The Safe Havens and No-Go Zones for 20th-Century Black American Travelers

Candacy Taylor Plots the Uncertain Journeys Along Route 66

It was places such as Fantastic Caverns that made every mile of Route 66 feel less like a fun adventure and more like a minefield. Also, since the route crossed two-thirds of the continent, motorists were bound to run into any kind of weather. Chicago has the most brutal, bitterly cold winters in the country, and in the fall, Oklahoma can be windier and colder than Chicago. Summer in Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas can be oppressively humid, and temperatures can reach over 100 degrees in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California’s Mojave Desert.

From Springfield, Missouri, it was another 50 miles along Route 66 to find the nearest Green Book hotel, in the town of Carthage, Missouri. And there was only one option: Hap’s. But thankfully, fifteen miles away, the town of Joplin had a hotel and five tourist homes.

Once black motorists left Carthage, they drove 13 miles along Route 66 through the southeastern corner of Kansas and then dipped into Oklahoma, which was notorious for Klan activity. Approximately 70 miles west of the Oklahoma border, black motorists likely avoided the Grand Café in Claremore, with its “Eat Ni**er Chicken” sign displayed on the turnpike outside Vinita, Oklahoma.

From Joplin, it was about 100 miles to Tulsa, which had 42 Green Book sites listed over the life of the guide. The majority of these were in Tulsa’s Greenwood District, a vibrant black community that happened to also be the site of one of the most devastating acts of terrorism on U.S. soil.

Between the turn of the 20th century and 1921, the Greenwood District was a wealthy black neighborhood with more than 600 black businesses. It was home to black physicians, surgeons, lawyers, oil barons, and entrepreneurs, and black residents could patronize 30 restaurants and 41 grocery stores. Greenwood also had black libraries, parks, churches, hospitals, schools, construction companies, six real estate offices, and a black bus line.

Threatt Filling Station, Luther, Oklahoma. Photo by Candacy Taylor.

Some black residents were millionaires, and some owned private airplanes. Even the bellhops and young shoeshines could count on receiving about ten dollars a day in tips. This was significant, as their salaries were only about five dollars a week. There was so much wealth in the community, and the neighborhood was so prosperous, that Booker T. Washington gave Greenwood District the nickname “Black Wall Street.”

Everything changed for the Greenwood District in 1921, when a riot broke out. It started as most race riots do: A young black man was wrongly accused of assaulting a white woman. Once the word spread, a white mob crossed the railroad tracks into Greenwood and looted the businesses there. In less than 24 hours, 300 people were dead and 35 square blocks of black homes and black businesses had been burned to the ground, leaving ten thousand black residents homeless. Today, the damage would be estimated at over $26 million.

It’s no question that long-held resentment from whites fueled the hatred. Amid the smoking embers, the message was loud and clear that if black people achieved too much success, white people would find a way to destroy it.

The Greenwood District was rebuilt, but it never fully recovered from the events of that June day in 1921. The riot predated the Green Book, but out of the 42 Green Book listings in Tulsa, the majority of them were in Greenwood.

In the 1950s, Greenwood was still a major tourist destination for black travelers, and one they were proud to visit. The Small Hotel, a Green Book site, hosted Louis Armstrong and the swing bandleader Walter Barnes. “I stopped with my entire orchestra at the modern and exclusive Small Hotel in Tulsa,” Barnes said, “one of the best equipped in the country having newest electrical fixtures, telephone in each room, bath in every room and modernistic furniture.”

Once black motorists crossed into New Mexico, there were only three cities over a 350-mile stretch that had Green Book accommodations.

About 75 miles west of Tulsa, black motorists could fuel up at the Threatt Filling Station, in Luther, Oklahoma, before passing through the sundown town of Edmond, Oklahoma. Threatt wasn’t listed in the Green Book, but this black family-owned gas station served Route 66 motorists from 1915 to the 1950s. The family homesteaded 160 acres of land and had built the gas station from the quarried sandstone on their property.

The station is no longer in operation, but the family still owns the sandstone bungalow there. Thankfully, the National Park Service has listed the Threatt Filling Station on its National Register of Historic Places, and the family hopes to reopen the station as a historic tourist site.

