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Lusco's legacy: Historic Mississippi restaurant — mired in racial past — closing soon

by Brett Anderson, The New York Times | August 31, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.
Albert Webb, a security guard, wipes his brow outside Lusco’s, a restaurant that has operated for nearly a century, in Greenwood, Miss. Since opening in its current location on the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, the beloved establishment, which dates to 1921, has seen the violence of Jim Crow and the civil rights movement — and like restaurants across the South, became a site of those struggles. (Rory Doyle/The New York Times)

GREENWOOD, Miss. — In the Deep South, any restaurant that has operated for nearly a century is bound to have a complicated racial history. Lusco's is one of those.

Since opening in its current location on the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, the restaurant has served cotton farmers and soldiers returning home from war. By the time Karen and Andy Pinkston took over in 1976, it had survived the Great Depression and Prohibition.

It had seen the violence of Jim Crow and the civil rights movement — and like restaurants across the South, it had become a site of those struggles.

Along the way, Lusco's won renown far beyond its home state, and helped establish a style of dining unique to the Mississippi Delta, one loosely based on steak and seafood (and, if you're lucky, tamales) served in timeworn spaces with the electric atmosphere of a juke joint.

The restaurant has been especially busy since April, when news broke that the Pinkstons planned to retire; its final day will be Sept. 25. Fans from all over have been descending on this remote river city for a last chance at enjoying Lusco's signature dishes: spicy shrimp, beef steaks, broiled whole pompano and fried chicken.

Carolyn McAdams, who was a fill-in hostess at the restaurant before she was elected Greenwood's mayor in 2009, is bracing for the void the closing will leave in her hometown. "It's a tradition," she said. "Most milestones in your life, you do it at Lusco's."

In truth, however, only a narrow sliver of Greenwood residents have ever been regulars. Segregation laws prevented Black people, who now make up about 73% of the city's 14,000 residents, from dining there in its early years.

The owners of Lusco's resisted pressure from white customers to convert the business into a private club, as many restaurants in the South did to avoid integrating in the 1960s. Still, desegregation didn't drastically change the racial makeup of its clientele — which remains predominantly white — just as it didn't erase the socioeconomic disparities between Black and white residents in Greenwood.

Booker Wright, its most famous employee, knew that divide well.

Wright worked there for 25 years, mainly as a waiter. That ended in April 1966, immediately after he appeared in "Mississippi: A Self-Portrait," an NBC News documentary about racism in the Delta. The program included footage of Wright filmed at Booker's Place, the bar and restaurant he opened in Greenwood with money earned at Lusco's — and that he operated while still working at the restaurant. In the documentary, he spoke frankly about what it was like to be a Black waiter in the Jim Crow-era South.

"Some people are nice, some not," he said. "Some call me Booker, some call me John, some call me Jim." And some, he said, addressed him with a racist epithet. "All of that hurts, but you have to smile."

The film shocked many Americans and scandalized Greenwood. Hours after it was broadcast in prime time, a police officer assaulted Wright, who was then hospitalized, and Booker's Place was vandalized.

Wright, who was murdered at age 46 in a 1973 confrontation with a customer at Booker's Place, and the film were largely forgotten until about a decade ago, when a number of writers, filmmakers and musicians — including Wright's granddaughter — produced work recasting him as an unheralded civil rights hero. That work includes a second documentary, a book and an oratorio.

Andy and Karen Pinkston took over Lusco’s in 1976, the restaurant in Greenwood, Miss. Andy Pinkston is a descendant of the Sicilian immigrant family who opened the first Lusco’s in Greenwood in 1921. (Rory Doyle/The New York Times)
Andy and Karen Pinkston took over Lusco’s in 1976, the restaurant in Greenwood, Miss. Andy Pinkston is a descendant of the Sicilian immigrant family who opened the first Lusco’s in Greenwood in 1921. (Rory Doyle/The New York Times)

IMPORTANT CHAPTER

Kevin Young, the director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the poetry editor for The New Yorker, wrote the libretto for the oratorio, "Repast," which was performed at Carnegie Hall in 2016.

