Route 66 Reflection: Exploring Diversity in Stories and Sites
In the introduction of the 1956 edition of The Negro Motorist Green Book, a paragraph reads, “Millions of people hit the road each year, to get away from their old surroundings, to see and learn how people live, and meet new and old friends. Modern travel has given millions of people an opportunity to see the wonders of the world.”
The Negro Motorist Green Book, often simply called The Green Book, was an annual guidebook for African American travelers created by Victor Hugo Green, a New York City postal worker. Green published the guidebooks from 1936 until 1966, during the apex of the Jim Crow era, in order to help black travelers safely find accommodations, food, and services while on their travels.
I carried Green Book copies with me as I traveled Route 66, the first from 1940 and the second from 1964, the year my father was born. In my research leading up to my time on the road, I came across almost no pictures of non-white travelers on Route 66. In my time on the road, my interactions were largely with white residents and white travelers. I was very conscious of my blackness in a space that was not built with travelers like me in mind. And, for this reason, I wanted to unearth the lesser-told stories of the Mother Road to understand what it means to be part of contemporary populations that were historically unwelcome on many stretches Route 66.
In Shamrock, Texas, we went downtown at sunset to take photographs of the historic, 19th and 20th-century architecture. Main Street and all of its tributaries were vacant, white paint peeled off of historic walls, and ancient light bulbs began to flicker to life. As I sat in the brick road, posing for a photograph, three black boys on bicycles emerged from over the hill, riding towards us. They laughed and called out to one another, showing off with figure eights and riding with no hands.
As they cruised past, we looked at one another—I, still on the ground and they on their bicycles, not pedaling, but allowing momentum to take them on their way. The youngest reminded me of my brother, light-skinned and curly-headed, eager to keep up with his friends. The oldest looked like my cousin, slender and stern, with dark skin and certain eyes. The third reminded me of pictures of my father as a kid, with his buzz cut, his sly smile, and his disregard for everything except the road right in front of him.
Up to that point, I could count the number of black people I had interacted with on The Mother Road on one hand. Most of those individuals came to the route accidentally, or had no idea they were on Route 66 at all. But, these three boys were there, meandering the route and the surrounding town freely in a way Victor Hugo Green dreamed of when he first published The Green Book in 1936. As these boys pedaled towards the sunset and disappeared behind the backlit buildings, I felt at home. Not just because they looked like people in my life, but because it was the first time I had seen black joy in motion in my time on Route 66.
As we moved further west, I saw more African Americans scattered throughout the towns where we held meetups. There was the 20-something in Amarillo, Texas, who pushed a lawnmower through the streets of downtown while bumping to music in his headphones. There were the twin boys in matching camo shorts and gray shirts, who chased after their mom as she rode ahead of them through the streets of Shamrock, Texas, in a golf cart. And there were the three young girls who came to our Albuquerque, New Mexico meetup with their dad, where they each timidly and wordlessly spun the prize wheel.
As we made our way into New Mexico, The Mother Road revealed an amalgamation of cultures and stories. Anthony Bourdain once said of New Mexico, “Something about this place manages to capture the overlap between a whole hell of a lot of very different cultures.” As we passed through, I met people who pulled me to the side and told me, “I came here from the Acoma Pueblo and I drive on Route 66 every day,” or, “My parents are first-generation Americans and when they first came to this country, they moved right here on Route 66.”
In Albuquerque, I met the Dharas family, owners of the 1960s-era University Lodge Motel (formerly TraveLodge) on Central Avenue, Albuquerque’s stretch of Route 66. In 1984, Salim and Rosemin Dharas flew from Tanzania to Toronto, hopped on a Greyhound, and traversed America over a span of three days, all the way to Albuquerque. While in Tanzania, Salim was a box boy, got his agricultural degree, acted as a politician, and even served as a freedom fighter, bringing food and water across the Mozambique border. When they arrived in New Mexico, the couple worked at Dunkin' Donuts and apprenticed with another motel owner to save enough money and learn the skills to eventually open their own establishment.
Sharmin, their daughter, is quick-minded and confident, the brains of the operation. Born on Route 66, Sharmin loves the Nob Hill neighborhood of Albuquerque so much that she is now moving back home from Arizona to help rehabilitate and revitalize the aging motel she grew up in. She has big dreams to rebrand the University Lodge as The Avenue, a place where young people will want to stay, work, and play. But she also said it wasn't easy to be a young person growing up in a motel.
“I grew up in a bad area, so my parents made sure I went to a private school in a good area [thirty minutes away],” Sharmin said. “The thing is, all of these students would have each other [over at their] houses. I couldn’t tell anybody where I lived. So I never—until two or three years ago—told anybody where I lived. I had to do everything on my own. It was really tough.”
Though they immigrated from Tanzania, the Dharas family takes pride in their South Asian ancestry. Despite feeling isolated from the kids at school, Sharamin said her extended family of hoteliers and motel owners, along with the wider community of South Asian motel owners in Albuquerque and the diverse guests their motel lodged, provided her with the community and grounded perspective she needed when she was growing up.
There is a Mark Twain quote on the cover of several editions of The Negro Motorist Green Book that reads, “Travel is fatal to prejudice.” Indeed, organized efforts of black business owners and white allies in the face of Jim Crow laws and practices allowed for black patrons to find safety and service in disparate places across the country. Salim Dharas’ travels around the world and his investment in his Albuquerque motel allowed his daughter to learn from the wisdom of transient and diverse guests, and eventually seek to better serve those people. And even the sheer joy of three black boys cycling down a once-forbidden corridor on a summer’s night is powerful. Each simple act of a formerly disenfranchised group along Route 66 is revolutionary; it shows that we, too, belong in these spaces.