Restaurant-ing with the Klan

To some degree, a discussion of the Ku Klux Klan’s relationship to restaurants in the early 1920s follows a familiar path that includes KKK members as restaurant owners and patrons. Not such a big deal.

But then there’s how the KKK influenced restaurants — a more disturbing topic, particularly when it gets into threatening restaurant owners, running them out of town, and destroying their businesses.

In the 1920s, the resurgent Klan had a number of targets, not only Blacks, but also Catholics, Jews, and immigrants. Greek restaurant operators were often singled out. In Goldsboro NC two Greek restaurant operators were chased out of town because they served Black customers, and a similar fate befell a restaurant keeper in Pensacola FL. In that case three carloads of men dressed in long robes and hoods came into the restaurant one night, handing the restaurant man a letter advising him to leave town right away, which he did. A police captain in the restaurant at the time made no effort to arrest them for wearing masks in public, excusing his inaction by saying he thought they were members of a “Greek-letter fraternity.” In St. Louis MO a Greek restaurant operator was threatened with violence if he and his friends — called “low-class immigrants” — did not leave the country.

In Jonesboro AR the Klan called a boycott of businesses owned by Catholics and Jews, which included mills, stores, and restaurants. Anticipating a similar action in Little Rock, many businesses suddenly posted signs advertising they were “100 per cent” or “strictly” American. After a patron left, an “all-American” restaurant owner might have found a card had been left behind similar to the one shown here.

The presence of the KKK in an area, as well as a generally heightened level of intolerance throughout the country, inspired imitators. It was apparently a non-Klan group in Chester PA, who entered a Greek-run restaurant and chased out the customers. Then they formed a circle in the middle of the restaurant, launching their attack upon a signal from the leader. They smashed furniture and crockery and threw a large coffee urn at a worker, resulting in damage running into the thousands of dollars.

The Klan was only one of a number of pre-WWII terrorist groups focused on defending the rights of native-born whites and asserting social and economic control through force. Also, there were irregular mobs that rose up spontaneously in response to perceived assaults on their values and interests. Race riots took place in numerous cities and towns in the early 20th century and especially after WWI. Restaurants were often smashed and burned.

For example, a restaurant owned by Harry Loper in Springfield IL did not survive a race riot in 1908 in which many homes occupied by Blacks were burned. Loper was white, native born, an Elk, and a major in the National Guard. His offense? He loaned his car, one of only two in town, to authorities to spirit two Black prisoners in the city’s jail to safety under threat of lynching. His car was set on fire, and white rioters broke out the restaurant’s windows and smashed the interior furnishings. (see photo at top)

In Muncie IN, a crusading newspaper editor took pains to document all local KKK activity and name the businessmen, police, and other ostensibly respectable citizens who were members. He printed the letter (see above) delivered one night by two black-robed Klansmen on horses warning a white woman not to serve Blacks. He also noted that a number of Klansmen ran restaurants, among them the Blue Bird Inn and another “100% place.” He gloated as they and others failed, concluding that “klucking as business does not pay.”

As for Black-owned restaurants, who knows how many of them went out of business or relocated following mob attacks. There is no comprehensive record, but there are examples. Atlanta had a large number of Black-operated lunchrooms in 1907, the year of its race riot. Charles W. Mosley,  a restaurant owner in Atlanta at the time of the riot, moved his business to Richmond VA a few months later, where he expanded into a hotel, café, and entertainment center with movies, roller skating, and vaudeville performances. During Tulsa’s white-led race riot of 1921, the entire Black Greenwood business district and most residences were destroyed by white rioters, including several dozen eating places.

After looking at the effect of the KKK and their ilk, it seems to me that even after they faded in the late 1920s, they left behind a legacy for decades evident in restaurants that adopted names such as the ever-popular Kozy Korner Kafe and the like.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017


Filed under alternative restaurants, proprietors & careers, racism

18 responses to “Restaurant-ing with the Klan

  1. Great read but I must comment about your common error. The KKK, as a national organization, pretty much faded from view by the mid to late 20’s. Many local groups continued to thrive well into the mid 1940’s when they were outlawed. The period from 1915 to the mid 1940’s is typically considered to be the second wave of the Klan. It’s history is very complex and the local groups varied widely in their beliefs and targets of hate. I’m researching the second wave Klan in Los Angeles and it’s amazing how out in the open they were. Every month there were several public dances held by the Klan. The proof is in the dance permits filed with the LAPD.

