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Charleston-area residents remember the first time they ate in white-owned restaurants

Charleston-area residents remember the first time they ate in white-owned restaurants

Americans who have even a fuzzy notion of how restaurant desegregation unfolded are familiar with Woolworth’s. The site is so pivotal to the struggle that Atlanta’s National Center for Civil and Human Rights created a high-tech interactive station so visitors can virtually experience the taunts and shoves that protesters endured. Yet very few people outside of Spartanburg remember the Simple Simon.

Roger Goodwin, Sr., who had a string of successes with Flap n Jacks, Lobster House and Hungry Bull, in 1956 opened Simple Simon on North Church Street. He was so adept at selling burgers that his impressed colleagues elected him president of the South Carolina Restaurant Association.

Then, in 1963, they tried to impeach him.

Like many Southern restaurateurs, Goodwin didn’t see the point in waiting for the feds to tell him that he had to admit black customers. One year before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin in public places, Goodwin announced the Simple Simon was open to all.

That didn’t sit well with the flamboyantly racist Maurice Bessinger and eight other past presidents of the group.

“He had an overriding obligation to association members to reflect their thinking,” Bessinger complained to the Associated Press, which announced Goodwin’s resignation.

Bessinger and his buddies continued to rail against interracial dining even after the change that Goodwin saw coming was enshrined in law. Diehard segregationists resorted to tricks that had been trotted out since Reconstruction, such as printing separate menus for African American guests: A Richmond restaurant that normally charged $1.75 for fried chicken was sued in 1964 for listing the same dish for $5.25 on its menu for “undesirables.”

And for reasons that would horrify the latter-day farm-to-table crowd, some holdouts experimented with buying only local ingredients. They reasoned that since the Civil Rights Act was passed under Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce, they could get around integration by serving their neighbors’ greens. The U.S. Supreme Court halted those shenanigans in 1964, unanimously affirming that restaurants had to abide by the law.

But those sorts of openly bigoted tactics weren’t the norm. Many more white restaurant owners, like Goodwin, voluntarily integrated their dining rooms as the civil rights fight intensified. In most cases, though, they didn’t adjust their policies out of a sense of social justice. They were just relatively certain that African Americans wouldn’t show up.

According to contemporary data, they were right.

Exactly one year after the South Carolina Restaurant Association threatened to unseat Goodwin, the organization’s new president James B. Taylor told a reporter that desegregation was proceeding “much better than expected.” Although he didn’t elaborate on what pleased him, there’s a clue in a 1961 study issued by the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights.

The commission surveyed managers of 46 desegregated restaurants across Kentucky. At the time, the state was home to just 135 “known integrated eating places,” most of them clustered in Louisville. All but two of the managers said they hadn’t experienced any problems, as Memphis’ Tri-State Defender explained: “Many of the managers said they feared they might be ‘flooded’ with Negroes, but they were unanimous in reporting this had not happened. Most indicated there were fewer Negro customers than they had expected.”

At more than half of the restaurants, the number of black customers was unchanged after the whites-only rule was rescinded.

In other words, as education reformers have long known, groups of people don’t magically become mixed following the end of enforced segregation. When it comes to achieving equality, changing the law is a precondition, not a culmination. Yet despite the passive attitude toward integration that’s prevailed in the food-and-beverage sphere for 55 years, there’s an expectation in modern culture that blacks and whites ought to be equally represented in public dining spaces. In downtown Charleston, that’s not even close to the situation.

To better understand why segregation persists in Charleston’s celebrated restaurants, the vast majority of which are less than a decade old, The Post and Courier took a closer look at the dining choices that black residents here made in the wake of The Civil Rights Act of 1964. Specifically, we posed the question, “When was the first time you ate in a white-owned restaurant?”

Histories of the movement tend to focus on highly dramatic moments, such as the Woolworth’s sit-in, and the sweeping changes they incited. But small, seemingly insignificant decisions, such as where to go for a cheeseburger, can shape society, too. Once it was legal for African Americans to dine at white-owned restaurants, they had a new set of choices to make about where to eat.

