Despite being universally loved and devoured, fried chicken has long been, in the United States, a topic fraught with racist stereotypes and politics. While the precise origins of American-style fried chicken are an amalgam of cultures and backgrounds, it’s safe to say that it was perfected and ultimately defined by enslaved Black women in the South — eventually becoming the arguably definitive dish of Southern cooking.
Immediately following the Civil War, making and selling fried chicken became a predominantly African American business: Specifically, Black women — calling themselves “waiter carriers” — began selling fried chicken to hungry travelers at train stations, the one in Gordonsville, Virginia, among the most historically significant. Psyche Williams-Forson, author of Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power, describes, “Women in Gordonsville in particular were able to use the proceeds of that money to build houses, to put their children through school, to help fund churches.”
Similar Black women-led businesses could be seen popping up at train stations across the American South. But as we’ve seen throughout history, where goes Black success, opportunistic white people will follow to appropriate it. Among those white people were Harlan Sanders, now better known as Colonel Sanders, who — marketing plantation imagery — would go on to open the first Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1930 in Corbin, Kentucky, a town that John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) describes as “a sundown town — in other words, a town where Blacks were welcome during the day but not at night.” Eventually, KFC would blossom into the global franchise that it is today — all riding the image of a cartoonish Southern colonel. In 1969, the company went public, bringing in $12 million that year (the equivalent of over $95.5 million in 2022) from new investors.
This led to a boom in new fried chicken restaurants across the U.S. Among those opening restaurants were Black musicians like Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Mahalia Jackson. Jackson, a civil rights leader as well as a gospel singer, imagined her franchise — Mahalia Jackson’s Fried Chicken — as a path to financial success for Black Americans and opened in cities across the country.
As Alice Randall wrote for SFA in 2015, “Beyond jobs and wages, Mahalia Jackson’s offered employees paid vacations, low-cost life insurance, and major medical benefits. The [restaurant chain’s] system grew to include a management school... Her face on the chicken bucket said, This chicken is fancy, this chicken is fine. The chicken gave pride back to Black folk, just the way her music gave pride back to Black folk on the hardest days that came.”
Singer James Brown had a similar vision for his fried chicken chain Golden Platter, which, according to Edge, was about “Black wealth creation, it was about Black job training... and like the Mahalia Jackson effort, it was an attempt to say [fried chicken] is a Black dish, and I, a Black entrepreneur... believe that Black [people] should profit from this dish. So it was a political statement as well as a cultural gambit.”
In a country still powered by white supremacy, both Jackson and Brown’s businesses were doomed to fail: The chains lost money and investors, and, as Randall described, “Due to a perfect storm of white redlining, poverty, Negro removal-slash-urban renewal destruction, and rising rates of drug addiction and unemployment, some of these neighborhoods were areas of concentrated crime. Mahalia Jackson franchise locations were often the sites and victims of robberies.” However, they remain beacons of what Black success in America — built on Black American culinary traditions — could look like in a more egalitarian world.
To learn more about Jackson, Sanders, and the history of fried chicken in the U.S., listen to the Gastropod episode “Poultry Power: The Fried Chicken Chronicles,” which includes fascinating interviews with Psyche Williams-Forson and John T. Edge.