In 1963, America’s Deep South was a hotbed for hopelessness as a result of racial tension.
In Birmingham, AL, blacks striving for equality resulted in countless arrests and law enforcement using excessive force against them.. Four young girls, ages 11 and 14, were killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church..
James Meredith became the first black student to graduate from Ole Miss. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. scribed his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and delivered his signature “I Have a Dream” speech.
On Jun. 25, 1963, Dr. Lee and Dolores Shelton broke a restaurant industry color barrier in the “city too busy to hate.” The young black couple, relocating from Tuskegee, AL in 1959, desegregated Atlanta’s Herren’s Restaurant. A distinguished general surgeon, Dr. Shelton had been quite proactive participating in various boycotting efforts in Montgomery from 1956 to 1959.
The soft spoken, pioneering member of the Fulton County Medical Society continued to pursue his advocacy upon moving his wife and four children to Atlanta. “I was ready to tackle segregation wherever it occurred. I was all fired up by the time I got here,” recalls Dr. Shelton.
The Sheltons, who received an invitation to dine, agreed their patronage that evening was a memorable one. “It was a good experience. Nothing unpleasant happened. That was the best prime rib beef I’d had,” jokes Dr. Shelton.
Opened from 1934 to 1987, Herren’s – originally founded by prizefighter Charlie ‘Red’ Herren – was downtown Atlanta’s most exclusive establishment. It was one of the first with air conditioning (1941) and a live lobster tank (1958). Sold to Italian immigrant Guido Negri in 1939, the restaurant was known for its barely glazed, bite size cinnamon rolls as much as it was for entertaining powerful, influential white patrons.
All of the area’s restaurants initially agreed by signature to desegregate their dining areas at the same time on the same day. However, Herren’s owners Ed (Guido’s son) and Jane Negri were the only restaurateurs to follow through with the agreement.
“White people had been held back from doing the right thing because of fear, but the time was right,” says Dr. Shelton.
The Negris’ decision cost them substantial revenues equaling $20,000. The restaurant lost regular customers. The couple received death threats, harassing phone calls and bundles of hate mail. Ironically, the Negris’ voluntary desegregation effort was 50 years prior to the meltdown of Paula Deen’s entrepreneurial empire, who reportedly discriminated against and used racial slurs and epithets against black employees at her restaurants.
“It was not a good time for them. We were raised in a race tolerant house. [My father] believed in what was right and what was fair. Our family discussed how unfair it was to have ‘separate but equal.’ It was the way things were,” says Ellen Luse, the Negris’ daughter.
Luse adds that the Sheltons, much like Herren’s predominately black staff, were quite pleasant. “They were just people: very nice people,” says Luse.
Despite the backlash, Ed Negri, who died this past May, received letters of encouragement and praise for his efforts. Georgia State University’s School of Hospitality commemorated the 50th anniversary of Herren’s integration on Jun. 25 at the restaurant’s historic location.
The landmark restaurant is now Balzer Theater, home to Theatrical Outfit, Atlanta’s third oldest theatrical ensemble. Also seasonal subscribers, Dr. and Mrs. Shelton are both humbled that they changed the course of race relations in the restaurant and hospitality industries.
Dr. Shelton only had one concern that evening 50 years ago. “[Delores] knew we were due to go. We just got dressed and tried to get there on time,” says Dr. Shelton.
Christopher A. Daniel is a pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.