Lincoln Fest To Tell History Of Black Travelers On Route 66 | WGLT

Lincoln Fest To Tell History Of Black Travelers On Route 66

Jul 19, 2019

Credit McLean County Museum of History

Last year, “Green Book” hit the big screen and shocked the world with an accurate depiction of what life was like for African Americans in the U.S. before the Civil Rights Act.

As part of this year’s Lincoln's Fest, Frank Norris, a historian with the National Park Service, will present his research on the experiences of African Americans traveling Route 66 from the 1930s to the 1970s.

“The highways of America, both north and south, were hostile places to them,” Norris said. “They wanted to have a chance to travel and see America like everyone else did, but they also wanted respectability. And the last thing they wanted was to have people slam doors in their faces when they wanted to go to hotels and restaurants.”

Norris said most Route 66 travelers, black or white, started in Chicago, which Norris said had a large black population.

“Blacks leaving Chicago really didn’t know what that landscape out there was like, although they probably had some hunches that in certain places, the landscape was pretty hostile,” he said.

That’s where “The Green Book” came into the mix. No, not the movie. Victor Hugo Green, a travel agent and mailman, wrote “The Negro Motorist Green Book” in the early 1930s as a guide for African American roadtrippers.

Norris said before "The Green Book" came along, many blacks drove all night for fear of stopping somewhere that would not let them eat or find lodging, or worse, in a sundown town.

Sundown towns instituted a ban on blacks being out in public in the town after a certain hour. Norris said it was common for smaller towns, with little to no black community, to be sundown towns.

“The rural areas changed a good deal as you left Chicago and headed west, across the Midwest, across the plains, and toward the Pacific Coast,” Norris said. “The question remained as to whether these areas had reasons to be sundown towns more in the classic sense, or whether there simply weren’t any economic attractors to bring African Americans into those areas.”

Norris’ presentation Saturday at the McLean County of Museum of History focuses on Route 66, but he stresses that these experiences for African Americans were not unique to the historic highway.

“Those people who have already seen the movie will recognize that the “Green Book” movie was a stark, accurate representation of what life was like for black travelers prior to the Civil Rights Act,” he said. “What they may be surprised about, however, was that the attitudes in some northern states were just as rigid, uncompromising as they were in the Jim Crow South.”

You can attend Norris’ presentation “Courageous Motorists: African American Pioneers On Route 66” at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the McLean County Museum of History. It's part of the 2019 Lincoln’s Festival on Route 66 schedule.

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