From Sit-ins to Soul Food

Sixty years after Greensboro, taking on racism in restaurants

Photo: Klaus Vedfelt

When chef Michael Bowling moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, from Washington, D.C. eight years ago, his professional future looked bright. He had cooked dinner at the James Beard House in New York and was starting a gig as executive chef at an upscale Southern restaurant. But after that venture folded in 2012, Bowling discovered it was nearly impossible to land another head chef position in Charlotte. He launched a food truck and became a personal chef, all while sending out resumes and marveling at the silence he received.

Finally, a group of chef friends of different races sat him down and explained that no one would hire him because he was black. “People are afraid to put a black chef to be the head of a restaurant in the middle of the South,” Bowling, 42, says. Owners are worried that customers will be turned off by the sight of him, he says, especially in an era when “rock star” chefs are the public face of a new restaurant. Bowling removed his photo from his resume and website, hoping to land more interviews. In the past year, he’s been featured in Food & Wine magazine and The Washington Post. Yet as of February 2019, he still had not been offered an executive chef job.

Bowling’s complaints are not unique. A 2015 study by the nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that just 9 percent of the highest-paid restaurant employees were African American. Waiters and bartenders hold the majority of well-paid jobs in the industry in fine dining restaurants — positions where the employees are “almost entirely white,” says ROC United president and co-founder Saru Jayaraman. Meanwhile, workers of color are segregated into lower-paying jobs, or in fast food or casual restaurants.

This scarcity of black employees is mirrored by the demographics in the dining room. Zachary Brewster, an associate professor of sociology at Wayne State University who has studied the restaurant industry extensively, found that roughly half the servers he surveyed nationally admitted to discriminating against black diners.

North Carolina has a long history of activism designed to combat such discrimination, from the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s to the Soul Food Sessions — pop-up dinners Bowling and his colleagues organize to showcase the talents of black chefs. Still, stereotypes about black employees and diners persist. Bowling has often been the lone black customer in the upscale full-service restaurants that are transforming Charlotte’s culinary scene.

“What goes on in a restaurant is kind of indicative of what goes on in the broader culture,” Brewster says. “Whites are certainly still privileged when dining out.”

African-American students from Saint Augustine College in North Carolina study while participating in a sit-in at a lunch counter reserved for white customers in Raleigh, North Carolina. Two waitresses pointedly ignore them from the other side of the counter. Photo: Bettmann/Getty

On February 1, 1960, four African-American students walked a mile from their dorm at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University to sit down at a whites-only Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro. They were denied service but refused to leave. Their protest lasted six months, sparking similar actions by thousands of protesters in towns around the country. In July 1960, the Greensboro Woolworth quietly integrated. The sit-in movement catalyzed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed segregation in public accommodations.

This year on February 1, the banquet hall at A&T’s alumni event center was packed for the annual sit-in celebration. Roughly 500 people ate scrambled eggs and bacon while the university choir sang “We Shall Overcome.” The school, about 90 miles northeast of Charlotte, is the largest public historically black college in the country. Students and politicians sat beneath glittering chandeliers to commemorate the Greensboro Four. The keynote speaker was the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, a civil rights leader, recipient of a 2018 MacArthur Grant, and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign.

Barber told the primarily African-American crowd that the only way to honor the Greensboro Four was to imitate them. He urged students to protest voter suppression tactics in North Carolina and suggested that historically black colleges form an institute on poverty to address the state’s $7.25 minimum wage and the 22 percent of black residents living in poverty.

During Jim Crow, signs delineated separate entrances for white and black customers at restaurants, Barber pointed out. Black patrons were often forced to carry-out their food and bring their own utensils and condiments. Today’s segregation is less obvious. “Most modern-day racists are cordial,” he said.

There are subtle ways that restaurants can make black patrons feel unwelcome. In 2015, the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Charlotte sparked outrage when it added a 15 percent surcharge to food and drink tabs during the CIAA — an annual basketball tournament for historically black colleges and universities.

Patrice Wright, a career counselor living in a Charlotte suburb, was having cocktails and sweet potato fries in the hotel’s lobby lounge with her husband when she noticed the extra $10.20 charge. She had eaten at the Ritz many times before and never encountered such a thing. She posted her receipt on Facebook, and it went viral, raising suspicions of a “black tax.” The state’s attorney general’s office launched an investigation, eventually pressuring the Ritz to settle rather than face a lawsuit for unfair and deceptive trade practices. The Ritz offered refunds to customers who paid the surcharge and donated $75,000 to the CIAA’s scholarship fund. But it never admitted any wrongdoing. “The Ritz-Carlton denies that it acted unlawfully in implementing a service charge during the tournament,” the hotel’s lawyer wrote in a letter to the attorney general agreeing to the settlement. (The hotel didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story).

Such controversies are not exclusive to North Carolina. In 2016, several restaurants in New Orleans shut down for the Fourth of July weekend rather than cater to nearly half a million black patrons during the annual music and fashion event known as the Essence Festival. Upscale Italian restaurant Domenica said it closed for renovations that weekend, as did Walk-On’s Bistreaux & Bar. The owner of Little Gem Saloon, a restaurant and club, told The Times-Picayune he closed because of lack of business during previous years of the festival. Black customers who did not believe the timing of these closures was coincidental complained with the #ClosedforEssence hashtag on Twitter.

