When eating while traveling, don’t just choose the trendy restaurants in town. Visit a restaurant with some serious history, such as those that served up social change by feeding the freedom fighters of the modern civil rights movement. These restaurants were havens for activists and their supporters, giving them safety and sustenance as they fought segregation laws, resulting in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Here’s a short list of restaurants that not only serve mouth-watering soul food, Creole cuisine and BBQ but also serve up a platter of history.
Paschal’s Restaurant | Atlanta, GA
The Paschal brothers, James and Robert, started selling their famous fried chicken at their restaurant and motor hotel on Hunter Street (now MLK Boulevard) in 1947. It was one of the only places in town that had lodging for African-Americans and was a top stop for civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Julian Bond, and current U.S. Congressman John Lewis to have their strategy meetings. Some of the planning for the 1963 March on Washington took place here.
Located within walking distance of the Atlanta University Center where Morehouse, Spelman, Clark Atlanta University and Morris Brown sit, the restaurant was also a popular hangout for student activists. During the Atlanta Student Movement of sit-ins, the Paschal brothers helped get the students out of jail and brought them back to the restaurant to feed them and their parents. In 2002, the restaurant moved to its new location in the Castleberry Hill district of the city, where the walls are lined with black and white photos of Dr. King and other activists, along with a banquet room honoring the first Black mayor of Atlanta, Maynard Jackson.
The restaurant’s expansion includes three locations at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Though the Paschal brothers have passed on, I had the pleasure of meeting Eby Marshall Slack, who is the last living member of the original staff and acts as historian for the restaurant. “We continue to have VIPs visit like President Bill Clinton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, actor/comedian Chris Rock, and Ambassador Andrew Young, who usually comes for our Sunday brunch. People still love our fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese and peach cobbler,” boasts Slack.
Ben’s Chili Bowl | Washington, D.C.
Ben and Virginia Ali opened the doors to Ben’s Chili Bowl in the historic U Street corridor of Washington, D.C. in 1958. The family business, which was known as a haven during the Civil Rights Movement, fed protestors in town for the March on Washington in 1963. “And when Dr. King was killed in 1968, there was a curfew on the city. However, Stokely Carmichael asked us to stay open for activists and first responders during the riots, and we did,” says Vida Ali, daughter-in-law and marketing director.
The Ali family served up Ben’s famous homemade chili, chili half-smokes and chili cheeseburgers made with 100 percent Angus beef. While I was a student at Howard University, Ben’s was one of the most popular hangouts for a good, inexpensive meal. Over the years, the restaurant has remained a community hot spot for social activists, politicians and celebrities, even as gentrification pushes out other African-American cultural spots. And it’s a must-stop for presidents and presidential candidates. “It’s a meeting place. President Barack Obama has come here, and on any given day you’ll see people having meetings here, from local community activists to members of Congress,” adds Ali.
When Ben passed away in 2009, the restaurant added the Big Ben Burger to the menu in his honor. His wife, Virginia is alive at age 85 and plans to celebrate the restaurant’s 61 years this year on August 22. The restaurant has expanded to include five other locations, including Reagan National Airport and has expanded the menu to include vegetarian options.
To keep up with the anniversary celebration and other events, follow Ben’s on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Visit the original restaurant in person at 1213 U Street, N.W. or on the website at https://www.benschilibowl.com/.
The Four-Way Restaurant | Memphis, TN
The Four Way originally opened as a pool hall counter in the Soulsville neighborhood, in 1946 by Irene and Clint Cleaves. Clint was a chauffeur for former Memphis mayor, E.J. Crump, who encouraged his white friends and colleagues to patronize the establishment. It was known as the only place in town where Blacks and Whites could dine together.
By the 1950s Irene, who ran the restaurant herself, added a 45-seat private dining room to the front counter. There she served up hearty soul food and “to die for” desserts to freedom fighters such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who loved the fried catfish and lemon icebox pie, Rosa Parks, and Jesse Jackson. She also served entertainers from nearby Stax Records, such as The Staples Singers and Rev. Al Green. Popular menu items included turkey and dressing, fried chicken, fried catfish and fried green tomatoes.
Unfortunately, Irene’s poor health and unpaid taxes caused the doors to close in 1996. But in 2001, Willie Bates, who grew up on the food, bought the property and re-opened it with his wife, Jo Ellen. They continued the Cleaves tradition of supporting the community by fighting crime, blight and other social ills. When Willie passed on, daughter Patrice Thompson took over and has been running it ever since. Even after the recent death of her mother, Jo Ellen, Thompson continues to keep the landmark open and still serves some of the civil rights icons today. “Rev. Jesse Jackson is a dear friend of ours at The Four Way. Whenever he’s in Memphis, it’s our distinct pleasure to serve him delicious greens and cornbread with our famous desserts,” says Thompson. She adds, “The Four Way is an important staple in the Soulsville community…There’s no question in my mind that we must continue cooking with love and feeding people from near and far, to continue the rich tradition that The Cleaves family started and my parents left [to me].”
Dooky Chase | New Orleans, LA
This year on June 1, chef Leah Chase died at age 96 doing what she loved. The “Queen of Creole Cuisine” started the restaurant with her husband, renowned jazz musician Edgar “Dooky” Chase, Jr., in 1941 in the Treme district of New Orleans. The upscale, white-tablecloth restaurant, became one of the first African-American fine-dining restaurants in the country, as well as the first art gallery for African-American artists. It also became a cornerstone of the community, where people of all races were brought together over a hearty bowl of seafood gumbo, along with entrees such as fried chicken, chicken Creole, po’ boys and stuffed shrimp.
Chase fed civil rights leaders and activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Justice Thurgood Marshall and the Freedom Riders as well as President Barack Obama. She didn’t waiver, even after a bomb exploded right outside the restaurant entrance, tearing through the front door on May 19, 1965. She never knew a stranger and greeted everyone from politicians to religious leaders, locals and tourists with her 100-watt smile.
I had the honor of interviewing this regal woman years ago at her restaurant, where I soaked up her warmth and wisdom. On feeding civil rights activists, Chase said, “They were fighting for something and didn’t know what to expect when they went out there. But they knew what they could expect here [at Dooky Chase] and that was my contribution.” She added, “Food builds bridges. We can talk and relate to each other when we eat together.”
The community and fans of Chase came together to help her rebuild the restaurant after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Today, her family will carry on her legacy of “work, pray and do for others” by keeping the restaurant open. In a recent press conference posted on YouTube, the family announced that Chase’s son, Edgar “Dooky” Chase III will take over managing the restaurant. There are also plans to extend the menu and the hours and to renovate and re-open the upstairs dining room where civil rights activists met. They’ll honor those activists with historical photos along the walls. Long live the queen.