Pour yourself a sipping drink and get comfortable. I am going to tell you a story. It’s about a postal worker named Victor Green and his Green Book, a very special publication that provided invaluable and sometimes even life-saving assistance to thousands of disenfranchised open-road travelers. Published annually for almost 30 years, this guidebook for the nation’s highways, including America’s Main Street at the time, Route 66, was as essential to those who relied on it as the gasoline in the tank and good tread on the tires.
This is a road story that has seldom been told. It needs to be and I am grateful for
the opportunity to share it with you.
Let me begin by saying that I am a true son of Route 66, born and bred on the old road. I also believe in the value of understanding the entire history of the highway. We simply must know and understand our past—the good, bad, and sometimes ugly—before we can manage the present and aspire to a future.
So I search the road as it is today, but also I continually go back to its past in order that I may preserve and protect this legendary highway for the future. That means I learn from the various layers, the distinct incarnations of Route 66—starting with its birth in the Roaring Twenties, the bittersweet “Dirty Thirties,” when the rains stopped and an economic downturn that was so devastating we still refer to it as the Great Depression struck this nation. I learn from the war years when the highway served the nation so well, and, of course, I also turn to the so-called heyday of the road before the many new interstate highways came along. And I take stock of those years when Route 66 sank into a period of limbo before we were able to revive the old path of varicose concrete and asphalt and bring the Mother Road back in this ongoing renaissance.
Let’s go back for a few minutes and revisit one of the highway’s incarnations. Come back with me to that period after war’s end—the time that made up the so-called glory years of Route 66.
The highway has yielded plenty of saints and also a good many sinners.
Come back with me to June of 1952. It most definitely was another time, another place. I was seven years old, and I recall neighbors in their backyards searching the night sky for flying saucers. Newspapers offered the latest reports on labor strife and atomic tests. The Korean conflict raged. Threat of a polio epidemic gripped the land. Out ofWisconsin, a vitriolic Senator Joe McCarthy, blinded by rancor and fear, prepared for his insidious Communist witch-hunt.
Despite the discord and apprehension, all was right with the world if you happened to be me—a kid growing up in Missouri within easy striking distance of Route 66.
Although Harry Truman was not running for another term of office, our family was proud that the Show Me State’s favorite son was still president of the United States. Down at our neighborhood theater, my band of friends felt Gary Cooper was worth every penny of admission portraying the stoic lawman in High Noon. Our television favorites included I Love Lucy, The Ernie Kovacs Show, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. We never failed to miss Dragnet, the cop show starring Jack Webb as the poker-faced Sergeant Joe Friday.
Much to my delight, plastic vinylite swimming pools and Mad comics made their debut that summer. So did the mechanical lawnmower. Most of my attention, however, turned to Stan “The Man” Musial. The St. Louis Cardinal slugger was on his way to winning the National League batting crown with a hefty .336 average.
I can see the blimps and skywriting planes flying over my neighborhood. I can smell the thick white clouds of mosquito spray wafting from the trucks slowly rolling down the streets. I remember uniformed service station attendants pumping gasoline, washing bug-splattered windshields, and filling tires with
Best of all, I recall, June meant it was summertime. School was out for three whole months. Everyone went on vacation. If you were a kid of summer, you only worried about capturing more lighting bugs than your pal, explaining grass stains on your good pants, and trying to collect pop bottles for refunds to buy baseball cards and firecrackers for the Fourth of July.
On most June days just after dawn the air remained cool. But as the sun climbed higher, the dreaded St. Louis humidity was already sneaking out of the damp lawn. Thank god for attic fans, sun-brewed ice tea, and Mr. Busch’s brewery.
Out in the garage, my dad packed suitcases, thermos bottles, ice chests, road maps, ball gloves, fishing gear, and all the essentials needed to keep a family going for two whole weeks. Finally, Dad had his pride and joy—the shiny green Plymouth he called
the “Green Monster”—loaded and ready.
Mom had checked every item off the list. Our dog was in the kennel, the parakeet resided with friends, and the milkman was alerted. Neighbors vowed to water the tomatoes and take in the mail and papers. My mom got off every birthday card and paid every bill. It was time for us to take to the open road.
The Route 66 story is both bitter and sweet. A microcosm of the nation, the old road has plenty of scar tissue.
Just the act of “getting there” was an important part of our vacation experience. We did not want to lose a single moment so we made the drive an indispensable component of the overall trip. There was an assortment of manmade and natural attractions to visit, tourist traps to survive, detours to avoid, and truck stop meals to consume.
