The Lesser-Known History of Route 66

Originally published on the LHIP blog site.


On June 1, 2017, the Washington Post published an article about The Negro Motorist Green-Book. African Americans traveling across the country through Route 66 used this resource (and similar publications like it) widely. It was more than a guidebook to help wanderers and tourists alike traverse the American landscape, it was a necessity. As the Post article explains,

“Stopping at the wrong roadside diner could lead to discrimination and ’embarrassments.’ Running out of gas on a highway could lead to an encounter with the Ku Klux Klan. Making a bad turn into a “sundown town” — where African Americans were not permitted after dark — could lead to a lynching. Some of those towns constructed signs at their borders warning, ‘N—–, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On You.’”

Unlike the traditional, mythologized history of Route 66—Anglo American families traveling West for a summer vacation, young adults embarking on new adventures on the open road, rockabilly, and milkshakes—the actual lived experience of Route 66 is vastly different, especially when you consider the experience of non-white travelers. While African Americans may have had the same adventurous spirit as their Anglo American counterparts, traveling into unknown areas without a knowledge of the community and where safe spaces were could be perilous.

The guidebook for African American travelers was published from 1936 to 1964 by Victor H. Green. (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture/New York Public Library).

The National Trails Intermountain Regional Office’s Route 66 project seeks to highlight these narratives and challenge the history of Route 66 as it has been commemorated and remembered. Their goal is to tell multiple stories along Route 66 and show there wasn’t just one experience, one narrative, and that this history can be complex and contentious when issues of race, class, gender, and ethnicity are considered. It isn’t just about Anglo American tourists, but African American, Native American, and Hispanic travelers and families whose lives were influenced by Route 66 either as a source of transportation and movement or as a new form of economic and urban development. For the National Trails, Route 66 is a conduit to understand American history–its racialized complex past, and how the transformation and advancement of movement/migration, commerce, and transportation influenced the lived experience of people traveling on and living on the Mother Road.

My project, “Hispanic Legacies of Route 66,” is part of this larger project. Now that I’ve gotten my feet on the ground, I will be building an interactive website through StoryMaps that explores the history of Route 66 in New Mexico and how it impacted Hispanic communities, and how this group, in turn, influenced the road and experience of those who traveled along it. The story of New Mexico and Route 66 is one of constant adaptation and negotiation, featuring interesting components of racial/ethnic expectations and commodification of Southwestern, Native American, and Hispanic culture. It also was a lifeline and point of development for many small town communities that grew to rely on the traffic and commerce that the road brought to an otherwise remote area. This story is complex and fascinating and far from complete, and I can’t wait to share it with you.

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