Looking for the Welcome Table

I’m gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days ……

When I am traveling in the South, part of my brain is always in observer mode. I try to stay in the present, but I can´t keep part of my mind from scanning to see how things have changed since the 60´s and from thinking about whether the changes are for the better.

I´m recently back from a trip with my sister Beth through the Deep South –Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia.  One change that struck me on this

Sunday dinner at the Dinner Bell, McComb, February 2012

trip as we ate and spent the night in a succession of cities and small towns was the complete integration of public accommodations.  It wasn’t just that black people were allowed in.  What struck me was that every hotel and restaurant we visited, country diners and strip mall chains and fine dining restaurants, welcomed blacks and whites with equal casualness.

It sure didn’t used to be that way.

In 1964 every one of the white restaurants and lunch counters in Meridian was segregated.  Some white restaurants served take-out to blacks, usually requiring them to come to the back door. A couple of lunch counters let blacks sit in a separate section.  The only integrated restaurant I can remember is  the black-owned Calmese’s Grill,  across the street from the COFO office on 5th Street, which was a welcoming refuge for white civil rights workers along with its usual black clientele.

Along with all the other excitement, the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted  in the summer of 1964.  Among other things, it outlawed racial discrimination in most public accommodations.  After it became law, nothing changed in Meridian.  It might as well have been the law of another country. Governor Johnson publicly told businesses to ignore the law because it would be found unconstitutional.  At first,  it had so little impact that most Mississippians, black and white, probably didn’t know that segregation of restaurants and hotels had become illegal.

By November 1964 student attendance at the Freedom School was flagging.  The COFO staff decided we needed to do something more active and concrete with the teenagers.  We decided to start a campaign of “testing” restaurants in town to see whether they would comply with the Civil Rights Act when faced with black customers.

I still have the stenographer’s notebook with my notes from the campaign.  Each Meridian restaurant is listed with its address.  Our strategy was for two white COFO workers to go to the restaurant and order something to confirm that we could be served and that it wasn’t a private club.  We also scouted out each restaurant for signs that it was engaged in interstate commerce.  Here are examples of my notes:

  • Davis Grill. 606 22nd Ave. Advertises in Chamber of Commerce pamphlet for visitors, American Express, Menu and Matchcase – only address U.S. Highways 11, 80, 45 – City route. . . .
  • Weidmann’s, 210 22nd Ave. Adv. in Chamber of Commerce pamphlet for visitors, American Express credit cards, puts out a flyer for interstate travelers, AAA, written up in Holiday Magazine as one of “103 Great Restaurants in America”
  • Merchant’s Grill, 2101 5th St. In sight of federal courthouse and across from county courthouse and Lamar Hotel.
  • Triangle Restaurant, 617 23rd Ave. Right next to Trailways, Natl. Restaurant Assn.

In some cases, we went to talk to the restaurant owners in hopes that they would agree to desegregate voluntarily. Here are my notes of talking to Mr. Davis, of Davis Grill:

We’re asking restaurants …

I don’t have anything to say.  I just mind my business

This is your business.  It is the law. We are trying to find out what you are going to do

I’m just here to run a business

The next step was to start testing.  In a letter to my parents I wrote,

Every day after Freedom School we went and tested three or four places.  Some served us, some didn’t. We had some interesting encounters…..

8th Street and 50th Avenue today

On Thanksgiving Day the kids were off from school and so we started testing in the morning.  I was driving.  There were six high school students and one other COFO worker – Judy Wright – in the car.  Our first stop was the A and W Root Beer Stand on 8th Street at 50th Avenue.  Five of the students walked to the window and asked for service. They were flatly refused.  As we left one of the waitresses came and wrote down our license number. . . .

“We drove a few blocks down the street to Tutor and Sims Drugstore at the corner of 8th Street and 44th Avenue. This was a brand new drugstore which had been open just two or three days. . . . The manager, Mr. Tutor, … simply roared, ‘Get out of here’ every time the spokesman of the group opened his mouth to try to say something like ‘Did he know about the Civil Rights Act?’ He followed the students outside and stood with his arms folded as though guarding the door.  But also as though he were waiting for something.  We soon saw what he was waiting for.  A police car, which he must have called, drove up and the officer went over to talk to Mr. Tutor just as we were leaving.

