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Coon Chicken Inn served good food, ugly racism

Published June 18, 2006 12:39 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In 1925, Maxon and Adelaide Graham's Salt Lake City eatery - one of the nation's earliest food franchises - was famous for its fine foods, "popular prices" and home-style atmosphere.

By 1930, the couple added live music, catering and a most peculiar two-story contrivance depicting the winking and widely grinning caricature of a black man's face, a porter's cap atilt on a bald pate and an enormous set of thick, red lips.



To enter the restaurant on Highland Drive, one walked into the mouth of this face and past 24 larger-than-life teeth on which 14 spelled out "Coon Chicken Inn."

Though the eatery was named after raccoons and their proclivity in stealing chickens, the word "coon" was used to denigrate African-Americans as thieves or shady characters. But Salt Lake City's predominantly white diners failed to recognize the restaurant's advertising as offensive. Rather, they saw snappy colors, an engaging face, and a novel invitation to roadside dining.

In 1860, 13 years after the Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, about 60 African-Americans lived in the Utah Territory and most of them were slaves. By the time the all-black 24th Infantry was stationed at Fort Douglas from 1896-99, the black community had grown large enough to establish its own churches, newspapers and social and fraternal organizations.

These successes were achieved in the face of prevailing racially based discriminatory practices and attitudes. As historian Ron Coleman explains in Missing Stories, "Black Utahns were in a position similar to that of other African-Americans throughout the United States: They were residing in a nation in which the majority white population believed in white superiority and black inferiority."

Utah law prohibited interracial marriage; African-Americans were often denied access to public services; black shoppers couldn't try on clothes before buying them, black moviegoers were segregated to balconies and prejudice sorely limited job opportunities.

Preparing for a career in nursing, Doris Frye of Salt Lake City remembered being told in the 1930s that she could train to be a nurse, but that she would never work as one "in any hospital or nursing home in Utah." In 1939, Lucille Bankhead and neighbors went to the state Capitol to take issue with a Utah senator who wanted to relocate all blacks into one district. "We had no intentions of moving," she said, and with her baby on one side and neighbor Mrs. Leggroan in her starched white apron and dust cap on the other, they stood vigil until the proposal was defeated.

Neither woman ever set foot in Coon Chicken Inn.

Coon Chicken Inn served a ham and melted cheese sandwich, called the Dutch Treat, for 75 cents. The daily coon chicken special ran for $1.60. Double-thick malts were 35 cents, and beer came in quarts or pints. From plates and glasses to silverware and napkins, everything was branded with the "walk-through head" logo. Sometimes, the trademark looked more like a monkey than a man.

Before 1943, Coon Chicken Inn hired only white employees, and blacks and other people of color weren't welcome. By the end of World War II, blacks were employed as cooks and waiters, but those who worked the dining room were ordered to deny service to black customers.

The way I see it, survival builds calluses.

Black waiter Roy Hawkins, hired at 14, rose to headwaiter by the late 1940s.

"People have asked me how I accepted working at Coon Chicken Inn, [but] back in those days, coming from every part of the country, it wasn't nothing to see mockery," he said. "You know, like 'Little Daisy and Sambo' on the lawn with the water bucket. After a while, you build up an immunity."

In its heyday, Coon Chicken Inn was one of the most successful restaurants in town. People lined up for hours to get in; pay was good; tips even better.

"[We could] make $200 a night," Hawkins said, pocketing his pride and "laughing all the way to the bank."

In 1956, the 25-foot-tall head was dismantled, the racist memorabilia put away and the inn closed down. Hawkins moved on, leaving behind a restaurant with a reputation for good food and a nasty aftertaste of the racism of the day.

Oral historian Eileen Hallet Stone is co-author of Missing Stories

 

 

 

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