Uncovering the Roots of Route 66

Between Route 66’s stretches of neon signs and road-side attractions exists an intersection of cultures that make up the highway’s vibrant string of diverse communities.

The sign of the abandoned Ranch House Cafe in Tucumari, New Mexico, sits high above passerbys on Route 66.
Photograph by David Guttenfelder

Chicago is far behind us now and Los Angeles is still a distant idea. Pushing west on Route 66, we pass ghost towns collapsing in slow motion under a beating sun; longer stretches of empty land between settlements; cities that swallow the road into tight-packed urban architecture.

We’ve set out to drive every stretch of this iconic highway, a task that is neither easy nor obvious. The road forks and spurs; turns to dirt and disappears under the interstate. We pore over online guides, accordion-folded gas station maps, a hand-drawn book of intricate road diagrams we bought somewhere in Texas. We stop to feed apples to horses; rattle over cattle guards; debate whether we’re still on 66. We are lost and found over and over again.

The communities along the road are changing, too, gradually becoming more diverse as we move from Midwest to Southwest. Even as we hunt for the remains of physical road, we are trying to get beyond the kitsch and into the essence of America. We pass reminders of the complex and sinister strands of our history, from the rough mining towns of Kansas to the cattle drives of Texas, burning through land that was once Indian Territory into the remains of Spanish Mexico.

In downtown Tulsa we wandered into a low-slung, unassuming museum and fell into the history of Greenwood. A onetime freedom colony that flourished into a prosperous African-American neighborhood complete with a renowned “Black Wall Street,” Greenwood is perhaps best known for its utter destruction at the hands of marauding white Tulsans.

The 1921 race riots – now referred to as “the massacre” by many Tulsans – is another kind of story that exists along Route 66, one that has long been ignored but now seeks a place among efforts to preserve the iconic highway.

The violence in Tulsa was among the worst racial bloodshed in the nation’s history. A thriving neighborhood was burned to ash; thousands were left homeless and hundreds of people are believed to have been killed, and yet this incident was obscured for generations by a conspiracy of silence. Among African-Americans who still make their home in a rebuilt Greenwood, there is a lingering sense that the devastation still hasn’t been properly redressed.

“We have our community still suffering from the event,” said Mechelle Brown, a coordinator at the Greenwood Cultural Center. “We still have too many people denying it happened or denying it happened on the scale that it did.”

These days Greenwood has been sliced through by the interstate and partially paved over to erect a minor league baseball stadium. But the African Methodist Episcopal church is still standing and thriving – albeit rebuilt from its basement foundation after the arson.

Pastor Robert Turner presides over the congregation with a determination to shed more light on the Greenwood violence – through investigation, reckoning or reparations. Although the city has formally apologized for the riot and recently opened a memorial park, Turner and others in Greenwood believe this response was insufficient to the destruction of a community.

“To this day people still argue about where the bodies are buried. We still don’t know how many people were killed. There’s been such a badge of shame,” said pastor Robert Turner, who walked us down into the church basement to show off the original baptismal font.

“We lost a huge part of what we were that day, and nobody even talks about it.”

We came out of the church, passing under a neon cross, drove over the Arkansas River and headed west out of Tulsa. An hour away, on the outskirts of tiny Luther, Oklahoma, we found the Threatts. They waited for us on the roadside in the blazing heat, siblings and cousins and kids perched on folding chairs with sacks of chips and sodas at their feet.

Heirs to a family convenience stop that was, in its day, a famed beacon for African-American travelers, the Threatts were eager to talk. Threatt Filling Station once had fuel and groceries for sale; a bar next door; a rattlesnake pit for a cheap thrill and a swath of cleared land out back where weary customers could camp overnight. It represented a safe harbor for motorists who were unwelcome and even endangered along much of Route 66 – including traumatized refugees who walked all the way from Tulsa when Greenwood burned.

Nowadays, like many of the other icons along the Mother Road, the station has slipped into disrepair and near-oblivion. The main structure is a cramped and dimly lit cottage in a weed-cracked lot. Dark, stuffy rooms are packed with old clothes and mattresses and every other imaginable relic of a family-run business.

“This used to be a gathering place for people of color,” said Ed Threatt. “It was a safe haven for black people who were traveling and also black people in the community.”

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He paused, squinting into the glare of day. Threatt, a soft-spoken man of 68, grew up on this chunk of road. He and his sister were among the first students sent into a formerly all-white high school in the name of desegregation – a painful experience which he flatly says he doesn’t like to think about.

“There was no other place to be,” he finally added.

Today the Threatts are trying to find the cash for a historic structure report, which they regard as the first step toward restoration. They feel strongly that their family’s story should keep its place on the highway.

“There’s a presence that’s disappearing on Route 66,” Threatt said. “The fact that we’re a black family – that’s important.”

Route 66 is often shorthanded as a trail of nostalgia, an amusing stretch of neon and classic cars and antique gas pumps, but this depiction sells the highway short. In a nation of automobiles and hustle, Route 66 is a living illustration of America – its glories and nightmares and everything in between.

Learn more about our journey along the Mother Road here.

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