Numerous restaurants throughout the South played pivotal roles in the civil rights movement, not only feeding activists but serving as safe meeting places. Some owners donated to young freedom fighters; others housed them and bailed them out of jail. A handful of these restaurants remain standing more than 50 years later. In his book Southern Food & Civil Rights: Feeding the Revolution, professor and historian Frederick Douglass Opie chronicles three in particular— Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans, run by Leah Chase; Paschal’s in Atlanta, originally run by the Paschal brothers; and the family-run Big Apple Inn in Jackson, Miss. In an interview with MUNCHIES, Opie explained the significance of these restaurants and explored some of the overlooked history surrounding these civil rights institutions.
MUNCHIES: Leah Chase is often called “the Queen of Creole Cuisine.” Why is that, and what dishes is her restaurant famous for?
Opie: She’s called that because, first of all, she established the first fine dining for African-Americans in the city of New Orleans. Most of the other places until she opened hers were kind of mom-and-pop everyday places. This was the first white tablecloth place for African-Americans.
Second of all, she is noted for her gumbo. I think it’s probably more the seasoning than anything else, how it tastes. Before she opened the place and married her husband, she had worked in white-owned fine dining places, so she brought that experience in. As a Creole herself, she brought in the culture that she grew up in and the cooking that she knew from her relatives and brought that to her business. All that goes into making it a significant restaurant.
You write about black and white activists gathering at Dooky Chase’s, explaining that “Although public officials viewed these gatherings as a violation of Jim Crow laws, Dooky Chase’s proved too popular to close down without the possibility of causing serious resistance from its white patrons and the residents of Tremé.” That’s pretty incredible.
Keep in mind, popular not only with African-Americans, but with white police officers. And officials. They’re like, ‘Yeah, I may not like what she’s doing, but I like her food. We’re not going to mess with her.’ You know the old saying, ‘Don’t bite the hand that feeds you?’ That’s what we’re talking about. They knew of her place and police officers knew of her place so they weren’t going to mess with it, just because of that.
This is something I think is real important [to] understand; During Jim Crow it was illegal for African-Americans to go in white-owned and operated businesses. But whites regularly ventured into black-owned and operated restaurants, jazz clubs, etcetera. That is one of the parts of Jim Crow that people don’t necessarily talk about, but that’s the truth. To black folks, it’s off limits, but white folks can do whatever the heck they want… It’s super hypocritical, but it’s power. What is power? Power is options.
In Atlanta, the owners of Paschal’s restaurant went beyond just feeding activists—the Paschal brothers even bailed out protesters. What else did Paschal’s do?
It provided a meeting place for the movement, for the organizers of the movement. It provided a place for people to reconnect with family and friends after they were bailed out of jail. It was an information hub for what’s going on in the movement. It was a rest stop for the movement, for the local movement and the greater Civil Rights Movement. Keep in mind, it’s a restaurant but [the Paschal brothers] also owned a motel, so it’s got rooms. You could have your meetings there, you could stay overnight there.
One of the rooms was a room designated for Dr. [Martin Luther] King. Anytime he needed to get away, and he’d know he’d be out late working or organizing, he could stay there overnight. Or if he just needed a quiet place where he could be assured it wasn’t going to be bugged, he would stay.
How did Dr. King’s relationship to Paschal’s evolve?
[Paschal’s] is right in the middle of Atlanta University Center, which is Morehouse, Morris Brown, Clark University, Spelman [four historically black colleges and universities]. Dr. King knows this place really well because he was a student at Morehouse. Historically if you were a Morehouse man and you were going to take a date out, that’s one of the places you could take a date out and be assured of being served with dignity. Dr. King and any other students that became involved in the Civil Rights Movement were familiar with the restaurant. It was a local place for students there, but it also was a high-end place where African-Americans of some means and wealth would go with their families, and also students worked there.
Until reading your book, I didn’t know about the tradition of African-Americans selling tamales in the Mississippi Delta. Tell us about that, and the other popular food at the Big Apple Inn.
The food that’s most popular at the Big Apple Inn is this pig [ear] sandwich, traditionally an item of the pig that’s discarded but—going all the way back to slavery—that African Americans and other poor people took and made a delicacy. That’s where that particular sandwich comes from.
And then the second thing is the tamales. My understanding is that there was a steady migration of Mexicans and Central Americans to that region of the country for some kind of construction. As those workers came in… they intertwined and interacted with African-American workers. Of course, when workers get together and you’re sharing lunch, you begin to share culinary traditions. It became a part of the tradition.
The owner of the Big Apple Inn [Juan “Big John” Mora] was a Mexican immigrant married to an African-American woman. These kinds of marriages seem to be common in the Mississippi Delta, and the transfer of that culture, the tamale culture, just became ingrained in that part of the South. I don’t know other regions of the South where that exists.
Civil rights leader Medgar Evers is the reason the Big Apple Inn became an organizing hub. How did that happen?
He rented space on top of the restaurant. Remember, he is the field secretary for the NAACP in the entire state of Mississippi. He’s the honcho for them in the state of Mississippi, and the office is right on top of the restaurant. How he came to rent space [above the restaurant], I don’t know.
He was a decorated WWII veteran. When he came back after fighting for democracy overseas and just saw how ridiculous it was back home, he said, ‘I’ve gotta do something,’ and became involved with the NAACP.
He would go out, he’d investigate civil rights violations, he’d interview people who’d been brutalized by white supremacists. All kinds of different violations of federal and state laws, he’d be the one that would have to investigate it and report it. He’d be the one organizing people to do voter registrations and all those kinds of things. In New Orleans it’s a fight for jobs, in Atlanta it’s a fight for access to public space, and we know that in Mississippi it’s the fight for voter registration.
[ Editor’s note: Evers, who also helped desegregate the University of Mississippi, was assassinated in 1963.]
Why do you think there was a trend of restaurants becoming hubs for organizing?
In history, it’s always been pubs, and pubs historically always serve food. If you go back to the American Revolution, if you go back to significant movements in other parts of the world, they happen around food and beverage because people need to be able to sit and talk. [Restaurants] are places that you can have these discussions without fear of surveillance because, you know, people sitting in a restaurant, you don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s just become, historically, one of those places where things happen.
Pre-American Revolution, you kind of see this. There’s a book by Marcus Rediker [ The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic] and that’s when I first got this concept of movements happening in pubs. And then I started coming across these stories during the Civil Rights Movement, and I said, well you know, this makes perfect sense.
Learn more about the role of restaurants and food in the civil rights struggle in Frederick Douglass Opie’s book, Southern Food & Civil Rights: Feeding the Revolution, or by visiting his website.