LUTHER, Okla. (AP) — For blacks, the adventure and excitement of traveling the early roadways of America was tempered by the certain knowledge that a pit stop made at the wrong place could be deadly.
Bigotry loomed large in the form of “Whites Only” restaurants, hotels and other establishments. And getting caught out after sunset in an anti-black “sundown town” was fraught with peril.
During the Jim Crow era, the Threatt Filling Station in Luther provided “a safe haven” for black travelers and locals on Route 66, said Edward Threatt, whose family owns the property.
The building that housed the filling station is already on the National Register of Historic Places for several reasons including its distinction as a black-owned filling station along the “Mother Road.”
However, the Threatt family’s recent partnership with historians to preserve the former station and the emergence of the movie “Green Book” have brought about a renaissance of sorts for the structure and the Threatt family’s story. The National Park Service recently awarded the family a $5,000 grant to fund a condition assessment and preservation plan for the building.
“Green Book,” which premiered in November, tells the true story of a prominent black musician who hired an Italian bouncer to provide protection as he began a concert tour in the Deep South in 1962. The pair relies on the “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a real-life guidebook that listed hotels, taverns, restaurants, service stations and other establishments where blacks would be accepted as customers and where they would be less likely to be harassed or attacked by whites.
“During that time, blacks traveling on Route 66 couldn’t stop at white filling stations to get gas. This was one of the stops where they could get some gas. It was a safe haven,” Edward Threatt, told The Oklahoman . He said his grandfather, Allen Threatt Sr., owned the station and more than 150 acres of property surrounding it.
Another grandson of Allen Threatt Sr., the Rev. Allen Threatt III, 79, of Arcadia, is pastor of Arcadia’s Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. He agreed with his cousin’s assessment of the filling station, which closed in the 1970s. He said it was not listed in the Green Book, largely because his grandfather and the station were well-known to many blacks.
He said the fact that a book like the Green Book existed made sense.
“It was a little bit surprising because I didn’t realize how blacks knew where to stop. It was kind of like a road map that helped them when they were traveling,” he said. “I think they just stopped and realized how crucial it was at that particular time that blacks had to communicate with one another from one state to the next. They would tell the folks back home so they would know where they could get some food and gas on their trips.”
Edward Threatt, who lives in Luther, said race relations during that era added a different dimension to the family filling station. He said people could get fuel and food there but also were allowed to park their vehicles on the property and sleep for the night, if necessary.
“It’s important to explain to people who are not of color what it was like — the things my mom and dad and our ancestors had to go through just to survive,” he said. “To have a place like this — as soon as they pulled in, they could exhale and relax and not have to worry about anything,” he said.
Another cousin, David Threatt Jr., 45, of Oklahoma City, didn’t know much about the filling station’s history, so six years ago, he asked his friend Sharina Killingsworth of Norman to help him research on property. Both were excited about what they found.
“It kind of lighted a fire under my family to actually do something with it,” he said.
Much of the historic structure is intact, David Threatt Jr. said. Inside, a visitor will still find the original cash register, several booths, barstools and memorabilia from the station’s golden era.
Killingsworth said she found it remarkable that Allen Threatt Sr. applied for and was granted a patent for the family property before statehood. Through her research, she learned that he was a well-respected “steward of the community and a servant of the community.”
The three Threatt cousins in Oklahoma, Killingsworth and another Threatt cousin, Linda Fisher of Las Vegas, began working to preserve the structure in recent years with the help of historians like Lynda Ozan, deputy historic preservation officer with the state Historic Preservation Office, and Kaisa Barthuli, program manager for the National Park Service Route 66 Coordinator Preservation Program.
The building, which was constructed in 1915, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the 1990s and Ozan said it received that recognition because it is a “house type” establishment, meaning it was built to look like a house but served both as a residence and a business. She said the building also was singled out because it was owned and operated by a black family who came to Oklahoma during the 1889 Land Run, and it is still owned by the same family.
Ozan said the idea of preserving the filling station building is particularly exciting because of the old ledger books and other items there. She said the old uniforms that station attendants wore to pump gas are still in the building’s attic.
“The whole history of the African-American experience traveling up and down that road is epitomized in that building,” she said.
Barthuli, with the National Park Service, agrees.
“We knew the building was vacant and had no idea who owned the building so when we received a call from David Threatt about the family’s interest in preserving the building we were ecstatic because it was only then that we learned that it was still in the family,” she said. “We’re interested in telling not just the station’s story but the family’s large contributions, not just to Route 66 but to the state of Oklahoma.”
Like Edward Threatt, both women said the historic filling station probably didn’t make it into the Green Book because it was already a popular establishment among blacks and Ozan also pointed out that it was built well before the traveler’s guide book was first produced by Harlem, New York, resident Victor Green in the late 1930s.
Barthuli said the Green Book helps reflect social experience and values of that time and it serves as a conduit for telling the larger stories of black history in America.
The existence of such a book is a “conversation starter” and the Threatt filling station’s connection to it is relevant, she said.
David Threatt said the family has begun raising funds for the filling station preservation efforts. He said he’d like to see the station opened once again as a community gathering spot.
“I’d just like to see that part of history actually come back to life,” he said.
Meanwhile, Brad Nickson, president of the Oklahoma Route 66 Association, said he only learned about the building’s history when the Threatts shared their story at an association meeting about 18 months ago.
“I wasn’t aware of the significance of that little building and I was just amazed at the history of that place. I’m thrilled that they’ve taken a renewed interest into breathing some life back into that building and telling their story,” Nickson said. “On Route 66, those stories are part of the enjoyment and the allure if you have a history mind bent.”
Both Edward Threatt and Allen Threatt III were young boys during the station’s heyday and they remember the station’s popularity among travelers who stopped to get fuel and snacks. The Threatts said visitors would sometimes come to the station for regular dances held on the family’s property or perhaps they would take in a Negro Baseball League ball game.
Allen Threatt said the station was a forerunner to the convenience store of modern times because his father kept produce and staples for locals who didn’t want to drive to a larger city for small grocery items. He said many black families like the Caldwells, Johnsons, Neros and Lees often came to the store to make purchases or to play dominoes or simply to visit with one another.
He remembers pumping fuel for travelers. He said the service station was up-to-date and he and other attendants fixed flats and changed oil for customers.
“During that time, I was small and it seemed like it was a large place. These were the barstools where they could sit over there and people would sit in booths on the other side,” he said pointing to different areas of the building during a recent visit.
Allen Threatt said he especially remembered the weekend nights when lights would be strung in the trees around the property and people — blacks but sometimes whites, too — would come from Oklahoma City and other areas to dance out in the field where tables would be set up and beer and soda pop would be served. He said he and several of his young relatives had a special way of collecting extra money afterward.
“They were jitterbuggin’ at the dances and all the change in their pockets would fall out. I would come out early next morning and pick up change — we’d have a pocketful,” he said.
Edward Threatt said he is excited about the preservation efforts. He doesn’t want his grandfather’s legacy to be forgotten. Allen Threatt Sr. died in 1950.
“Grandpa had a true entrepreneurial spirit about him, and he passed it along to his kids and they passed it along to their kids. That’s just what Grandpa did for us,” he said. “This is really truly about him.”
Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com