The soulful history of Chicago’s “Round Table”
By On November 11, 2015
The world keeps spinning.
And since the mid-1960s a group of socially conscious Chicagoans have met for dinner at the city’s soul food restaurants to talk about politics, food and moving forward against strong winds. Many are gone now: the restaurants and the members.
The survivors call the group “The Round Table.”
The unofficial leader of the group is Gene Barge, who was a spry 87 years old in November, 2013 when I was early into research on my book “The People’s Place.” Barge has a remarkable pedigree. He was arranger, producer and sax player at Chess Records, 2120 S. Michigan from 1964 until 1967, when Chess moved to a bigger space at 320 E. 21st St. Barge continued with Chess, shaping Little Milton’s “Grits Ain’t Groceries” album as one of the first hits out of the new space.
Barge left Chess in 1973 to head the gospel music division at Stax Records in Memphis, Tenn. Director Andy Davis has cast Barge in the edgy films “Stony Island,” “The Fugitive,” “Above the Law” and others. Barge was also leader of the late 1960s Operation Breadbasket Band, the pre-Operation PUSH effort formed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Gene Barge (L) and Rudolph Brown at Pearl’s Place (Photo by Paul Natkin)
“When I got to Chicago (in 1964 from Norfolk, Va.) it was turbulent,” Barge said over a 2013 Tuesday night Round Table dinner at Pearl’s Place, 39th and Michigan. “Dr. King had been in Chicago in 1963 and ‘64 and declared Chicago as one of the most racist cities in America. There was a revolution in society. When I started with the group (in ‘64), most of the guys belonged to the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), various community groups. Some guys were dealing with housing over on the south east side.”
Early members were late Breadbasket saxophonist Ben Branch, who was with Dr. King when he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, late Bobby “Blue” Bland guitarist Wayne Bennett, who also played in the Breadbasket band, Chicago police officer Howard Brookins, Sr. and Chuck Bowen, an administrative aide to Mayor Richard M. Daley.
The discussions were hot and heavy.
“The soul food restaurants were scattered around the south side,” Barge said over a plate of fried catfish. “Army and Lou’s (gone), Captain’s Table (gone). The civil rights preachers would have a whole table. Some guys would drink coffee and have a sandwich. Other guys would be in the bar getting high. Entertainers would order cobbler from these restaurants and have them sent to their hotels. Edna’s in Garfield Park (still standing as Ruby’s) and Helen Maybelle’s restaurant on Stony Island (gone, as is the one on 22nd and Cermak.)
“Helen became Jesse Jackson’s caterer. She would look out for him no matter what. She would send food to his house, she would send food to the meetings. Because when he was trying to start Breadbasket this (Helen’s) was one of the places he would meet. There was no Breadbasket. We would solve the problems of the day. Every once in awhile others would drop in, Dorothy Tillman, (future Chicago mayor) Harold Washington went to every soul food restaurant in this city. Branson’s. Bowman. The west side.”
Helen Maybell Anglin died in 2009 at the age of 80.
She was a coal miner’s daughter from Edgewater, Ala. Her mother Sarah cooked mixed greens, black-eyed peas and string beans for neighboring construction workers in Alabama. Helen opened her first restaurant on East 51st Street in Chicago in 1947 with her first husband Hubert Maybell. They called it the H & H Cafe.
When Helen opened the Soul Queen in 1976, she made sure everyone had the regal touch.
All waitresses wore gold paper crowns.
“I always try to see past what I think I see,” Helen told me in a 1994 conversation at Soul Queen at 9031 S. Stony Island. “I’m not looking to find something. We’re not born equal, but we’re all created equal.
“Everybody has soul. It’s just that it doesn’t always come forth. If it hits you and gets to you, you’re going to respond.”
So “The Round Table” took its hits and bounced around. The group even met at the now-defunct Wag’s, a diner that was part of a Walgreen’s drug store on 35th Street east of old Comiskey Park. Rudolph Brown remembered, “When they did away with Wag’s we had to leave. We went to Sauer’s and that closed when they put up McCormick Place West.”
