Route 66 research

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Bryan Rutan
CONTRIBUTOR

A recent presentation in the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Criss Library revealed details on a research study about the experience of African Americans along the historic Route 66 highway.

Dave Richards, dean of Criss Library and former project director for the National Park Service’s Route 66 African American Oral History Project, presented the findings of the research project to nearly 40 people gathered to learn more about the background, implementation and results of the year-long study.

The project was completed during Richards’ time at Missouri State University. According to Richards, funding for the project came from a $17,000 National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Grant.

Photo Courtesy of The Gateway
Photo Courtesy of The Gateway

Interviews were conducted with 20 people from the Springfield, Missouri area. The interviews were conducted in hopes they would provide researchers insight into the experience of people of color along Route 66.

For many, Route 66 is seen as an iconic part of Americana. It is a stretch of highway representing many of the perceived benefits of being an American, including having the freedom to travel where you please.

This romantic view of the 2,400-mile-long stretch of highway is, in many ways, a manifestation of the country’s love affair with the automobile and the freedom associated with it.

According to Richards, this romanticism is largely associated with the white experience along the historic stretch of highway and stands in stark contrast to that of the African-American’s.

“The white experience along Route 66 is that of red convertibles and old motels, but the African-American experience is that of getting from point A to point B,” said Richards.

The route, which stretches from Chicago to Los Angeles, passes through eight states and is littered with restaurants, hotels and service stations. The highway opened in 1926 and many of the establishments along the route were off limits to African-Americans and other people of color until the 1970s.

“Many of the folks we interviewed mentioned how it was actually easier to travel through segregated southern states because there were friendly accommodations geared specifically toward African American travelers along those routes,” Richards said.

According to the study, Nat King Cole, the artist who popularized the song “Route 66,” was not able to dine at most eating establishments and was denied access to hotels along the route even when he was touring and performing the song on a nightly basis in towns located on the highway because he was black.

Richards said the project wrapped up in December after a year of conducting interviews and gathering information regarding the African-American experience along Route 66.

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