Threatt Filling Station, Luther, Oklahoma. Courtesy of the Threatt Family.

Alan Threatt Sr.’s son, Edmond, remembers having to deal with a litany of restrictions due to his race. Ironically, he was named after a neighboring sundown town, which didn’t hide its hatred for black people. A sign there read, don’t let the sun set on you in this town, and the town’s Royce Café proudly announced on its postcards that Edmond was “A Good Place to Live. 6,000 Live Citizens. No Negroes.”

About 20 miles west of Edmond, Oklahoma City was the next major Route 66 stop, with 38 Green Book listings. In 1958 it was so segregated that a black teacher of history, Clara Luper, led a sit-in at Katz Drug Store that lasted several weeks—18 months before the famous Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins. Luper was arrested 26 times, but the sit-ins were so effective that over the following six years they led to the desegregation of nearly every restaurant in Oklahoma City.

Leaving Oklahoma, the farther west black motorists drove on Route 66, the farther apart the cities with Green Book listings grew. For instance, from Oklahoma City, Route 66 motorists had to drive 260 miles, to Amarillo, Texas, where they would find 30 Green Book businesses. After leaving Amarillo, there were no Green Book sites on Route 66 for another 110 miles, not until Tucumcari, New Mexico.

Once black motorists crossed into New Mexico, there were only three cities over a three-hundred-fifty-mile stretch that had Green Book accommodations. Once they reached Albuquerque, only six out of the more than one hundred hotels that lined Central Avenue would rent a room to them. Folks who didn’t have a Green Book would have had no idea which six motels those were. Many travelers were so exhausted by the time they reached Albuquerque that they were getting into accidents.

As reported in an Albuquerque Tribune article in August 1955, the state police chief determined that one accident that took six lives had been caused by “speed and fatigue.” Edward L. Boyd, an NAACP official, said he wasn’t surprised that six black people had died due to fatigue. “They could not have found a welcome [sign] at any of the [motor] courts on Route 66 from the Texas border to Albuquerque,” and the motels are “consistent in their refusal to accommodate Negroes.”

The De Anza Motor Lodge, on Central Avenue in Albuquerque, wasn’t listed in the Green Book, but it did serve black travelers. Built in 1939 and run by a prominent Zuni trader, the Spanish Colonial–Pueblo Revival building featured a conference room with seven twenty-foot murals painted by a Zuni artist. At the turn of the 21st century, the building was slated for demolition to make way for an Albertsons grocery store, until the city of Albuquerque purchased it in 2003. The property sat abandoned for another decade, until it was used as a film site in the television drama Breaking Bad. (It appears in the scene where Walter White throws out his spare tire to hide cash from a drug deal while his wife is in the hospital delivering their daughter.)

Threatt Filling Station, Luther, Oklahoma. Courtesy of the Threatt Family.

Leaving Albuquerque, black motorists traveling Route 66 could next find rest 130 miles away, in Gallup, New Mexico. There were three lodging options in Gallup: a tourist home run by Mrs. Sonnie Lewis, the Casa Linda Motel, and the El Navajo Hotel.

From Gallup, black motorists had to drive 185 miles, to Flagstaff, to find the next Green Book sites. (Some black travelers may have known that Harvey Houses served black people, so they could have stopped at La Posada Hotel, in Winslow, Arizona, about 130 miles from Gallup.) Flagstaff didn’t have any Green Book listings until 1957, but when it finally did, there were four lodging options.

The Mountain Villa Motel in Kingman, Arizona (147 miles west of Flagstaff), was listed in the 1957 Green Book, and the White Rock Court appeared in the 1956 edition. These were the only listings for Kingman, but considering its status as a former sundown town, they were a blessing. After leaving Kingman, Route 66 climbed deep into the Black Hills, with dangerous, nail-biting curves, and then descended into the Mojave Desert.

We can assume that most black families survived because they were prepared, traveling with ample food and camping along the way.

