We've written plenty about
the wonderful and nostalgic journey that Route 66 continues to be today,
even after its decommission in 1985.
America's Mother Road is often romanticized, with many seeing it as a
link to our parents, grandparents and great grandparents, others perhaps
feeling the sense of freedom that the road provided those earlier
travelers. And for folks like us, Route 66 is, but yet, the next
adventure beyond the
Old West days of the
Santa Fe Trail, another
"super-highway" to bring Americans through small town U.S.A. on their
In all that nostalgia though, we
shouldn't forget that the experience of the Mother Road wasn't the same
for Americans of Color. In fact, as noted author, photographer and
cultural critic Candacy Taylor writes, "being black and traveling away
from home during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation in the US was
potentially life threatening." Taylor teamed up with the National
Park Service for a special project recently, one that shines a light on
a special publication, by a man with a mission to keep black travelers
safe. The Negro Motorist Green Book.
About 10 years after Route 66 was
officially designated from Chicago, Illinois to Los Angeles,
California, Victor H. Green, a Harlem, New York Postal employee, began
publishing a series of roadside companions for the black traveler in
1936. Each featured all types of businesses willing to serve blacks.
This was during a time when some towns in America, not only in the
south, but also the West, actually promoted that only Whites were
allowed in the city limits, and other towns that only had a handful of
businesses that would allow blacks. Some were "Sundown Towns", which warned that all people
of color had to leave by sundown. An atmosphere that made it difficult,
if not impossible, for a black family to enjoy the "freedom" of the
Mother Road, much less many other towns and cities in America at the
The Negro Motorist Green Book would
become an invaluable tool, often called the Bible of Black Travel. One that would continue to be published by Victor Green until 1964 when
Jim Crow laws were abolished by Civil Rights Legislation. Noted author
and historian Michael Wallis, who has played a big part in the resurging
interest in Route 66,
wrote in an essay "As a boy, I saw the "No Colored" signs at gas
stations on my Route 66 just as I did on the roads of the Deep South."
Wallis continues "Black families traveling America's byways packed
their own food and often slept in their vehicles. They didn't get their
kicks on Route 66 - or a least the kind of kicks I was getting as a
youngster or a few years later as a hitchhiking Marine." Wallis says
that the Green Book probably saved a good many lives, and that "the
old road has plenty of scar tissue, much to be ashamed of and much to
brag about, as well as a bright future. It is an unfinished story - a
work in progress."
Part of that "work in progress" is
documenting the darker side of America's Mother Road, and learning the
history from more than just the nostalgic memories of those who didn't
have to worry about where they were going to eat, sleep or even get gas.
After all, Route 66 was a reflection of the nation at the time, its
glory and horror on display the same. That's why Candacy Taylor's work
with the National Park Service's Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program
is so important. Taylor has traveled the Route, documenting what
is left of those brave businesses who were listed in the Green Book. She
writes that of the 250 Green Book sites listed in the 1960s along Route
66, over half are gone. Motels like the DeAnza Motor Lodge in
Albuquerque, Fred Harvey Restaurants and Hotels, and others played a key role for
thousands of travelers who had to carefully plan their travel to avoid
the pit falls of Jim Crow laws and racism.
The Park Service's Route 66 Green Book
Project is designed to help shed light on the important stories of
racial discrimination for Blacks and other travelers of color. And to
lead to the preservation of remaining business buildings that were in
the book, in order to promote commemoration and gain insights and
understanding of those who relied on it to experience Route 66.
For more information on the project, see
the National Park Service website
includes a link to a complete listing of
properties along Route 66 that were included in the Green Book.
It's worth noting as well that Missouri
State University also teamed with the National Park Service on the
project and is producing a
series of video interviews discussing minority experiences and
memories of Historic Route 66 in Green County Missouri and
Springfield, Missouri, birthplace of Route 66.
©Dave Alexander, November 2015.
Candacy Taylor - "Route
66's legacy of racial segregation", published in The Guardian"
Michael Wallis - "The
Other Mother Road" - This Land Press, 3/12/14
National Park Service - Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program