History Colorado will be visiting sites across the state identified as safe havens for African American travelers in the famous Jim Crow-era travel guide The Green Book, and the historic Strater Hotel is one of the listed locations.
“It was sort of an anomaly, wasn't it?” said Durango resident Rod Barker, whose family owned the Strater for 95 years, only recently selling the property to new owners. “I mean, that definitely wasn't the case everywhere. It was a bold initiative for them to do that, and certainly could have yielded some reprisals.”
In fact, The Srtater Hotel was one of only two businesses in Southwest Colorado to allow African American patrons, according to a survey done by the Colorado Historical Foundation’s research team. The other was the Sun Set Motel, which was once located in the northern section of Durango.
“I guess that just shows the spirit of hospitality goes back a long ways and is more than skin deep,” Barker said. “I think it’s wonderful.”
Improvements and affordability of automobiles had more Americans traveling than ever during the 1920s and 1930s, though nonwhite Americans often struggled to find restaurants and hotels in unfamiliar areas that would serve them or let them stay the night.
In 1936, Victor Hugo Green, a Black postal worker in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem, began to identify and document restaurants and hotels that were friendly to African Americans in the New York area. Calling it “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” his efforts expanded to businesses that would welcome African American travelers along the east coast and in the heavily segregated Southern states, as well as warning them away from “sundown towns” or areas that did not allow Black motorists after dark. Over the years, Green tracked more locations in the western regions of the U.S. that would accept African American customers, according to history.com.
In 2019, the Colorado Historical Foundation began to study, document and publicize historical sites within the state associated with African American travel during the Jim Crow era from the late 1800s until the 1960s, when racial segregation was at its peak.
“This critical work, similar to historical studies being conducted in the national theater, seeks to expand and supplement the historical record for sites such as Lamar’s Alamo Hotel, Pueblo’s Coronado Motel, the Strater Hotel in Durango, and the Chipeta Café in Montrose,” states History Colorado’s website.
Colorado locations like The Strater Hotel attracted the attention of the nonprofit organization because of its mentions in The Green Book.
Awarded a $75,000 grant by the National Park Service in December, History Colorado’s State Historic Preservation Office will be traveling to sites identified by The Green Book for more in-depth studies. The purpose of the grant is to fund projects leading to more diverse landmark designations, including places in minority communities, LGBTQ spaces and rural areas, according to the National Park Service website.
Currently, only 8% of locations listed on the National Register of Historic Places represent minority and marginalized communities, and only 5% of places in those communities are listed in Colorado’s State Register of Historic Places.
Barker is not surprised by his family’s welcoming nature toward African American customers. He said his father “put the hotel in the (Green) book in 1962 as a place welcoming Blacks in their travels,” in a previous interview with Colorado Public Radio.
“One of the rooms that we named at the Strater is after a Black citizen, Frank Fitchue, who worked at the First National Bank and at the Strater,” he said.
Barker said Fitchue, the oldest son of freed slaves, was a popular Durango resident and savvy business man.
“He actually did quite well in the community,” he said. “He was known for buying into shares of mines and different businesses.”
Barker said Fitchue became famous for thwarting the efforts of would-be bank robbers who had their sights set on the First National Bank in Durango.
“Frank was accosted by some local thugs who were going to hold up the bank after-hours,” Barker said. “They wanted him to make sure that they could get in, and I guess in no uncertain terms, let him know that should he not cooperate, things would go badly for him.”
However, Fitchue was unpersuaded to help the local gang members.
“He went to the president of the First National Bank and let him know what was going to happen,” Barker said. “They set everything up. At night, the thugs came and opened the door (to the bank) and inside was the sheriff. They were all arrested.”
History Colorado spokesman Luke Perkins said the organization will be digging deeper into the Strater’s background and its involvement with African American history.
“There is a lot to learn about African American Travel in Southwest Colorado and how the Strater Hotel was involved,” Perkins said in an email to The Durango Herald. “It is already a beautiful and important building that contributes to the historical significance of Durango's historic downtown, and this research will hopefully add an additional layer to that significance.”