If you’re going to take one last road trip before summer ends, there’s a history lesson to learn along Route 66. Historian Frank Norris works on the Route 66 Corridor Preservation program for the National Park Service. He said until the Civil Rights Act in 1964, African-American travelers weren’t always welcome at gas stations, restaurants, hotels and other businesses. So, a postman from New York City named Victor Green published a guide called the Green Book for nearly 30 years.
Norris said, “People came to him saying, ‘I’m looking to visit my mother-in-law in Birmingham, my brother in Chicago, but as I’m traveling I don’t want to have a lot of doors slammed in my face. Can you help me out?'”
The book originally cost 25 cents and eventually, 15,000 copies were sold per year. The Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program has a list of each business that was open to African Americans, and also tracks whether they’ve been demolished or are still standing today.
Norris said African-American travelers were refused service routinely, including vehicle repairs or if they ran out of gas, and there were threats of physical violence in so-called “sundown towns,” areas where only whites were allowed to live. He said most traveling families would pack everything they needed, assuming they’d encounter places they wouldn’t be allowed to stop.
“It was a pretty hostile place out there,” he added. “And of course, the South was well-known for its hostility towards blacks, but the North could be just as hostile. Although there were not specific laws against that sort of thing, the attitudes oftentimes were just as negative.”
Norris said it’s important for people, especially children, to know things like this so history doesn’t repeat itself.
“When people visit places like St Louis or Amarillo, or Albuquerque or Los Angeles, they may be driving right by hotels or restaurants that were kind of shelters from the storm, rare places that welcomed African Americans during a time in which there were relatively few places that did welcome them,” he explained.
The entire 604-mile path of Route 66 through New México has been designated as a National Scenic Byway. The old route mostly followed the path of what is now Interstate 40 through the state.
Public News Service