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A Safe Place to Fill Up

To be able to stop at almost any Southern gas station and have a good, inexpensive meal is an American tradition rooted in Black survival and entrepreneurship

Illustration of a Black family in a sedan surrounded by oversized snacks like a biscuit, pickle, and hand pie.

Scanning the aisles of small, locally owned gas stations in the South is like taking a step back in time. Few other places stock old-school Necco Wafers, Mary Janes, Bit-O-Honeys, and Chick-O-Sticks alongside foods like pickled eggs, pickled sausages, gizzards, barbeque, and pound cake. At Dodge’s Southern Style, a gas station between Ravenel and Johns Island, South Carolina, you’ll find fried chicken, biscuits, fried hand pies, and country ham on the menu next to a variety of nabs (crackers with peanut butter or cheese) and all the chips you can imagine. At Spinx, a gas station chain with locations across the South, there’s rice and beans, mac and cheese conveniently contained in an easy to carry bowl, or loaded biscuit sandwiches with all the fixins to pick up and take on the road.

In the South, you can have a full-on Sunday meal while you fill up your tank. But as much as the gas station seems unchanging, this convenience — specifically, the accessibility of this kind of convenience — has evolved. What seems so conventional to us now, to be able to stop at almost any gas station and have a good, inexpensive meal, is rooted in Black survival and entrepreneurship. And, of course, the standout foods you’ll find at Southern gas stations have their roots in African American culture.

In the first few pages of her book, Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs, Psyche A. Williams-Forson writes that in the decades after emancipation, and before most people could afford an automobile, Black women would bring food from their homes, including biscuits, hot coffee, fried chicken, and boiled eggs, to sell to weary travelers at train stops. These entrepreneurs would walk on the train platforms outside of each train car, and travelers of all backgrounds would open their windows to grab a bite of homecooked food; they came to be known as “waiter carriers,” for the long distance many had to travel between their kitchens and the stations where their customers waited.

In the South, these travelers weren’t free to patronize just anywhere for food and lodging. In Traveling Black, author Mia Bay notes that a Black traveler by the name of Joseph K. Bowler told a reporter that he never traveled to the South without a “Jim Crow traveling kit” that included food and a small stovetop to cook. Making use of the dining car on the train was out of the question; Bowler noted, “the dining car is a closed corporation as far as our people are concerned.” The traveling kit would become commonplace for Black travelers on trains and outside of them, especially in the South. In that same interview, Bowler told the Chicago Defender, “White people below the Mason Dixon line maintain that we are animals, virtually camels, and can go without food or water for several days.”

As industrialization took over in the early 20th century, train cars became more modernized, and with the addition of air conditioning and dining cars, the need for waiter carriers came to an end. But they were an early example of how Black women achieved economic security through the New Era, and they provided a literal lifeline for both the food sellers and the Black men who traveled for work opportunities during this time.

For Black people, any means of travel through the South was an uncertain prospect. Airlines used special codes to keep Black people off of flights or to give their seats to white passengers. Planes that stopped in the South would allow white passengers to depart the plane for food in the airport’s restaurants, while, according to Bay, “Blacks were instructed to stay on the plane and eat boxed lunches.” Not even popular Black public figures were exempt from being racially targeted while traveling. Flying from California to Florida one summer, famous baseball player Jackie Robinson and his wife brought along a large supply of food (including sandwiches) made by his mother for their trip. Robinson may have been embarrassed that his mother packed his lunch, but the food came in handy as Robinson and his wife entered the Jim Crow South. Removed from their flights in New Orleans and Pensacola to make space for white passengers, they weren’t allowed to eat at any of the roadside restaurants or gas stations they came across.

A Black man and woman talk on a bench that’s separate from other white people by a dividing barrier.
A Montgomery, Alabama bus station in 1956 remains segregated despite a Supreme Court ruling banning segregation on city buses.
Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

Even after the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 and “Whites Only” signs disappeared from public spaces, the blatant racism of the Jim Crow South persisted, especially at restaurants, hotels, airports, and bus and gas stations. While Black people could travel in the comfort of their own cars, trips were often exceptionally long, because the most direct route wasn’t always the safest; a stop in the wrong town at any time of day could end a family vacation quickly with Black travelers being run out of town or even worse. And the places that were safe for Black people to stop for a quick bite, or even to use the restroom, were few and far in between. So, many families carried on the traditions of packing food that traveled well — baked goods, foods preserved with methods like pickling or curing, and foods like those the waiter carriers once sold, such as chicken and biscuits. It was important that these foods could hold at room temperature for hours at a time, because while some families could pack a cooler to the brim, before easily accessible and affordable cold food storage, most Black folks were packing food in brown paper bags and shoeboxes to have a meal on their trips.

