Tuesday, January 29

Kitchen to Classroom: Understanding Restaurant Segregation

Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, 1943. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A weekly dispatch from our postdoctoral fellow, Jill Cooley.
The study of Southern foodways often involves learning hard truths about our history and culture. This week, in my food and civil rights class, we are studying racial segregation by reading municipal ordinances that required the segregation of Southern restaurants.

In December 1914, for example, Birmingham passed an ordinance prohibiting “a restaurant or lunch counter at which white and colored persons are served in the same room.” The city later revised this law to require a seven-foot wall separate white and black dining rooms. In reality, few cafe owners invested in such accommodations, so African Americans were often excluded from the modern consumer experience of dining out.

Photo of a segregated cafe in Durham, NC, in the tobacco warehouse district. Photo by Jack Delano, 1940, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Surprisingly, Southern cities generally segregated eating facilities with little public fanfare or arousal, at least initially—quite different from the experience of railroads and streetcars, the segregation of which caused much protest. This difference may stem from timing. Southern states segregated transportation as early as the 1890s while public eating places did not experience formal segregation until the 1910s and 1920s—well after legal racial discrimination had become a tragic way of life.

Also, many Southern cafes experienced some form of segregation in practice before the implementation of formal segregation laws. Announcing the proposed ordinance, the Birmingham Age Herald noted that in many city lunch rooms black customers sat on one side of the room and white customers on the other. Among other things, our class will consider why white municipal authorities in the South deemed such laws to be necessary.

For a more in depth discussion of the culture that sustained racial segregation, see Grace Elizabeth Hale, “‘For Colored’ and ‘For White’: Segregating Consumption in the South,” in Jumpin’ Jim Crow: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights, edited by Jane Dailey, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, and Bryant Simon (Princeton University Press, 2000) or Hale’s book Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940.