Wanda Trotter, 68, thought about her childhood as she watched a play at the Missouri History Museum depicting the experiences of African-Americans traveling Route 66 before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in public accommodations.
“I remember my parents packing our lunches and telling us that certain places you could not go to eat, or to use the bathroom facilities,’’ said Trotter. Her family drove the famous highway from St. Louis to San Diego, Calif., in the early 1960s to visit her brother who was in the Navy.
“My mother was sure that she packed the Green Book so it could tell you where you could go that would be safe,’’ she said.
She’s referring to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide that listed restaurants and motels that welcomed African-Americans traveling U.S. highways during segregation. The guide book is the inspiration for a 35-minute play “Whose Route 66?” performed by high school students in the museum’s auditorium on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through July 30.
The Green Book, which was published by Victor H. Green from 1936 to 1964, is also discussed briefly in the popular new exhibit Route 66: Main Street Through St. Louis that opened last month at the museum. The exhibit notes that guides similar to the Green Book were published for Jewish motorists and gay motorists, as well.
Participants in the museum’s “Teens Make History” program used historical accounts to develop the story of a fictional African-American family driving Route 66 from Chicago to see the Grand Canyon.
The scenes, set after World War II, portray the parents’ careful planning as they map out a safe itinerary for their adventure. While they find welcoming accommodations along the way, they also encounter discrimination.
The play is educational and entertaining, balancing serious and light-hearted moments, said India Ellington, 16, a junior at Trinity Catholic High school. She plays the family’s carefree 9-year-old daughter who doesn’t understand why a gas station attendant won’t let her use the bathroom.
“I knew that it happened, I just didn’t know how often,’’ said India. “It was an eye-opener to me. I knew a little history but not as much as I feel I should have. So, it helped me gain knowledge on what happened and how to prevent it from ever having again.”
She said the play has inspired her to ask older family members about their experiences.
Cole Anderson, 15, a sophomore at Metro High School, plays the role of the father.
“I knew about segregation, obviously, but I knew virtually nothing about Route 66,” he said. “And I definitely did not know that it was this hard for people of color to travel along the route. Everybody is equal, and everybody should be treated the same way, and I believe that everyone should at least know something about how hard it was for African-Americans to travel.’’
During a question-and-answer session after the performance, Trotter told the students about her childhood experiences.
“We were not afraid because our families did not talk about it,’’ she said. “And, as in the play, when the parents were discussing it the children were not necessarily in the room. Parents would try to shield you from the unpleasantries of society. But they did tell us to be careful.’’
Trotter commended the teens for telling the story.
“Once you know your history you will become stronger because you will know where your grandparents and great-grandparents have come from,’’ she said. “To be able to go freely about and to do the things that you want to do — there was a price that was paid in the '40s, '50s and '60s.’’
“Teens Make History” is a museum apprentice program that attracts students from area high schools.
Ellen Kuhn, who coordinates the program, said the teens researched NAACP records and oral histories to develop the scenes in the play.
“When you see people in the audience say the same thing that the teens were able to capture in those stories it’s incredible,” Kuhn said.
Friends Rae Mohrmann and Renee Rozman attended a recent performance. They were at the museum to see the Route 66 exhibit.
“We went through the exhibit first and, my gosh, did that bring back some memories,’’ Mohrmann said. “And then with the production, I felt guilty because I thought, ‘I was going to school with people who couldn’t go to the same places and do the same things
that I could do.' And I didn’t realize that at that time.”
They were impressed with the writing and acting.
“I thought it was a great historical fiction production, and it was amazing that these teens wrote it and performed it and put it all together,’’ Rozman said.
What: A "Teens Make History” production based on the Green Book, a travel guide for African-Americans before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in public accommodations
When: 11 a.m. Thursdays and Fridays and 2 p.m. Saturdays, through July 30
Where: Lee Auditorium, Missouri History Museum, Forest Park.