David Dunaway‘s keynote speech, “The Hidden Voices of Route 66,” to begin the Miles of Possibility: The Edwardsville Route 66 Conference on Oct. 27 at the Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville, Illinois, set a candid tone for much of the weekend’s presentations.
Using audio clips from his “Across the Tracks: A Route 66 Story” audio program and excerpts from his book “A Route 66 Companion,” Dunaway said it was time “to take off the rose-colored glasses” and cast a fresh look at Route 66 as it approaches its 90th birthday next year.
The Mother Road — as John Steinbeck called it in his famous novel “The Grapes of Wrath” — long has been suffused in nostalgia. But the road also brings bittersweet memories to many racial minorities — Japanese Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans — who traveled it or even lived on it.
Most of the audio clips — including by “Route 66” television series co-star Martin Milner and “Route 66: The Mother Road” author Michael Wallis — decried the discrimination they saw.
But one of the audio clips featured longtime Pig Hip Restaurant owner Ernie Edwards of Broadwell, Illinois, who reeled off cringe-worthy, stereotypical thoughts about Mexicans and Gypsies.
Another clip had “Bless Me, Ultima” author Rudolfo Anaya telling along a story about working at a Route 66 gas station in New Mexico and encountering tourists who stopped there. The anecdote proved humorous, but it conveyed the cultural and economic distances between affluent whites and relatively poor native Hispanics — the latter whose families lived in the Land of Enchantment for centuries.
Some of the most anguishing stories Dunaway delivered was about Edmond Threatt, an elderly African-American from Luther, Oklahoma, whose family had given land so Route 66 could be built. Threatt volunteered personal tales of undue harassment by local police and segregated restaurants serving him food from the back door.
(In a bit of irony, Threatt was named after the nearby town of Edmond, Oklahoma, long known as a sundown town.)
The discrimination persisted well beyond the civil-rights era of the 1960s. When Dunaway interviewed Threatt in circa 2000, Threatt said the area black cemetery was full, and the local funeral-home director expressed doubt whether Threatt would be able to be buried in the nearby white cemetery when he died. The fact cemeteries still were racially segregated during the advent of the 21st century proved astonishing to many in the audience.
“It’s time to pose a more honest look at Route 66,” Dunaway said.
(More stories from the Miles of Possibility Conference will be posted in the coming days.)