“Out on the main road I had scarcely the time to shift out of first when I heard ‘beep, beep’ behind me. I pulled over to the side of the road.  The cop came up and asked ‘Is you the ones that was just down at the A & W stand?’ (sic — that’s how quoted him then)

“I answered ‘Yes, they wouldn’t serve us there and we were still hungry, so we stopped here.’ ‘Well, why don’t you take ’em downtown (where the Negro restaurants are) where they belong?’ ‘Because we were hungry here, sir, and the law of the United States says that Negores or anyone else have a right to eat in a lunch counter or restaurant.’

“He asked to see my license. I gave it to him and he mumbled something about ‘You COFO people have a good time all living there together on 5th Street, don’t you?’ We do not tell anyone the addresses of the families we stay with but only list our mailing address, the COFO office (2505 1/2 Fifth Street). And they choose to interpret that as meaning we all live together – although they know it is not true. . . . He gave me back my license with a final ‘You take ’em downtown where they belong. They’ll be glad to serve ’em there. Don’t be bringin’ ’em out here where they’re not wanted.’

We set off for an ice cream stand on the other side of town. And the policeman set off right behind us. . . . Just as I was turning into the Whirly-Dip ice cream stand at 6th Street and 18th Avenue, I heard again behind me ‘Beep, Beep.’ The policeman shouted,  ‘Drive straight down to the police station.’ ‘What for?’ I asked. ‘You made an improper turn,’ he answered.

Used to be the Whirly-Dip ice cream stand

In my letter to my parents, I went on to say that I was charged $29.00 for bail, but was lucky enough to have $30.00 in my wallet ‘which I had been saving to buy some Freedom School supplies and to pay for milk shakes and hamburgers of kids who didn’t have the money to go testing.’ and so I was released after processing and got right back in the car, where the kids were waiting for me.  I concluded, ‘We drove straight back to the Whirly-Dip where the kids were served ice cream at the formerly all-white window. . . .’

My trial was set for Saturday, two days later. To make a long story short, I was convicted of the traffic violation and wound up spending four days in jail.  My sentence and how I got out of  jail will be the subject of an upcoming Post.

Freddie Watkins, George Smith, Sam Brown in Sadka's Sandwich Shop waiting for service. 1964 or 1965

Other COFO workers had much scarier experiences as the testing went on in subsequent months.  George Smith sent me this photo from a popular lunch restaurant on 6th Street,  Sadka’s Sandwich Shop. Here is George’s recollection of what was happening when this picture was taken:

We are in Sadka’s Sandwichshop on 6th Street. We were testing the Civil Rights Act.  We went at noon.  White COFO/CORE staff went first to see if they could get served.  They were served.  Then we went in and sat down and all the white people left.  The man at the counter said “We don’t serve niggers here.” We said, “Do you serve dinner?  We come for dinner.”  A mob gathered out front.  In this picture we are sitting at the counter looking out the window at the mob outside. After this was taken, people kicked us and spat on us.  We filed a complaint with the Justice Dept.  I have the letter I got from the Justice Department three years later,  in 1967, saying they had received our complaint and now Sadka’s agrees to serve black people.

COFO staff and volunteers filed dozens of complaints with the Justice Department. Gradually, grudgingly the restaurants in Meridian opened their doors.

But the story has an ending we could not have scripted in 1964.  Last month, my sister and I took my old stenographer’s notebook and went around town to check out the restaurants on my “Need to Test” list.

They were not there!

In many cases, the building wasn’t there and there was a vacant lot. In others, the building was still there but vacant. In one or two instances, the building was occupied by another business, for example, a music/head shop.  Of the 25 restaurants on my list, the only one still serving as a restaurant today is Weidmann’s.

What happened?  As  I described in my first post Arriving Again, the Interstate came, and businesses moved out to the access roads.  The downtown lunch business dried up, and one by one the restaurants closed. Weidmann’s survived on its reputation as a dress-up, evening-out restaurant.

 Meanwhile, out on the access roads, the chain fast food restaurants are booming. There aren’t fewer restaurants in Meridian;  they are just in a different place and under a different type of ownership. I don’t believe most young people realize that there used to be a couple of dozen restaurants in downtown Meridian, all of them locally owned.
People choose to drive out to the access roads to eat even when they work or  find themselves in town. Roscoe Jones, the director of Freedom ’64, was one of the students that tested restaurants with me in 1964. He supports the development of a civil rights office and community center downtown at the site of the old COFO office, but he tells everyone that his “office” is in the McDonald’s out on the strip, and that’s the best place to find him nearly every day.

