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The History Of American Barbecue: Wars, Barbecue Stands and Race

Updated on June 1, 2013
Civil War Barbecue
Civil War Barbecue

During wars, Barbecues continued to play a role in the lives of those around them. For soldiers and families alike, barbecues provided a chance to get together. After the conflict ended, barbecues became a part of reunions and fund raisers. Later, during the Civil Rights Movement, barbecues created their own history.

Barbecues, Wars and Reunions

When the United States became embroiled in war, whatever its nature – Civil or World, barbecues acted as part of both the recruitment and mustering process. Mayville, Kentucky held a barbecue in September 1861 in conjunction with mustering troops and support. According to the reporter for Harpers

This was the largest gathering I have seen for years. There were speakers from Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee. Among those from the last-named State was Hon. Horace Maynard. Colonel Charles Marshall, a prominent citizen of this comity (Mason), contemplates the establishment of a camp in the vicinity of this place. Harpers (October 12, 1861)

During the Civil War, soldiers ate barbecue whenever possible. Diaries and memoirs contain reports of soldiers, particularly Confederate soldiers, confiscating hogs and cattle for barbecues. In general, meals for Southern soldiers consisted of beans, cornbread and fatback.

Barbecues were held to celebrate the return of the men when war ended. They also also brought former soldiers together. One of the most famous barbecues took place in Crawfish Springs, Georgia. It involved both Union and Confederate veterans (the Army of the Cumberland and the Army of Tennessee) of the Battle of Chickamauga. Now known as the Blue–Gray Barbecue, the event ultimately, resulted in the creation of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park in 1895.

Barbecues helped recruit soldiers for WWI and WWII. After any war, barbecues also became fundraisers for soldiers as well as part of many reunions. The Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy held a barbecue for Veterans on the Maryhill Campground in October
1920. Following WWII, Barbecue began to explode in backyards across the country. Before, during and following the wars, however, barbecue stands began to bring barbecue to a larger population.

Restaurants and Barbecue Stands

In the late 19th century the Barbecue Kings ruled. They had a strong presence in their local community and sometimes beyond. Adding their name to a particular community affair or event was almost certain to draw a crowd. Sometimes, their fame as a barbecue master spread beyond their town or city. Some local pitmasters became renowed throughout their state. This is the case with

  • Hezekiah “Kiah” Dent – South Carolina
  • Joel Stowe – Georgia
  • Old Rozier – Georgia

In fact, Georgia lay claim to several famous pit bosses. Among the most renowned in Wilkes County was Sheriff John W. Callaway.

Local fairs were often the sites of barbecue stands. Generally, the stands were one-offs. They were at the fairs only for the duration of the event. The stands were not permanent. The pit masters did not run commercial enterprises. Barbecue restaurants only made a regular appearance at the end of the 10th century.

When looking at these early commercial endeavours, it is important to look at what they were. They were not what we currently consider a restaurant. In fact, some operated out of temporary structures and were only open on weekends. The structure itself did not scream permanency. Often a tin roof barely covered four walls and a concrete floor. Many lacked proper tables and chairs providing only take-away. If business grew, the owner might extend hours and add a couple of mismatched tables and chairs or stools for patrons.

Barbecue had not gone national. You could not locate a fast food barbecue restaurant chain or other similar establishment. Each stand had a single owner. It was not until the growth of technology and an increase in Black migration that things began to change. In various cities, barbecues began to operate as businesses. In the 1920s, Memphis, Tennessee became the home of Leonard’s Pit Barbecue

As these factors began to have an impact, the formerly rural barbecue stands began to appeal to those who were now mobile. Roadside barbecue stands became an early form of “pit stop” to those who drove automobiles. Some became permanent fixtures along the roads. They became gathering places and developed other amenities to serve the ever-increasing automobile crowd.

Meat availability quickly became an issue and soon set the tone for what you could have at barbecues. The lack of refrigeration limited what meat you could have and when. Easy access to pork made it the favourite meat in the South while beef became prevalent in Texas barbecue stands. This, according to author Mark McWilliams, helped to develop and/or reinforce what has become known as “Four Main Styles of American Barbecue.” At the same time, the stands offered their own regional side dishes to accompany the barbecue. Later, when refrigeration allowed stand and restaurant operators to diversify, many chose to maintain their local tradition.

Barbecue and Race Relations

Official integration of restaurants and other institutions took place long after barbecue stands provided services to both Blacks and Whites. In the South, barbecue was a food without colour connotations. An astute observer, Jonathan Daniels (1902-1981), editor of the Raleigh News and Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, penned this comment, “Barbecue is the dish which binds together the taste of both the people of the big house and the poorest occupants of the back end of the broken-down barn.” Moreover, not only did they serve a mixed clientele but also the owners of these establishments tended to be Black. This was the converse of the normal trend in business.

Although whites came for take-out, the barbecue stands became segregated. During the battle for desegregation, barbecue stands actually played a significant role in gaining equal rights. At Maurice's Piggy Park in Columbia, South Carolina, and in Ollie's Barbecue, Birmingham, Alabama, Blacks fought for the right to eat alongside Whites. Ollie’s Barbecue is a perfect case in point. The dining room allowed only Whites to sit and enjoy a meal. Blacks could only do take-away. Yet, the staff of 36 consisted of a majority of Black workers.

Ollie McClung was the owner. He fought tooth-and-nail against integration. In fact, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In December 1946, a landmark ruling came down. McClung had to integrate Ollie’s Barbecue. The ruling, contrary to McClung’s belief, did not “kill” his restaurant. Ollie’s continued to operate until 2001.

Another owner and operator was L. Maurice Bessinger. Head of an organization called the “National Association for the Preservation of White People,” Bessinger fought against any form of integration. He owned and operated five barbecue restaurants in South Carolina. He also owned Little Joe’s Sandwich Shop. The battle against Bessinger and his practices waged for two years. At the United States District Court, Bessinger found an ally in the battle of Newman v. Piggy Park Enterprises. They said the drive-throughs had to be integrated, but the sandwich shop was exempt. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. They found in favour of integration stating that the Civil Rights Act covered all of Bessinger’s operations. This marked the beginning of the integration of all barbecue restaurants and stands, although individuals such as Bessinger, continue to object openly on the internet and make Bible tracts and other blasphemous material to support their beliefs available in their businesses.


Barbecue has played a role in calling soldiers to war and welcoming them back home. It has helped raise funds for Veteran causes. Technology has not killed it but helped spread the love. During the fight for desegregation and racial equality, barbecue stands and restaurants played a significant role. Rather than die in the face of progress, barbecue seized hold, and grew while standing firm on its tradtion of great food for the enjoyment of everyone.


Barbecue History.

History of Barbecue in the Southern States.

“Maysville Kentucky the Civil War.”

McWilliams, Mark. The Story Behind the Dish. Classic American Foods. Santa Barbara, Cal: Greenwood, 2012.

Moss, Robert F. Barbecue The History of an American Institution. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010.

“Interesting Port Royal Jubilee Among Negroes.” New York Times January 9, 1863.

Opie, Frederick Douglass. Hog & Hominy. Soul Food from Africa to America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

Reference Guide.


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