Nostalgic remnants of Route 66 don’t tell the whole story
The words “Route 66” spark in my mind a childhood memory of a scene from the old TV show of the same name with Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock. They’re in a room with an elderly black woman played by Ethel Waters, and she’s dying.
That was probably one of the few times that someone who looked like me appeared on this 1960s show about two young white guys traveling the country in a Corvette convertible. That’s probably why I remember the episode, along with the sadness of the scene.
Titled “Good Night, Sweet Blues,” also the title of the song she sang in the episode, it appeared in 1961. Waters won an Emmy for the role a year later, the first by an African American actress. She was a dying singer who the guys reunited with her old jazz band. What I did not know at the time was that people like Waters and me had never been welcomed in the towns along Route 66 (her episode took place in Pittsburgh).
There are plenty of people who have positive memories of the 2,400-mile “Mother Road” from America’s west to its east, having traveled the entire route or parts of it. I recall touching on a small section of it just for the experience, but I can’t remember the precise area – probably while I was visiting Arizona some years ago.
Route 66 was on my mind recently because items pertaining to the road came up at two different auctions. The first were three black heavy metal bar stools whose seats bore the Route 66 symbol and the states along the route, and a reproduction sign that already had a bid left on it. The other was an old map guidebook.
The highway is often portrayed as a road to freedom and adventure, where small-town America flourished as it opened its arms to a world of travelers. What the nostalgic stories fail to show is how folks along the roadway were blatantly racist and hateful to African American travelers.
Route 66 had its beginnings in 1926 as part of the country’s first federal highway system. In fact, it was the first, advertised as “the shortest, best and most scenic route from Chicago through St. Louis to Los Angeles” by the U.S. 66 Highway Association.
It “winds from the shores of Lake Michigan across the agricultural fields of Illinois, to the rolling hills of the Missouri Ozarks, through the mining towns of Kansas, across Oklahoma where the woodlands of the East meet the open plains of the West, to the open ranch lands of Texas, the enchanted mesa lands of New Mexico and Arizona, to the Mojave Desert, and finally to the ‘land of milk and honey’ – the metropolis of Los Angeles and the shores of the Pacific Ocean,” as described by the National Park Service website.
The roadway was stitched together from a mix of existing roads in eight states; it was not completely paved until 12 years later. The highway created bustling towns out of isolated communities, spurring the opening of no-name-brand hotels, gas stations attached to general stores, mom-and-pop restaurants, and other opportunities. It also provided a transport route for farmers, as well as truckers.
Civilian traffic declined during World War II, but the military used the road to transport soldiers and supplies to bases, and the unemployed used it to seek defense jobs out west.
Route 66 saw a rebirth after the war when more people could afford cars and hit the road. Songs were written about it – Nat King Cole recorded the Bobby Troup song “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” in 1946. In 1960, the TV show helped fuel interest (the show lasted until 1964).
While businesses along the route embraced motorists, they did not hang out the Welcome signs for everyone. Six of the eight states had segregation laws on the books, and merchants did not allow blacks to eat, sleep or buy gas at their establishments.
It was a time of Jim Crowism, lynchings and “Whites Only” signs in the South and across the country. The Route 66 towns were considered “Sundown Towns,” where African Americans were not allowed to be caught in town after dark. Some restaurants thinly veiled their associations with the Ku Klux Klan with names that used the 3 K’s (such as Kozy Kottage Kamp).
African American used all manner of devices to not call attention to themselves – from having a chauffeur hat available in their cars to driving older cars.
There were some black-owned places along the route (a gas station in Luther, OK; motel in Albuquerque, NM, and Murray’s Dude Ranch in the Mojave Desert), but not many. African American motorists could rely on The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide to gas stations, hotels, restaurants and more that welcomed them.
Route 66 lost its glamour when the federal interstate system came into being in 1956, and five new interstate highways were built traversing the country over the next 10 years. The road was decommissioned in 1985, and efforts to preserve it went into effect.
These days, there are apparently still things to see and do on Route 66. But I suspect it is a lonely quiet road; that’s what I remember of the short piece of it I saw. It likely beckons only those who want a taste of it for the experience – just as I did – or want to remember its glory days.
I suppose that’s what the items at auction were meant to do.