Explore the Legacy of Generations Past With These Lessons From Route 66

Melodie N. Graves, a storyteller with the Route 66 team of 2892 Miles to Go: Geographic Walk for Justice, wrote this post.

When many people think of Texas, they think of cowboys. Images of big hats, bucking broncos, and open plains come to mind. Very often, perhaps always, these images feature cowboys who are white men. But there is a long, unacknowledged history of Black people, and other people of color, taking up the cowboy mantle.

Mathew “Bones” Hooks was a famed Black cowboy, one of the first Black cowboys to work alongside white people as a ranch hand. He drove trails alongside white ranchers and became known as one of the top horsebreakers in the area—meaning someone who trains horses. Born in 1867 to formerly enslaved parents in Robertson, Texas, he was reportedly only the second Black person to make Amarillo, Texas his home. Segregation forced Hooks to establish a separate community for Black people in Amarillo, which is still active today, known as North Heights.

Hooks ran grocery stores and established one of the first Black churches in West Texas. Eventually, his time as a rancher evolved into working for the Santa Fe Railroad as it was being developed. But Bones Hooks’s civic service is what truly set him apart and ensured his lasting legacy. He was the first Black person to serve on a Potter County grand jury. Hooks also took time to encourage, comfort, and celebrate others, sending over 500 flowers to war heroes, former presidents, first ladies, and the families of recently deceased pioneers. Hooks also believed the young Black children of North Heights deserved as much of an opportunity to learn and find joy as the white children of the community did. So he established the Dogie Club, through which he took young Black boys on camping trips, gave them opportunities to play organized sports, and even guided them to plant trees on property that would one day be renamed Bones Hooks Park.

Today, Bones Hooks Park serves as a meeting and celebration place for the community. Over the years, this park has become a place where residents celebrate life, take pride in community accomplishments, and come together to address social injustices still experienced by so many in our society. Bones Hooks spent his life in service to others. Decades after his death, his legacy lives on. His contributions have encouraged others to fight for their place in the world around them. There are direct ties between history, identity, and place. From the Indigenous people who first made their home in the lands now known as Texas to the North Heights community who visit Bones Hooks Park, they stand on the shoulders of their ancestors who made a life for themselves and so many others. This land and the community surrounding it are living history.

My colleagues Ruth De Anda, Ramona Emerson, Dr. Shanna Peeples, and I comprise the Route 66 team of 2892 Miles to Go, a social justice education program supported by the National Geographic Society. The program aims to amplify local community stories about justice, race, and equity that are often left out of common narratives of human history. In creating our StoryMap, “We Shape Our Roads and Our Roads Shape Us,” our team explored the culture, geography, and social landscape surrounding the legendary Route 66 in an effort to illuminate history—and the people like Bones Hooks who created it—that too often remains unacknowledged. While our vision included recognizing this history, we also wanted to acknowledge how this history continues to inspire change over time. Our StoryMap illustrates how ancient trails became railways, which became roads, which are evolving into energy superhighways before our very eyes. But most importantly, our StoryMap explores the people and communities who created and continue to create these routes. Land and people are intertwined in the same way that Bones Hooks Park is deeply connected to the legacy of a single person who created the community that surrounds it. Even when that land does not bear the names of the generations of people who have lived and worked upon it, they are still there.

We can learn—and teach—lessons from the lives and legacies of people, like Bones Hooks, who came before us and shaped the communities in which we live. Consider the following opportunities for learning and teaching from the life of Bones Hooks alone.

What can we learn from Hooks’s trailblazing contributions?

Bones Hooks wasn’t afraid to be “the first” or “the only” at anything. Being “the first” paves the way for others to come after and do even better. When we see a need, we must do everything in our power to address that need, and Hooks’s life and legacy illustrates the power of being brave enough to be the first or the only. How might we encourage young people to exhibit this kind of bravery in their own lives? How might we explore the lives of community leaders with young people and support their understanding of the legacies they left behind?

What does a safe community feel and look like?

