A restaurant tour through Springfield’s racial cityscape

The common restaurant review covers quality of food and service; atmosphere, cleanliness and price-range; hours, specials and availability of adult refreshments; and perhaps, what’s available for children.

But as Betty Cool made the rounds of Springfield restaurants in the fall of 1949, she was focused on another attribute of dining establishments: color, specifically, the color of patrons.

Then a student at Manchester College in North Manchester, Ind., Cool was at work on a paper titled “Negro-White Relations in Springfield, Ohio,” for her “Race and Minority Problems Class.”

New to the city’s larger history, she was just learning about the 1904 lynching of Richard Dixon at Fountain and Main streets and the burning of black areas of town after the Dixon, who was black, shot and killed a Springfield policeman; a white mob’s burning of a section of town called “The Jungles” two years later after the sheriff moved the black man arrested for the fatal shooting of a white man to the Dayton Jail to prevent his lynching; and black protests that in the 1920s frustrated an attempt by the superintendent, later found to be associated with the Ku Klux Klan, to begin segregating the Springfield schools by funneling all black students to Fulton Elementary.

Still, as a Springfielder, she knew the lay of the late ‘40s city well enough to choose seven “representative” restaurants that appear in a portion of her paper that provides a kind of walking tour through the racial cityscape of the time.

I caution all of you going along with me on the tour to watch out for the words “Negro” and “colored,” over which those of our time tend to trip in the same way we might after catching a toe on a piece of raised sidewalk.

I’ve chose to leave the words as she wrote them to remind us each time we stumble over them of the greater obstacles the times presented for black residents on their walks through life.

We’ll ease into the tour at the National Coffee Shop at 2717 E Main St., which our guide tells us “serves Negroes and has them frequently as customers.”

I picture a towel over a shoulder of manager Walter Caywood as he tells us that serving blacks does hurt business, because “sometimes when a colored person comes in to be served several white customers will leave.”

“The manager deplores the attitude and says that colored people’s money is just as good as anyone else’s,” Cool tells us, but, that’s the way it is.

Before leaving the National Restaurant, notice “they employ a Negro chef, Negro cook and Negro dishwasher,” whom Caywood assures us are “all fine people and good workers.”

Downtown at the street at the Hotel Shawnee, things are different. The establishment employs “mostly colored waiters and waitresses.” (Among them are salad maker Alice Lee Welch, whose son won the Soap Box Derby held here in 1934.)

In a tone of voice Miss Cool isn’t sure is serious or sarcastic, the hotel’s managing director, Harry J. Weseloh, says Negros “are too intelligent to try to go in and eat.” Either way, the bottom line is the same: He says the Shawnee hasn’t had “the problem of Negro customers.”

South on Limestone Street from the Shawnee, Baker’s cafeteria proprietor Frank L. Braun tells us he hasn’t had a black customer for a year or more, but says “when they came in, they were served the same as other people.”

But the “colored help” in the kitchen and busing tables regularly serves the “colored boys” who eat with all the other members of the Springfield High School Wildcats football team dining there after games.

The Rustic Inn, which does not employ any “colored” help, also posts a sign saying, “We reserve the right to seat all patrons.”

They exercise that right to route blacks away from “the main dining room (and) the lunch counter” and into separate rooms at other times used for groups.

The nervousness of the manager at Schultz’s restaurant comes through when he says “with some hesitancy” that black customers possibly would be served if they entered and assures Miss Cool the “several colored people” who work there are “satisfactory.”

Although the cafeteria at Wren’s Department Store “does not have many” black customers, “they do serve them with some reluctance,” Cool is told, perhaps suggesting a feeling their coming to the restaurant is a breach of etiquette.

The cafeteria does however, “employ several colored girls, who clean up tables, carry out dirty dishes and jobs similar to that.”

Charles E. Perchment, manager of at the Hillcrest Cafeteria, says some “colored” workers at work on the new Mercy Hospital stop by for food “once in a while.”

“They go through the cafeteria line and then take the food outside to eat it — this by choice and not by the request of the management.”

Also “a short time ago the members of a colored Catholic Church (St. Martin’s) were served breakfast in the cafeteria. Forty people were present, all Negroes except the priest.”

If you’ll all sit down, we’ll wrap up today’s tour with a story told to Miss Cool by another man of the cloth, the Rev. Lester E. Fike.

A pastor to the First Church of the Brethren at 731 W. Columbia St., he recalled to her the day he was parking in a lot next to the post office when he heard the sound of raised voices from the alley across the street.

“A colored man was coming out of the alley and had to stop because of the traffic just as a white man was coming along the sidewalk,” he said. “The stopped car was directly across (the white man’s) path, and he would likely have walked around it and thought nothing of it had the driver been white.

“Instead, he talked sharply to the driver and told him to get out of his way. His language and abuse vexed the driver and he got out of the car. I thought they were going to fight, but they cursed each other a bit and he got back in to drive away.

“The white man threatened to call the police. The colored man told him to go ahead. I was waiting to tell the police what I thought of the situation should they have called them.

“When the traffic cleared so he could get out of the way,” Rev. Fike said, “the white man went into the Young Men’s Christian Association.”

Those ministers sure know how to end a story — and a tour.

(Note: The restaurant managers’ names listed were not named in Cool’s paper, but were identified through listings in the 1949 City Directory.)

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