“Coon Chicken Inn: Nationally Famous, Coast to Coast.” That was the tagline used in advertisements for the restaurant chain, which could be found throughout the Pacific Northwest and originated in Salt Lake City, Utah. Opened by couple Adelaide Burt and Maxon Lester Graham in 1925, hungry patrons entered the restaurant through the red-lipped, white-toothed mouth of a 12-foot caricature of a winking black face wearing a porter’s cap. The chain even had a delivery fleet, wherein a car emblazoned with laughing minstrel faces would drive up to consumers homes, according to a January 2015 retrospective article by The Salt Lake Tribune. The restaurant saw great success.
A memoir written by a grandson of the original owners, which is available from the Jim Crow Museum of Memorabilia, describes Burt and Graham’s business practices as normal for the time. They had enjoyed fried chicken from a local business and decided to open a restaurant of their own serving the same food in Sugar House, which was then only a small suburb of the city. The famous logo was added to the storefront, eventually spreading to a large variety of other items nearly five years after the successful opening and growth of the business.
The “coon head” logo and memorabilia was a gimmick to attract customers, claims an article on the restaurant at BlackPast.org. The organization describes the logo as “[saturating] the restaurant’s interior…. Plates, forks, menus, and placemats featured the caricature, as did menu items such as the ‘Baby Coon Special’ and the ‘Coon Fried Steak.’” The logo additionally appeared on a variety of items such as “postcards, newspaper advertisements, matchboxes, children’s fans, and spare tire covers.” African-American communities and organizations near the Seattle location quickly took action against the restaurant. The NAACP and African American newspaper The Northwest Enterprise threatened to take legal action against Graham for libel and defamation of race, pushing for a change in advertising. There was no reactionary movement at the Salt Lake City location, but at the time the 681 Black citizens of Salt Lake City who might take issue with the business comprised only .5 percent of the populace, as recorded in the 1930 census.
Utah’s Coon Chicken Inn closed in 1957, the last location of the chain to close by nearly a decade, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. The Seattle Civil Rights & Labor Department at the University of Washington argues that the presence of this restaurant more than a century after the height of the minstrel era underscores the lasting power of this caricature and the underlying stigmas about race and Black people that continue to exist in the Pacific Northwest.
In Utah, racial tensions were relatively unspoken but persisted in force. The installment of Black troops at Fort Douglas in 1896 and 1899 was met by strong protest from the media and local government, according to “Blacks and the Military In American History” by Jack D. Foner. In 1925, the same year that Coon Chicken Inn opened, a Black Utahn by the name of Robert Marshall was tortured and lynched to the cheers of a crowd in Price. A thousand Utahns petitioned with partial success in 1939 to restrict black citizens to a designated neighborhood away from the city center, and blacks were refused full access to local amusement park Lagoon until the late 1940s, reports Utah History To Go.
Advertisements for Coon Chicken Inn featuring minstrel art were posted in many issues of the Utah Chronicle in the early 20th century; today they provide a rare and important look into an obscured facet of the area’s culture. In its discussion of Coon Chicken Inn’s novelties and other minstrel products, “African American visual representation: from repression to resistance” by Paul Von Blum perhaps sums up the issue best: “All of these [advertising caricatures] were designed for a white population that rarely encountered contrary images of African American dignity. They were fully part of a racist visual culture, viewing such imagery as nothing more than humorous depictions of obvious racial truths. These racist pictures and objects confirmed what most white audiences already believed. Any suggestion that these posters, postcards, toys, figures, film clips, and other objects, had repressive political consequences would likely have led to puzzled or even incredulous responses.”
Noelani Blueford graduated in May 2019 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism.
Advertisement, Coon Chicken Inn, Utah Chronicle, January 18, 1940, 4.
Advertisement, Coon Chicken Inn, Utah Chronicle, January 25, 1940, 4.
Coleman, Ronald G. “Blacks in Utah History: An Unknown Legacy,” Utah History To Go.
Foner, Jack D. Blacks and the Military in American History. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974.
Gibson, Campbell and Kay Jung. “Historical Census Statistics On Population Totals By Race, 1790 to 1990, and By Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990, For Large Cities And Other Urban Places In The United States,” U.S. Census Bureau Population Division (February 2005): 106.
Macfarland, Sheena. “Whatever happened to … the chicken restaurant with the racially charged name?” The Salt Lake Tribune, January 13, 2015.
Roth, Catherine. “Coon Chicken Inn,” BlackPast.org.
Roth, Catherine. “The Coon Chicken Inn: North Seattle’s Beacon of Bigotry.” The Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project at the University of Washington.
Von Blum, Paul. “African American Visual Representation: From Repression to Resistance,” Journal of Pan African Studies 5 no. 8 (December 2012): 41.
“The History of Coon Chicken Inn.” Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University.