Cornbread, catfish, greens, black-eyed peas and ice tea at Binke's

I am happy to report that there is one restaurant in town where the food is fresh-cooked and affordable, and it’s almost always full at the lunch hour.  Binke’s, a black-owned and operated restaurant, serves a lunch crowd of black and white, young and old, businessmen and laborers.  They come for the catfsh and the oxtail soup and vegetables and the quick friendly service.  It’s so good and so popular, it’s hard to figure why there aren’t more restaurants like it in town.

I am left with a paradox. The food served by  white-owned Dinner Bell in McComb (pictured at the top of the post) and black-owned Binke’s is the same traditional Southern cooking. Pretty much everyone loves it, young and old, black and white (and even northerners!) You can get a lot more vegetables on your plate at Binke’s or the Dinner Bell than you can get at McDonald’s, and traditional Southern cooking is based on ingredients that are grown and produced (or used to be) locally.

So why did whites, who risked everything to preserve what they called “our way of life,” abandon the very restaurants and home cooking that embodied that Southern way of life for the Yankee-owned fast food restaurants? And why did blacks, who also risked everything to be able to eat at those traditional restaurants, end up driving out to the malls to eat? I’m hoping that some of the readers of this Blog will tell me why.

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Comments

  • Bill Scaggs  On March 23, 2012 at 11:05 pm

    Gail…

    Next trip we’ll go to “Jean’s.” Front Street between 22nd and 21st. Big breakfast and lunch crowds. Locally owned. Good southern cooking. Diverse patronage. Usually boiled okra is available and the squash casserole rivals Binkie’s. In north Meridian “New’s” is a long time local meat & three. Local. Diverse patronage. Was here in 64. “Village Kitchen” on highway 19N across from the KC Hall is another good locally owned lunch buffet. Diverse patronage. They also cater. Very good chicken spaghetti and at least one of our colleagues contends “the best fried chicken in town.”

    For the most part, the corporate kitchens came along some years after the “old downtown” operations closed. Most of the local meat and threes do not serve an evening meal and I’m sure this impacts the chains favorably.

    Weidmann’s has changed ownership several times across the last few years. The current ownership has brought back a bit more “local flavor” and appears to be thriving. One of our foodies contends their fried catfish on Fridays is the best in town. Their fried green tomatoes with comeback dressing win.

    Its good to be reminded how far we’ve come. Even ‘progress’ casts shadows. Its also good to challenge all of us about how far we’ve yet to go.

    Bill Scaggs

    • freedomsongs11  On March 24, 2012 at 7:15 pm

      Thank you, Bill, for adding some nuance to my overly black-and-white (no pun intended) picture. Look forward to eating at Jean’s! Beth and I walked past, but it was mid-afternoon and closed for the day.

  • farmerjim  On March 25, 2012 at 12:49 am

    Nice set of descriptions of 1964, Meridian, COFO, and etc. I like your writing and your heart and your courage.

    Bill’s letter seems to answer most of your final paragraph questions …. why did the old restaurants die off??? Looking outward from the old downtown, I think that with the downtown restaurant die-off, everybody was hit with the triple whammy of: 1) fast food restaurants serving refined carbs, fats and sugars (which are mostly high fructose corn syrup sometimes laced with caffeine)and that’s a somewhat addictive combination; 2) a barrage of print, audio and video advertisements extolling the virtues and greatness of these foods and places and brands (and boy, were we ever susceptible, all over the country), and (3) the malls and neon strip are exciting, a place for meet-ups, the promise of a fast-paced, fluid community …. kinda like Facebook which is all of that today. Tho i can’t prove this is the most valid perspective, I will say: this is what i think happened. I’d also be happy to see other opinions.