Because the choices were highly personal, it’s difficult to generalize from the ten oral histories we collected over the course of seven listening sessions at Charleston County Public Library branches and senior centers. Still, it’s clear why black diners didn’t stampede to white restaurants as owners feared. A robust tradition of home cooking and vibrant black-owned restaurant district outweighed the appeal of patronizing a place where hospitality was by no means guaranteed.

We hope the oral histories below, which have been edited for clarity and length, are the start of a conversation that will continue online and in person over the next few weeks. First, we’ve created a platform at for uploading your answer to the question, “When was the first time you ate in a white-owned restaurant?” If you’re not old enough to remember the end of legal segregation, you can also put the question to an older relative or friend with a story to share.

Second, we’ll be gathering on June 17 at the Main Branch of the Charleston County Public Library, our generous partner in this project. The discussion starts at 6 p.m.; the program is free, and no pre-registration is required. If you have any questions, e-mail


Part I: The situation prior to desegregation


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Mary Alice Smith, for story on recollections of integrated dining. Wadmalaw Island Community / Senior Center, Wednesday, April 17, 2019. Wade Spees/Staff

The only place that we ate at was at each other’s families’ houses and churches and stuff like that. Not that we couldn’t go to a restaurant, but we choose to eat at family members’ houses.

My dad was the cattle ranch foreman, so we used to go to Florida a lot to pick up some of the horses for the rodeo shows. I remember one night we were coming back from Florida, I think when I was like maybe 5 or 6, and it was raining like cats and dogs. We stopped at this restaurant. … It wasn’t a classy restaurant. It wasn’t nothing to write home about it.

But the lady who my father worked for, we all were together and we all went inside the restaurant. They told my father and my mother that they couldn’t serve them, but they could serve the lady. And she said, ‘Well, if you can’t serve James, you can’t serve me,” and then we left.

I guess she thought it would be fine, but it wasn’t. I remember seeing that.

That stayed vividly with me. As a kid, it kind of struck me, ‘You can’t eat here? Why?’ I kept asking my dad and my dad tried to explain to me, best as he could, as a child of my age. He said that there are certain places that black people can go to, and certain places we couldn’t go. And this is why we couldn’t be served at that restaurant. He said this is the way it is until change comes.

I remember saying, ‘I don’t like it.’ We didn’t get something to eat until we got home.

When I left here and went to New York, that’s when I started going to restaurants without them having to say, ‘You can’t sit in this restaurant.’

I love good food, and I love to eat. I may not look it, but I love to eat. And I’m a good cook. I just made a tuna casserole that was out of this world. I got so many dishes that I fix: Pies and strawberry shortcakes and cheesecakes…My family loves to come to my home.

Life is what you make it. I choose not to let things get in the way, because life is too short.

Listen to a conversation between Mary Alice Smith and The Post and Courier's Hanna Raskin.


Part II: The struggle for equality


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Sadina Hamilton grasps her hands and talks about the first time she went into a white-owned restaurant on on Wednesday, April 3, 2019 at the Charleston County Public Library on Calhoun street. Hamilton said the day she got off the bus to go into the Fort Sumter Hotel restaurant at The Battery, she dressed nicely to perfection and sat up at up at the counter. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

I grew up in North Charleston. I had a best friend when I was probably 14, 16, somewhere in there, and she was from a little country town. I told her if I ever get a chance, I want to become part of the movement.

The day we decided to go, we knew how we were supposed to dress and how we were supposed to act, because we’d seen the civil rights demonstrations on TV. You come in your Sunday best. So I put on my little Peter Pan collar; white blouse; little plaid skirt, button on the front; my little gloves; purse. The only thing I didn’t have was a hat.

And so I got dressed and told my mother what I was going to do, and she was OK with it. Dorothy was going with me. Then I got to her house and she had one of her flare-ups with lupus. And so her mother said, ‘She’s not going.’ Plus, they were from a more sheltered area, like out in the country. Matter of fact, I taught her how to ride a bike.

