clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Yvonne Orji poses in front of a giant inflatable McDonald’s golden arches outdoors in Los Angeles.
Actress and comedian Yvonne Orji attends the McDonald’s Black & Positively Golden event, in Los Angeles on March 29, 2019.
Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for McDonald’s

Filed under:

How fast food “became black”

In her new book, Franchise, Marcia Chatelain explains how black franchise owners became the backbone of the industry.

When Marcia Chatelain was a teen in the 1990s, her after-school pit stop was a downtown Chicago McDonald’s. Almost daily, she hung out with friends, buying burgers, fries, and pocket-size apple pies. She snacked against a backdrop of black history brochures, prints of famous Jacob Lawrence paintings, and community events such as a local quiz bowl.

It wasn’t until decades later that Chatelain, now a history professor at Georgetown University, learned that those touches in her beloved McDonald’s came from a black entrepreneur who operated that store. And now, as a scholar, Chatelain explains how that McDonald’s she patronized — and many other fast-food restaurants — were the fruit of corporate expansion, cultural and population shifts, and the restaurant’s “discovery” that black consumers and businesspeople could deliver precious profits to the Golden Arches.

A father ties his daughter’s shoes at a McDonald’s restaurant.
A father ties his daughter’s shoes at a McDonald’s restaurant in 1996.
Mark Peterson/Corbis via Getty Images

Her new book, Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, goes beyond the McDonald’s origin stories of two intrepid brothers and their successor, Ray Kroc. It’s a story about how this new model of relatively cheap and quick assembly-line food proliferated after World War II. More Americans — mostly white ones — had cars, more disposable income, less time to cook, and vast new suburbs to which they could move. McDonald’s and other chains spread, becoming hubs for the recently mobile citizen but also targets for civil rights activists, who protested local-franchise segregation in places such as Asheville, North Carolina, and Little Rock, Arkansas.

According to Chatelain’s account, McDonald’s particularly flourished, snapping up property nationwide and setting off cycles of simultaneous investment and divestment. Those cycles would prove both a curse and benefit to the first black franchise holders in the 1960s. They got seemingly ready-made restaurants with set menus and brand names, but they struggled to get business loans and were often offered high-risk stores that white franchisees unloaded — for a price — after urban upheavals. In fact, Washington, DC, store manager Roland Jones’s efforts to monitor and clean up local stores damaged in riots after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination resulted in his next (and much bigger) gig: finding the chain’s first black franchise owner.

Despite obstacles — and alienation from white colleagues and the parent company — many black franchisees turned “undesirable” stores into lucrative businesses. As Chatelain says, “fast food became black,” moving from suburbia and a predominantly white labor and customer base to nearly every neighborhood across the nation, including urban locales and communities of color. Black capitalism became central to a fast-food industry that now earns $570 billion annually.

Today, fast food is vilified as the primary culprit in the national obesity epidemic and dietary-related illnesses such as diabetes among black Americans. It’s an industry where chains regularly appropriate civil rights history, employ predominantly low-wage workers of color, invest in scholarships for underresourced students, and enlist R&B stars such as Mary J. Blige to controversially peddle new products. It’s not a simple or one-dimensional story. Vox spoke with Chatelain about the tangled history of McDonald’s. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Cynthia Greenlee

What promise did franchises offer that so many different groups and people saw them as an opportunity? Mainline civil rights organizations like the NAACP, the Black Panthers, white liberals, and even Richard Nixon all saw a role for fast-food franchises in building black communities.

Marcia Chatelain

It is hard to imagine, for many of us today, a time in which fast food was not king. The period of time I cover in the book is where black people across ideological, political, and economic spectrums are still navigating their role as consumers. The idea that a fast-food restaurant would be such an attractive possibility isn’t just about the possibility for economic development for the owner class or the class of people who could be franchise owners.

It’s also for people who had very hostile experience of restaurants or very limited experience of restaurants. They thought this is kind of cool that a major national brand is going to be available in their community. Because it’s presenting something that is contrary to the exclusion [that black people experienced before and after legal desegregation]. And for the conservatives who were really supportive of this idea, it’s classic conservative ideology in the sense that the markets will meet the needs of people.

