Paschal’s & The Busy Bee

68: Coretta Scott King once said that Paschal’s Restaurant, in Atlanta, “is as important a historical site for the American Civil Rights Movement as Boston’s Faneuil Hall is to the American Revolution.“ Many of the most significant events of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, such as the marches on Selma and Birmingham, and the 1963 March on Washington, were planned at Paschal’s.

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In 1959, a new Paschal’s Restaurant opened. In 1965, work began on Paschal’s Motor Hotel, behind it. The restaurant continues today at another location. The original restaurant, across the street, has been razed. This Google Street View is from Nov. 2016.

Paschal’s was the creation of the Paschal brothers, James (1920-2008) and Robert (1908-1997). They were born and raised in the small town of Thomson, Georgia. Though Robert was quite a bit older than James, their talents and passions were well-suited to a partnership.

James was the entrepreneur. Their parents were sharecroppers, and James hated picking cotton. He opened his first business, a shoe-shine stand, when he was 13. He saved his money, and by age 15, he had taken over a failing grocery store. He did so well that, a couple of years later, the owners reclaimed it on a technicality. James then opened “James’ Place,” a combination meat market, grocery, arcade and juke joint. But James had to sell it when he was drafted into the Army in World War II.

Robert, meanwhile, went to Atlanta when he was 15, and started working as a busboy in Vaughn’s Cafeteria, a white establishment. He worked his way up the ladder until he was Executive Chef. But, wanting something more secure, he started working for Jacobs Pharmacies, setting up soda fountains and training the staff. He did this for the next 21 years.

Then in 1947, the brothers teamed up and opened a 30-seat luncheonette, across the street from the site shown here. At first, their menu was limited to sandwiches and sodas, but soon moved up to hot dinners. Robert developed a secret fried chicken recipe that came to be considered one of the best in town. Neither brother had a car, and the restaurant didn’t have a stove anyway, so Robert made the hot food at home and delivered it by taxi. (James told the story in his 2006 memoir by Mae Kendall.)

Robert and James Paschal in their original luncheonette, 1947.

The business grew steadily, and by the late 1950s, they were ready to expand the restaurant (1959) and add a nightclub, the La Carousel Lounge (1960). The restaurant had a coffee shop and dining room, together seating over 200. The lounge hosted many top jazz names, including Aretha Franklin and Dizzy Gillespie. Dave Hoekstra’s 2015 book, The People’s Place, includes a chapter on Paschal’s, and provides much more detail.

From the start, the new Paschal’s was a white-tablecloth restaurant, serving standard southern/soul dishes in one of the only “classy” places where blacks could eat. Paschal’s also gained a white clientele, and the brothers openly violated the segregation laws by allowing blacks and whites to sit together. Then in 1965-67, they added a motel, Paschal’s Motor Hotel.

Dr. King and many other leaders lived on that side of town, and routinely gathered at Paschal’s. The brothers actively supported the movement. Fred Opie’s new book, Southern Food and Civil Rights: Feeding the Revolution, details the role of Paschal’s in the larger context of the civil rights movement in Atlanta in the 1960s. In addition to providing a meeting place,the Paschals often provided free meals, and extended their hours. They were even known to put up bond money for arrested protesters. James put it simply: “How could we refuse? We had the resources and the place. We believed we had been called to be part of the Movement.”

The Paschal brothers in their later years

In 1996, James sold the property to Clark Atlanta University. The school ran the restaurant for a while, and used the motel as a dormitory, but later closed the operation. Meanwhile, in 2002, a new Paschal’s was opened on Northside Drive. It continues as a thriving business, though as Rep. John Lewis has observed, the new place just can’t have the same “feel” as the old place.

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The new Paschal’s continues to honor its civil rights era legacy 

Another Atlanta restaurant that welcomed the civil rights leaders was the Busy Bee Cafe, just a few steps down the street from Paschal’s. Lucy Jackson, a self-taught cook, opened it in 1947.

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“Mama Lucy” Jackson, 1943

There’s a dismal reason why Paschal’s and the Busy Bee were opened on the same street, apart from their proximity to the local colleges: At the time, Jim Crow Atlanta had severe restrictions on where black-owned businesses could locate. Hunter Street (now MLK Drive) was one of only two streets open to African American entrepreneurs.

The Busy Bee Cafe as it looked in the 1980s.

It is said that Martin Luther King, Jr. was especially fond of Mama Lucy’s ham hocks. But the Busy Bee isn’t just a living history museum. It’s well-known as a place to find good, traditional soul food. Emeril Lagasse featured the cafe in his 2011 “Originals” visit to Atlanta.

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Emeril, with Tracy Gates, owner of the Busy Bee since 1985. Her fried chicken is especially loved.

 Today, the Busy Bee has become a stop on a variety of historic Atlanta tours.

The Busy Bee continues to attract its share of politicians. In November 2015, the rapper Killer Mike took Sen. Bernie Sanders to the Busy Bee for their meeting on Sanders’ visit to Atlanta:

bernie-sanders-killer-mike

Is there a moral to our little story? This one is simple. In a time when goodness and justice seem up for grabs, it’s worth considering that in 2017, you can still have a meal at Paschal’s or the Busy Bee. You can’t do that at another famous fried chicken place in Atlanta:

pickrick

In 1964, arch-segregationist Lester Maddox vowed that he’d close his Pickrick Restaurant before he’d serve African Americans. He lost. It closed. The following year, it was bought by Georgia Tech, and in 2011, it was bulldozed for a parking lot. End of story. As a fan of Paschal’s and the Busy Bee once said,

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Author: Dan Anderson

I'm an Iowa boy by choice. I love cooking and I love history, so I thought I'd put the two together.

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