So I walked out, kind of dejected and sad. I think she had some reservations as well, but I didn’t. I said, ‘I’ve got the money, I’m ready to go.’

I got off (the bus) at Calhoun Street and walked to the hotel. Inside was a roomful of youngsters…They said, ‘We’re looking for people to go to Fort Sumter Hotel,’ which is still on The Battery, and they looked around the room and they saw who was dressed the best.

You can’t send the kids with a T-shirt, and maybe cutoffs or tennis shoes, to the Fort Sumter. It was very upper crust, so you look for the best-dressed ones. I was one of them and Jimmy Middleton was the other. Jimmy had on a suit that day.


The Fort Sumter Hotel opened in 1923. Its restaurant closed when the building was converted into condominiums during the 1970s. File/Staff

They chose us and they told us what to do, of course: Just act real nice, act cordial. The point was for everybody to be arrested. Their strategy was to break the back of the city by using their monies, because they’ve got to feed those people (in jail) three meals a day. We used to call that jail The Seabreeze Hotel. It had no windows.

They dropped us off, so we kind of went around a back gate and walked down the sidewalk, and then you open a door and now you’re in the Fort Sumter restaurant. I’d never been there. It’s an all-white place. Are you serious? What am I going to do, go in there to mop the floor or something? Clean the toilets? I was too young.

Anyway, we went and we sat at the counter. And the waitress gave us the spiel. We didn’t get roughed up to speak of, no more than the looks and remarks, but we knew what to do, which was to do nothing. You knew the procedure. You knew they weren’t going to wait on you.

They called the police and the police came. They handcuffed us and put us in the vehicle and processed us, and you know they took our prints. So when I applied for my first job in 1963, I was scared to death that they were going to say, ‘She’s got a criminal record!’ So I just threw the dice and marked no. Nobody ever called me on it.

Then we went to jail. I was in jail two, three days. They were 10, 12 of us girls in the same cell. We had one or two bunks and we had to lay across. Horizontally, right? And there was one toilet with no door or anything.

(The NAACP) brought us snacks and stuff, because we knew we were not to eat the food. We were to just ruin the food; mess it up, so no one else could have it, and send it back. So they brought Nabs and drinks, and we ate snacks for two or three days. I was already like 109 (pounds), I guess, and I lost probably three pounds.

So time comes to go, and they needed a spokesperson to address the audience when we were released: They were having rallies every time they released people to galvanize and plan. The girls said, ‘You talk a lot. Why don’t you do it?’

It was dark by the time we all got out. I think they brought us on a school bus or a church bus, and took us to Mother Emanuel. We went straight into the back of the church, where the people were shot. They have a little narrow staircase you go up on the side. They took me up that stairway and sat me in the pulpit.

My dad was an AME minister. He was there in a seersucker suit. He was so proud that his chest was about to break out.

They sat me behind the podium with all of the dignitaries. And my speech was about how we would like to make it equal and fair and just; how we do not want to be subjected…The impetus was just to treat me like anybody else.


Part III: The in-between role of fast food restaurants


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Donna Morris, for story on recollections of integrated dining. Wadmalaw Island Community / Senior Center, Wednesday, April 17, 2019. Wade Spees/Staff

I’m from a place called Fairfield, Ala. It’s about 10 miles west of Birmingham. My husband and I moved here in 2004. I’m a semi-retired nurse and I came visiting a friend and I fell in love with the oaks and the Spanish moss and all of that. It made me remember some of the old movies, like Gone with the Wind.

But it’s different, as opposed to growing up in (Alabama). Even though they’re both Southern states, it’s different.

McDonald’s came about in Fairfield back in the early ‘60s or late ‘50s, and we’d go there, which was mostly all people of color could do in Birmingham, because you couldn’t go downtown and eat. We had our little self-owned, well, they weren’t called restaurants, but they were called eateries. These were the community people who owned their own business. And you’d go there and you’d get your sandwich or your dinner. Churches did a lot of that cooking, too.