    What i actually wanted to comment on is your description of Binke’s. It sounds like the kind of restaurant i would like to visit if i’m ever in Meridian. Tell us: is Binke’s a noisy restaurant, people interacting, talking loudly … a boisterous down homey atmosphere that caters to babies, babes and grandma’s and the appropriate categories for males. If so, then the Yiddish have a word for it: “haimish”. Most towns have one or two restaurants in them like that, and they’re usually crowded while the quiet, dignified restaurants have a only scattering of customers. I know two such restaurants up here in Central Virginia. They’re fun and noisy, the food is good, and the food is also cheap

    Gordon Gibson turned me on to your blog, with Looking for the Welcome Table on top. In case you didn’t know, he and others of the Unitarian-Universalists of Asheville, NC, are hosting a weekend conference called Civil Rights Veterans Gathering. And your blog post speaks to me. Thank you. Not tonight but soon, i’m looking forward to exploring your writings. My bonifides are:In addition to going to the gathering, i did civil rights work in Southern Illinois (Cairo and Carbondale), and Charleston, in the bootheel of Missouri; and I was with SNCC in Mississippi for the Long Hot Summer and the fall of 64.

    Again. thank you for doing this.

    And, as i’ve signed my letters for the last 30 years:
    love and peace,

    jim

    • freedomsongs11  On March 25, 2012 at 10:49 pm

      I don’t think I would call Binke’s boisterous, but there have been plenty of conversations going when I have been there.

      The meeting Gordon Gibson is coordinating sounds like a chance for some good talking, singing, and reflecting. I will be with you in spirit.

      • farmerjim  On March 26, 2012 at 12:45 am

        thanks, gail

        love and peace, jim

  • Larry  On April 6, 2012 at 2:07 am

    Gail … I don’t know that I would agree that “everybody’s” gone to the malls to eat at the chains. You’re right, though, that those outside places have lots more traffic, and that’s because Mississippians have lots more $$$ now to spend dining out than they did back in the 60’s.

    Once you get away from the malls and frontage roads, you will find that there are still lots of home-owned, local places across Mississippi, and people love them still. Next time you’re in Meridian, I’d like to take you to Long’s Fish Camp or Bridge Street Grill in Enterprise, or Peggy’s in Philadelphia, or Jean’s (as Bill mentioned) in Meridian. There’s Mason’s in West Point. Oxford is jam-packed with local places offering local meat, catfish and produce; I’d like to buy you a plate of catfish at Taylor Grocery in Taylor (where the sign reads “Eat or We Both Starve”). The Delta has some great local places, even with some fine dining. The Mayflower, Crechale’s and the Elite in Jackson are legendary. There are myriad bbq places, a lot of them selling out of service stations and country stores, all of them outrageously good (I would love for you to have a pulled pork sandwich with you on the porch of Betty Davis Barbecue on the porch of her place just above the Tallahatchie River in Marshall County).

    You’re right that the many downtown Mississippi places have been replaced. In Meridian, instead of the Davis Grill, we have the new Weidmann’s. Instead of the Orange Bowl, we have . Fifth Street Deli, Jen’s, and Cater’s. Evolution. And as people get more money to spend those choices expand exponentially.

    Not to say that the dining and cuisine in Meridian is so very cosmopolitain. Not by any means. But there’s still plenty of Mississippiana around to experience … if you get away from the frontage road.

  • Betty Alexander  On January 13, 2016 at 1:14 am

    we have a Remember when in Meridian and members are saying that the restaurant listed as Sadka’s on 6th street is not; and has been identified as being Tutor & sims drug store lunch counter> There was a letter mentioned in the article–does it still exist Could you please verify accuracy of this pictire and let me know by email Thanks Administrator for Facebook’s Remember when in Meridian MS betty.alexander07@comcast.net Thanks

    • freedomsongs11  On January 13, 2016 at 1:51 am

      Hi Betty, Thanks for your work to make sure Meridian history is accurate. When you ask about verifying the picture, I assume you mean the picture with a couple of African-American young men sitting at a lunch counter. The picture was given to me by George Smith; he is (was — he is now deceased) a very straightforward person, so if he says that is what the picture is about, I certainly believe him He was there. He grew up in Meridian, and moved to Indiana as an adult. I may have a copy of the Justice Department letter that George is referring to (is that the letter you are talking about), but I am in Pensacola until March, and will not have access to my files until then. I am pretty sure I saw the letter. but I will have to check. Let me know if I did not answer your question fully.

  • Betty Alexander  On January 13, 2016 at 1:19 am

    Whirl a dip ice cream is/was 6 st & 18 ave. the building you show is not whirl a dip–that bldg is at 6 st & 17 ave and is a beef house

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