New exhibit at Joplin examines Route 66’s impact on culture

A new exhibit at an arts center in Joplin, Missouri, examines the cross-cultural impact of Route 66 from a native of that town.

“Route 66: Crossing Cultural Lines,” curated by artist and former American Jazz Museum curator Sara Sonié Joi Thompson-Ruffin, will be in the main gallery of the Spiva Center for the Arts in Joplin (map here) through March 6. The free display features more than 100 artists.

Thompson-Ruffin, who grew up in Joplin, talked to the Joplin Globe about her exhibit:

Thompson-Ruffin talks of the Negro baseball leagues of the 1920s through 1940s whose players traveled Route 66 to take games across America. It brought baseball greats Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige, then players for the league’s Kansas City Monarchs, to Joplin for exhibition games in Miners Park, home to the Joplin Miners minor league baseball team at that time.
The Mother Road also brought such jazz notables as Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington to Joplin for performances. During those glory days of Route 66, hotels were primarily for whites only, so Black musicians would stay in the homes of local people, primarily in East Town, according to local archived history.
Because of that, Thompson-Ruffin recalls hearing some of America’s most celebrated musicians playing in neighborhood homes during their stays.
“It was an incredible time to grow up there,” she said.

The artist posted this statement about her exhibit on the center’s website:

Route 66, often called the Main Street of America, is as important today as when first constructed in 1926. For over 90 years, it has influenced the American spirit and enticed travelers from the entire world to travel its scenic route from Illinois to the beaches of Santa Monica, California.
Route 66 played an integral role in connecting the cultures in our country as Americans traveled across the nation by motorcar, mobile homes, motorcycles and motor caravans. Joplin was on that route, as written in Bobby Troup’s 1946 hit song “Get Your Kicks on Route 66”.
Already on its way to becoming a community with a love for the arts, the influx of visitors spurred Joplin to become a town that included a variety of ethnicities and cultures, and exposed all of its citizens to a diversity in the arts, fostering inter-cultural communication.
The artists exhibiting in Route 66: Crossing Cultural Lines are presenting their interpretations of the stories associated with the highway. These experiences include: professional baseball, territory bands, jazz musicians, civil rights crusades, military bases, or hopping in that big Red truck to search for that perfect place to camp out and go fishing. These unique storylines promise to engage the viewer in a visual and textual conversation.
Art is a powerful tool of the truth, and these artists serve as our custodial documenters of our past.
It is my hope that each person takes something positive away from this extraordinary exhibition and reflects on the first time you traveled Route 66, or heard the song and sang along with Bobby Troupe’s “Get Your Kicks on Route 66”, the Cultural Highway!

Because so many Route 66 enthusiasts — especially overseas — are unable to travel to Joplin during the COVID-19 pandemic before the exhibit ends, I hope someone produces a documentary film that’s available online about it.

(Publicity image of “Route 66: Crossing Cultural Lines” via Spiva Center for the Arts in Joplin, Missouri)

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