But I didn’t really go to a real restaurant, quote, unquote, until I left and went to nursing school in St. Louis, Mo. It was a barbecue place, but they had tables and chairs and cloths, so I called it a restaurant.

In Alabama, we tried to stay in our own neighborhood. We stayed in the black side of Fairfield, and, of course, downtown Fairfield was where the more better, quality things were. The McDonald’s was in between, so we could come down that far, but they didn’t want you coming down any farther.

You couldn’t sit at a restaurant; you couldn’t even sit at a counter in the Woolworth’s. So no, you didn’t go down there to be ridiculed or humiliated. You’re spending money. So you stay at home and spend it with your friends and families that owned the little restaurants on what we called ‘up on the hill.’

Restaurants now? That’s all I do. Tell me what time is the reservation. I told my husband at this point, all I want to do is be a foodie. I’m constantly looking for new restaurants.


I was born on Wadmalaw Island. What we had on the island was community-type cooking, which was from our churches. We would have what we called church dinners. That’s when the community would come together: Kids, adults, visiting ministers, and we would have food at the church. And it would give us an additional opportunity to fellowship with one another, which was a way to get information, news and know what was going on in the community.

So meals were important, but the location was the church. Your fellow community members were more important than having someone cook for you.

From Wadmalaw Island to the city, where the restaurants were, you’re looking at 15, 20 miles. That’s a lot. We didn’t have small families. My mother’s twin brother: Sixteen children. So if you went to a restaurant with your husband or your wife, you still had to deal with feeding your children.

My folks raised nine children. We didn’t have a car that’s going to allow you to take nine children, plus yourself, to a restaurant downtown. And again, if my mom and dad went to a restaurant they still had nine mouths at home to feed. So you can understand why going to a restaurant as a kid would not really be possible, (because) of the cost for meals and this underlying fact that you were not wanted.

During that time, we did not really have integration of restaurants unless you came through the back door or they fed you through the back door. That’s not something any parent wanted to subject their children to. You’re not going to subject yourself. And a lot of times the food your parents cooked was better than any restaurant.

The first restaurant I went to was a place in downtown Charleston called Papillion’s. I was working at MUSC. It was 1982, maybe.

The fact that I had not experienced a restaurant before, if there was a problem, I was not aware of it. It was an enjoyable time. It was like a first date: The meal was great. The person who took me to dinner knew what to order and what kind of wine to get. He was from New York City, so his experience was totally different that living in the South.

In terms of food not prepared through the community or at home, my mother and father liked KFC. They would always order some chicken and munch on that chicken on the way back to the island. Of course, you didn’t sit inside KFC: You just ordered your food and kept on moving. My mom loved her KFC.



Part IV: The end of legal segregation


I’m native Charleston. I grew up on the Eastside. You know where Sanders-Clyde Elementary School is? Yeah, I grew up right there in the projects. Matter of fact, I grew up right on that corner of Jackson and America streets. Yes, ma’am.

We had the soul food restaurants owned by blacks, and there were several. One of the staples in all of these restaurants was a bowl of beans and rice. Not many restaurants do that now, but they actually served the rice on a plate and you got your beans in a bowl. Those are the kind of places I ate, because when I was a little kid, we couldn’t go to the lunch counter.

When they did integrate, seems like I was about 14, and I had an older cousin about 16. We heard that we could now eat in white restaurants. And we went to the S&S Cafeteria, which was right by the college; right in that block between Vanderhorst and Calhoun Street.

I can remember us going in. We sat at a table and there were a couple of older white females at the next table. And I can remember them with a scowl on their face saying, ‘Oh, they’re letting them eat here now.’

And I think what struck me was not so much that she said it, but I guess the fact that she said it so we could hear it. You know, I’d heard, ‘Nigger, get out of here,’ by the police, or if I went in the wrong area, you know, I was told to move along. But just the fact of being so cold to say, ‘They can eat here now.’

