The Food that Fueled a Movement

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The Greensboro Four at the Woolworth’s Lunch Counter.

When you think about a political movement, you rarely think of the fuel that feeds it. Activists and supporters have to eat too, and usually its late night after meetings, rallies, and marches. Our local Cincinnati Boss Politics movement was infamously fed by the bratwursts, sauerbraten, and lager beer of Over-the-Rhine saloons at the likes of Wielert’s on Vine Street. If you look back at the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, you will see a similar lineage of legacy restaurants all across the South that welcomed and sustained the movement’s key players.

The original Woolworth’s lunch counter, where four African-American students staged a sit-in on February 1, 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina, is a symbolic part of this food lineage. A small counter-top sign captures that day in the words “Roast Turkey Dinner, sixty-five cents.”   Food, the great equalizer, had become a symbol of segregation in America.     African-Americans couldn’t even eat a roast turkey dinner at the counter with white Americans.

The Greensboro four, as they became known, were Jibreel Khazan (formerly Ezell Blair Jr.), Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil and, David Richmond. After being refused service at the segregated Woolworth’s, these four students remained at the counter and ignited a movement of hundreds of students, civil rights organizations, churches, and members of the Greensboro community  that joined in a six-month-long protest. Their commitment ultimately led to the desegregation of the F. W. Woolworth lunch counter on July 25, 1960.  The original stools and counter are now on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

As the movement spread to other cities, other restaurants served as ground zero for civil rights activists.   In Jackson, Mississippi, there was Ms. Peach’s Restaurant, on Farish Street, founed in 1961.   Its founder Willdora “Peaches” Ephram was born in 1924 in Utica, Mississippi, to sharecropper parents.   She learned to cook from her mother and grandmother, unable to work in the fields with the rest of her large family.   At her restaurant, everyone from Muhammed Ali to Medgar Evens enjoyed her fried chicken, greens, and candied yams.  Ms. Peach served other southern faves like banana pudding, black eyed peas and peach cobbler.

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The incomparable Ms. Peaches.

During the Civil Rights movement, Peach’s restaurant served as a safe haven for activits. On May 28, 1963, Civil Rights activists staged a sit-in at Woolworth’s on Capitol Street in Jackson. A riot against the peaceful protest broke out and the city erupted in chaos. Peaches welcomed protesters inside. “She let them in ‘cause they were trying to flee from the police officers. She opened her doors,” said her son,  Ephram. “On a lot of occasions they would lock up people and take them down in garbage trucks to the fairgrounds. And even as she was trying to make ends meet at her restaurant, Peaches would donate sandwiches to those in custody.

In Atlanta, Pashcal’s restaurant, founded in 1947 by brothers Robert and James Paschal, hosted many civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesse Jackson.   It became known as the unofficial headquarters of the Civil Rights movment and specialized in southern soul food, like shrimp and grits, etoufee, catfish, fried chicken, and fried green tomatoes.   Martin Luther King, Jr., is said to have been a fan of their vegetable soup.

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A group of African-American women in Montgomery, Alabama, led by Georgia Gillmore, also fed the Civil Rights Movement.     The group was called the Club from No Where and sold pies, cookies, and cakes to help fund the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56 sparked by Rosa Parks.   They sold their wares out of beauty salons and on street corners to fund gas to help drive people to and from work during the boycott.   Ms. Gillmore was fired from her cafeteria job at National Lunch for her work in this effort.   At Dr. King’s personal suggestion, Gilmore then started up a restaurant in her own home, with long lines formed in wait for her delicious southern cooking. Her spot was a haven where civil rights strategists knew they could meet safely and secretly.

In New Orleans there was Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. Opening their doors in 1941, originally they were a sandwhich shop, but became a respected family restaurant serving authentic Creole cuisine in the largely African American Treme neighborhood.   Founded by Emily and Dooky Chase, Sr., Dooky Chase’s Restaurant soon become the meeting place for music and entertainment, civil rights, and culture. Thurgood Marshall along with local attorneys such as A.P. Tureaud, Lionel Collins, Ernest “Dutch” Morial, and Revius O. Ortique, Jr. and later freedom fighters such as Reverend A.L. Davis, Reverend Avery Alexander, Oretha Castle Haley, Rudy Lombard, Virginia Durr, and Jerome Smith propelled civil rights and protests in the courts and on the streets of New Orleans. In the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others would join these local leaders for strategy sessions and dialogue over meals in the upstairs meeting room at Dooky’s.  Since then Dookey’s has served president Barrack Obama.