Within a couple of decades people would be more interested in their final destination than in the process of traveling. Families would fly off to tennis resorts and dude ranches and amusement parks. They would take the
impersonal interstate highways that might as well be airport runways to one of the countless look-alike attractions dotting the nation. “Getting there” would not matter anymore. That was not the case in 1952.
In 1952, and throughout the heyday of Route 66, Dad only had to start the engine. When he turned the key of the Green Monster it was official—the vacation had started. We did not squander any time. Every minute counted.
Soon Dad had the entire family out on U. S. Route 66. We cranked down the windows. Black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s lace lining the road flashed by as Dad mashed the gas pedal. Everyone else tried to figure out when the first pit stop would occur.
The voices of Peggy Lee, Eddie Fisher, Teresa Brewer, and Hank Williams poured from the radio. The Mother Road beckoned. I dreamed of reptile farms, Indian artifacts, and outlaw hideouts that waited down the highway. My mouth watered for cheeseburger platters and thick chocolate malts. The fantasy had begun. My hunger for the road and all that lay ahead grew with each passing mile.
Traveling the highway excited us whether our family headed east, across the Mississippi River into Illinois and inched up Route 66 through the “Land of Lincoln” to Springfield or Chicago, or drove west out of St. Louis. Route 66 ambled down the Ozark Plateau and pushed on to Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, all the way to the California shore.
In either direction we found plenty of adventure. Nothing was predictable. The potential for an escapade lurked around every curve and bend in the road.
Maybe you have similar memories.
We tend to look back through rose-colored glasses and call that time the “Good Old Days.” Life was easy for many of us in the ’50s. Life was as sweet as truck stop pie, at least it was for me—a white boy without a care in the world from a middle-class family living in a comfortable home in the heartland.
Now, of course, I know the cold, hard truth. Now I realize those days were not really so good; I only remember them that way. The main reason many of us considered those times the Good Old Days is simple. It comes down to technology. People didn’t know what was happening everywhere in the country and the world. They were uninformed for the most part, especially in rural America. There was no 24-hour news cycle worldwide. They were not bombarded with news and views. There was no Internet. No iPhones.
You cannot restore myths or turn back the clock to a dream that only existed for certain Americans. To live solely in the past is to live in complete denial.
Perhaps the good old days aren’t good; they are just old. The old wisdom-keepers told us not to ask why the old days were better than these, because such a question arises, not from wisdom, but from amnesia. Some of us have selective memories. We tend to believe in cliché, romanticize the past—our own past—and edit out any bad memories.
And what about those broken and frightened tenant farmers and Dust Bowlers driving down the road to what they had been told was the land of milk and honey? What about the Indian people or the others of color trying to eke out a living? What of them? What if I had been a six-year-old African-American boy cruising down Route 66, or any highway in the nation, back then—would I look back on that time as “Good Old Days”? I doubt it.
Back then, not only in the Jim Crow Deep South, but also everywhere in the land—including Oklahoma—if you were a person of color, you lived in another America. One that had no dreams. No hope. You could not eat in the same building or shop in the same store as white folks. You could not get gasoline from a white-owned pump or even think about staying in even the most basic white-owned lodging. You could not sit with white people in the Art Deco Tulsa train station and wait for a train. There was a separate place for you and your kind.
Many of us who have an abiding interest in Route 66 realize that because the highway is arguably the most famous roadway in the nation, and perhaps the world, we have an obligation to share the entire story of the old highway we love.
In the main, today’s astonishing revival of interest in the Mother Road has overlooked the inequities and the negative history that certainly transpired along the road’s shoulders and continues in some ways to this day.
There is ample reason to question the romanticizing of Route 66. There also is reason to stop avoiding that dark side of the highway story that all too often has been swept beneath the proverbial and convenient carpet.
Remember that this highway—our highway—is a true mirror of the nation. Like all roads, this road and what takes place on this road reflects our society and culture. Now that includes the good, the bad, the ugly, the holy, the shades of gray, and the truth of life. That has always been the case. That has always been a fact. That will never change.
It was true when the highway was born back in 1926—when our beloved road, like all other roads of the time, was less than hospitable particularly if the traveler happened to be black or red or brown or anything other than lily white.