It was like we were soulless. Like we didn’t matter. I don’t know if that was a ploy to make us feel uncomfortable, which would then act as a deterrent to come back, but we ate there and I continued to eat there.

Because I’ve been on my own since I was 15. My mother had a nervous breakdown when I was 15 years old. And again, we lived in the projects, but I think it was a different world back then. If you were wise enough, you could actually maneuver: You didn’t have all the drugs, all the negative pulls. I mean, there were negative pulls, but you could navigate and I did.

But I said that because there was no cook in my house. I kind of grew up on Banquet TV dinners: Most of my life, when my dinner’s done, I know by the ding. But I was a basketball player, and before all of my games, I would go to S&S Cafeteria. Our coach would always tell us to eat two hours before the game, and I liked the idea you could choose your dish. I loved their Salisbury steak; mac-and-cheese; rice-and-gravy.

But when I would go, I would always sit away from mostly white folk because I guess I was just made uncomfortable knowing they were uncomfortable. I would go and sit by myself and eat. I did that for years.


Part V: The limited appeal of restaurants


I was born and raised in Charleston: 12 Moultrie St., Charleston, South Carolina. There were restaurants around, but we did not go. Not when I was young. My family did not go to no restaurant because my mother cooked at home.

I had two children, so I had to cook. They liked my okra soup and my rice and my shrimp. I don’t remember when I first started going to restaurants.


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"I really never went out to eat when I was younger. We made out meals as a family at home." Dorothy Smith said. When restaurants had to become integrated it still felt like you didn't belong, even more today, Smith said. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

I was born right around the corner, right there on the Eastside. I lived with my mother; my brother; my sister and my other sister. My father died when I was 11 years old. My mother raised all us by herself. She made sure we had something to eat.

You know where Trident Tech is. That used to be our high school. During that time, I didn’t know all about how people treat people. But as I grew older I learned more.

I had a friend (who) passed away many years ago. Honey, she had the Eastside worked out. She used to take us different places, and she taught us how to see how these people really don’t want you in their restaurants.

Some restaurants you can go to and you can divine in the feeling you get that they really don’t want black people in there. And you can tell it. Like some of those restaurants downtown? By the market? They don’t want black people down there. They don’t. You go sit in the corner and observe and you watch it.

Back in the ‘70s, everybody used to go and have a smile and welcome you to places. But now nobody welcomes you like they used to. It’s getting more racist. Since Trump stepped in, more people are coming out like they never did before; more people are really coming out against each other.

As the ‘80s were coming, everything got pretty good, but when the 2000s came in that’s when everybody said, ‘Yes! Time to be a racist! Yes, it’s time.’

I’m not going to any restaurants. Some restaurants have black people who are willing to come and take care of you and see what you need, so I really appreciate that. The white ones, I feel like they don’t want to come over.


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Bertha Middleton, for story on recollections of integrated dining. Wadmalaw Island Community / Senior Center, Wednesday, April 17, 2019. Wade Spees/Staff

I actually grew up on Wadmalaw Island. I was raised by grandparents, so I think they already knew they weren’t welcome or allowed to eat in white-owned restaurants, so we just didn’t go.

We ate at home. Our parents and neighbors grew vegetables in the garden; fished for shrimps, crabs: That was a popular thing for us to just go and get it from the ocean. So we ate a lot of that.

Chesapeake blue crabs need saving (copy)

Blue crabs. File/Brad Nettles

Here in Charleston, I was grown before I went to a restaurant, and I don’t remember which one. I went to college in a little small town in Concord, N.C., and even there we ate in restaurants owned by white families and was treated like everybody else, and that was in 1975.

Now I don’t cook, so I eat out a lot and I don’t have any bad experiences. Shrimp-and-grits are my favorite. Red rice; fried chicken: I just love to eat. I have a group, the second Monday in each month we choose a restaurant. The last one we went to was new to me: The VIP Bistro. We’ve been to Magnolias; Fleet Landing; California Dreaming. My favorite Sunday spot is O’Charleys. I get the salmon.