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The inside of Dooky Chase Restaurant.

For us in Cincinnati, any residue of meeting places for the Civil Rights Movement were erased by the demolition of the West End and the desolation caused by the racial riots of 1967 and ‘68 in Avondale.   The West End was eradicated by city leaders in 1959 for ‘urban renewal” and the creation of Interstate 75.  It had been the city’s primary and segregated residence for African-Americans.  Almost half of all blacks living in the city in 1950 – 36,000 of 78,000 – were squeezed into the West End.    After it’s demolition many were forced to move into Over-the-Rhine and Avondale neighborhoods.

The West End, although largely African-American also had a Greek, Italian, and Macedonian immigrant community, as well as an old Ashkanazi Jewish community.     Restaurants like Macedonian-owned West End Chili Parlor  served all these communites.  But many more small cafes, convenience stores, chili parlors and restaurants served African-American leaders and residents during their period of struggle.

The June 12, 1967 racial riots in Avonndale began at Reading and Rockdale Roads, after the arrest of Peter Frakes.     A iconic image taken during the riots at Burnett and Northern Avenues, by Enquirer photographer, Bob Free,  shows a dairy bar in front of a riot-geared, armed policieman. That dairy bar is no longer standing, but definitely was a mustering place for local youths and residents, boiling up to the riots.   Just the day before, Martin Luther King Jr. had visited Cincinnati to speak at Zion Baptist Church in Avondale.   In his speech, King urged Cincinnati’s African-American community to work together with the white community to right social injustices.  He said the rally cry for the summer of 1967 shouldn’t be “Burn, baby, Burn,” but “learn, baby, learn.”  King had also visited the same congregation earlier in 1964.   Surely Dr. king had eaten at some great local restaurant in the neighborhood or had even driven by that same dairy bar seeing locals enjoying ice cream in the humid Cincinnati summer.   The next night, Avondale and surrounding areas were on fire, with an end result of $3 million in damage.

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Although I wasn’t around in the Civil Rights era, I experienced the post 2001 riot era in Over-the-Rhine and its rebuilding.       One place I was very familiar with was Taste of Nikki’s Pastry Shop on Race Street.   Tanika ‘Nikki’ Carter opened Taste of Nikki Pastry Shop at 1810 Race Street in Over-the-Rhine in 2011 with help from Cincinnati State’s Smart Money Program, after winning a Bright Future Entrepreneur Award the same year.   She quickly made a name for herself in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, creating a special relationship with the community.   She worked with neighborhood kids, teaching them how to run a cash register and count money.   And she became a safe meeting place for residents, as well as a role model.

During the summer of 2012 I was helping a friend clean out a building he bought on Elder Street around the corner from her pastry shop.   I went in one day to get some donuts and coffee for us, and struck up a conversation with Nikki.  I was inspired by her youthful entrepreneurialism and touched by her authentic friendliness.   She shared with me the challenges of running her business.   She also told me she was scouting a cheap slushie machine to add to her business.     That was a smart choice – slushies are some of the most profitable pieces of equipment in the convenience store market.   Every time I was near Findlay Market, I would make a special trip to visit Nikki and buy one of her apple bear claws, which I thought were the best in the city.     I was inspired that an African-American woman was living her dream and becoming an anchor for her community.   Only a year later, I was heartbroken when I saw on the news that she had shot and killed by her estranged boyfriend.

Although this story had a sad ending, it doesn’t take away from success of supporting deserving entrepreneurs who want to build their neighborhoods up.   Nor does Nikki’s story take away from the powerful affect food has in bringing people together.   I was so inspired by Nikki’s story, that I wanted to keep going back to support her, even give her business advice, and just enjoy the human connection.   And, her apple bear claws were awesome – but not certainly not the only reason to come back.    Food can move mountains and fuel political movements.   Never take for granted the affect sharing or cooking a meal for someone can have!

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