Young regards the story of Lusco's and its former waiter as an important chapter in the racial justice struggle in Greenwood. The city was a battleground for voting rights, the site of Stokely Carmichael's historic "Black power" speech and a short drive from where 14-year-old Emmett Till was abducted before being lynched and thrown into the Tallahatchie River in 1955.

Charles and Marie Lusco, immigrants from Sicily, opened Lusco's in 1921 as a grocery store and restaurant with a short menu. The business was destroyed by a fire in 1929. Four years later, Sara Gory — one of the couple's daughters and Andy Pinkston's grandmother — opened the current location after the deaths of her husband and a daughter.

"She told me, 'I was left with three kids to support and raise, and the only thing I knew how to do was cook,'" Karen Pinkston recalled in a June interview at the restaurant.

With Gory's two sisters and mother helping in the kitchen, Lusco's became known primarily as a restaurant that served "homebrew," an important draw in Mississippi, which didn't repeal Prohibition laws until 1966. (Alcohol possession didn't become legal in every county until this year.)

(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

BRING THEIR OWN

Lusco's sits in a brick building just south of the railroad tracks, on the edge of Baptist Town, a historically Black neighborhood, and on the other side of the winding Yazoo River from the stately homes of Grand Boulevard. Seafood became a specialty in the mid-20th century, at the request of cotton traders who did business in New Orleans.

Today, Lusco's appears as one imagines it did when it was still a speakeasy. Because a church is close by, the restaurant is still prohibited by the state from serving liquor. Customers typically bring their own bottles, wrapped in brown paper bags.

Most diners sit at tables in the back of the restaurant, behind curtains, in what amount to private rooms. The energy that builds inside what Lusco's calls its "booths" is strikingly at odds with what is otherwise a sleepy Southern town.

For years, customers made a tradition of hurling butter at the ceiling, hoping it would stick. Karen Pinkston put an end to that the night a guest complained of melted butter dripping onto his bald head. "He was irate and very upset," she recalled. "And I was so embarrassed."

Karen Pinkston, 68, and Andy Pinkston, 72, have been contemplating retirement for the past few years. While their children have worked at Lusco's, none are interested in taking over the business, they say, and no one has expressed serious interest in buying it.

EASIER TO MANAGE

The couple said covid-related shutdowns have actually extended the restaurant's life. When the owners reopened in July last year, they reduced the hours to Friday and Saturday nights. With the booths already providing protective barriers and social distancing, the dining room was well-suited to the moment, and the reduced traffic was easier to manage.

The antic atmosphere inside Lusco's on a Friday in June was reminiscent of the days not long ago when Greenwood became a culinary destination, thanks largely to the influence of the Viking Range Corp. Founded in Greenwood in 1987, the kitchen appliance company revived downtown, opening a boutique hotel, the Alluvian, in 2003, and converting storefronts into Viking stores and cooking demonstration kitchens.

Fred Carl Jr., Viking's founder and a Greenwood native, partnered with restaurant chefs to promote the brand. "A lot of times we'll be watching TV and my grandchild will say, 'He's been to Lusco's,'" Pinkston said.

While Carl sold Viking in 2012, the company is still a major local employer. Its imprint on the dining scene is unmistakable.

LEGACY LIVES ON

Chef Taylor Bowen-Ricketts opened Delta Bistro with Carl in 2007. While that restaurant closed, and the partnership ended, its legacy lives on at Fan and Johnny's, a creative, art-adorned Southern restaurant the chef operates in the old Delta Bistro location.

"Fred was sending me three-four times a year to the CIA just to make me smarter," said Bowen-Ricketts, referring to the Culinary Institute of America. "At the same time, he was bringing people from all over the world to eat here."

Such exposure meant that Lusco's was widely known when the story of Wright re-emerged a decade ago. The 2012 documentary, "Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story," was directed by Raymond De Felitta, whose father, Frank, had directed the NBC documentary, and co-produced by Yvette Johnson, Wright's granddaughter.

The film and Johnson's book, "The Song and the Silence," published in 2017, set Wright's life against the backdrop of discrimination that Black people endured in the Delta for generations.

