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Woolworth’s to Waffle House: Black women, food service, and a history of refusal

in Politics & Social Justice by

On the same day Travis Reinking shot four people to death, including one Black woman in a Tennessee Waffle House, disturbing cellphone footage circulated on social media of 25-year-old Chikesia Clemons being wrestled to the floor and threatened by uniformed police officers in a Saraland, Alabama Waffle House.

Nearly every major news outlet has covered the shocking clip, almost as vigorously as the footage of two Black men being handcuffed and escorted out of a Philadelphia Starbucks coffee house this past April.

In an attempt to right the wrongs of the viral incident, the two men received apologies from Starbucks’s founder and CEO,  the chain has announced that it will  close  8,000 of its stores for special diversity training later this month, the men have received a token $1 settlement from the city of Philadelphia and a promise to start a program for young entrepreneurs. Starbucks settled with them for an undisclosed sum of money, and gave them free tuition to Arizona State University to finish their degrees.

However, Waffle House continues to stand  behind the actions of its employee, a store manager, who called police after Clemons asked for the name and number of the company’s district manager, following her refusal to pay an additional 50 cents for plastic utensils. Not all Waffle House restaurants charge for eating utensils, but released this statement regarding the incident:

Humiliation in the form of exposed breasts, the threat of broken arms, and the tight grasp of a large white male’s hand at one’s neck is a huge price to pay for any woman simply waiting for a take-out order to be served. Initially, Clemons was willing to protest the strange “policy” of paying for utensils with the corporation at a later time. Now, she has a bigger issue to take up with them: refusal of service in the form of arrest.

The southern comfort and hospitality chain is no stranger to lawsuits from patrons alleging everything from denial of service, to falsely accusing a Black patron of dining and dashing, to rude service based on race.

Black women speaking out against and protesting discriminatory practices did not begin with Chikesia’s questioning 50-cent plastic cutlery, the treatment she received by law enforcement and company workers is anything, but new or isolated.

Over the past couple of years, we have witnessed African-American women in many compromising predicaments seemingly unique to them. A few examples include: the removal of a sole group of African-American women from aboard a wine train in Napa Valley, next there was an Applebee’s in Missouri that admitted to racially profiling two Black women as diners who “dashed,” then there was a group of African-American  women thrown out of a Harlem restaurant by its non-Black manager and owner, and finally comedian Leslie Jones was asked not to return to a popular Atlanta restaurant after complaining about the customer service and perceived racial profiling she received.

A well-fed resistance

A 1963 lunch counter sit-in protest at F.W. Woolworth in Greensboro, N.C. Protestors often endured students enduring taunts, physical abuse and food thrown on them.

Historically, food chains with southern locations like Woolworth’s could discriminate based on Jim Crow laws that gave management license to refuse service and how they chose to offer service to African-Americans. Adversely, the laws prohibited them from refusing service to whites.

“Black women have a history of refusing bad service and discrimination.”

“Black women have a history of refusing bad service and discrimination. There are historical accounts of black waitresses walking off of the job when white customers and superiors have demeaned them. We’ve begun our own food service businesses as a way of refusing bad service. We’ve been highly pro-active in questioning and boycotting practices that attack our dignity and dollar,” says Psyche Williams-Forson, associate director and chair of the University of Maryland College Park’s Department of American Studies.

Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade discrimination in public accommodations, including restaurants and hotels. For example, the F.W. Woolworth’s corporate offices in New York never enforced a policy countering Jim Crow laws or their managers’ practices until Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, making those practices a federal offense. Pre-dating the act were efforts by African American women who recognized the value of their money and their rights as citizens nationwide.

The Woolworth offices were not the only places of business that passively let the partiality continue, until otherwise instructed by the federal government. Ultimately, the act unveiled a deep dichotomy of resentments from both sides of the race issue stemming from over 400 years of tension and turmoil in this country. It showed that the agents of change had to be revolutionary in their actions to transform a normalized way of life for all Americans, up until that point.

One of the many places that joined the national fight against racial bias was Midwestern St. Louis, Mo. The community paved the way for student-led lunch counter and restaurant protests against the racially-segregated climate.

The initial documented protests in the area were  led by a St. Louis community activist by the name of Pearl Maddox. She started a letter-writing campaign demanding restaurants to  end exclusionary practices in the 1930s. Once those attempts proved futile, she led lunch-counter protests throughout the 1940s.

