because you could not spend the night or eat anywhere anyway.”
Westin is White. A Boise artist, he is widely read and active in Idaho justice and human rights causes. As he researched more, he realized that the real story of his state and his town was not the story he thought he knew. “I used to believe that Idaho was better than the South or the Midwest, that we were better people,” Westin says. “And I’ve been shocked when I found all this out. It was here. It was the same here as anywhere else in the United States. We weren’t immune from it.” He adds, “Now I see that was so naïve.”