More than Food: Savoring the Flavor of Dignity
The restaurants on Church Street in the 1950s were among its most fabled establishments. From fine dining to soda shops and hot dog stands, the street held a cornucopia of culinary delights.
The Ess-Tee Café is remembered as a place for “home cooking in a fine dining atmosphere.” It was owned and operated by one of Church Street’s most noted entrepreneurs, Mr. W. I. Peek. Legend has it that on one memorable occasion W. C. Handy, composer of “St. Louis Blues,” enjoyed a meal there.
The Bon Ton Lunch, dubbed “Anderson’s Finest by Taste and Test,” is best remembered for its wide selection of meat-and-three dinners and short orders. It was owned and operated by Mr. John Fred, still revered as one of Anderson’s most successful restaurateurs.
The eating places on Church Street served up more than food. African Americans were served with dignity and pride during segregation when most other restaurants were off limits to them. Many people across the country remember the sad sight of “white” and “colored” water fountains. Blacks were served out of the back door of “white-owned” businesses – if at all. Recollections of the era detail that Dickson’s Ice Cream on the square in downtown Anderson would serve blacks but only on the street – not inside. The State Theater on Whitner Street mandated that blacks sit in the balcony. Tom’s Grill, located in the building that still stands on the corner of Church Street and South Main, had a back room where blacks could sit down and be served – viewed as progressive for the time.
In contrast to the rest of the business community during segregation, Church Street offered an atmosphere where everyone felt welcome. The restaurants also offered an opportunity for owners and workers to make a good living in an era when options were limited by legal and societal constraints. The pride there was contagious.
“We had the best hot dogs in town. My daddy used to make them and I had his recipe. Economics, it was all about economics.” Mr. Harry Thompson
“The work ethic was wonderful. There was a great sense of pride. They were well-respected and looked up to. They knew they were providing a service – a place where we could go in and sit down and have a meal. The Ess-Tee Café was really some place to be.” Dr. Beatrice Thompson
“You could get a full meal – a meat and three vegetables – including a beverage for 58 cents in my brother’s restaurant.” Mrs. Mary Frances Wardlaw
“Hamburgers started coming in – before that, we just had hot dogs, you didn’t have so much beef in those days. As far as drinks, minorities didn’t have Coca-Cola, you could go get it, but they didn’t solicit your business. We had 3-centers and Nehi Big Orange.” Mr. Patrick Flack
“People came from all over to Church Street to get that good chicken and rice . . . beef stew bowls . . . real delicious.” Mr. Roosevelt Thompson
“I was always told that if you wanted to amount to anything in life, you should be like the business people on Church Street. It was the most viable part of the black community. Besides that, there were very few places where minorities could go and be served during my early years.” Mr. Horace Holloway
“The fish sandwiches were the best. They were fried mullet served between two pieces of white bread. You could get one for about 10 cents and if you were lucky, you got a piece with a tail on it.” Mr. Frank Mauldin