It was true when great posses of Dust Bowl pilgrims, refugees, and disenfranchised souls poured onto the road. All of them headed west, following the scent of oranges and lemons and escaping the harsh reality of economic depression, drought, and foreclosure. All of them headed to the San Joaquin Valley, to Bakersfield, to Fresno, to San Bernardino, to Los Angeles. All of them headed to the growing fields, the ripe orchards and groves, the lush vineyards, the factories and airplane plants, and the sunny beaches.
Theirs was far from being an idyllic journey on Route 66. Our highway may have earned the title Mother Road, thanks to Mr. Steinbeck, but sometimes—and too often—she could be an abusive Mother, a delinquent and uncaring parent. Ask the hordes of Okies and Arkies, the dirt-poor tenant farmers, the unemployed city workers who were billy-clubbed, spat upon, shunned, cursed, abused, cheated, and lied to by others blinded by fear and ignorance and hatred—bigots worried only about themselves and their own kind.
You cannot restore myths or turn back the clock to a dream that only existed for certain Americans. To live solely in the past is to live in complete denial.
Read The Grapes of Wrath. Read every single word of it. Memorize the story of the fictional Joads.
Like so many others these were ordinary people striving to preserve their humanity in the face of social and economic depression. Like no other book, Steinbeck’s novel provides a portrait of the bitter conflict between the powerful and the powerless. It truly captures the horrors of the Great Depression as it probes the very nature of equality and justice in this land.
Look at the striking and all-too-real photographic portraits created by the incomparable Dorothea Lange—images that document the lives of poor people on the long highway; images of Dust Bowl refugees, of children near starvation while in the midst of California’s verdant fields. Look at the images of a haggard mother, a Madonna of the highway, looking four times her age; of homes fashioned of cardboard and rubbish.
Listen to the songs, the poetry of Woody Guthrie. He was never afraid to confront the injustice of those years, to question authority, to standup for those who could not stand up for themselves. To make tough decisions in tough times.
But Woody was lucky. Even when he was down and out and busted like the folks he sang about, at least he was the right color. Ironically, only a few years later, the late great Nat King Cole, the man with the velvet voice that helped immortalize the highway by singing Bobby Troup’s “Get Your Kicks,” found that out. Like millions of African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians and others, Cole for way too long would not be able to check into even a modest tourist court or dine in a greasy spoon on the Mother Road or any other road in this country.
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. I also saw signs in cafe windows declaring, “No dogs, No Bums, No Indians,” and only yards away a Native American craftsman sold his hand-fashioned art from the sidewalk. 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 at least the kind of kicks I was getting as a youngster or a few years later as a hitchhiking Marine. At highway stops such as the Rock Cafe in Stroud, Oklahoma, during the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and into the ‘60s, black travelers went to the backdoor to get their food to go. None of them walked inside.
In one resort Ozarks burg, the local commercial club proudly handed out brochures touting their town. They boasted of:
Schools and Churches
Lodges and Societies
Health and Happiness
They also bragged that their heaven on earth had:
To many white, middle- and upper-class travelers, Route 66 symbolized the most positive aspects of American society—freedom, progress, and economic possibility. But to the minorities who encountered racism, prejudice, and exploitation along the road, Route 66 embodied a much darker version of American history.
Thank god for that little guidebook I wrote about at the start of this story. That little book that probably saved a good many lives.
Starting in 1936 and every year after until 1964, when the Civil Rights Act rendered it obsolete, that straightforward guide helped African Americans travel throughout the country in a safe and comfortable manner. A Harlem postal worker and activist named Victor H. Green published it. He named it The Negro Motorist Green Book. Some folks called it the Negro Travelers’ Green Book, but it was mostly known as The Green Book. Every cover bore a quotation from Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice.”
Modeling his guide on Jewish travel guides, Victor Green carefully listed state-by-state hotels, motels, tourist homes, restaurants, gas stations, beauty and barbershops, and other businesses that would serve African Americans. It quickly became known as “the bible of every Negro traveler in the 1950s and early 1960s.” Any black family or individual embarking on a trip did not dare leave home with a Green Book.
For many years, with Howard Johnson being the sole nationwide chain where blacks could eat and sleep, and Esso (later Exxon) being the only major fuel outlet actually offering franchises to blacks, the pickings were very slim. In 1955, for example, 3,500 white motels would allow dogs to stay in guest rooms, but less than 50 stated they would even consider housing any black travelers. During this same period, an Oklahoma motel operator reluctantly allowed a black family to stay at his motel for two days if they agreed to “pass” as Mexicans. There are several reports that in 1961 so many black tourists along Route 66 in Illinois were refused restaurant service that they took to bringing their own food and eating in their cars rather than chance being embarrassed. Undoubtedly, that accounts for why most editions of the Green Book listed nothing between Chicago and Springfield as well as nothing between Springfield and East St. Louis. There were also large gaps for Missouri, Texas, and New Mexico.
