The Coon Chicken Inn Lives

The Coon Caricature - "Black men are lazy, easily frightened, chronically idle, inarticulate, physically ugly idiots." - Understanding Jim Crow (2015) - David Pilgrim


 Coon Chicken Inn Neon Sign at Cook's Garage Restaurant in Lubbock, TX

Coon Chicken Inn Neon Sign at Cook's Garage Restaurant in Lubbock, TX

The Cook's Garage Restaurant in Lubbock, TX has recently come under fire. The restaurant has its interior and parking lot outfitted with retro auto, travel, gas station  and restaurant signs and memorabilia. It recently decided to add to its collection the racist logo, in neon form, of the defunct Coon Chicken Inn. No that's not a typo, there was a restaurant called the Coon Chicken Inn and the neon sign in the photo is an accurate replica of their logo.

Background on the Coon Chicken Inn

The Coon Chicken Inn was founded in Salt Lake City, UT in 1925 by Maxon Lester Graham. He would later go on to open locations of the restaurant in Seattle, WA (1929)  and Portland, OR (1930).

The logo consisted of a bald Black man with a porter's cap, winking eye, enlarged red lips and large teeth that exposed the words "Coon Chicken Inn" etched on his teeth. The entrance to the restaurant was literally through the middle of his mouth (see pics). The logo appeared on every dish, menu, paper product and silverware. To help spread the name and promote the Coon Chicken Inn brand, the restaurant also provided customers with spare tire covers. Since almost every car from that era attached its spare tire to the rear of the car, this created incredible visibility for the offensive logo.

The messages in the print advertising were also fairly obvious, if by chance the logo didn't give it away:

  • "Eat Delicious, Piping-Hot 'Coon Chicken'"
  • "Coon Chicken? Ask Anyone Who Came From South" 
  • "...the way the fowl is cooked by the real, old-fashioned Mammy."

Resistance

Almost immediately after its opening in Seattle, it was met with resistance. In 1930, the Seattle NAACP filed a lawsuit against the Coon Chicken Inn for libel and defamation of race. This led to a consent agreement between the NAACP and Graham that resulted in Graham removing the word "Coon" from his delivery cars, repainting the "Coon head" entrance at the restaurant and cancelling his order of 1,000 spare tire covers. However, Graham violated the agreement and in order to evade the lawsuit, he changed the color of the skin in the logo from black to blue. Despite protests, lawsuits and court challenges, the restaurant chain didn't fade away from Seattle and Portland until 1949. Its Salt Lake City location didn't close its doors until 1957.

Back to Cook's Garage

According to KCBD News, this was the response from the ownership of Cook's Garage, which has since been deleted from Facebook:  

"We did not put this sign up to be derogatory, racist or to offend anyone. This is part of Americana History...just like everything else hung in our collection and buildings. Aunt Jemima, mammies, and lots of other black collectibles are highly sought after, as is Americana collectibles with white characters. The Coon Chicken Inn was an actual restaurant started in the 20’s. Again, we want to stress we do not intend to offend anyone, and are only preserving a part of history that should remind us all of the senselessness of racial prejudice."

I'm always intrigued when I see this type of response to glorifying and perpetuating hateful and demeaning imagery of African Americans. The person perpetuating the stereotypes often want you to divorce these items from their original intent and lasting legacy. They want to place them into a category of respected memorabilia or sought-after collectibles. They ignore the harm those items were created to induce then and the harm they still inflict today.

Then he attempts to compare Aunt Jemima, mammy and other items that disparaged African Americans with items featuring whites from the same era. That analogy is simply non-sensical. I'm sure Cook's Garage doesn't have a single piece of memorabilia that disparages whites or their place in America. 

Then he attempts to justify these items by calling them, "Americana." Whose Americana? Why are grotesque and demeaning images and representations of African Americans "Americana?" And let's not fall into the argument that determining "Americana" is tied to the era it was created and not the content of the creation. Every late 19th and early 20th century item every created doesn't become Americana. Americana is determined by the place those items hold within the American ideal.

Are we still so tied to bigoted and racist ideals that we refuse to denounce them and place them where they belong...in museums for context and teaching? One would hope not, but I do know they have no place in restaurants for entertainment and decor. 

Resources

Rev. Elliott Robinson, JD, MDiv