This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
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It was one of the most blatant displays of racism found in the Beehive State. The 12-foot winking black face invited diners to step through its exaggerated, broad smiling lips (and teeth emblazoned with a racial slur of a name) and dig into a plate of fried chicken, burgers or seafood. A live band played tunes of the day as patrons finished their meals and started dancing. A fleet of cars emblazoned with the minstrel-style logo delivered hot meals to Utahns, and eventually locations opened in Washington and Oregon.
Whatever happened to Coon Chicken Inn?
The restaurant first opened its doors at 2960 S. Highland Drive in 1925, when Maxon Lester Graham and his wife Adelaide Burt wanted to bring a fast-food restaurant to the Sugar House area.
The couple paid $50 and bought a small building that had an ice box, three stools and a small counter, according to a history penned by an unnamed grandson of Graham's for the Jim Crow Museum in Big Rapids, Mich. The goal of the museum is to showcase the racism of the past in order to prevent it from occurring in the future.
"I preface this essay by saying that I do not condone the 'Jim Crow' attitudes of the past. I and ALL of my siblings believe in full equality for all races, creeds, and skin colors. My grandparents were entrepreneurs engaging in what were normal business practices," he wrote in the history. "They left behind artifacts, popularly called 'Black Memorabilia,' that serve as reminders that this particular part of history must never, and will never, be repeated."
The restaurant took off quickly, and the couple enlarged it to include more tables, counter space and a dance floor. On the week before July 4, 1927, the building caught fire. Due to all the oil used to fry the chicken, it burned out of control. But in a clever marketing move, Graham promised customers he'd be back open in 10 days. Thanks to around-the-clock work by about 50 carpenters, he was able to deliver on his promise, and business continued to boom.
In 1929, the couple branched out and opened another eatery of the same name in Seattle on Lake City Way Northeast. The couple soon moved to Seattle. Then in 1930, they opened a location on Sandy Boulevard in Portland, Ore. According to the history at the Jim Crow Museum, a cabaret and orchestra were added to the Seattle and Salt Lake City eateries.
The huge, 12-foot black face was added to attract more children and families to the restaurant, the history states. The face appeared on paper products, plates, menus and silverware items in the place. They have become highly collectible, but there are many fake items that aren't worth much. At Ogden's The Estate Sale Antiques, menus and matchbooks have sold to collectors of Black Memorabilia.
The offensive caricature caused controversy at the Seattle location, where the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the African American newspaper The Northwest Enterprise protested the 1930 opening by filing a lawsuit for defamation of race, according to BlackPast.org. Graham agreed to remove the racial slur from delivery cars, painted the huge face blue instead of black and canceled an order of about 1,000 auto tire covers.
But according to the site, he eventually violated his agreement with the NAACP. The restaurants in Oregon and Washington closed in 1949, but Salt Lake City's remained open until 1957. The owners sold it to the operators of a smorgasbord called Nohlgren's. Eventually, it became a Chuck-A-Rama, and the location stayed open through the early 2000s.
The original inn is featured in the films "Ghost World" and "The Confederate States of America."
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