KITTERY, Maine — When a highly anticipated two-hour documentary about the complex history of Black Americans on the road airs Tuesday night, an historic Kittery landmark will be part of that story.
“Driving While Black: Space, Race and Mobility in America,” filmed by Ric Burns and based on the book by historian Gretchen Sorin, describes “how the advent of the car brought African Americans new freedom but also danger,” according to PBS. This sense of independence and adventure taken for granted by many Americans as automobiles became more prevalent was often tinged with anxiety for motorists of color.
One of the destinations where Black motorists could feel welcomed and safe was Rock Rest, a guest house located on Brave Boat Harbor Road in Kittery Point. For more than 30 years, Hazel and Clayton Sinclair – both employees of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard at various times – owned and operated the modest establishment.
Portsmouth resident Valerie Cunningham, a well-known local advocate, historian, and founder of the city’s Black Heritage Trail, shares the story of Rock Rest in the documentary. She was close family friends with the Sinclairs growing up – referring to the Rock Rest matriarch as “Aunt Hazel” – and worked there for two summers as a teen.
“There were lots of safe houses across the USA during the age of segregation,” she said Sunday. “(Rest Rock), like most of them, did not advertise.”
Instead, the location’s reputation spread by word of mouth, particularly due to Hazel’s cooking.
Rest Rock is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. According to the nomination documents, Clayton came to the Seacoast from New York City as a chauffeur for the family of literary giant William Dean Howells, who had a summer home in Kittery Point. Hazel was employed as a maid and cook. They met in the summer of 1936 and married the following year.
When they originally bought the property on Brave Boat Harbor Road, “the house was little more than a shack,” Hazel later told interviewers. But they extensively renovated the home, rebuilding the chimneys and updating the kitchen. Clayton got a job at the shipyard, but enlisted in the Navy after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Then Hazel signed up at the shipyard, serving as a woodworker’s helper during World War II.
They opened up their home as a guest house after the war. Gradually, other rooms and outbuildings had to be added as its popularity spread.
“It meant that Black folks could plan to take a trip,” Cunningham said, referring not only to the Kittery location but other such designated spots as well.
“As one of only a few African American guest houses in the state, Rock Rest enjoyed considerable success and attracted vacationers from across the country,” the 2007 National Register nomination application declared.
The Sinclairs could accommodate up to 16 guests at a time. Most stayed for a week, sometimes two, and would make day trips throughout the Seacoast area. The menu included both Sunday lobster dinners and Southern-style “soul food.”
The automobile age brought about tourists of all colors, but as noted at the America on the Move Exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, “Roads were open to all motorists, but the facilities that lined them were not.”
This was true even in the northernmost state on the Eastern Seaboard, and historically one of the whitest in terms of population.
“While the hotels and motels in Maine were not officially segregated by color, there was a great reluctance in many places to rent rooms to African Americans,” according to the nomination documents.
“Driving While Black” carries viewers right up to the present day, when even in the 21st century Black Americans in vehicles continue to encounter racism and even violence. The documentary is based on Sorin’s book “Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights.” According to CNN, the State University of New York professor “spent 20 years researching Black mobility,” and compiled an extensive collection of photographs and videos.
She made the film with Ric Burns, the brother of legendary documentarian Ken Burns. The documentary is scheduled to premiere on PBS Tuesday night, Oct. 13, at 9 p.m.
As for Rock Rest, it is a private residence today. However, the Sinclairs kept it operating until 1977, more than three decades. Clayton, who served on Kittery’s Appeals Board and founded Portsmouth’s chapter of the NAACP, died the following year. Hazel was a member of the League of Women Voters, and both attended People’s Baptist Church in Portsmouth.
Hazel Sinclair, born in 1902, died in 1995.