According to Barge, the Round Table was at its peak in the late 1960s and 1970s at Sauer’s, 321 E. 23rd St. Sauer’s, ironically was a building constructed in 1883 to hold a dancing academy for Chicago’s hoity-toity, including Marshall Field. About a dozen “Round Table” members met weekly, today the number is half that many. Almost everyone is over 60 years old.
Sauer’s had considerable cultural weight because it was next door to Paul Serrano’s recording studio. The jazz trumpet player-audio engineer recorded politically charged artists like Jerry Butler, Donnie Hathaway and Oscar Brown, Jr. on East 23rd St.
The late, great Oscar Brown, Jr.
Barge said, “Army and Lou’s took over this place (Pearl’s) and then it was run by the wife of (Chicago blues guitarist) Jimmy Johnson.”
A visitor looks around the table and listens to the stories from a not-so-distant time. The mind cannot make sense of the things the Round Table veterans have seen, the bitterness they have tasted. How deep does the soul reach? How does soul really feel?
What is soul food?
Brown put aside his po-boy and answered, “It is the food my grandmother fed me on. The greens, collards, chitlins from the south, things that were basically given away because they didn’t think it had nourishment. Barge added. “I’m the oldest guy here. My grandfather was a butcher in Fayetteville, North Carolina. People ate to survive in the 1920s and 30s. Black folks were just a few years out of slavery. They couldn’t enjoy what was afforded to others. Even the plantation owners ate soul food themselves, the corn and the vegetables what we could get out of the ground, the slaughter of the hogs–but we ate what they threw away. We ate the feet of the hogs, the ears. You understand?
“The expression was, ‘You’d eat everything from the snoot to the root.’
Brown said, “We came up with a lot of original things because of necessity. My (African-American) pastor said that when he was a kid in Virginia his mother worked for some white folks. They would eat the greens, but they didn’t want to eat the pot liquor (the term for liquid left in a a pan after boiling greens). So she would take the pot liquor home and they would have cornbread and pot liquor. We knew pot liquor was more rich in nourishment than greens themselves.
That’s how she was able to feed her children. That happens throughout the south.”
Pot liquor was even used as a remedy and stored in Mason jars in the back of a refrigerator.
“My grandmother in Georgia had 16 kids, of which nine of them reached 80,” Brown said. “The oldest one now is 100.”
Barge interrupted, “Soul food won’t kill you.”
The Round Table enjoyed a healthy laugh before Brown continued, “It was a form of life. Somebody might have raised a cow. You got the milk, you got the beef. We’d smoke it. I had corn, beans and peas. I would trade that off for a piece of that cow. That’s how people survived. Poor blacks and southern whites are the same thing. If only one house had food, they would share with the other two houses. Color didn’t matter.
“Soul food was survival.”
Hilda Whittington was the only woman in the group of six at the Round Table. The 63-year-old Hyde Park attorney said, To me, soul food is a throwback to the time of slavery. Our ancestors were cooking in the kitchen and given essentially, scraps. No one else ate chitlins, for example. Our ancestors took them, cleaned them and seasoned the food. When I think of soul food, I think of spices, someone taking food no one wanted and making a delicacy.”
Biamani Obadele listens to Hilda Whittington at Pearl’s, November, 2013 (Paul Natkin photo)
She stopped and continued, “Soul food was served at the White House.”
In unison her comrades asked, “What?”
She answered, “Jimmy Carter was the first to bring chitlin’s in the White House. And then the price of chitlins went up! Who knows about Barack (Obama)? Maybe he goes down to the kitchen at night and asks for some chitlins.”
You can always learn something at the Round Table.
Long time Chicago soul orchestra leader-saxophone player Willie Henderson (Tyrone Davis, Donny Hathaway, Barbara Acklin) and Round Table member added, “The menu today is basically the same. We’re all eating cornbread now. Turnip greens. Butter beans.”
Pearl’s Place desserts are baked daily.
They include red velvet, carrot and German Chocolate cake as well as banana pudding, peach cobbler and sweet potato pie.
