Before the Civil Rights Act, African-American travelers found a warm welcome in Kittery Point.
By Deborah McDermott
Images Milne Special Collections, University of New Hampshire Libraries
Clayton Sinclair, Jr., was a skinny teenager headed down a troubled path when his mother, eager to get him off the New York City streets, sent him to live with his father and stepmother in their guesthouse on Kittery Point in 1949. It was, the retired Atlanta lawyer says today, “the best thing my mother ever did for me.”
Rock Rest, the inn operated by Hazel and Clayton Sinclair out of their home, played host to doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other well-educated guests who engaged one another in stimulating conversation while enjoying delicious food in the formal dining room. “By just talking with them, I got a bigger world view,” Sinclair says. One frequent visitor, a lawyer, took a special interest in Sinclair’s education. He even attended the young man’s graduations from Traip Academy in Kittery and the University of Maine. “Meeting him gave me the extra push,” Sinclair says. “He was very instrumental in my decision to go to law school.”
The inspiration that Sinclair took from Rock Rest’s clientele is all the more understandable considering the inn’s unusual niche: it catered exclusively to middle-class African Americans at a time when segregation was both covertly and, in some places, overtly the law of the land. African-American travelers could not lodge just anywhere when they were tired or eat just anywhere when they were hungry, but at Rock Rest, they were treated with dignity and respect.
No wonder, then, that local historians and members of the seacoast region’s small African-American community wanted to preserve Rock Rest’s legacy when Clayton Jr. decided last year to sell the house he had inherited from Hazel. With his blessing, they offered Rock Rest’s contents to the planned National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Intrigued by the proposal, William Pretzer, the Smithsonian Institution’s senior curator for history, hopped onto a flight to Maine. And when he walked into Rock Rest, he knew he’d found a treasure. Everything — the fine china, the polished silverware, even the badminton racquets — were right where Hazel had left them when she died in 1995.
“This is the largest group of domestic furnishings the museum has collected on one place,” says Pretzer, who took most of the house’s contents back to Washington, D.C. (Construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture is set to begin in 2012, with an opening planned for 2015. For details, visit nmaahc.si.edu.) The furnishings from Rock Rest, Pretzer explained, provide a window into the working-class African-American home of the mid-twentieth century and, more importantly, the culture of the tourist home in pre-desegregation America. “This is an under-researched area of African-American history,” Pretzer says. “We believe that there are many more places like Rock Rest than are currently known.”
Hazel and Clayton Sinclair’s guest home was located on Route 103, a narrow, winding road that hugs the Kittery Point shoreline, offering stunning views of Portsmouth Harbor interspersed with piney woods and houses. In the 1940s and ’50s, the peninsula was dotted with hardscrabble farms, fishermen’s homes, and a handful of grand summer mansions.
Then, as now, Kittery was no different than any other town in the state of Maine, in at least one regard: Its population was predominantly white. (From 1764 to 2000, African Americans comprised less than 1 percent of the state’s population, according to author Gerald Talbot’s Maine’s Visible Black History. Today 1.2 percent of Maine’s population is black.) In fact, Hazel and Clayton Sinclair, who bought Rock Rest in 1938, were well known as the only blacks in Kittery Point for decades.
Like many of their peers, the Sinclairs came to Maine as hired help. Hazel worked as an upstairs maid and cook for a New York City family who summered in York. Clayton was a chauffeur for the family of novelist and literary critic William Dean Howells, who had a waterfront estate in Kittery Point.
Those who knew Hazel say she loved Maine’s rocky coast, sea breezes, and rural pace. “She was a very smart woman,” says Angela Booker, whose mother was Hazel’s cousin. “She had a lot of business sense. She was very level-headed, and she knew what she wanted out of life.”
A high school graduate, Hazel was also extraordinarily literate. Her scrapbooks of newspaper clippings, personal diaries, meticulous account books, and voluminous correspondence, including Senator Margaret Chase Smith’s replies to letters she had written, are part of the Rock Rest collections that her stepson has donated to the University of New Hampshire.
Clayton was gentlemanly, somewhat stern, and well informed about the news of the day, Booker says. “He loved to talk, and he could always be counted on to share his opinion.”
The Sinclairs met during the summer of 1936 and enjoyed a whirlwind courtship. “I have said I will,” Hazel wrote in a letter to her aunt dated September 27, 1936, two weeks after her marriage. “Why, I don’t know, but I did. You know, love is a funny thing if it is love that makes us do things. I think you will like my husband when you meet him. He’s not bad to look at, brown skin, taller than I, weighs about 185 lbs. I’ll make the best of it while it lasts, as it is all a chance. Don’t worry about me. You know I always come out on top.”
The house on Route 103 was in a ramshackle state when the couple bought it two years later. “Hazel said, ‘I’m not living in that shack,’ ” says Valerie Cunningham, a Sinclair family friend who grew up calling the couple “Uncle Clayton” and “Aunt Hazel.” Director of the Portsmouth (New Hampshire) Black Heritage Trail, she was instrumental in the effort to place the Rock Rest furnishings in a museum. “Clayton said, ‘Can you afford something better than this?’ Of course, they couldn’t.”
