Springfield's Route Museum Celebrates, Embraces Black History Along Route 66

Dec 6, 2019

When one thinks of Route 66—we think of rock 'n' roll and family road trips. But for Black travelers, that experience was very different. It was one where their safety depended on trusted connections along the way. 

Route History, a souvenir shop and museum, opened in Springfield earlier this year to highlight contributions of Black-owned businesses in the city and along Route 66 during the Jim Crow era. 

Co-owners Ketnneth Lockhart, Stacy Grundy and Gina Lathan say the shop and museum's goal is to look at  history that’s not always celebrated – often because people might not know about it. 

“And as African Americans, especially for myself, one who was born and raised here in Springfield, I understood there is definitely a rich history in the city of Springfield,” Lathan says. 

Some of that history revolves around the many Black businesses and homes that opened up along Route 66 and around Springfield to welcome African American travelers. 

In her tour for visitors, Grundy explains the importance of the Green Book— a guide for those travelers. It gave tips on lodging and restaurants African Americans could safely visit. 

Route History, a souvenir shop and museum, opened in Springfield earlier this year to highlight contributions of Black-owned businesses in the city and along Route 66 during the Jim Crow era.
Credit Daisy Contreras / NPR Illinois

Grundy says there were some businesses in Springfield considered safe spaces.

“Because based on the color of your skin, a certain mechanic might not repair your car, [or] a gas station, something as simple as gas was racialized,” she says. 

That history is often not taught in local schools. Lathan says she’s seen some improvement with more classrooms incorporating those historical facts. 

“But there's still a lot of work to do. And we're really excited about being able to be a part of the progress of introducing all children, as well as adults into the rich history.”

The team has created a curriculum—one where it’s not always necessary for kids to visit the souvenir shop. Grundy and Lathan have partnered with community organizations to connect with kids and their teachers.

Lathan says this approach teaches more than just history. She says it teaches students to feel proud. 

“[This is ] allowing an opportunity for many young people to connect with very positive role models that have done great things in the past. Many of our young people may be discouraged and kind of feel like that's not something that they could have done, such as starting a business,” she says. 

Route History owners plan to donate some of the shop's earnings to help restore local buildings –- like the Lincoln Colored Home on the city's east side, that served as one of the first orphanages for African American children in the United States.
Credit Daisy Contreras / NPR Illinois

Both women say the response to the curriculum and the souvenir shop—which sells t-shirts, magnets and pencils, has been a positive one. 

Local resident Darryl Triggs took the 20-minute History Route experience tour one afternoon. 

Triggs says he’s lived in Springfield for about a decade and is learning about the Green Book for the first time.

“And that's interesting, because I've traveled and still travel, and you still experience certain things when you're traveling. So, I can't even imagine in that time as an African American, a Black person traveling from Illinois to California, without having something to refer to,” he says. 

Looking back, Lathan says she’s proud of what she and her business partners have accomplished in just a few months. 

“It’s hard work. It's hard work, but it's, it's the type of work that if we could, we'd do for free,” she says. “But we definitely like the idea of younger girls looking and seeing that we are business owners, we are professionals. And we definitely like to give back to our community.”

The trio plan to donate some of the shop’s earnings to help restore local buildings – like the Lincoln Colored Home on the city’s east side, that served as one of the first orphanages for African American children in the United States.