So common were student arrests at downtown Baltimore restaurants during the late 1950s and early 1960s that detainees at the City Jail had classes held there so they wouldn’t fall behind.
So tireless were those who boycotted, demonstrated and sat-in at lunch counters during the fight for equal accommodations that the Baltimore City Council warned the public that “the city will be harassed indefinitely” until it complied, according to coverage from The Baltimore Sun in 1962.
So hostile was the attitude in Maryland, a former slave state, that it took direct intervention from President John F. Kennedy for the majority of restaurants along Maryland U.S. 40 to provide food service for African diplomats who were often denied entry while traveling from Washington, D.C., to New York.
“I want them to see that this country fully lives the principles of freedom and equality of opportunity,” Kennedy wrote to some 200 Maryland officials in a 1961 telegram. The state of Maryland granted Kennedy’s request for legalized desegregation in 1963, a year ahead of the Supreme Court ruling that barred unequal access to public accommodations on the basis of race, sex or religion on a national level.
Today, several Baltimore eatery owners seek to pay homage to their predecessors’ sacrifices by creating multi-use restaurant spaces that not only serve soul-satisfying foods but also host free arts, entertainment and educational events for patrons.
This structure isn’t necessarily a new concept.
“Black people weren’t welcome in a lot of places, so all we had were black institutions that have always been playing multiple roles,” said Kris Marsh, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. “You’re seeing that history continue itself.”
But Baltimore restaurant owners say this community-first, more-with-less business model does establish a new narrative in a city that still struggles with division and inequality — one that they hope their patrons take advantage of and follow in their example.
Starting from scratch
After the courts struck down discriminatory Jim Crow laws, African-Americans began entering a wider array of workforce professions and experimenting with their own brands of food service. Many turned their ancestors’ recipes into mainstream delights.
Shortly after Chicken George hit the restaurant franchise market in 1979, the Baltimore-based fried chicken and soul-food chain competed for customers alongside brands like Kentucky Fried Chicken and Popeyes.
Chicken George enjoyed enormous profitability and scaled into what The Baltimore Sun reported as the largest black-owned fast food chain in the country at the time, eventually opening locations across the country. Its founder, Theodore N. Holmes, broke barriers as its owner and chief executive.
The company soared through the early 1980s, but eventually filed for bankruptcy in 1991 and dissolved.
Other area restaurants found more localized success, like Yellow Bowl restaurant on Greenmount Avenue. The “Bowl,” as affectionate patrons knew it, lured its loyal customer base with a soul food-oriented menu that included not just fried chicken, but other fan favorites like pigs' feet, candied yams, collard greensand scrapple sandwiches.
As one of Baltimore’s oldest black-owned restaurants, the establishment dates to 1921. It transformed from a white-run establishment where black customers could only order carryout to an African-American-owned haven when Youman Fullard Sr., the son of a South Carolina sharecropper, and his wife, Eva Virginia Knight, bought the space in 1968. Eventually, the family opened another location on Park Heights Avenue in 1975.
The “Bowl” served up not just hearty food but a comfortable atmosphere where tables reportedly filled up every day. “This is a place where they know how you like your eggs,” The Sun wrote in 1988.
"I had a policy that I used to try and make the few minutes anyone spends here the best few minutes of their day," Fullard said in a 1994 interview with the Baltimore Sun. "At other businesses, the people there act like they're doing you a favor. Not here."
The Fullards decided to lease both restaurants in 2005 and no longer have any involvement with them. But it’s in the spirit of that same home-away-from-home philosophy that today’s African-American-owned eateries in Baltimore run their businesses — as both a testament and tribute to the past.
Taueret Khepera Thomas, owner of Baltimore’s multi-purpose Khepera’s Kitchen — which functions as a weekend brunch spot, catering service and private event space — said it’s become a tradition for minority restaurant owners in the Baltimore area to provide a “total experience” for customers that includes more than just food.
“It’s something that’s needed in our community,” she said. “It’s always been minorities in the kitchens, but to the idea that we can lead a kitchen or have our own restaurants — we have to continue to prove that we can do it.”
Good food, better company
For Terra Cafe owner Terence Dickson, his Charles Village restaurant represents not just the heart of the community but is also emblematic of a “new Baltimore,” or what he says is a different way of accepting accountability for the city and filling in the gaps left open by decades of underinvestment in its neighborhoods.
“Society is not willing to step in and make us greater, so we’re here to erase the stigma that someone will come and save you,” Dickson, 55, said.