Cynthia Greenlee

So let’s talk about what you call race or black capitalism, the idea that economic development and mass infusions of private (and, to some extent, public) funding could effect social change for black communities. But it didn’t trickle down and bring economic justice. Was it a separate and unequal approach?

Marcia Chatelain

It’s separate and unequal in the sense that it’s providing an opportunity for wealth to be created on an unequal basis. There was a recent Business Insider article about the struggles of black McDonald’s franchise owners who are really trying to keep their heads above water. Something I struggled with in the book is: How do I write about aggrieved millionaires? How do I write about African Americans who are able to financially leverage themselves in ways that previous generations couldn’t imagine, but they’re still on the outside of that structure of power? It’s instructive to help us understand that capitalism does not equalize these conditions under racism.

Marcia Chatelain, author of “Franchise”
Marcia Chatelain, author of Franchise.
Francis Shad

Cynthia Greenlee

You talk about black men who become the pioneering members of the National Black McDonald’s Operators Association (NBMOA). And even the name is telling. They are operators and not owners.

Marcia Chatelain

Franchising is fascinating to me because it’s the right to manage the liabilities of something someone else owns but makes you feel like you’re in charge of. And so it’s hard to talk about African Americans and franchising because you are buying black — in a way. But you’re really not buying black all the way. But are you ever really?

I love the conundrum that these franchises present for communities that are trying to really have a strong pro-black economic agenda. The fissures in the franchising system are replicated in other types of black capitalism projects that are funded by the state, that are aligned with white conservatives and white liberals, and that required the benevolence of white business owners or banks.

Cynthia Greenlee

I was surprised to read that a black man, former NFL player Brady Keys, claims he helped originate Burger King’s “Have it your way” slogan. He became the chain’s first black franchisee, and also Kentucky Fried Chicken’s.

Marcia Chatelain

Brady Keys embodies the contradictions and tensions of the black capitalism movement. He’s aligned with Nixon, he’s getting millions of dollars in federal support for his innovations in franchising. But when he talks about it, he’s like, “Look, I am dealing with an extremely difficult business position. I’m working in mostly poor and working-class neighborhoods. I have to absorb all of this risk. I had a hard time getting banks to invest in me, and I have to always be one step ahead of everyone and thinking about other businesses to get into and other ways to stretch these dollars.”

Cynthia Greenlee

Some black celebrities lent their money and names to franchises that tanked. Muhammad Ali had ChampBurger. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson backed the short-lived Glori-Fried Chicken. You write in depth about Julian Bond, who was part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and later became a Georgia legislator and chairman of the NAACP. With all his connections, he too failed.

Marcia Chatelain

His brief dabbling in fast food has been largely forgotten. He tried to franchise a Dairy Queen with another black activist and a white liberal activist. He also invested in a Wishbone Chicken, a long-gone franchise. The big challenge for this initiative was that it claimed to be connected to black consumers in Atlanta and existed, in a way, as a Black Power business. But there was some skepticism about the participation of a white ally in the effort. This was not an uncommon issue that would arise when franchises or other interracially owned businesses tried to make claims of racial solidarity to promote and validate their presence in black neighborhoods in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Julian Bond, seen here in 1968, tried to franchise a Dairy Queen and a Wishbone Chicken restaurant in the 1970s.
Vernon Merritt III/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
Muhammad Ali, seen here in 1971, invested in a ChampBurger restaurant in the late 1960s.
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Cynthia Greenlee

Ironically, the way many black franchisees got their stores was after riots or disasters in the inner city, stores damaged by fire or violence. How did crisis accelerate fast food’s inroads?

Marcia Chatelain

Whether it’s 9/11 or the obliteration of public schools in New Orleans after Katrina, we have all of these examples of disaster capitalism. If you read all of the great riot commissions and reports of the past 100 years [such as the Kerner Commission], they’re like, “Our schools are overcrowded, our housing is in bad condition. We don’t have equal access to jobs, we don’t have the medical care we need, and our businesses treat us poorly.” Over and over again, there’s a fixation on the businesses part of it when other compelling areas are also ignored.

