When Brigham Young and a vanguard company of Latter-day Saints entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 they knew they’d finally found their home in the Rockies. (Griffiths) And as their community in the desert quietly blossomed they declared it Deseret, a term for honeybee lifted from the Book of Mormon, and adopted the beehive as their state emblem. This simple emblem not only referenced their Christian roots, but it also symbolized a unified commitment to industriousness that has remained a hallmark of Utah’s culture. (Malouf)
In modern times that industrious spirit has led to a boom in the beehive state’s tech and creative sectors, but in 1925 it drove Maxon Lester Graham and his wife Adelaide Burt to create a fast-food restaurant legacy built on a foundation of racist imagery with a name to match: Coon Chicken Inn.
Utah, like much of America, has a complicated history with race. Much of the population is affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has always allowed Blacks into its ranks although they’ve held a lower status. A demonstration of this fact is that three Black members of the church were present in the vanguard company of 1847, but they were used as servants The most controversial aspect of this attitude is that Black members — as well as suspected Black members according to a racial “one drop” policy — were denied priesthood privileges essential to the faith until the 1970s. (Reeve) Yet these complications reach far beyond faith. An attitude of separation trickled into Utah’s secular psyche as well, with Blacks receiving second-class treatment inside and outside of the church. While the creation of Coon Chicken Inn is perhaps the most blatant example of this attitude, it is not an isolated example.
To grasp the severity of the logo’s use, one must understand the racist history behind the “coon” caricature. The term came into prominence during 19th-century minstrel shows through a character named Zip Coon. As a part of his act, Zip Coon would act uppity with a braggart’s swagger while employing malapropisms in a nod to his lack of education. This would elicit laughter and intrigue while also reinforcing White supremacy and animosity toward Blacks. The slur itself became popular in the late 1800s after Black entertainer Ernest Hogan released a song called, “All Coons Look Alike to Me.” Subsequent derogatory imitation “coon songs” were released shortly after and remained popular until the 1920s. Eventually the “coon” caricature became a nostalgic device for certain northerners and southerners to rekindle revisionist memories of life in the American South. (Strausbaugh)
The first Coon Chicken Inn opened in 1925 after the Grahams bought and renovated a small building in the Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake City. Their take on southern fried chicken was a hit and by 1930 they opened two additional sites (in Washington and Oregon). To stir up additional business they incorporated the smiling blackface logo as they believed it would entice young families. The logo, an abrasive caricature with exaggerated lips, would reflect the owners’ racial disconnection, especially in Seattle and Portland where more Blacks were present.
Black residents did not accept the imagery, however, and Joseph Staton, a Black resident of Seattle, was arrested, booked, and fined $3 for cutting the caricature out of a Coon Chicken Inn spare tire cover. (The Seattle Times) Also, Clarence R. Anderson, a Black attorney, launched a two-year lawsuit against the inn with the NAACP, although Graham dodged the lawsuit by painting the Black porter’s face blue. (Northwest Enterprise) Nonetheless, the logo would later appear on paper products, plates, and menus that are now considered collectible. Eventually, 12-foot constructions of the logo would beckon patrons at the restaurants’ front doors.
Protests by angry Black citizens of Seattle and Portland would ultimately yield few changes to the franchise, but the locations finally closed in 1949. (Seattle Post Intelligencer) However, in December 1949, Graham opened G.I. Joe’s New Country Store in the same Seattle location and continued using the coon logo in advertisements that reached Salt Lake City. (Lake City Citizen) The Salt Lake City location remained open until 1957.
Undoubtedly, Coon Chicken Inn is an ugly reminder of the past, but an unnamed grandson of the Grahams has since written an essay about the restaurant’s legacy for the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. (McFarland) “I preface this essay by saying that I do not condone the ‘Jim Crow’ attitudes of the past. I and ALL of my siblings believe in full equality for all races, creeds, and skin colors. My grandparents were entrepreneurs engaging in what were normal business practices,” he penned in the essay. “They left behind artifacts, popularly called ‘Black Memorabilia,’ that serve as reminders that this particular part of history must never, and will never, be repeated.” (The History of Coon Chicken Inn)
Utahns of Salt Lake City must ensure this sentiment rings true.
Devon Alexander Brown is a senior at The University of Utah and is majoring in journalism. He is pursuing a career in writing and photojournalism and is primarily interested in art and culture. Devon is also interested in documentary films and the tiny house movement.
Sadie McIver, “Files Protest Against ‘Coon Chicken’ Advertisement,” Northwest Enterprise, July 16, 1931, 8.
Candace Black, “Chicken Inn Dodges Suit with Blue Paint,“ Northwest Enterprise, March 17, 1932, 6.
“Big Crowd — Little Profit,” Seattle Post Intelligencer, March 8, 1937.
“C. of C. Helps to End Dispute,“ The Seattle Times, March 18, 1937.
Advertisement for Coon Chicken Inn, Utah Chronicle, February 1, 1940, 4.
“Joe’s Country Store,” Lake City Citizen, December 8, 1949.
“The History of Coon Chicken Inn.” Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, Ferris State University.
Strausbaugh, John. Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture. New York: Penguin, 2006.
Reeve, W. Paul. Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
McFarland, Sheena. “Whatever happened to … the chicken restaurant with the racially charged name?” The Salt Lake Tribune, January 13, 2015.
Malouf, Mary Brown. “Behind the Beehive,” Salt Lake Magazine, May 2, 2016.
Griffiths, Casey Paul, et al. “The myth about Brigham Young’s ‘this is the place’ quote,” LDS Living, July 25, 2017.