A Nostalgia Not Experienced by All (Crucial Role of the Green Book)

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 way West.

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 time.

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 AlbuquerqueFred 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 HERE, which 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.

Sources:

Candacy Taylor – “Route 66’s legacy of racial segregation, published in The Guardian” 2/27/15.
Michael Wallis – “The Other Mother Road” – This Land Press, 3/12/14
National Park Service – Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program

The Negro Motorist Green Book and Route 66, produced by Candacy Taylor in partnership with the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program.

Also See:

Route 66 (main page)

African Americans – From Slavery to Equality

The Civil War

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