Rock Rest in Kittery, ME “an oasis” for 20th century black travelers

D. Allan Kerr

This article is part of a monthly series celebrating Kittery’s history, as Maine’s oldest town counts down to its 375th anniversary.

Kittery has long been celebrated for its deep and storied history. One aspect of his past, however, remained under the radar for many years.

In the mid-twentieth century, Hazel and Clayton Sinclair’s residence was known to a number of African American motorists as the Rock Rest – a rare place of comfort where they could feel welcomed while traveling through the Maine.

While the American South is generally seen as the region most hostile to black citizens at this time, Kittery resident Bob Sheppard notes that racism was not confined to any particular corner of the country.

“In other words, people who looked like me or my family members couldn’t spontaneously stop for gas, food, groceries or even clothes in many parts of the country, including the New England,” Sheppard said this week. “Rock Rest was an oasis, a break from the hostility, indignities and outright hostility experienced by black people who could afford to travel to America.”

The Sinclairs are no longer with us, but their story has received new attention in recent years. Last June, two stone markers – one in the popular Foreside neighborhood and one on private property on Route 103 where Rock Rest was located – were unveiled in Kittery as part of the Seacoast Black Heritage Trail.

A remarkable cookbook has just been published by Kittery resident Betsy Wish to commemorate the 375th anniversary of Maine’s oldest town, with an entire section dedicated to Rock Rest and Hazel Sinclair’s legendary recipes. Wish was inspired to do so after seeing the site mentioned in the 2020 PBS documentary “Driving While Black: Space, Race and Mobility in America.”

Sheppard helped organize a Zoom presentation hosted by Lane Library in Hampton, New Hampshire, last year to share the Rock Rest story. He actually met Hazel while working as a reporter for New Hampshire’s WHEB radio station in the 1980s, when reporting on the history of the Seacoast NAACP.

“I was invited to her home to sample her gracious hospitality, leaving with a sense of the role she and her husband played in the lead up to the passage of the Civil Rights Act,” he said. Explain.

“Hazel and Clayton Sinclair made sure their guests felt appreciated, they received wonderfully prepared home cooked meals served on fine china and had the chance to socialize with fellow travelers from New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC.”

After:‘Create This Tangible Life’ African American Guest House Pieces at the Smithsonian Museum

Clayton and Hazel Sinclair, owners of Rock Rest in Kittery, Maine.

The Story of Clayton and Hazel Sinclair

The Sinclairs’ story is, in many ways, a reflection of The Greatest Generation. Before World War II, Clayton Sinclair came from New York on the Seacoast as a stoker for a wealthy family descended from the late literary giant William Dean Howells, who had a summer home at Kittery Point. Hazel was employed on the Seacoast as a maid and cook. They met in the summer of 1936 and married the following year.

The property they originally purchased on Route 103 was “little more than a cabin,” Hazel later told interviewers. But they renovated the house, rebuilt the fireplaces and modernized the kitchen. Clayton got a job at Portsmouth Dockyard, but after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 he enlisted in the navy. Hazel got a job at the shipyard during the war, as a carpenter’s helper.

After the Allied victory ended the war, the Sinclairs opened their home as a guest house. Gradually other rooms and outbuildings had to be added as it became popular.

As Sheppard points out, there was a “growing black middle class” in America after the war, and families wanted to share in the joys of exploring the country on the road. Unlike white families, however, they weren’t always welcome at the restaurants and hotels they passed along the way.

“Black travelers could be denied service without warning and without legal recourse,” according to memorial markers unveiled in Kittery this summer.

Sheppard notes that there were similar homes in Maine at York, Ogunquit, and Old Orchard Beach around this time.

Black Heritage Trail founder Valerie Cunningham, an advocate and local historian, worked at the guesthouse for two summers as a teenager.  She grew up a family friend of the Sinclairs and called the Rock Rest matriarch

“Although not all of them were included in the ‘Green Book for Black Motorists’, people learned of their hospitality by word of mouth, and Rock Rest was normally booked for the whole summer well into the future. advance,” he explained.

