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Civil Rights Lesson Along U.S. Route 66

The Green Book was published for nearly 30 years after the Great Depression so African American travelers would know where they'd be allowed to stop for food, gas, and to rest. (National Park Service)
The Green Book was published for nearly 30 years after the Great Depression so African American travelers would know where they'd be allowed to stop for food, gas, and to rest. (National Park Service)
August 15, 2016

ST. LOUIS – If you're going to take one last road trip before summer ends, there's a history lesson to learn along U.S. Route 66.

Frank Norris, who works on the Route 66 Corridor Preservation program for the National Park Service, says until the Civil Rights Act in 1964, African-American travelers weren't always welcome at gas stations, restaurants, hotels and other businesses.

So, a mail carrier from New York City named Victor Green published a guide, known as the Green Book, for nearly 30 years.

"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,’” Norris relates. “’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 all businesses that were open to African-Americans, and tracks whether they've been demolished or are still standing today.

Norris says African-American travelers were refused service routinely, including for 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.

Norris says most traveling black 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 states. “And of course, the South was well known for it's 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 says 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 says.

In 2010, Route 66 was designated a Missouri Scenic Byway, and the Route 66 Association of Missouri is in the process of applying for National Scenic Byway status.

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - MO