I haven’t eaten in a restaurant lately. Oh please, girl: It’s something I seldom do. We ate up in that place up there, the all-you-can-eat, the Golden Corral. I went there on an occasion, which was my birthday two years ago.

My son says, ‘You shouldn’t be cooking so much.’ I say, ‘Well, you never know if the electricity is going to be there for the stove to come on, so I cook in advance and I have it.’ In the black neighborhood, children learn to do things at an early age. From 12 years old up, they learn how to cook and learn how to do the laundry. Housework, like cleaning, was left to the parents.

In the morning, you have shrimp and grits, or bacon and grits, or in the afternoon you might have rice with string beans or lima beans or whatever. And that’s how we lived. Simple stuff. We ate mostly from the land.

I grew up in Charleston. Downtown: Short Street. Of course, we weren’t allowed to go to restaurants because you couldn’t afford it. Black people didn’t frequent no restaurant back those days, because they were discriminating to begin with. You going to buy food and have to go out back to eat it? May as well stay home and fix your own.

First restaurant? I can’t remember, baby, it was so long ago. See, you have in your mind that you don’t have to eat out. You eat at home.


Part VI: The aftermath


I’m right here in the city of Charleston, so my root is deep. I grew up on the Westside: Raised up on Kennedy Street, in the Village. I’m living in a goldmine, so I can’t move.

The restaurants we frequently visited were Ladson House, on the corner of Kennedy and President streets, and Pete’s Grill and Motel. And then there was one on Kennedy Street for a long time: The house next to Nichols Chapel used to be a little tearoom. They had a variety of food, you know. They had regular collard greens and macaroni and bread pudding and lima beans and seafood. They had a good choice.

When integration took place, they said, ‘Well, everything is open up.’ But that wasn’t true. In a sense, it was opened up, but I continued to go in those black restaurants because that’s what I was raised up with.

When integration occurred, what happened was other people’s water was better than your water, so everyone practically stopped going to those particular restaurants. I guess they could go in those venues they couldn’t go in before and see what it was all about.

But my family, we didn’t do that, because when you take away from your neighborhood, the businesses will die.

Our neighborhood had all kinds of businesses: That was a true village then before integration. On Spring Street, Cannon Street, Morris Street, we had all of those businesses … and after integration it died out. People stopped going to those venues and we lost our power.

My grandfather was born into slavery, and my grandmother. And they believed in being independent, because if you’re not independent, someone will have control over you.

When I was going to St. Aug(ustine’s College) in Raleigh, N.C., I’d just gotten back from Vietnam. I went into this one restaurant in North Carolina and they said, ‘No, we don’t serve black in here.’ And I said, ‘Wow, I spent a whole year in the jungle, fighting for the country, and you come back to America and still face the same problem which you left behind.’ That was probably in the early ‘70s.

I was upset, you know. The people I was with told me don’t start no trouble, so we left.

When I go into a restaurant today and I don’t see anybody that looks like me, you know, I leave. Nobody look like me working in there, or if you just have one black worker, I assume something is wrong. When it doesn’t look like the community, a red flag goes up.

The restaurants we visit now, half looks like the community. And if they don’t, I don’t spend my money. Normally I go to Golden Corral and I go to Town & Country and restaurants like that.

I try to let the community know that we have to do better. We have to have something that you own … so you can offset some of that stigma when you encounter it. You have to understand power and economics. You can’t just be a consumer all your life. You have to produce something; create something and say, ‘I don’t need to come over there, because I have my own.’

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Sadina Hamilton grew up in North Charleston with a fairly decent sized family. They would cook meals together or go out to eat seafood which is common in the lowcountry. One of her first integrated restaurant experiences she got off a bus, dressed nicely in front of the Fort Sumter Hotel near The Battery. "I'd never been there. It's an all-white place." She said as she went in with her friend and sat at the counter. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.