While COVID restrictions forced Route History to remain closed throughout the 2020 tourist season, the new business was able to use the downtime to expand its offerings, as well as purchase and improve the building it occupies.
The museum and visitors center, located in a former gas station at 737 E. Cook St., opened in February 2019 with the goal of serving as a space to experience and learn about the tragedy, resilience and excellence of Black people along Historic Route 66 and in the city of Springfield. However, after Route History closed for the season at the end of 2019, it was unable to reopen the following spring.
"When COVID started, we were preparing for the tourist season," said Gina Lathan, who co-owns the business with Stacy Grundy and Kenneth Lockhart. "But that actually allowed us the opportunity to spend more time doing research and cultivating relationships," she said. "We learned a lot about the museum industry and tourism."
Then in June 2020, Route History received an $80,000 grant through the state's Minority-Owned Business Capital and Infrastructure Program, which Lathan said allowed them to purchase the building and complete some major upgrades.
One change that is noticeable to anyone driving by the building is a mural that artist Korbin King is painting on the east wall. King was born and raised in Springfield, and while he currently lives in the St. Louis area, he has retained many professional ties to his hometown, including co-curating the current "Noir" exhibit at the Illinois State Museum that features works by artists of color. King also previously had his artwork on display at the Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum.
"Gina and my mother grew up together, so she's been watching me progress as an artist," said King. "We've had so many historic things happen in Springfield, I wanted to put together something that was meaningful. I'm a big history buff. The concept for the mural was to emphasize some of the landmarks in Springfield that we've probably all passed by so many times and didn't know the meaning of."
The mural includes Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Springfield's oldest Black church and still an active congregation; Lincoln Colored Home, one the first Black orphanages in the country; Oak Ridge Cemetery, which is the final resting place for many historically significant African Americans in what came to be known as the Colored Section, and other area landmarks.
"A lot of this isn't in the history books," said King, who hopes the mural will inspire young people to do their own research. "So many people have already stopped by while I'm out here painting and asked what this is going to be or what it means."
He said, "The thing I'm most excited about is to leave my mark on the city in which I was born and raised."
In addition, a new ongoing exhibit will commemorate four Black community leaders who assisted with the Underground Railroad. "We want to create a space where our visitors can experience the history of Route 66 and the Black experience in and around Springfield, as well as in Illinois," said Lathan, describing Route History as "rooted in the celebration of Black business owners and those who were instrumental in the Great Migration and civil rights movement."
Route History also has a new partnership with Landmarks Illinois to help advocate for preservation of historic structures statewide that contribute to the understanding of Black history. "We're working with Landmarks Illinois to galvanize support for the repair of Black businesses and entities along Route 66 throughout the state," said Lathan.
Landmarks Illinois' annual list of "Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois" for 2021 includes the state's remaining Green Book sites. The Negro Motorist Green Book, which was published annually from 1936-1967, provided Black travelers with safe options for lodging, meals and entertainment. Many of the dozens of Illinois locations included in the Green Book have already been demolished, and the remaining sites often lack the resources needed to properly research and preserve them.
Frank Butterfield, director of the Springfield office of Landmarks Illinois, noted that there are still a lot of unknowns related to the Green Book sites. "We're trying to get a statewide survey done, using a lot of volunteer labor, of what is still standing and what has been lost," he said. Butterfield also hopes to capture oral histories of people who had personal connections to the Green Book.
"We want to find ways to document and share stories about these Green Book sites," Butterfield said, which is where Route History comes in. "The year 2026 will be the centennial of Route 66, so there are already lots of discussions about commemoration, and we want to make sure that the stories of Black travelers and the Green Book are part of that."