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Enjoy Iconic Restaurants on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail

Food is the unofficial love language of the Black family.

Meals cultivate community, nourish the soul, create connections and preserve traditions. But food has also played a pivotal part in the struggle for Black equality. In the United States, civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. would meet up with other activists to discuss the day’s events after marches over generous portions of soul food from the few restaurants that were safe havens. The term “soul food” itself emerged from a desire to reconnect with the diaspora through Southern and African-influenced cuisine.

Today, several Black-owned restaurants continue to serve up sumptuous meals while honoring the past and Black heritage. Here are some notable dining establishments travelers can enjoy while visiting cities on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail.

Magnolia House

Greensboro, North Carolina

During the period of racial segregation in America, African Americans were not allowed to share accommodations, eating or drinking facilities with Caucasians. The “Negro Motorist Green Book” became a critical resource for Black travelers. Within its pages was a comprehensive list of hotels, restaurants, gas stations, barber shops, drug stores and other amenities that were available to African American travelers. One of those safe spaces in the guide was the Magnolia House, a hotel in Greensboro, North Carolina, and one of the few green book sites for those shuttling between Atlanta and Richmond. Among those seeking refuge at the Magnolia House were prominent writers, artists, musicians, actors, and athletes, including James Brown, Joe Tex, Tina Turner, Jackie Robinson, James Baldwin, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles. Nods to their famous guests are peppered throughout the property’s programming.

“One of the biggest things that Magnolia House does is promote the idea of music and jazz, because we had so many musicians traveling and spending time here,” said Yvon’ne Lyle, the restaurant’s social media coordinator. “They would come and play music, eat and just play for the guests. So we continue to do that. We have events, we have live jazz music, and we have partnerships with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where their jazz groups will come and play music, especially during Black History Month.”

Another ode to the greats lies in their soul food-heavy menu. The Catch 42 is a play on the number worn by baseball star Jackie Robinson, who broke the sport’s color barrier in 1947. The Southern-inspired meal features fried catch of the day, creamy grits, tomato, lemon oil and fresh herbs. The Gladys is the namesake of the “Empress of Soul” Gladys Knight. The fried chicken biscuit served with local hot honey butter was the go-to order of the famed songstress. James Baldwin’s favorite meal of New York strip steak, soft scrambled farmers’ eggs with cheese, and fingerling potatoes is also a consistent crowd-pleaser.

Shirley Mae’s Café

Louisville, Kentucky

Fresh food has always been Shirley Mae’s competitive edge. It’s why the café that sits at the corner of Clay and Lampton streets in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, features an open kitchen that allows customers to see behind the scenes of their food preparation. This transparency, coupled with made-to-order soul food like Southern fried chicken wings, barbecued ribs and meatloaf, is a major part of the café’s charm.

But proprietress Shirley Mae Beard is as well known for her contributions to Black history and its preservation as she is for her hot water cornbread. Most notable is her commitment to honoring Black jockeys in the city and state at the center of one of the most prestigious horse racing events in the world: the Kentucky Derby. Black horsemen were once a dominant force at the Derby, making up 13 of 15 riders at the first running in 1875 — and won by Black jockey Oliver Lewis — and winning 15 of the first 28 runnings of the equine event. As Kentucky ramped up segregation laws in the 1890s, Black riders were systematically barred from the sport.

After discovering the accomplishments of these hidden figures in a set of World Book Encyclopedias, Beard, with the help of her children, made it her mission to educate the masses. The Salute to Black Jockey event was born in May 1989, with photos of the riders covering the café walls and the introduction of what is billed as the “largest inner-city carnival in the commonwealth of Kentucky.” The annual event is a popular draw, prompting visits from Academy Award-winning actors Whoopi Goldberg and Morgan Freeman.

Shirley Mae’s has been operating on a carry-out basis since the start of the pandemic, as a safety precaution and to minimize contact with the now 82-year-old matriarch. But the beloved local institution is gearing up to welcome diners back for the homecooked meals they have come to crave.

