#120: King George’s Black Belt

February 1st, 2013

“His place is a dingy one-story nondescript shack, in a neighborhood of shacks, but it houses the first and only authentic barbecue pit in town. It is a large brick fireplace, taking up half the space, and here you see chickens, pork, beef, and other meats being broiled in the leaping flames.”

Now it’s an athletic field for the three schools that moved into the old DuSable High School grounds. On that spring day, gray-headed dandelions grew long among bleachers. Green blades had broken through the track at points, inspiring or angering depending whether you’re a bigger booster of nature or education.

It wasn’t like that in 1931, the old restaurant guide I found at a used book shop said. Work started that year on DuSable High School, which wouldn’t open until ’35. I wonder what King George thought of the school going up just to the south of his barbecue hot spot. I wonder when he closed.

“Here is the big thrill in the Blackbelt,” wrote John Drury, the author of the restaurant guide. “King George (Mr. William Hale Thompson please note), is none other than the eminent Mr. George Oglesby, the barbecue king, who learned how to cook barbecue meat in the hills of Tennessee. Theatrical people, diners-out from the Loop, politicians, and policemen from the various Blackbelt police stations come to King George’s Southern Barbecue Inn at all hours of the night and day for the delicious and wholly satisfying barbecue sandwiches that he serves.”

William Hale Thompson was the mayor of Chicago. He was dangerous, corrupt and hilarious. Thompson courted South Side Irish votes in ’27 by promising to “bust King George in the snoot.” He meant George V of England, of course, but that explains the joke in the restaurant guide.

“White visitors stand about, eating the sandwiches; colored customers are at the counters; a negro youth plays a piano all night long; cooks are chopping up chickens with hatchets; the atmosphere is gay and bohemian and everybody laughs at King George’s sallies and wise-cracks.”

It was just a field that chilly spring day. Long gray dandelions and the football team’s Lev Sled.

From the “learned how to cook barbecue meat in the hills of Tennessee” line, I’m guessing King George was part of the Great Migration, when millions of black people moved from the rural south to cities in the north.

The city report giving DuSable High School landmark status says 50,000 black people moved to an unwelcoming Chicago between 1916 and 1918. Housing discrimination created the “Black Belt,” which the report defined as “a narrow 40-block-long corridor running along both sides of State Street.”

Martin Luther King once called Chicago “as much a segregated city as Birmingham.”

You can tell which way is south at an ‘L’ station by seeing which races are waiting on which side of the platform.

King George’s sandwiches were 25 cents and he would deliver anywhere within city limits.

History devours every corner of Bronzeville, what the area was renamed in the 1990s. The DuSable High School report added the word “euphemistically” when describing the rename. DuSable was the first high school in Chicago built specifically for a black population. It was named after Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the first permanent resident of Chicago. He moved to the area in the 1780s. He was black.

DuSable the school had a famous jazz program under Captain Walter Dyett. Nat King Cole went to DuSable — another king to go with George, George and Martin Luther.

Redd Foxx went to DuSable too, as did Don Cornelius of “Soul Train” and Harold Washington, the first and only black mayor of Chicago.

That’s a sad story, if you ever have time to look it up.

The Robert Taylor Homes housing project was built in the area in the 1960s. That’s another sad story. It’s gone now.

This little field with the gray-headed dandelions has seen violence and segregation. People ate barbecue sandwiches there too. They laughed at King George’s sallies and wise-cracks. They learned jazz from Captain Dyett and still play football there. Someone probably had a first kiss there. Maybe it was Don Cornelius.

Cooks chopped up chicken with hatchets. The mayor of Chicago threatened the king of England. 50,000 black people moved to the city in a two-year period. Housing discrimination. Jean Baptiste. Urban renewals. Gangs. Sandwiches. Council Wars.

You can get lost in history, in one little field that once housed “a dingy one-story nondescript shack, in a neighborhood of shacks.”

I’m sure other records of King George Oglesby must exist — old phone books or Census records. But for the casual Googler, “King George’s Southern Barbecue Inn” just pulls up eight sites that quoted Drury’s restaurant review.

Here’s the last line of what turned out to be King George’s eulogy.

“The meats are clean and served under sanitary conditions. Drexel 3223.”

Read the full review of King George’s Southern Barbecue Inn

Read the DuSable High School Landmark Designation Report

Read about the last days of the Robert Taylor Homes

Listen to a This American Life episode about Harold Washington

I’ve written about the Drury book before

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