Black Joy

A Juneteenth Civil Rights food round up

Nothing beats sitting down with a table full of people you love and sharing a meal. It happens at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and birthdays but nothing compares to doing it during Juneteenth.

Sharing a Juneteenth meal is a tradition for many Black family dinners. Black community staple dishes like collard greens and black-eyed peas have a legacy of commemorating the holiday.

Juneteenth food stretches farther than savory dishes; they also include sweets like strawberry soda and red velvet cake.

More often than not, we consider these meals soul food, dishes that have played a significant role in bringing Black folks together throughout history.

For example, during the Civil Rights Movement leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, Fred Shuttlesworth and John Lewis found community and support around the tables of Black-owned restaurants that served these very dishes.

As a way to celebrate these foods and the Black-owned restaurants that have made them popular in Black communities, Reckon has taken this Juneteenth to create a Civil Rights restaurant food guide.

Enjoy and eat your hearts out.

Paschal’s Restaurant | Atlanta, GA

Paschal’s Restaurant in Atlanta is famous for two things: their fried chicken and the hotel that lodged key civil rights leaders that organized the1963 March on Washington.

Leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Julian Bond, and U.S. Congressman John Lewis found soul food favorites and safe housing at the Paschal Motor Hotel as they traveled through the South.

The Paschal Motor Hotel was the first Black-owned hotel in Atlanta; it not only provided lodging but also employment for the community and students attending historically Black institutions (HBCU) in the area.

Brothers James and Robert Paschal started their restaurant in 1947 by serving sandwiches and sodas, and soon expanded into warm meals after gaining popularity. After the expansion, they then decided that fried chicken would be one of the main dishes on their menu – created from Robert’s ‘secret recipe’.

In 1960, the brothers opened a jazz club, La Carrousel Lounge, to provide entertainment for their loyal customers. La Carrousel Lounge was known as “Atlanta’s jazz mecca” with some of the greatest performers stepping on the stage like Aretha Franklin and Dizzy Gillespie.

Today the restaurant continues to serve its famous fried chicken, as well as other customer favorites like catfish, mac and cheese, and their award-winning peach cobbler.

The Four Way Grill | Memphis, TN

Black-owned businesses have a legacy of meeting their communities where they are with a ‘one-stop-shop’ approach, and many times these businesses connected restaurants, pool halls, and barber shops – The Four Way Grill in Memphis, TN, was one of these businesses.

Husband and wife Irene and Clint Cleaves began their family-owned restaurant in 1946 behind the counter of a pool hall. Their service and food allowed them to grow into a full dining room where customers would have to ring a doorbell in the back in order to be admitted into the restaurant.

Before opening the restaurant, Clint worked as a chauffeur for former Memphis mayor E.H. Crump, not only did the mayor love Clint’s food, but he also told all of his friends and colleagues just how good the food was. Clint and Mayor Crump’s relationship helped make The Four Way Grill one of the only places in Memphis at the time where Black and white folks dinned together.

The Four Way Grill also brought leaders and musicians from all walks of life to its tables, from Martin Luther King Jr. and Al Sharpton to Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin.

Some of the most Southern, but yet classic dishes came from their kitchen like fried green tomatoes, cabbage, catfish, pinto beans, and neck bones.

The restaurant thrived for many years until Irene and Clint both passed away. In hopes to preserve its legacy Willie Bates, who grew up in the Memphis community, bought the restaurant. Now Willie’s daughter, Patrice Bates Thompson, owns the business and continues serving some of The Four Way Grill’s most memorable dishes.

Dooky Chase’s Restaurant | New Orleans, LA

Decades before future President Barack Obama would sit in its beautiful New Orleans dining room back in 2008, Dooky Chase’s Restaurant helped fuel the Civil Rights movement.

Established in 1941 by Leah Chase and her husband, Edgar “Dooky,” the restaurant’s unassuming red brick exterior hides the vibrancy and flavor of what awaits inside. The bright red walls are adorned with colorful African American art, while pure white tablecloths offer a striking bullseye for the traditional creole food and rich sauces concocted over generations.