The Four Way Soul Food Restaurant

Memphis, Tennessee

Irene and Clint Cleaves opened the Four Way Grill in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1946 with one goal: to serve the best soul food in the city. Clint, a driver for former Memphis Mayor E.H. Crump, worked with his wife Irene to develop the eatery from a small, unassuming counter tucked into a pool hall to a full-scale dining area. In the turbulent civil rights era, The Four Way became one of the few dining establishments where Black and white customers could break bread together. Word quickly spread of the flavorful, well-seasoned fare in the aptly named Soulsville neighborhood, and everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to Elvis Presley and B.B. King came through the doors.

As Black people fought for equal rights and social justice, churches and restaurants became safe spaces for their organizing efforts, and the Four Way was an integral part of the movement. Dr. King was said to be partial to Irene’s fried catfish, fried chicken and peach cobbler during his stops in the city.

Both Clint and Irene have passed on, but their legacy in the city renowned for its roots in blues, soul, and rock ’n’ roll is unassailable. Local son Willie Bates and a partner purchased the iconic restaurant in 2001, and since his death in 2016, his daughter Patrice Bates Thompson has kept the spirit of the legendary establishment alive and flourishing. Their fried entrees are still the heart and soul of the menu, with thick slabs of cornmeal-crusted catfish, crunchy fried chicken and perfectly battered country-fried steak smothered in gravy.

Soul Food Twist

Huntington, West Virginia

Chef Joanna “Jojo” Williams remembers vividly when the first seeds of a culinary future were planted.

“I used to always watch my daddy cook his mac and cheese and help my mother peel fresh potatoes for the potato salad,” Williams said. She was determined to one day have a food truck or restaurant of her own, as she honed her skills at the popular restaurant chain Waffle House. Williams took the first steps toward realizing that goal four years ago when she began cooking out of her Huntington, West Virginia, home.

Her opportunity came at what might seem to some like a decidedly inopportune time: during the COVID-19 pandemic. She opened her restaurant Soul Food Twist when other establishments were closing, and it flourished amidst the chaos. Williams attributes her success to the element of surprise.

“What makes us [different from] any other soul food restaurant is the name itself, because I always throw a twist out,” she said.

The menu changes constantly, with new options added daily. But even with a menu in a state of flux, there are some surefire standouts.

“The [meal] people must try when they come to my location is the barbecue meatballs and smoked pull pork,” Williams said. She also recommended their succulent salmon, which is paired with a creamy alfredo pasta, tender smoked ribs and the signature “mac attack,” which has been voted among the top 10 best dishes in Huntington for three years.

Mama J’s Kitchen

Richmond, Virginia

A trip to Mama J’s Kitchen is akin to Sunday dinners at grandma’s house: filled with warmth, love and good food. It’s a replication of Velma Johnson’s — known locally as Mama J — upbringing as one of 14 children in the West End neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia. Johnson grew up sharing the kitchen with her mom and grandmother as they prepared their customary large Sunday dinners. During these formative years, she not only acquired culinary skills but also learned the secrets and nuances of family recipes that now make up the restaurant’s menu.

But Mama J’s is not just a rich, soul food dining experience. It is also a key part of a redevelopment of Historic Jackson Ward, one of America’s oldest districts and once a bustling center of African American commerce and entrepreneurship. The Richmond area once known as the “Harlem of the South” was a response to Jim Crow laws limiting where Black residents were allowed to live. Black people had no choice but to create their own community spaces with banks, restaurants and other businesses. Jackson Ward’s music scene also thrived as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole and James Brown became regulars at the Hippodrome Theater. Unfortunately, redlining and other discriminatory policies would lead to the eventual downfall of the vibrant district.

When Johnson’s eldest son, Lester, and his best friend, Jonathan Mayo, saw an opportunity to help lead the renaissance of Jackson Ward decades later, they knew that Mama J’s comfort food was the recipe they needed. With a menu featuring an assortment of meats, fresh-from-the-oven cornbread and decadent peach cobbler, it’s hard to disagree.