Driving in the southwestern United States was especially challenging for black motorists because they had to travel through triple-digit desert heat, and the threat of car trouble was always looming. If the car overheated, it was unlikely they would find help, as most of the towns didn’t offer tow service for black people. If they found themselves stranded on the side of the road, they had to pray that someone would give them a ride. It was also doubtful that they would find assistance from other black people, as the black residents constituted only 4 percent of the population, after whites, Mexicans, and Native Americans.

It’s a mystery how black travelers made the trip through this region before the mid-1950s; there was only one Gallup tourist home listed in the 1939 Green Book, for example. And it wasn’t until 1947 that the Green Book had listings for Albuquerque, which was more than 600 miles from the next Green Book site, in Victorville, California, on the western edge of the Mojave Desert.

White Rock Court, a former Green Book motel in Kingman, Arizona. Photo by Candacy Taylor.

We can assume that most black families survived because they were prepared, traveling with ample food and camping along the way. Still, it’s unlikely they knew how treacherous the trip would be once they reached the Black Hills. Even when I traveled this stretch of Route 66, I was surprised at how narrow the two-lane road was and how sharp the hairpin curves hugging the mountain on the south side, with sheer cliffs dropping off just a few feet from the edge of my tires to the north.

Every time a car appeared head-on around a blind curve, I would brake in anticipation, to make sure the other driver hadn’t crossed the dividing line and ventured into my lane. Driving through the Black Hills even during the day was a little nerve-wracking, but this was nothing when I imagined what a harrowing trip this would have been for black motorists in the 1950s, especially if it was night and they were tired.

There was nowhere to pull over to rest on the hairpin turns, and once they made it to the Mojave Desert, camping was a life-threatening ordeal. The desert brought searing daytime heat, and the temperature could drop to freezing at night. They also had to worry about sidewinders, scorpions, rattlesnakes, and black widow spiders crawling into their camp. The safest option was to just keep going.

The first Green Book site a black motorist could find in California was Murray’s Dude Ranch, near Victorville, a 40-acre property on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Victorville was a sundown town, but black homesteaders who settled near Bell Mountain, which bordered Victorville, had been there since the early 20th century. Murray’s was billed as “The Only Negro Dude Ranch in the World”—and it very likely was, since black people were banned from most dude ranches. Thankfully, Murray’s offered black Route 66 travelers much-needed lodging, food, and some good old-fashioned Western recreation.

Murray’s was owned by a black couple, Nolie and Lela Murray. Nolie was a businessman who owned a cigar store on Ninth Street in Los Angeles, and Lela was a registered nurse. In 1922, they bought the property from a man named Arthur Cook, who attended church with Lela. She wanted to move to the desert to find relief from her respiratory issues, and Cook offered the land to her free of charge, though she paid him $100 in cash to prevent any future tax, property, or inheritance complications.

Lela dreamed of opening the property to troubled youth. She knew that the solitude and peace of the desert would not only heal her own body, but also provide comfort to inner-city children, who suffered from fear, stress, and poverty. Some children were sent to the ranch by the courts, some came to heal their asthma, and others came to relax, swim, and learn how to ride horses.

Murray’s Dude Ranch, a former Green Book site on the edge of the Mojave Desert near Victorville, California. Photo by Candacy Taylor.

By 1937, the Murrays had turned the property into a dude ranch, offering black travelers a rare and unusual opportunity to experience the Old West. One man wrote to the Murrays, “I am a bachelor. I like to ride horseback very much. I have always wanted to spend a few weeks on a dude ranch. Being colored, I doubted that I would ever have the chance.”

In 1937, Life published a feature article introducing the dude ranch to the world. This helped put the Murrays on solid financial ground. By the end of the 1930s, the property had 20 buildings and offered lodging, dining, horseback riding, and swimming. There was also a fenced-in baseball diamond and a tennis court. Two black Westerns, 1939’s Harlem Rides the Range and The Bronze Buckaroo, were filmed there.

Over the next decade, Murray’s gained in popularity with celebrities such as Lena Horne and Hedda Hopper, and it wasn’t long before it made the cover of Ebony magazine. Joe Louis trained here in the 1940s, which caught the attention of Life magazine photographers who were in town to work on another story.

