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Giving Black Chefs Credit Where It’s Due

by  CN Team on May 23, 2017
Giving Black Chefs Credit Where It’s Due

In the early 1970s, as black farmers tried to earn a living while holding on to their land, black restaurateurs leveraged the new soul food chic that ranged from Harlem, where diners at the Red Rooster washed down chitlins with Champagne, to Atlanta, where Rev. Willie James Stafford of the Free For All Missionary Baptist Church (who favored maroon jumpsuits and packed a revolver), opened Soul on Top of Peachtree atop a down- town skyscraper. “I’m giving the people pleasure and I’m creating jobs for them,” he said in 1972, explaining what it meant to claim a perch on top of Peachtree Street, “and I’m throwing the money right back in the Black community.”

Black restaurants served black customers as clubhouses. Leah Chase built the reputation of her husband’s family restaurant by serving her New Orleans neighbors and courting political and civil rights figures. Early in her career Chase managed boxers. Later, her dining room was a gathering place for black progressives and musicians. Ray Charles ate gumbo at Dooky Chase’s and cut a song to make clear his devotion. Lena Horne came for fried chicken. Sara Vaughan ate stuffed crabs. Breaking the color line, playwright Tennessee Williams taxied down Orleans Avenue to eat lemon icebox pie.

Constance Baker Motley, the attorney who represented James Meredith in his federal appeal to gain admission to the University of Mississippi, arrived before court to eat breakfast. When union organizer Jim Dombrowski, a founder of the Highlander Folk School, met with Godchaux Sugar Company employees, he claimed the upstairs at Dooky’s.

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