Brewster says many restaurants are “very racialized” environments where servers and managers perpetuate old myths about black diners — that they don’t tip well, for example, or that they’re more demanding customers. Such stereotypes allow servers to express their anti-black bias while claiming that their discrimination is about money, not race.

NAACP press conference in Charlotte, NC. Photo from Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Greg Collier, 38, is accustomed to being the only African-American chef in an upscale kitchen. He grew up in Memphis and attended culinary school in Arizona, where he became frustrated by bosses who refused to promote him. “People of color often are looked at as hard workers, but not so much leadership,” he says.

In 2012, Collier and his wife, Subrina, opened a breakfast cafe in Rock Hill, South Carolina, a small-town suburb just south of Charlotte. At first, many customers refused to believe they owned the business. Greg would arrive at 4:30 a.m. to start making grits. After a Charlotte police officer fatally shot Keith Lamont Scott in 2016, Greg worried he might be killed if a cop saw a 6-foot-4 black man entering a strip mall that early in the morning. But over time, his skills won out over prejudice. The Colliers moved The Yolk to downtown Charlotte, and Greg took a second gig as executive chef at a nearby restaurant, Loft & Cellar, where his duck and dumplings sell for $31 a plate.

In 2016, Collier, Bowling, and several other black chefs in the area launched the Soul Food Sessions, a nonprofit designed to increase opportunities for chefs who look like them. Given the centuries of misconceptions surrounding “soul food,” they decided to reinvent the genre, serving dishes such as ceviche with berbere sauce and peanut stew with seared lamb belly. They’ve played Tupac and Al Green during an eight-course meal — a rare experience in Charlotte’s fine-dining establishments. Last year, they took the dinners on the road to Charleston, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. In February, Collier was nominated for a James Beard award for best chef in the Southeast.

Both Collier and Bowling say that having more black chefs in the kitchen could transform the racial makeup of the dining room. White chefs are “creating spaces that they like to be in,” Collier says. He mentions dining rooms full of wood, metal, and concrete, where instead of playing ’90s hip-hop, the restaurant is blaring Maroon 5. But if black customers knew a person of color was running the kitchen, or their friend’s daughter was waiting tables, they would be more likely to support the business.

“The way to change it is to give opportunity,” Bowling says. “You gotta interview the guys named Jamal” and give them cooking tests, instead of judging job candidates by how they look or where they live, he adds. Bowling also suggests training minority employees to move up the ranks in the kitchen.

Jamie Turner, a pastry chef and founding member of Soul Food Sessions, says it was hard for her to join the “family atmosphere” of a kitchen when she was the only African-American woman in the room. She didn’t share her co-workers’ culture or background and felt she had to work twice as hard to prove her skills. “Never really getting the recognition for what I was doing was very discouraging,” says Turner, 37.

Once, while she was working at a high-end resort hotel in Charlotte, her boss told what he considered to be a joke. Why didn’t the black guy go to the hoedown? Because he thought his sister got shot. Turner was so uncomfortable that she complained to the hotel’s security office and HR department. “All I got was a half-hearted apology,” she says of her boss. As far as she knows, he was never disciplined.

Now Turner works at Earl’s Grocery, an upscale market owned by two white women, with a head chef Turner calls a “woke” white male. They have fascinating, hard conversations in the kitchen, in part because the chef is not afraid to address racism, sexism, and misogyny. “Getting kitchens to open up and really address these issues, I think would really help the movement,” Turner says. “Because the tension is there.”

ROC United offers an online guide to help restaurant owners recognize their biases and address segregation among their ranks. For example, managers can add more people of color to their hiring team, recruit qualified non-white servers and bartenders, and promote from within — encouraging minority employees to move from the kitchen to management jobs in the dining room.

To aid in this effort, ROC United provides free training to people who want to be servers, bartenders, and managers in restaurants. There are far more well-paid positions in those areas than in the kitchen, Jayaraman says, and her group wants to address the implicit biases that discourage workers of color from even applying for those jobs. Some customers have outdated notions about how their sommelier or waiter should look, thinking that if their server is white and male, the place is more prestigious, she says. Meanwhile, Jayaraman says she doesn’t feel comfortable eating in a sit-down restaurant where neither the customers nor the servers look like her.

Brewster suggests restaurants implement a zero-tolerance policy for “racialized discourse” on the job because some of his studies have shown that more than a quarter of servers overhear their managers making racist comments. “It’s not the type of language that you would hear in most workplaces,” Brewster says. “It really needs to be combatted at the cultural level.”

As Barber pointed out, culture has long been the place where civil rights battles were waged. Decades before the Woolworth sit-in, African-American students from Bennett College organized a boycott over the prejudicial depiction of black people at Greensboro’s segregated movie theaters. Today, students who live on A&T’s campus are divided into two congressional districts because the voting maps were gerrymandered to favor Republicans.

“Love, truth, and justice must fight again,” Barber told the audience in Greensboro. “If they sat-in then because of the signs, we ought to be having sit-ins now because of the situation.”

Lisa Rab is a journalist in western North Carolina whose work has appeared in The Washington Post Magazine and Politico. Reach her at lisarab.com.

Lisa Rab is an investigative journalist whose work has appeared in outlets such as The Washington Post Magazine and Politico Magazine.

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