Route 66 to this day is one of the most popular road trip routes and tourist destinations in the country. It’s dotted with quirky attractions and service stations that appear to be frozen in time, reminiscent of an era when women wore poodle skirts and nearly every car had that distinct winged design. It’s been lovingly called “The Road of Dreams,” because, during the Great Depression, hundreds of thousands of Americans traveled it, escaping poverty and chasing the American dream. But that road was a living nightmare for Black travelers and has a dark history that’s not often discussed.
While Route 66 represented freedom for most travelers, that really only meant white ones. During the Jim Crow era, this route was a minefield of dangers for Black travelers and it was anything but the exciting road trip filled with spontaneous stops and precious photo ops that it was for others. Here’s a look at the complicated history of Route 66.
A “Polite” Notice To Black Travelers
Just before construction of the route, The Chicago Tribune put out a notice in 1925 warning Black travelers about what they might expect. The notice stated, “[T]he Negroes could make a definite contribution to good race relationship by remaining away from beaches where their presence is resented.” This sentiment was deeply felt by Black travelers on Route 66, who were not welcomed at beaches, pools and other recreational sites along the way. In fact, many traveled with portable toilets, bedding and other necessities that would prevent them from needing to stop at service stations along the way.
Sunset Communities And Triple-K Cafes
The majority of communities along Route 66 were what were known as “Sunset Communities.” These were areas that did not allow Black travelers after sunset, making the planning of the drive particularly difficult for Black commuters. Failing to properly time their route could mean finding themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, and quickly in danger. Many of these communities had named their businesses in a way to send a strong signal to Black travelers of what would come if they broke the rules. It wasn’t unusual to see quaint cafes and beauty salons with triple-K names like Kelly’s Kool Kafe to send a message.
The Green Book: Tourism Pamphlet or Survival Guide?
It quickly became clear that Black travelers could not just venture out onto the 2,440 miles of Route 66 and stop wherever and whenever they felt like it – that was only a luxury afforded to white travelers. So a Black postal worker named Victor Hugo Green created the famous Green Book – full official name The Negro Motorist Green Book. It listed cafes, gas stations, motels and other businesses that were welcoming to Black travelers along Route 66. It was less of a fun road trip map and more of a survival guide for Black travelers. During the Jim Crow Era, Black motorists simply did not go on Route 66 without a copy of this book.
Some Iconic Stops From The Green Book
Most of the businesses listed in the Green Book are gone now, or nearly gone – dilapidated structures one gust of wind from falling over. But The Green Book did note that some places and regions were particularly friendly to Black travelers. Indianapolis as a whole was one of the safest regions at the time, according to the Anderson University archives, and was home to Terrance Café and the Indiana Motel – two popular stops for Black motorists on Route 66. The De Anza Motor Lodge in Albuquerque was another great stop. It was owned by an Indian art collector and welcomed Black, Hispanic and Native American customers alike, offering a meal, a place to stay and occasional live entertainment. The Booker T. Washington Hotel in San Francisco was another spot in the Green Book, along with Clifton’s Cafeteria in Los Angeles and the Off-Beat Restaurant in Oklahoma City. Clifton’s in Los Angeles still stands.
The Last Standing Black-Owned Route 66 Business
Though most of the businesses that bravely provided a safe haven for Black travelers on Route 66 during the Jim Crow era are now gone, one still remains standing: the Threatt Filling Station. Allen Threatt, a Black homesteader from Alabama, opened the station in 1915 when he recognized the lack of gas stations serving Black travelers on Route 66. It quickly became a popular stopping point, where travelers would not only fill up but often park their car for the night to get some rest before moving on, unwelcomed at nearby hotels. Eventually, Threatt added a café, a bar and even a stage for entertainment. The station is closed to the public now, but the National Trust for Historic Preservation added it to the list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places,” according to Route 66 News. Threatt’s descendants are working on turning the station into a museum.
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