We tend to imagine the corporation as not just a citizen but actually a first responder in moments of crisis. In the post-1968 climate, when black people were making these demands to end police brutality and to get equal housing, the one thing that actually felt deliverable was the business part of it. You can build a fast-food joint quickly. You have the supply chain ready, and you can employ people quickly. I’m just so fascinated when we imagine corporations as having that role [of recovery and bringing about equity]. But in these moments of tragedy, I thought about the exhaustion that black people must have felt, thinking, “What can we have now? What can be ours?”

Cynthia Greenlee

So what do you mean when you say that “McDonald’s became black”?

Marcia Chatelain

With the ubiquity of McDonald’s, it became a part of black cultural life. When I talked to black people, they often remembered McDonald’s or the black franchise owner supporting the United Negro College Fund, historically black colleges, and/or remembered its advertising [such as a popular 1980s commercial showing black girls doing Double Dutch]. … I think the fast food industry was probably the one that was the most intentional and specific on how to broaden its audiences. That’s no small thing. If you think about the early advertising that was supposed to reach the black market, companies like American Airlines would feature a black family, maybe going to the Caribbean, as part of their black marketing strategy.

But for McDonald’s, it was like a whole-hearted investment in a new business sector, a new group of people. It was moving physically into places that they hadn’t been previously. But they would say all sorts of stuff that you couldn’t imagine a spokesperson for a company saying now, like, “We gave you the opportunity to do business in the ghetto. What’s the problem?” [in response to complaints]. So I love the moment of transition where we go from McDonald’s openly talking about allowing black franchise owners to take over white stores because they don’t want to do business in that community to the language of “inclusion,” “diversity,” “big tent,” and using Martin Luther King in their campaigns.

I think about fast food being vilified [as analogous to] the ways black people are vilified. I don’t want to take for granted that there’s anything natural about it. The reason why I wrote this book is that I was so irked by the ways that people who are concerned about nutrition and health would talk about the relationships of communities of color to fast food — as if these are inevitable affinities that were in people’s blood. There’s this weird idea about biological predisposition to certain types of foods rather than the social construction of what choices people have.

A sign advertising McDonald’s “National Hiring Day” sits outside a restaurant in Chicago on April 5, 2011.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Cynthia Greenlee

One of my strongest takeaways is that the very paradigms of “choice” and individual responsibility in how we eat are just as flawed as those ideas are in other arenas, like reproductive rights. You don’t make the decision to eat that hamburger — or to have fast food every day — in isolation.

Marcia Chatelain

Every social problem has a history. And that history allows us to be more compassionate and patient with ourselves and others as we try to solve [that problem]. I really wanted to write a book about the ways that being black in America is about having to wrestle with constrained choices and deal with the consequences regardless of who you are. If that perspective is brought into our conversations about food, health, and eating, we get to better solutions.

The problem is not that a McDonald’s exists in a community. The problem is that it has an overwhelming influence on what that community has access to. And at the end of the day, no corporation should ever, in my opinion, replicate or try to assume any of the roles that the state should take on — and that is to make sure that people have safe places to spend time, healthy food to eat, good jobs that pay good wages, access to medical care, access to the arts and cultural experiences, and access to funding for colleges. All of those things. I think our state responsibilities have been grafted upon corporations. If you want people to develop a healthier diet, they have to have a better quality of life in which they can make real choices about what they eat.

Cynthia R. Greenlee is a North Carolina-based historian, journalist, and editor. Her writing has appeared in Literary Hub, Longreads, Smithsonian, and Vice, among others. Find her on Twitter @CynthiaGreenlee.

Donald Trump

Trump is suddenly in need of a lot of cash. That’s everyone’s problem.

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court will decide if the government can seize control of YouTube and Twitter


Why Lyft and Uber drivers did their largest strike ever

View all stories in Money

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.