When Alexandria Searles first presented a sketch of the mural she intended to paint on the street-facing wall of Edmund’s Oast, it contained a message of love and unity, which everyone involved with the project agreed was a nice sentiment. It was fine.
But the accurate sense around the table was that Searles had more to say.
“Maybe we gave you the impression that you couldn’t be yourself,” she remembers representatives of the East Central restaurant and sponsoring nonprofit Just Be You telling her. “We feel you were trying to give us what was safe.”
Searles, a 26-year-old artist focused on uplifting Black women, knew they were right. She realized she had reflexively tamped down her Blackness to make the work more acceptable to a White audience. She had another design in mind.
“Until Black people are free, no one is,” reads the mural unveiled last month. The words stretch across an image of two stylized Black women set against a vivid prism, inscribed with the names of Black victims of state-sanctioned violence.
Aligning with the fight against anti-Blackness is not the default position for White-owned Charleston restaurants, which typically strive to stay out of any discussion with political overtones. Edmund’s Oast owner Scott Shor suspects that’s in part because food-and-beverage businesses operate on such thin margins that business owners are hesitant to alienate a single customer.
For instance, when restaurants in The Indigo Road group earlier this year posted “Black Lives Matter” signs in their front windows, they were met with social media chatter about a possible boycott.
(An Indigo Road representative did not return messages seeking comment, but those signs remain in place, save for the sign at The Macintosh. Executive chef John-Carter Ayanna, a Black woman, in August posted on Instagram that “we are rebranding our sign … The Macintosh family stands behind the message.”)
With most restaurants struggling to stay solvent in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and restrictions designed to contain it, it would stand to reason that their owners would become even shier about expressing potentially contentious opinions.
In Shor’s case, though, the looming threat of permanent closure has forced him to think about what his restaurant is contributing to society beyond properly cooked scallops.
“You have to look at the greater good, and the greater good has nothing to do with whether my restaurant survives,” said Shor, who has looked into going to trade school for HVAC training as a follow-up career. “It has to do with making the world a better place.”
Shor is very careful to clarify that greenlighting one mural is relatively unimportant in the overall scheme of achieving social justice.
“This is one small thing, and we plan to do a lot more,” he said.
Yet while he still has a restaurant to serve as his soapbox, he hopes to model his behavior after friend and mentor Mickey Bakst, the long-serving Charleston Grill general manager who recently retired. During his tenure, Bakst raised millions of dollars for causes including hunger relief; he plans to keep up his philanthropy in retirement.
“One of the most meaningful things I took away from him was not how to conduct yourself in the dining room, but how you can use your platform for something that positively affects your community,” Shor said. “We don’t just work in F&B. We work in F&B so we can do these other things, too.”
Accordingly, when Just Be You, a nonprofit organization promoting teenagers’ self-esteem, approached Edmund’s Oast about collaborating on a mural, the restaurant’s team was receptive. But general manager Suzanne Stone said they took the opportunity to “think about what’s important to us,” which is why they insisted on Just Be You commissioning the work from a Black artist and paying fairly for it.
“We are in an area of town where a lot of residents are Black, and we have always wanted to be in support of the community,” Stone explained.
Just Be You founder Beth Rucker was instantly on board.
“We’re so grateful they wanted it to have a bold message,” she said.
The boldness of the message, at least in this place and time, became apparent when Searles was painting it. Searles, who uses the name Morowa Mosai artistically, was heckled by passers-by who challenged the content of her work.
“This is a message that’s especially important for Charleston because Charleston is a place that for generations has profited off slavery,” Searles said. “You can go downtown and not see (Black people) reflected. With this design, I wanted to make sure Black people were represented. I want them to see something for them.”
Most of all, Searles wants Black girls and young women to see it. Years ago, Searles’ younger sister spoke up in Searles’ Sunday school class, asking if there were any Black people in the Bible. Asking, Searles understood, whether Black lives mattered.
Her work celebrating Black excellence is her ongoing answer. And now it's Edmund's Oast's answer, too.