It served as a meeting and dining spot for the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights era, and today is still surrounded by reminders of the South’s Black changemakers. Dooky’s is a stone’s throw from Willie Mae’s Scotch House, which opened as a soul food restaurant in 1957, and a short walk to Louis Armstrong Park – both a reminder to the city and its visitors that Black excellence was just as important to the movement as those who walked, talked and fought for their rights.

Martin Luther King used the restaurant’s upstairs meeting room as he relentlessly pursued his dream of equality.

Today, Dooky’s represents a handful of remaining restaurants that have survived and thrived since the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed and the many economic ups and downs that closed other dining spots.

Leah Chase passed away in June 2019, about two and half years after her husband.

Green Acres Café | Birmingham, AL

One of the largest commercial sectors for Black-owned businesses is in the Fourth Avenue Historic District in Birmingham, AL, where most people are headed to Green Acres Café to eat.

Green Acres Café didn’t always have roots in Birmingham as most people think. The restaurant actually started in Chicago, IL, when William Gratton opened his first café in 1946. After launching six more Green Acres Café in different locations, he brought the business to Birmingham in 1950.

The restaurant quickly expanded in Birmingham when William’s brother Charles Gratton opened a second location across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Businesses like Green Acres Café and many others played a significant role in non-violent protest during the Civil Rights Movement and after a bomb was planted at the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four young girls and injuring many others.

Today the Green Acres Café not only serves as a place to find a plate of food but also a place of history and a reminder of injustices as the new location sits in downtown Birmingham at 1705 Fourth Ave. N.

Now Charles’s son, Greg Gratton, owns the family restaurant and continues to serve some of Green Acres Café's staple dishes like fried chicken wings, pork chop sandwiches and fried green tomatoes.

Big Apple Inn | Jackson, MS

Despite its name, you’ll know you’re a long ways away from Times Square when you step into this iconic haunt in Mississippi’s capital city.

Your first clue: The streets are unlikely to be bustling. Once considered the Black Harlem (or Wall Street) of Mississippi, Farish Street, where the Big Apple Inn has operated since the 1930s, was once a beacon for African American culture in the region.

Your second clue as to how you’ll know you’re nowhere near the Big Apple is the restaurant’s no-frills menu that contains two basic items: hot tamales and sliders. The latter offers some variety -- including hamburgers, bologna and hot dog -- but what keeps folks coming back are the legendary “smokes and ears.” That is: smoked sausage or pig ear sliders, chopped and seasoned to tender perfection.

The Big Apple Inn, which has been owned and operated by the same family for four generations, is the only restaurant that’s survived from the heyday of Farish Street, which was once lined with doctor’s offices, law firms, accountants and haberdasheries serving Mississippi’s Black community.

Medgar Evers ran the Mississippi NAACP’s field office out of an office above the Big Apple that was so small that sometimes Evers had to hold meetings downstairs in the restaurant. Geno Lee, the current owner and grandson of the restaurant’s founder, has said Freedom Riders, including his own mother, often gathered at the restaurant.

Peaches Cafe, another soul food restaurant a few doors down from the Big Apple Inn, also on Farish Street, was also a hotbed for civil rights organizing in Mississippi. Peaches closed in 2013.

Alexis Wray

Alexis Wray | awray@reckonmedia.com

I report on HBCUs and Blackness, working to introduce voices and perspectives of students, alumni and community members that amplify the experiences of Black life on and off campus.

Christopher Harress

Christopher Harress | charress@reckonmedia.com

Climate change reporter on the east and Gulf coasts.

R.L. Nave | rnave@reckonmedia.com

Ryan "R.L." Nave is Reckon's editor-in-chief. He has been a journalist in St. Louis, Mo; Springfield, Ill.; Seattle, Wa; Boulder, Co.; Jackson, Miss. and now calls Birmingham home.

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