Tag Archives: black patrons

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 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 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

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Filed under alternative restaurants, proprietors & careers, racism

African-American tea rooms

When I wrote my book about the history of tea rooms, Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn, I knew very little about tea rooms run by and for African-Americans. There were few historical sources available on the internet then and even a research trip to Chicago turned up nothing. Since then I’ve discovered that there were many of these tea rooms and that they shared numerous characteristics with tea rooms run by and for whites, yet were also different in significant ways.

It’s easy to see why black women, and men, wanted to create their own tea rooms. For one thing, even in states where Jim Crow policies were not enacted into law it was common for white-run tea rooms and restaurants to engage in racial discrimination. Secondly, starting a business represented the fulfillment of the idea of self-help for blacks as advanced by leaders. Perhaps that was what inspired Mittie Burgess, a Georgia-born caterer in her late 30s, to name her newly opened 1916 place in Lexington KY the Booker T. Washington Tea Room. Although Mittie’s tea room was in the South, quite a few of the proprietors I’ve been able to trace were part of the 20th-century’s Great Migration of Southern blacks to Northern cities.

Like white tea room proprietors, blacks who took up this business tended overall to be of higher social status than the average restaurant owner, white or black. Proprietors I’ve come across included a woman who was a former pharmacist and a man who had been a college professor. Some of the more elite women who operated tea rooms were married to life insurance executives, ministers, doctors, and successful business men. Others were wives of porters, cabbies, and chauffeurs but still seemed to have achieved standing in their communities.

Mayme Clinkscale (above postcard) was prominent as a Chicago business woman, civic leader, and figure in black society. She was a graduate of Wilberforce University and the Bryant-Stratton Business College, and not only ran the Ideal Tea Room but also a successful State Street millinery business called the Style Shop. Her advertisement for the Ideal Tea Room opening in 1922 said it was designed for club, society, and lodge banquets, and furnished with “the latest and best in silverware, linen, and glassware.”

A number of tea rooms were clearly meant for the black upper crust. Common phrases in advertisements and news stories include “exclusive,” “the elite of the city are found [here],” or “where the wealthier class of colored people dine.” Mentions of table appointments and decor often include silver bud vases, exotic themes, and carefully coordinated color schemes. Menus offered fried chicken and corn sticks as well as steaks and salads, but were less likely to list rural Southern favorites such as pigs’ feet or greens.

Tea rooms in African-American communities in the teens, 20s, and 30s, frequently hosted important social events. Community leaders hailed them as badly needed establishments. Groups such as the NAACP Women’s Auxiliary, black sports writers, and the Negro Business League held luncheons and dinners at tea rooms. Red Caps from Grand Central and Penn Station hosted their peers at the Gilt Edge Tea Room during a national convention in NYC. Newspaper people from the black newspaper The Amsterdam News celebrated a colleague’s college graduation at Harlem’s Jack and Jill Tea Room in 1928. They certainly received a warmer welcome than had Charlotte Bass, black publisher of the California Eagle, when she and several of her guests were refused service at the white-run Old Adobe in Ventura CA.

Since they were small and did not make money from alcoholic beverages (not legally anyway, during Prohibition) all tea rooms were hard to operate profitably. Yet I sense that owners of Afro-American tea rooms had to work even harder than whites to succeed. They seem to have been open much longer hours, covering meals that ran from breakfast until late into the night. They were also more likely than white tea rooms to offer entertainment such as music and dancing. Many took in table boarders, regular patrons who contracted to eat their meals there for a week or month at a time.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Filed under proprietors & careers, racism, tea shops