Biamani Obadele had the most diverse take on soul food on this particular Round Table gathering. At age 41, he was the youngest person at the dinner. I didn’t come to the table eating soul food,” he said over a plate of fried chicken and spinach. “Not that I’m against soul food. I come here for the political discourse and community conversation. The food is a plus. What’s happening today is a new generation has become more health conscious.
“Traditional soul food restaurants are changing. You see more variety, fish, tilapia. Turkey products. My grandmother, god bless her soul, would cook ham hocks and beans. We started convincing her to use smoked turkey.”
Barge reminded his peers that many observers put African-Americans “all in one boat.”
He elaborated, “It is not true because we are all culturally different. The islands on the coasts of the Carolinas, they call African-American geeches (or “Gullah,” Sea Island Creole; descendants of African slaves). They eat a lot of rice. African-Americans who come from South Louisiana are very mixed blooded; Spanish, French and their version of soul food is entirely different. They eat more sea food. Inward, away from the ocean, people lean more towards animals, the hogs. They go hunting and eat other animals, squirrels.”
Brown nodded his head. He has eaten squirrels. Of course he said they taste like chicken.
And chicken wings are soul food, too.
“When I first came to Chicago there were no wing joints on the north side,” Barge declared. “White people never ate chicken wings. Wings, chitlin’s and ribs became universal. Soul food is a blend of cultures. Chicago is the end result of all these cultures coming together.”
Whittington grew up in Opelousas, La. “There was boudin,” she said. “And there was blood sausage. I know a lot of soul food came from the black kitchen. But the Germans make a blood sausage almost the same as we made with boudin. You have all kinds of food that came out of one little pig. Very little is said about how we grew up. I grew up where my neighbors weren’t all black. Some were white. We lived together. This was before the 1960s.”
Barge said, “In the ‘70s the south was more integrated than the north. I’m just being honest.”
Brown said, “The movement north was for economics. There were more job opportunities.”
Barge continued, “Boston, Chicago: segregated. Supposed to be free, but segregated. In the south we had white folks across the street. We were segregated, not by sections of town (as in the north) but by the system.”
Whittington chipped in, “Even the churches were segregated.” Brown smiled and added, “Still is. Eleven o’ clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.”
Obadele retorted, “I know the stories my family told me and they are nothing like this.”
Barge said, “Don’t get me wrong, now. We suffered from severe racism. But the point was that we lived closer to white folks.”
Obadele put down his fork and said, “This city is still segregated. We’ve never had this kind of conversation. I’m only going by the stories I’ve heard from my grandparents and great grandparents. Black women were domestics, but it was really difficult for the black male.”
The Great Migration of the 1940s brought black workers from Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi among other southern states to Chicago. Young men found work in the Union Stockyards, between 47th St. and Pershing Avenue. Brown recalled, “My grandmother would take us to the stockyards and get a hog head. There was Armour and Swift. You’d buy the whole head, yeah! Armour would throw the chitlins in a barrel. People could come and get the chitlins for free because they saw no commercial use for them. They saw all the black people coming go get them and Armour became the first to come out with commercial chitlins, they were in buckets.”
The migration fed the Chicago blues and jazz scene, it fed the restaurant scene. “Soul food can be anywhere,” Barge said. “It depends on the quality of the cooking. I’m in Paris in 1982 and I’m asking Mick Jagger, ‘Where’s a good place to eat?’ And he mentions a soul food restaurant. On his first visit to Chicago in 1963 (to record with the Rolling Stones at Chess) he had gone to soul food restaurants in (Chess songwriter-bandleader) Willie Dixon’s neighborhood on Lake Park. And sure enough, an American went to Paris and cooked in a soul food restaurant. He used to order the greens from America every week.”
Obadele asked, “Was he black?”
Barge answered, “Yeah, but the guy who owned the restaurant was white.”
Whittigton continued to take it all in. When there was a brief opening she looked around The Round Table and said to anyone who was listening, “Wherever you find blacks talking about looking for better solutions, you will find soul food.”