  2. Leonidas

    Yes Greek legal immigrants were singled out and discriminated against. Look up the riots of Omaha in the early 1900s and the term WASP. WASP stands for white Anglo Saxon Protestant.

    • While the abbreviation WASP is well known the activities of the KKK in the 1920s are less so, and that’s why I wrote this post. Irish Catholics were also targets in some places.

  3. I was particularly struck by the idea that establishments with names like Kozy Korner Kafe were not just being cutely alliterative, but were perhaps referencing the Klan and an affinity for it. Thanks!

    • It’s possible some are not consciously trying to convey sympathy or affiliation with the Klan, but even if they’re trying to be cute it’s obvious they are truly clueless about the negative effect of their name on a good portion of the public who is definitely going to think Ku Klux Klan and “I’m not welcome here.”

  4. In the early 2000’s my husband, son and I experienced a version of this when we stopped for breakfast at a chain restaurant in a southern state. At first I thought I was imagining things. We didn’t stick around – it was painfully uncomfortable and it eventually dawned on us that they weren’t going to serve us. Awful.

  5. Chilling, I agree. Discrimination against African-American diners is well documented (they were sent out back, or not served at all), but this is a new twist on an old and horrific story of terror. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

  6. Besimple

    I thought we were almost beyond this, but here we are again. This is so well written and that last picture is chilling.

  7. Michael Bellesiles

    A fascinating and significant posting. Thank you for your research on this topic. If you have the time, could you please indicate your sources? I would very much like to read more on this topic. Thank you.

    • Hi, and thanks for your comments. For most of my posts I look at a great many sources, mainly old newspapers from archives to which I subscribe. It’s a job of piecing bits together and trying to verify through city directories, censuses, etc. I can only give you a sampling, some used for an overview of the Klan and related groups and for “race riots.” Here is a sampling:

      Overview (not about restaurants per se):
      The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Volume 24: Race, “Ku Klux Klan, Second (1915–1944), 2013.”
      Women of the Klan, Kathleen M. Blee, Univ of Cal Press, 1991.
      “Tulsa Race Riot” – A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, 2001. (online)

      Black newspapers:
      Freeman (Indianapolis), April 20, 1907, “Moseley’s European Hotel and Café.”
      Cleveland Gazette, May 7, 1921, “The Ku Klux Klan” [Goldsboro NC].

      Muncie IN Klan activities:
      The Muncie Post-Democrat, July 6, 1923, “Klux in Black Robes Leave Note Threatening to Whip Mrs. Partlow and Colored Restaurant Patrons.”
      The Muncie Post-Democrat, March 21, 1924, “Tie the Klan to the Mystic Klan is the Slogan of Logan.”
      The Muncie Post-Democrat, June 27, 1924, “The Shock Troops.”

      Daily Illinois State Journal, Aug 15, 1908, “Mob Wrecks Loper’s Café During Riot.”
      Daily Arkansas Gazette (Little Rock) May 12, 1922, “Greeks Are Threatened” [St. Louis May 11].

      • Al Hoove

        Oh, dear Lord, no. Please let it not be THAT Michael Bellesiles you’re responding to. The “Arming of America” author whose book about scarcity of guns in early America was proven fraudulent. If he starts writing about the Klan and restaurants, I can just see the interest capshas on the dust jacket of “Poison Hearts, Poison Food: How the Darkness of American Character Tells in The Food We Eat Out”
        “Health Department records from now-nonexistent counties in America strongly suggest that American victualing and watering industries were- and continue to be- heavily controlled by racists who Swift-boated the myth-shattering book, “Arming of America”.

  8. Such an interesting read. I had never thought about the connection between the KKK and restaurants, and had certainly never realized the discrimination that Greeks endured. I’m interested in finding out more. My childhood hometown of Texarkana AR/TX had several Greek families from the very beginning of its incorporation. Some restaurant owners were still in business when I was a kid. I need to dig for information now.

  9. Seth Bramson

    We know them well. Today they are called Republicans. (Oh, sorry, NO POLITICS!) They are called Trumpenicks.

  10. Thank you for telling this story of shame and hate.

  11. Fascinating and sad all at once.

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