As far as Oklahoma, most Route 66 listings were businesses in the black sections of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, a bit better than Arizona’s long stretch of the Mother Road where there was not a single accommodation for black travelers. Of course, many black travelers detoured to towns with significant black populations such as the all-black Boley, or else Muskogee and Okmulgee.
Perhaps the good days aren’t good; they are just old.
Prior to the horrific 1921 Greenwood massacre in Tulsa, most often called a “race riot,” that thriving African American neighborhood provided comfort and hospitality for many blacks traveling through this part of the country. Even though the white mob burned most of Greenwood to the ground, by the late 1940s numerous black-owned businesses had sprung from the ashes and some found their way into the Green Book. One of the primary lodging choices was the Hotel Small on Archer Street, popular with travelers including such celebrities as Louis Armstrong, who stayed there during an appearance in Tulsa. The 1949 edition of the Green Book featured other Tulsa businesses including the Warren Hotel, the Red Wing, and McHunt Hotels, all on Greenwood Avenue, and the Royal on Archer Avenue. W.H. Smith on Greenwood and C. U. Nederland on Elgin Street operated two of the best tourist homes. Black travelers in need of some tonsorial care were directed to Swindall’s with its crew of
Outside of larger cities such as Tulsa, the notorious “sundown towns” had to be avoided at all costs. These towns could be found across the nation, especially in the South and Midwest. The ominous name came from the fact that all of them prohibited any African Americans from even being within the city limits after sundown. Most of them usually posted warning signs to that effect. Often times, the weary black traveler found it best to just keep going and not risk the consequences of being discovered in a town where “his kind” was not welcome.
Thankfully, the Green Book finally outlived its usefulness. Yet injustice, racism, and sexism in the nation and along this highway have not vanished. Far from it. Just look around. Look at our highway today. Read the blatantly racist signs on motels and other businesses proclaiming in great big letters “American Owned.” These are the code words, these are signs erected by the small-minded and the mean-spirited, by those who wear their religion and their patriotism on their sleeve and on their bumper. Signs that serve no good purpose except to divide us and slap us in the face.
It is yet another tactic to call attention to a racial stereotype—in this case the targets are the East Indian-operated motels. “Don’t go there, a raghead runs the place,” or, “I walked in and the smell of curry almost knocked me down.”
To these people I say: Get over it. Don’t generalize. Don’t stereotype. Try the curry. Who knows, you might like it.
Remember the many reputable motel owners and operators from India, Pakistan, and Asia who are doing their dead-level best to provide service in their adopted homeland. Some are good operators and some are not, just like every other place on the road. Many of them are American citizens. Most are well educated and as professional as anyone doing business on Route 66.
Before you decide to boycott all the Indian-run motels and businesses do yourself a favor and spend some time in one of the properties on old Route 66. They are fine examples of just how important all people are to our historic road.
Bear in mind the words of advice offered by Georgia O’Keeffe: “Where I was born and how I lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.”
Reject the ignorant and the ill informed. Turn your backs on the purveyors of hatred. Seek out the good in all people. Conform your actions to the good of all others. Choose the high road. It takes strength and discipline to choose that path. Take a step in its direction—one step at a time, one day at a time.
And bear in mind that the Mother Road remains the center of memorable change, disputes, compromise, triumphs, and controversies. It is so many things.
Route 66 is big cities and tiny towns. It is rich farmland, Ozark forests, vast prairies and rangeland, high and low desert, great mountains, mighty streams. It is a road for red necks and blue bloods. It is six “red states” bookended by two “blue states,” so the color runs purple. Flood, earthquake, fire, and killer tornadoes have tempered it and its people. Route 66 is the eight states it traverses and bits and pieces of 42 more. It is American, through and through.
The highway has yielded plenty of saints and also a good many sinners. It is not just black and white but shades of gray and all the colors of the rainbow and then some.
The Route 66 story is both bitter and sweet. A microcosm of the nation, 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. It always will be.
Enjoy the journey.
Editor’s note: Portions of this essay were previously published elsewhere.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 4, February 15, 2014.