Dickson, who turned the space into a cafe about 10 years ago, said he felt compelled to enter the food business upon realizing that taking his children out for nice dinners — like his father used to do for him — often entailed exposing them to white-owned restaurants.
Reflecting on Baltimore’s history, he realized an opportunity to rectify some of the wrongs of the past — using food to bridge divides and teach his kids about their roots.
“That time isn’t that far away, that limitation of where and how you could eat in all parts of America,” he said. “I wanted my sons and other kids to see what a great African-American restaurant is. That’s important because that’s how you change the narrative.”
Dickson’s three sons — Teryn, 25, Torrey, 19, and Taahj, 12 — also work at the restaurant, which their father said helps the community visualize “what an awesome black family business” looks like in practice. And it doesn’t stop with food service: Terra Cafe welcomes artists, poets, vendors and speakers, provides a meeting spot for local businesses and activists, hosts live jazz music every Monday, and staffers hit the streets every second Sunday of each month to pass out sandwiches and cosmetics for those in need.
Dickson said he dedicated his space to fulfilling the community’s needs upon opening Terra Cafe and continues to search for opportunities to give back. He constructed much of it on his own, using recyclable materials and artwork that centers on the African-American experience, including portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. and Aretha Franklin.
“It’s not about the money. It’s about the community,” Dickson said, adding that parts of Baltimore have experienced growth and development at the expense of others. “This here is all about togetherness.”
Other restaurants incorporate educational resources into their business models. Using their space as a vehicle for community service, Kimberly Ellis and her husband Edward run Pigtowns’s Breaking Bread restaurant by the motto of “Mission over Money.” They host a range of free classes and programs for customers ranging from financial literacy and first-time home buying to family-style cooking classes.
But Ellis said while opening her own restaurant fulfills a long-held dream, she’s felt overwhelmed by the amount of work it involves.
“It’s hard in the city — there’s no book anybody gives you on how to do this,” Ellis said. “But it’s rewarding because there’s a renaissance of people starting their own businesses and looking to help the community they live in.”
Similarly, at Dovecote Cafe in Reservoir Hill, co-owner Aisha Pew said through an active events calendar — which includes free produce giveaways, employment opportunities for kids, artist, author and musician exposes, garden tours, free yoga sessions, movie nights and speaker series — the restaurant seeks to play a part in rebuilding Baltimore into a sovereign, sustainable community. Pew said chefs’ culinary freedom in the Dovecote kitchen also aligns with that mission.
“We are able to create possibilities for what this city can become,” said Pew. “The concept of having something that’s beyond just a muffin — we’re trying to tell a different story.”
Many restaurant owners said without equitable access to capital, they’ve self-funded their ventures and faced scalability challenges, often relying on their own skills and smarts to grow their businesses. This accessibility challenge has dogged minority and female business owners for decades not just in Baltimore but also across the country.
Using data from the Kauffman Firm Survey and Dun & Bradstreet, a team of researchers found in a 2017 analysis that nationally, black entrepreneurs start businesses at smaller scales and tend to receive less financial capital than their white counterparts, which leads to persistent funding differences over time. A 2012 study published by the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy echoed this claim, finding that minority-owned firms tend to operate with “substantially” less capital in their founding and subsequent years compared to non-minority businesses.
This analysis also found that women, blacks and Hispanics were less likely than white males to apply for loans out of fear of being denied — and that those who did apply were “much less likely” to have their loans approved.
Hasson Diggs, president of the Baltimore-based nonprofit organization Black Professional Men Inc., said residents have grown accustomed to achieving their goals with fewer resources than desired.
“The people here are survivors,” he said. “It’s a challenge for some black staff and service professionals to be able to put themselves in a position to be successful or sustain success.”
Diggs and the other members of his organization work to expose constituents to different resources and networking opportunities to help them in their business and economic pursuits. Many of their initiatives, like “Eat Black Baltimore” and “Hire Black Baltimore,” enable black restaurant and business owners to gain exposure within the community and perhaps hire within. The group also sponsors neighborhood festivals, networking and community service events, and conferences to further that mission.
But many agree that minority restaurant and small business ownership in both Maryland and Baltimore still lag behind where they need to be — and much like the fight for equal access to public accommodations, this battle for equalized accessibility may, too, require top-down legislation.
“If there was a policy in place that allowed that access to be there, that would solve 90 percent of the issues,” said Kendrick Tilghman, president of the Greater Baltimore Black Chamber of Commerce. “Like I heard someone say once — if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”