More than any other place in the country, Route 66 in its heyday posed a problem for black motorists. Sundown towns — towns that did not allow blacks to stay within municipal limits after dark — and unwritten rules of segregation made travel through the West unpredictable and dangerous. It took a postal worker from New Jersey and thousands of entrepreneurs along the route to mitigate those dangers, a role author Candacy Taylor intends to explore by traveling Route 66 and documenting the former Green Book sites along the Mother Road.
“By heading out West, blacks were supposed to be headed toward freedom, but they quickly learned that Jim Crow had no boundaries,” Taylor said. “The signs that they saw in the South weren’t in the West, so they didn’t know what the rules were — it was all word of mouth, but the other reality is that there weren’t that many black communities along the route, so they wouldn’t know how few accommodations existed until they got there.”
Enter the The Negro Motorist Green Book. Victor H. Green of Hackensack, New Jersey, introduced it in 1936, too late for many blacks who escaped the Dust Bowl along Route 66, but well ahead of the thousands of postwar travelers looking to hit the road in search of a better life or simply on the great American road trip. Inspired by guides for Jewish travelers through the Borscht Belt of the Catskills, Green set out to create a nationwide directory of restaurants, hotels, service stations, garages, nightclubs, and even beauty parlors either owned by black entrepreneurs or by whites who catered to black customers. As many as a dozen black travel guides existed at the time, but Green’s became the longest-lasting and the widest-circulated guide.
While Green — a postal worker who later relocated to Harlem — compiled the book, he relied on a network of contacts through the postal union and readers to submit listings for the book. According to The Henry Ford, he distributed the books “by mail order, to black-owned businesses, and at Esso (Standard Oil) service stations — a rare gasoline distributor that franchised to African Americans.” Green notably included the Mark Twain quote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice,” on the cover of many editions of the Green Book.
That quote proved more optimistic than realistic during Green’s time, however. As Taylor pointed out, six of the eight states along Route 66 had segregation laws on the books into the Fifties and Sixties, and sundown towns extended the entire length of Route 66.
“Once you left Chicago, you had to drive another 180 miles to another Green Book site on Route 66,” she said. “Even the beaches in Santa Monica were segregated.”
In general, according to Taylor, Green Book-listed businesses were owned by blacks, but based on her research so far, Route 66 Green Book sites tended to have white owners.
Ultimately, as The Henry Ford pointed out, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination in public accommodations, made the Green Book unnecessary almost overnight. It remained in publication until 1966, but Victor Green, who died in 1960, neither made that choice nor saw the end of segregation, which he believed would eventually put him out of business.
While Taylor’s research on Route 66 Green Book sites is just getting underway thanks to a recently awarded $20,000 grant from the National Park Service’s Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, she said she has been researching Green Book sites in general for about four years now and has cataloged about 9,600 sites in total. “Arguably, it could be close to 10,000 sites — we only have 24 intact Green Books to work from,” she said. “I’ve physically scouted 3,600 of those sites and estimate 20 percent are still standing and about 3 percent are still operating. I assume those statistics are similar for the Route 66 Green Book sites.”
The National Park Service grant specifically has Taylor on the trail of Route 66 Green Book sites to research and nominate at least nine of the sites for the National Register of Historic Places, a process that should take the better part of a year and will require traveling to many of the towns along Route 66. “A lot of Green Book sites didn’t have an address listed, so I’ll have to physically go there to track down where those places may be,” she said.
While she doesn’t yet have any specific sites in mind as potential nominees, she said she’s looking at sites like Clifford Clinton’s Clifton Cafeteria in Los Angeles, which was open to both black and white patrons and allowed them to pay what they could if they couldn’t afford the menu prices, or Murray’s Dude Ranch in Victorville, California, which Pearl Bailey bought in the Fifties and at which several all-black westerns were filmed.
Prior to the most recent grant, Taylor had worked with the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program to produce a video on the Green Book and Route 66 in which she noted that “these properties play a critical role in revealing the untold story of the African-American experience of travel.”
In addition to the National Park Service grants, Taylor has also received fellowships from National Geographic, Harvard, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Graham Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the California Humanities to continue her research into Green Book sites; she has also worked with the Smithsonian on a traveling exhibition on the topic and is preparing a mobile app and a set of three books on the Green Book looking at “how it informed the trajectory of social mobility for black folks and how the concept of black mobility has changed today.” She expects her wider research into Green Book sites to last another four or five years.
“Hopefully, by telling this story, I’ll show what we’ve been dealing with for centuries and that through time, racial progress is very much a pendulum — that, like Route 66, is much more complicated than a progressive, linear route,” she said. “The blessing of the time that we’re in now is that people are ready to have this conversation, and I’m hoping to lead, inform, and challenge that conversation.”
The Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program awarded seven grants this year totaling more than $87,000. Other projects funded by this year’s grants include the stabilization of the Painted Desert Trading Post near Holbrook, Arizona; the rehabilitation of the Pemco gas station in Tulsa, Oklahoma; a historic structures report on the Threatt filling station in Luther, Oklahoma; a University of Texas at El Paso risk-reduction strategy report for historic bridges along Route 66; a study of the Gasconade River bridge in Hazelgreen, Missouri; and the restoration of the Ariston Cafe neon sign in Litchfield, Illinois.
Launched in 2000, the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program has awarded roughly $100,000 in grants to historic preservation, research, and educational projects related to Route 66 each year since. With the program slated to end next year and no similar program set to replace it, Route 66 preservationists have turned to an effort to list the Mother Road as a National Historic Trail. The bill declaring it a National Historic Trail has passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is currently in committee in the Senate.