The Green Book – part of the basis for the popular 2018 Academy Award-winning film of the same name – advertised the locations of US roads where black travelers would be accepted.

The Sinclairs could accommodate up to 16 guests at a time. Most stayed a week, sometimes two, and took day trips to the Seacoast region. You can also play croquet and horseshoes on the property. But one of the keys to the site’s popularity was Hazel’s cooking.

Betsy Wish said last week that she had walked past their former home for many years without knowing its history. She first became interested after seeing the 2020 PBS documentary based on historian Gretchen Sorin’s book “Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights.”

When Wish decided during the pandemic to create a historic cookbook as part of Kittery’s 375th anniversary celebration, it seemed only natural to include Rock Rest.

“Why wouldn’t I want to include the Sinclair house in the historical cookbook? ” she says. “Rather than a page dedicated to Hazel’s recipes, it was obvious to me that they deserved at least a segment dedicated to both Hazel and Clayton, bringing our attention to Rock Rest.”

The cookbook, “Kittery’s Maine Ingredients,” shares recipes for Hazel’s famous “copper pennies” carrots, fudge (which requires 3 cups of sugar), caramel ice cream, date bars, pie clams, two-egg cake and Maine State potato. pancakes, among other delicacies. Wish also describes how Hazel was a popular caterer in town and provided food for local church events.

But the passage also notes that even residents who knew the Sinclairs were unaware of what was happening at Rock Rest, or that African Americans could be barred from staying or dining there.

“Rock Rest played a valuable role in the history of Kittery during the Jim Crow era,” Wish said recently. “By giving African Americans a place to vacation when they weren’t allowed to stay anywhere else on the shoreline, Hazel and Clayton made the unimaginable possible.”

A photo that was part of the Lane Memorial Library's online event

Clayton Sinclair, founder of Portsmouth NAACP; Hazel active in the League of Women Voters

Clayton served on the Kittery Appeal Board and was one of the founders of the Portsmouth chapter of the NAACP. Hazel was a member of the League of Women Voters and both attended People’s Baptist Church in Portsmouth. Wish states in his cookbook that Hazel’s voter registration certificate is now in the University of New Hampshire archives, as are his handwritten recipes, Rock Rest guestbooks, newspaper articles and letters. This is where Wish conducted most of its research.

“I guess the bottom line is that I felt I had discovered a real treasure when I found the file containing Hazel’s recipes,” she said. “Once I started researching Rock Rest, it was hard to know when and where to stop.”

Clayton died in 1978, shortly after the Sinclairs ceased operating their home as a guesthouse. Hazel, born in 1902, died in 1995. They kept Rock Rest alive for over three decades.

Today the house is a private residence. It is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“As one of the few African-American guesthouses in the state, Rock Rest has enjoyed considerable success and has drawn vacationers from across the country,” the 2007 National Registry application said.

Additionally, the stone markers now located in Kittery – appropriate for a place known as Rock Rest – were unveiled this year at events hosted by the Seacoast NAACP Youth Council and New Hampshire’s Black Heritage Trail, including including a ceremony held at Wallingford Square’s Second Congregational Church. Black Heritage Trail founder Valerie Cunningham, an advocate and local historian, worked at the guesthouse for two summers as a teenager. She grew up a family friend of the Sinclairs and called the Rock Rest matriarch “Aunt Hazel.”

Clayton and Hazel Sinclair in an undated photo courtesy of New Hampshire's Black Heritage Trail.

Places like Rock Rest “meant black people could plan to take a trip,” Cunningham told the Herald in 2020.

To be clear, there were officially no “Jim Crow” laws in Maine and New Hampshire even before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but it was not uncommon for facilities to refuse to serve those who they did not wish to serve. Keeping the history of Rock Rest alive can help ensure that history is not forgotten.

“It’s hard to imagine, but not so long ago access to businesses and public housing, things we all take for granted today, was limited because of the color of your skin. “, Sheppard said.

Several events are taking place in Maine’s oldest city this year. Info: kittery375th.com

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