The Coon Chicken Inn and Utah’s Hidden History of Racism

By Chris Oregon

The Coon Chicken Inn was a fried chicken restaurant chain located in the Pacific Northwest and owned by Maxon Lester Graham and his wife Adelaide. The first Coon Chicken Inn was established in 1925 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Coon Chicken Inn was famously known for its racist “coon” caricature logo that was used to promote the authenticity of the southern-style food. At the entrance of the restaurant was a 12-foot “coon head.” Customers entered through the mouth, which had exaggerated large lips and teeth. This same entrance was then used for the other two locations that opened later. Despite protests against the racial slurs and racist caricatures the stores remained open until the late 1950s. Even though the restaurant was racist, the only complaint from the city was when it heard rumors that operators were serving alcohol. On March 11, 1927, The Salt Lake Telegram wrote about the trial that Graham went to for “conducting a disorderly house,” because officers had claimed that they found liquor on three of the restaurant’s tables. (“Graham Enters Not Guilty Plea”)

 

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Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, The University of Utah.

Catherine Roth writes that the large “coon head” used for the entrance of the building was a gimmick to attract customers. (“The Coon Chicken Inn”) Graham also used the logo on postcards, newspaper advertisements, children’s fans, delivery cars, and matchboxes as promotion.

After gaining a lot of success, Graham later opened two more locations in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington. Each location had the “coon head” entrance that was used with the first location to attract customers. The restaurant not only provided food for its customers but entertainment as well. The Utah Chronicle mentioned that the restaurant offered dancing and talented local musicians to entertain customers. (“What We’ll Do”) The Coon Chicken Inn was popular among University of Utah students; the Interfraternity Council planned a stag party for students and the restaurant was chosen to host its festivities. (“Greek Council”) Popular among University of Utah students, several fraternities chose to hold events such as banquets at the restaurant because it had a dance floor and live music for everyone to enjoy. (“The Town Chatter”) Variety magazine also mentioned in its April 7, 1937, issue that the Coon Chicken Inn was a great spot for out-of-state bands to work with local musicians, which helped attract customers.

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Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, The University of Utah.

Despite being racist, the restaurant was very successful, opening a total of three locations in three different cities. After opening in Seattle in 1930, Graham was met with protests. That same year the Seattle branch of the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People (NAACP) and the African-American newspaper, the Northwest Enterprise, protested the opening of the restaurant and even threatened Graham “with a lawsuit for libel and defamation of race.” In response, Graham agreed to change his advertising styles by “removing the word ‘Coon’ from the restaurant’s delivery and also by repainting the ‘Coon head’ entrance to the restaurant.” Instead of the “coon head” being black he decided to paint the skin color blue to avoid further issues. Graham also canceled his order of 1,000 car tire covers to please the protesters and not get in legal trouble. In the end, Graham removed the “Coon head” from public view and decided to close the restaurant doors for good. (Roth, “The Coon Chicken Inn”)

Today, the original Coon Chicken Inn building is gone. Despite the restaurant being shut down, Coon Chicken Inn remains relevant today due to the collectibles being sold online as black memorabilia. In 2017, Cook’s Garage, a Texas restaurant, caused outrage when customers noticed a Coon Chicken Inn neon sign on its walls. After receiving so much backlash, the owner said the sign wasn’t there to offend anyone, but to display Americana history. (Robinson) Even though the restaurant has been closed since the 1950s, it is still making headlines to this day. It’s still a relevant topic due to its racism. The Coon Chicken Inn will forever be a part of Utah history.

Chris Oregon is a senior at the University of Utah. He is majoring in mass communication with an emphasis in journalism and minoring in Spanish.

Sources

Graham Enters Not Guilty Plea,” Salt Lake Telegram, March 11, 1927, 2.

The Town Chatter,” Utah Chronicle, December 21, 1932, 2.

What We’ll Do,” Utah Chronicle, January 25, 1934, 2.

Greek Council Chooses Rulers,” Utah Chronicle, May 21, 1936, 1.

“Salt Lake City Sets Bands for Summer,” Variety, April 7, 1937, 50.

Advertisement, Coon Chicken Inn, Utah Chronicle, September 28, 1944, 4.

Roth, Catherine. “Coon Chicken Inn (Seattle),” HistoryLink.org, October 16, 2009.

Roth, Catherine. “The Coon Chicken Inn: North Seattle’s Beacon of Bigotry,” Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, University of Washington, 2009.

Robinson, Elliott. “The Coon Chicken Inn Lives,” CreativeTension.org, 2017.

Coon Chicken Inn: A Stain on Utah History

By Noelani Blueford

“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.

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The restaurant advertised regularly in the Utah Chronicle.

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.

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Ads like this appeared in the Utah Chronicle.

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.

Sources

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.