It was not until 1953, that the solo efforts of St. Louis University student, Linda Williams, resulted in what remains a largely unsung, yet victorious moment in the history of race relations in the U.S. Every Wednesday for a year, Williams sat at a F.W. Woolworth’s lunch counter near the university, determined to receive service from a management-designated seat away from other diners. The mission resulted in the changing of the prejudicial policies at that Woolworth’s location, setting a precedence for the food chain that welcomed her and other Black citizens to sit and be served anywhere in their restaurant.

Civil rights and consumer rights prevail

London, UK. July 9, 2016. A woman holds a sign ‘Black Lives Matter’ witten with the names of some of those murdered by police in the USA at the rally in Brixton.

In 2018, Black women hold the purse strings on a buying power equaling $1.2 trillion in annual purchases that include food and food-related products. Chikesia Clemons was fully within her right to ask why she had to spend an additional 50 cents on eating utensils. Her question alone was a protest received as a challenge by the Saraland Waffle House’s manager, its corporate offices, and the local police department. All of which exercised a de facto right to refuse service by arresting Clemons, as if the charge for cutlery was not enough.

American restaurant chains have a past of putting a chokehold on their own profits with racist practices that have offended African Americans spending money with them. And nothing says we don’t want your money like humiliation and hand-groping a woman’s neck.

James Beard’s award-winning cookbook editor and producer of Forklore podcast, Shaun Chavis in recalling similar moments in her life, says,

I think every black woman has had a bad experience in this country with eating and hospitality. Our patronage should be at least welcomed by restaurants and hotels and be, hopefully, good experiences for us. Most of these incidences demonstrate that it doesn’t matter how we represent – laughing loudly or calmly – we’re subject to a discrimination that somehow ends with a refusal of service, thus a refusal of our money. I hope in my lifetime that Americans in business will appreciate women of color in a ‘know your customer’ way, for real, and not just in a transactional way.

It has been these examples  of virulent humiliation and flagrant disregard for Black consumerism that prompted the creation of spaces that remove capital from bolstering an economy still operating on segregationist practices. Black women have been a critical part of America’s culinary history with a part of that showing how they used cooking and food as way to fund Civil Rights movements, while enterprising their communities with a kitchen plate economy.

While Starbucks attempts to quell a surging boycott and loss of revenue, Waffle House’s denial of any wrongdoing has incited a slow, but growing call for an embargo led by Black women. This might lead to another food revolution and a well-fed resistance.

Williams-Forson furthers, “We will always resist like the countless others before us, who cooked to counter bias or opened their homes to travelers – friends and strangers – in exchange for money, goods, and services to offset the discrimination and violence.”

Note: Cover photo was taken at a 2017 protest in Brooklyn against a store owner that used stereotypical decorations to promote the restaurant.

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Robin Caldwell is a food publicist who has a passion for black women chefs and the plate economy.

 

4 Comments

  1. Scarcely are there men or women writers who have the courage and ability to confront controversy, injustice and inequality with one swoop of a pen. Robin Caldwell has done that and is doing that. While there is much to say about this powerfully written article, I will make one suggestion. Any movement that is to have a lasting impact historically should stand on the shoulder’s of Robin’s pen and others like her. I am incarcerated to the cause behind these words…

    “American restaurant chains have a past of putting a chokehold on their own profits with racist practices that have offended African Americans spending money with them. And nothing says we don’t want your money like humiliation and hand-groping a woman’s neck.” -Robin Caldwell

  2. As a child of the civil rights era o remember many of these instances of protests and sit-ins. Unfortunately, we may not have shared these experiences with our children or grandchildren. We can share this article.

    We know that change comes when we take action. These situations are not isolated instances. We have the power to take our money elsewhere-support our own communities and businesses. I see no need in supporting a business that disrespects me.

  3. I am surprised you ( not too much) at the in your face response given by the corporate powers that be. In this hospitality business, we are supposed to be hospitable and give excellent customer service. This is a fail on all accounts! Thank you for shedding light on this story and the continuing plight of women of color. I missed this event in real time, and am saddened by the epic and over the top response of a $.50 utensil charge! Yes I am sharing this article and am going to further the conversation with my 19 year old son and other friends in my hospitality world. Just cannot keep SMH at these incidents or boycott all of the businesses that do these injustices. Change has got to come and awareness and knowledge is key in making these stories a part of history and not our future.

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