Clayton, who was then working as a driver at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, repaired and expanded the house in his spare time. By 1940 he and Hazel were taking in guests. Initially the offers of lodging were informal. The Sinclairs and other families — all members of the People’s Baptist Church in Portsmouth, which was the center of their lives — often put up visitors coming to the area for a wedding, a funeral, or a short vacation. “That’s how it began,” Cunningham says. “ ‘I would like to go to Maine. Where is it safe? Where can I stay?’ Clayton and Hazel, being smart, said, ‘Huh, we should have a business here.’ ”
The Sinclairs were by no means the only entrepreneurs to build a business catering to black travelers in Jim Crow America. By the mid-twentieth century, major corporations like IBM and General Electric were hiring black men in management positions, and their work required travel, says Gretchen Sorin, director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies at the State University of New York College at Oneonta.
Sorin wrote her PhD dissertation on travel in the pre-Civil Rights Act era. “They couldn’t stay in hotels and motels, and they couldn’t just pull into a restaurant and eat,” she says. “It was a very hostile landscape for African Americans. You were literally traveling from safe black space to safe black space, and to do that you had to traverse the vast white space in between where people were not treating you very well.”
Many turned to The Negro Motorist Green Book. Compiled by an enterprising New Yorker named Victor Green in 1936, the book was a state-by-state guide to guesthouses, restaurants, gas stations, hair salons, and other establishments that catered to African Americans. The 1949 edition lists establishments in Bangor, Gardiner, Portland, and Old Orchard Beach. By 1959, guesthouses had been established in Dixfield and the tiny Washington County town of Robbinston.
In Old Orchard Beach, the Cummings Guest House catered to the swing era’s musical elite who played local clubs. Its guest register, procured by the University of Southern Maine, contains the signatures of Duke Ellington, Mercer Ellington, Bessie Smith, Lionel Hampton, and “Cab’s Orchestra Boys,” referring to Cab Calloway and his band.
Not all innkeepers advertised in the Green Book. Ethel Goode Franklin, whose Ogunquit guesthouse hosted black actors as well as the maids and chauffeurs of white actors performing at the Ogunquit Playhouse, did not. Hazel and Clayton Sinclair never felt the need to advertise in the Green Book, either. They were doing just fine without it.
The Sinclairs drew on their work experience to create a guesthouse that was at once comfortable and gracious. “Rock Rest was proper but not formal,” Cunningham says. “Everything was what you would expect in a hotel. Hazel had been working in white people’s homes for a long time, and she catered off-season. She knew how to treat people right. Her guests were sophisticated and treated as such.”
The dining room table was set with fine china, crystal, and polished silverware. Clayton’s garden beds provided the flowers for the centerpiece. To ensure that these guests would never have to face the ignominy of rejection, breakfast and dinner were included in the cost of accommodations. And what meals they were: fried chicken, baked beans, and every Friday, lobster thermidor. Hazel was famous for her Parker House rolls and for her seasonal desserts like strawberry shortcake and blueberry pie. “Food was really the draw for the guests at Rock Rest,” Cunningham says. “Everything was homemade, often with ingredients that came right out of the vegetable gardens.”
For entertainment, guests played horseshoes, badminton, and croquet. On drizzly days, they gathered in the game room that Clayton built in the detached garage and challenged one another to cribbage and Ping-Pong.
Although there were pockets of segregation in the seacoast region, there were no laws mandating segregation as there were in the South. Rock Rest guests were generally free to visit area beaches and other attractions. “It was the upscale places where they could run in to problems,” Cunningham says.
In their day-to-day lives, the Sinclairs also found acceptance. Clayton was a deacon in his church and Hazel sang in the choir. Together, they founded the Seacoast Chapter of the NAACP. Closer to home, Clayton served for five terms on the Kittery Board of Appeals, and Hazel was a founding member of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters.
They were good neighbors, still remembered today for acts of kindness. York resident Eddie Storer, who grew up in Kittery Point, recalls the morning of his father’s funeral in 1942. Because of gas rationings, he and his mother were planning to walk to the church two and a half miles away. Then Clayton Sinclair appeared at the front door. “He said, ‘My car is sitting here. There’s a full tank of gas. You take this and you use it as you need to,’ ” Storer says. “My mother asked him how he’d get to work at the shipyard, and he said, ‘I’ll walk. Don’t you worry about me.’ ”
When Clayton died in 1978, neighbors and longtime guests flooded Hazel’s mailbox with letters and cards. “I loved him as a brother and I love you as my sister,” wrote frequent visitor Louise Abrams of Newark, New Jersey.
“You are loved by everyone here in Kittery Point,” wrote one resident. “If anyone did not know you both, it was indeed their loss.”
“You have both been so much a part of our town and have touched so many lives,” wrote another.
The year 1964 — the year the Civil Rights Act banning segregation in the United States was signed into law — was a turning point for the Sinclairs. Although they continued to take in guests through the early 1970s, business dropped significantly. “Even though they were involved in the Civil Rights movement, they knew the people who would suffer were the black business owners,” Booker says. “The Civil Rights Act was good for all, so even though you might lose your business, you would gain because you could go anywhere.”
Yet, what most impressed William Pretzer when he stepped inside Rock Rest in 2010, more than thirty years after the final guest had departed, was the sense of suspended animation. “The dining room was visually attractive with its china closet, étagère, and buffet displaying china, glass, and linen,” he says. “The veranda with its cushioned wicker chairs, porch swing, water cooler, and hutch provided a very relaxed atmosphere.”
Hazel’s presence, in particular, was apparent. “The most poignant place of respite was the Sinclairs’ private place,” he says. “Mr. and Mrs. Sinclair added a small room to the rear of their house. At midday, after cooking and cleaning for their guests, Mrs. Sinclair retired to this plain room with its two rocking chairs, small table, and reading lamp for her own, well-earned respite. That is the scene that sticks with me.”