Paul Williams, a black architect, also vacationed at Murray’s. Williams was well known among Hollywood stars, having designed homes for Frank Sinatra, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Tyrone Power, and Anthony Quinn, as well as a few hundred residences in Beverly Hills and Bel Air. In the 1940s Williams designed elements of the Ambassador Hotel, a Green Book site that became infamous after Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated there; and in the 1960s he collaborated with designers to build the futuristic structures at the Los Angeles Airport.

By 1937, the Murrays had turned the property into a dude ranch, offering black travelers a rare and unusual opportunity to experience the Old West.

Murray’s was fully integrated, and was one of the first sites in this part of the country where white and black children played and swam together. After seeing black and white children together, a white woman staying at a nearby ranch wrote a story about how much it had touched her.

As Murray’s became more popular, it received even more attention, praise, and inquiries from all over the country. Lela made sure to inform all the people interested in coming to the ranch that black people owned it. And they came anyway. The Murrays hosted about 100 people every week.

The Murrays sold the ranch to Pearl Bailey in 1955 for 65 thousand dollars. Rumor has it that Bailey drove her pink Cadillac on the dirt roads around Bell Mountain. Unfortunately, nothing is left of Murray’s Dude Ranch today, but Bailey’s home, which was located directly across the street from the ranch, is still standing.

After Murray’s, it was another 70 miles on Route 66 to Pasadena, California. This wasn’t a good place to stop: There were no Green Book sites, and some of the pools in Pasadena allowed black people to swim only on “International Day,” which was usually on a Wednesday, the day before the pool was cleaned. Leaving Pasadena, Route 66 then dipped into the busy streets of downtown Los Angeles.

Clifton’s Cafeteria, a former Green Book restaurant in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Candacy Taylor.

Downtown’s most memorable Green Book site was Clifton’s Cafeteria, on Broadway, a sprawling five-story restaurant located right at the original terminus of Route 66. Diners entered through a wood-paneled tunnel that led to a wonderland of singing birds in a fake redwood forest with terraces, a replace, and shrubbery hanging from the walls.

Clifton’s was originally owned by Clifford Clinton, a white man who was the son of Christian missionaries. As a boy, Clinton traveled with his parents to China, where he witnessed brutal and abject poverty firsthand. Back home, he couldn’t understand how America, a country with so much wealth, could allow its citizens to go hungry. When he opened up his own restaurant, he never turned anyone away—even those who couldn’t pay. Clinton followed what he called the “Cafeteria Golden Rule.” His menu read, “Pay What You Wish” and “Dine Free Unless Delighted.”

Clinton’s partners rejected his compassionate business model, but he followed his heart and still figured out a way to make a profit. There were several Clifton’s in Los Angeles. The Route 66 location opened just before the first Green Book was published but wasn’t listed until 1957. (Another Clifton’s, located downtown, was listed in earlier editions.)

It may have helped that Clinton had several other restaurants in Los Angeles, but his altruism generated free publicity, which turned out to be good for business. At its height, Clifton’s served 15 thousand people a day, and celebrities ranging from Beat writer Jack Kerouac to Walt Disney to science fiction author Ray Bradbury were regulars.

Although the experience most black motorists had on Route 66 couldn’t have been more different from that of the average white American, it’s comforting to know that they could count on Clifton’s. It was the perfect place to end this epic journey.

__________________________________

From Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America. Used with the permission of the publisher, Abrams Books. Copyright © 2019 by Candacy Taylor.

Candacy Taylor
Candacy Taylor
Candacy Taylor is an award-winning author, photographer and cultural documentarian. Her work has been featured in over 50 media outlets including the New Yorker and The Atlantic. She is the recipient of numerous fellowships and grants including The Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University and the National Endowment for the Humanities. She lives in Denver, Colorado.





More Story
Chuck Palahniuk on the Importance of Not Boring
Your Reader
You’ve been there. You’re having dinner with friends, talking up a storm. After a laugh or a sigh, the conversation falls...