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Route 66, America's 'Mother Road', revs back to life

Updated: 2017-06-05 08:11
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'Sundown towns'

Driving today along stretches of the fabled highway-85 percent of which can still be traveled-one can see renovated motels with blazing neon signs, newly opened museums, quirky sights and souvenir shops galore.

There are also half-abandoned communities and crumbling ghost towns that echo Steinbeck's epic 1930s novel of the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath-the story of a family that embarks on a journey along Route 66, fleeing the Oklahoma dustbowl for California.

And while the road for many may evoke images of a more innocent America, as encapsulated in Norman Rockwell's paintings, Route 66 had a more sinister side for black travelers.

Half of the 89 counties that lined the highway were known as "sundown towns" where African-Americans were banned after dark.

The author Candacy Taylor was researching a travel guide on Route 66 when she stumbled on The Negro Motorist Green Book, which listed safe places along the road-and notably revealed that the Ku Klux Klan ran Fantastic Caverns, a popular tourist attraction in Springfield, Missouri, and held cross burnings inside.

"All of the American narratives around what it means to hit the open road and the freedom and the symbolism that comes along with that was a dramatically different story for black people," says Taylor, who encourages people to "look beyond the bobby socks, the Chevys and the chrome" to experience the real Route 66.

"It's an American icon, just like Marilyn Monroe or Elvis," she says.

"But Route 66 is not perfect and shiny. There are a lot of cracks in that metaphor, in that illusion of what America is."



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