The foods packed in these makeshift lunch boxes are the same foods that you’ll find at Southern gas stations today: fried chicken and pork chops, good eaten hot or cold, hard-boiled and pickled eggs, and slices of sweet potato pie that don’t require forks. Many Black families used the funds they saved from selling their foods as waiter carriers to open up their own lodges, inns, gas stations, and small eateries for Black travelers who lived or moved along the newly created roads and railroads that connected the South to the rest of the country throughout the Great Migration.

During the civil rights era and beyond, Black-owned fill stations also served as restaurants — one-stop shops for Black patrons who would frequently come across restaurants that would serve them but forbid them from using the restrooms, and gas stations that wouldn’t allow them to fill up. For the owners of these roadside businesses, serving food was just as important as providing gas. Food was the primary moneymaker for Black-owned gas stations across the country and, specifically, those in The Negro Motorist Green Book, Victor Hugo Green’s published list of safe places for Black travelers across the United States. By providing food that was as easily transportable and profitable as in the train car days, gas stations were able to serve travelers who were already used to tea towel-wrapped chicken and biscuits and appeal to others who had begun to travel more.

Two years after the Civil Rights Act, The Negro Motorist Green Book ceased publication, and as time went on, Black people were less subjected to the overt racism they once dealt with while traveling. It’s not to say these acts don’t still occur; over the years we’ve seen many examples of Black men, women, and children being treated poorly (arrested, beaten, and even killed) because of the color of their skin, especially at hotels, restaurants, gas stations and convenience stores. But as states struck down discriminatory practices and the national highway system grew, Black communities and economic opportunities spread, and Black ownership of gas stations and roadside eateries declined. Currently, there are only 29 Black-owned gas stations across the country compared to the dozens that were listed in the Green Book in its heyday.

But the Black-owned gas stations that remain are reclaiming the narrative of the food they once served to build businesses and community, keeping the roadside one-stop shop — and the spirit of Black entrepreneurship — alive.

Rural areas, where most people rely heavily on traveling by car, still blanket the South, so it would only make sense that the tradition of gas stations serving multiple purposes, including serving food, cashing checks, and selling household goods, would continue in the area. Often, these spaces, like 61 One Stop in Fayette, Mississippi, and Roy’s Grille in Lexington, South Carolina, also become places of community, where family and friends might see each other as they grab a bite to eat or fill up their tanks.

Roy’s Grille, off of Main Street in the small town of Lexington just outside of the state’s capital of Columbia, serves up Southern food and convenient meals like barbecue and burgers at an Exxon station. Owner Chris Williams carries some of the foods you’d find at many Southern gas stations, but when he opened in 2014, he also wanted to bring other less typical dishes to the proverbial table, like ribeye steaks. However, he quickly found out that his gas station patrons were looking for familiar foods that were inexpensive and fairly easy to eat. “People are reluctant to come into a gas station and buy upscale food,” says Williams. “They were used to things such as gizzards, bologna sandwiches, and chicken that has been sitting out for two hours.”

Still, Williams added twists on those familiar dishes to his menu: He makes his food from scratch, and added shrimp and grits, barbeque, and bacon made right outside — items that aren’t as suited to eating on the road, but are welcome comfort if a traveler has time to spare to sit and eat. “A lot of people who hear about us say, ‘A gas station, get outta here. I’m not going to eat out of there,’” says Williams. “I knew that would be people’s response going into it, but I wasn’t worried because I knew we had a good product.”

Roy’s Grille is also part of a longer history. Esso stations (the predecessor to ExxonMobil) were once known to be one of the only national gas stations that employed Black people in addition to allowing them to stop, shop, and dine during the Jim Crow era. That continues with Williams’s business, a testament to the long-standing tradition across Southern gas stations of offering food and respite to their communities and hungry travelers alike.

Amethyst Ganaway is chef and writer from North Charleston, South Carolina. Naya-Cheyenne is a Miami-raised, Brooklyn-based multimedia illustrator and designer.
Fact-checked by Andrea López-Cruzado

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