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The Club From Nowhere: Cooking for Civil Rights

In the 1950s, a group of Montgomery, Ala., women baked and sold pies, cookies and cakes in beauty salons and on street corners to help fund the Montgomery bus boycott.

The Club from Nowhere, as the group was known, was the brainchild of Georgia Gilmore, a cafeteria worker fired for her organizing efforts. She was one of the unsung heroes of the civil rights era. The Kitchen Sisters and producer Jamie York tell her story.

Story Notes: The Intersection of Food and Community

We've been thinking about Georgia Gilmore and The Club From Nowhere ever since John T. Edge, from the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, called our Hidden Kitchens phone line last year to tell us about her secret civil rights kitchen in Montgomery, Ala. Any woman who could raise money selling pies and cakes out of beauty parlors to buy gas and station wagons to haul people to work during the 1955-56 bus boycott that Rosa Parks triggered was someone we wanted to chronicle.

Edge and his cronies at the Center for Southern Culture are doing some of the most compelling and imaginative work on the intersection of food and community. They are a deep well of oral history, thinkers who have been a rich resource for the Hidden Kitchens series.

Last year, the focus of the Southern Foodways Alliance's annual conference was Race and Food. This year, it's sugar. Their Keeper of the Flame Award for 2004 went to Martha Hawkins, a onetime welfare mother who now runs a restaurant in her home in Montgomery. Hawkins sees her work as being in league with the cooks who fed the civil rights movement and claims Georgia Gilmore as one of her inspirations.

Chris McNair, a photographer in Birmingham, Ala., is someone you should know about. McNair opens his studio (McNair Studio) to the public each Sunday for a buffet breakfast prepared by one of his daughters. His daughter Denise was one of the little girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. For many years Mr. McNair refused to talk about the bombing, but a few years ago he discovered that even young blacks in Birmingham didn't know the history of the civil rights movement. So he has created a "niche" in his studio dedicated to Denise, and he invites the public to come in and learn about the civil rights era, and eat some wonderful food to boot (biscuits, bacon, eggs and some amazing grits, we are told).

Our co-producer Jamie York traveled to Montgomery to conduct interviews for this story and sends us this note.

"It's impossible to really know Georgia Gilmore without tasting her cooking. I traveled to Montgomery to talk with those who knew her and was lucky to get close. As fate would have it, I mistakenly arrived at the home of Mark Gilmore, Ms. Gilmore's son, at the impolite time of 1 p.m. on a Sunday.

"Mark and his family had just gotten home from church; I felt awful for interrupting their large Sunday dinner. But Mark and his wife couldn't have been more pleased. First I was made to feel welcome, then I was made to feel full. I got some small taste for what it was like to be a guest at Ms. Gilmore's table. While Mark's wife served me sweet potatoes, cornbread, fried chicken, greens and sweet tea, Mark told stories about his mother.

"The short walk from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s home to Georgia's block is as nondescript and historically significant as a Civil War battlefield. It's hard not to think about the potential for change that those few blocks represent.

"I came to talk to folks about Ms. Gilmore's cooking, but I was told repeatedly that, like most people, she was also struggling to raise her children, make a living and support her community. But it is her cooking which remains a touchstone for people in Montgomery when they think of 'the movement.' She elevated her day-to-day work — doing the cooking — into something greater. Anyone lucky enough to have eaten one of her meals associates it with that place and what that time demanded."

-- The Kitchen Sisters

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva) are producers of the duPont-Columbia Award-winning, NPR series, Hidden Kitchens, and two Peabody Award-winning NPR series, Lost & Found Sound and The Sonic Memorial Project. Hidden Kitchens, heard on Morning Edition, explores the world of secret, unexpected, below-the-radar cooking across America—how communities come together through food. The series inspired Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes, and More from NPR's The Kitchen Sisters, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year that was also nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Writing on Food. The Hidden Kitchens audio book, narrated by Academy Award winner, Frances McDormand, received a 2006 Audie Award.
Jamie York
Jamie York is a longtime narrative non-fiction audio producer and reporter. He's the Supervising Producer at Throughline where he oversees the production staff and the show's production.