Hooks was a forward-thinking man who created safe, welcoming places for residents in his community. The white roses he distributed widely encouraged and comforted many people during his lifetime. Opening the Dogie Club and pouring time, energy, and wisdom into his work with the young people in North Heights was another way in which he created safe, welcoming spaces for many Black residents who did not always feel this sense of safety elsewhere. How might we apply this idea of safe spaces in our work with young people? How can encouraging young people to examine the spaces in their community that may or may not be safe for them or others provide opportunities for extended critical thinking about the geographic and social makeup of those communities?

What opportunities lie in front of us?

Hooks had a vision. Sometimes a vision exists only in the head of the person who holds it, but a leader is able to motivate others and inspire them to make the vision a reality, even when they cannot see what the leader does. Hooks’s vision for a community that could function and thrive led the way to opportunities that allow people like me to continue his work well into the future. How can we support young people’s ability and opportunity to create change around them?

What wisdom can we glean from those who came before us?

Learning about Hooks’s impact inspired me to make my own. Knowing what our ancestors endured and accomplished encourages us to be better, be greater, and leave a lasting impact. When Hooks moved to Amarillo, he may have had no idea what he could accomplish, but by the time of his death he had become a hometown hero. Learning about him encouraged me to continue his work and improve the community for future generations. Our ancestors, even the most ancient ones, can often provide insight into the change we hope to lead in the present. How can we encourage young people to better understand the wisdom of the past and support them in applying it to urgent issues of the present?

Bones Hooks’s contributions changed an entire city. His life and legacy illustrate that we all have the ability to effect monumental change right where we are. Our land and the people within its memory speak to us all the time. How might we learn and teach young people to listen to its wisdom? How can we ignite the kind of passion it takes to create new communities for those who will come after us? We need to start now, for there is so much to do.

Experience the Route 66 team’s StoryMap here, and access the full learning guide, including additional activities and lessons, here. You can also explore the work of other 2892 teams at 2892walk.org. For additional inclusive, community-centric lessons, see the recent blog post highlighting materials from the Louisville team’s learning guide.

About 2892: There are 2892 miles across the continental United States, and each of those miles represents many stories that could reveal unacknowledged truths about justice, race, and equity in communities everywhere. 2892 Miles to Go: Geographic Walk for Justice is a social justice education program centered on amplifying local community stories about justice, race, and equity that are often left out of common narratives of human history and culture.

Our hope is to become the antidote to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s eloquent definition of “The Danger of a Single Story” by holding space and elevating the stories of many. We believe that the land we live on never forgot these stories, and we want to remember, together.

2892 identifies and collaborates with local educators, changemakers, and other visionaries who are passionate about community-led storytelling to journey along selected routes in their own communities and then create visually compelling digital educational resources that are rooted in collective wisdom and represent the voices and experiences of many. Through in-person workshops, location-based educational experiences, and on our website, we share our StoryMaps and learning collections with educators and local leaders to help create more informed, empathic, and united communities.

Melodie Graves is a lifelong resident of Amarillo. She grew up in the North Heights neighborhood and now makes her home there. Melodie earned her associate’s degree from Amarillo College. She earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communication from West Texas A&M University. Melodie has worked in higher education for more than 13 years.  She was named associate director of academic advising at Amarillo College in August 2019. Above and beyond her career, Melodie’s service on numerous boards keeps her extremely busy. Among other positions, she is the 2nd Vice President of the Amarillo Branch NAACP; president of North Heights Advisory Association; a member of the Board of Directors for Opportunity School; a member of the board for the Leaders Readers Network; and president of the Amarillo United Citizens Forum board. In 2021, Melodie gave her first TEDx Talk, at Texas State University, on the “Power of the Amplified Voice.” She was awarded the 2021 Woman of Distinction award by Girl Scouts of Texas Oklahoma Plains and the 2022 Remarkable Women Award by KAMR Local 4 News and MyHighPlains.com for her dedication to her community and her family. Melodie is a single mother. Her 13-year-old son, Ashton, is a ninth grader at Tascosa High School. Bringing her son up with love and a servant’s heart is one of Melodie’s most cherished goals.

Featured image of Bones Hooks Park in Amarillo, Texas, courtesy of Mike Cuviello

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