Johnson, 46, was born a year after her grandfather was killed. She didn't know he had been in a documentary until about 12 years ago, when she came across research about Lusco's compiled by the Southern Foodways Alliance, at the University of Mississippi. John T. Edge, the founder of the alliance, which later commissioned the oratorio, told her about the film. It had been unavailable since the 1960s.

This photo, provided by Yvette Johnson of Booker Wright in Booker’s Place in Greenwood, Miss., shows the bar and restaurant he opened with money saved from his many years of working at Lusco’s. Wright scandalized the town in 1966 when an NBC News documentary about racism in the Delta included footage of him speaking frankly about what it was like to be a Black waiter in the Jim Crow-era South. (Courtesy of Yvette Johnson via The New York Times)
This photo, provided by Yvette Johnson of Booker Wright in Booker’s Place in Greenwood, Miss., shows the bar and restaurant he opened with money saved from his many years of working at Lusco’s. Wright scandalized the town in 1966 when an NBC News documentary about racism in the Delta included footage of him speaking frankly about what it was like to be a Black waiter in the Jim Crow-era South. (Courtesy of Yvette Johnson via The New York Times)

RACIAL STATUS QUO

De Felitta's father had been encouraged to interview Wright by white customers at Lusco's. They saw in the waiter's amiable tableside presence a friend who was content with the racial status quo.

The film shows Wright as his customers knew him: smiling and reciting the menu, in his white uniform. But then, unexpectedly, he goes on to describe at length the treatment he receives from customers, including demands, insults and verbal abuse.

"Night after night, I lay down and I dream about what I had to go through," Wright says to the camera. "I don't want my children to have to go through with that."

The filmmaker told Wright he would cut the footage, fearing it could cause the waiter harm. Wright refused. "He knew the gravity of what he was doing," Johnson says in "Booker's Place." "It was bold, it was brave, and it wasn't an accident."

In the same film, Hodding Carter III, a journalist who grew up in the Delta, recalled watching Wright on television in 1966 and worrying for the waiter's safety: "When I saw it, I thought to myself, 'You're a dead man.'"

Years later, Karen Pinkston learned from Gory what happened at Lusco's the night the TV documentary aired. The family's story, as Pinkston tells it, centers on the kindness they believe they showed Wright, who was hired as a teenager, and how his remarks humiliated white residents.

This is the building that once housed Booker’s Place, a bar and restaurant Booker Wright opened with money saved from his many years of working at Lusco’s, in Greenwood, Miss. Wright scandalized the town in 1966 when an NBC News documentary about racism in the Delta included footage of him speaking frankly about what it was like to be a Black waiter in the Jim Crow-era South. (Rory Doyle/The New York Times)
This is the building that once housed Booker’s Place, a bar and restaurant Booker Wright opened with money saved from his many years of working at Lusco’s, in Greenwood, Miss. Wright scandalized the town in 1966 when an NBC News documentary about racism in the Delta included footage of him speaking frankly about what it was like to be a Black waiter in the Jim Crow-era South. (Rory Doyle/The New York Times)

'HURT AND UPSET'

The people who watched Wright on television at the restaurant were "hurt and upset, because it made them look so bad," Pinkston said.

Decades after Wright's television appearance, Johnson interviewed white Greenwood residents about it. She said they were still more offended by his puncturing the myth of racial harmony in Greenwood than by the racism he described.

"For a lot of people, betrayal was the dominant response," she said. "He was saying, 'This is how I act, because this is how white people expect me to act' — and then he completely dropped the facade."

Wright committed himself to running Booker's Place. It closed a few years after his death, but the building is still there, eight blocks from Lusco's, on what used to be a stretch of thriving, Black-owned businesses in Baptist Town.

Reno's Cafe, a small corner restaurant, is on the same block as Booker's Place. Its owner, Launice Gray, sells sandwiches and Delta-style tamales, which she supplies to some local restaurants, including Giardina's, the upscale restaurant in the Alluvian.

Gray, 60, knew Wright. She said the closing of Booker's Place initiated an end to an era in the neighborhood.

"You can see, there ain't nothing down here now," she said. "I'm the last man standing."

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