Georgia Gilmore: The Cook Who Fed & Funded Civil Rights (From Her Kitchen)

(Photo credit: Washington University – St. Louis)

Original article published by NPR

In December 1955, after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white man, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other black ministers and community leaders organized a citywide bus boycott in protest. That part is well known.

Less well-known is the story of Georgia Gilmore, the Montgomery cook, midwife, and activist whose secret kitchen fed the civil rights movement.

When King and others held meetings of the Montgomery Improvement Association at the Holt Street Baptist Church, Gilmore was there, selling fried chicken sandwiches and other foods to the African-American men and women gathered there who’d pledged not to use the city’s buses until they were desegregated. Gilmore poured those profits back into the movement, as John T. Edge recounts in his book The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South.

“In the process, her home kitchen became a locus for change,” writes Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, which is based out of the University of Mississippi and documents the intersection of food and culture in the South.

Gilmore organized black women to sell pound cakes and sweet potato pies, fried fish and stewed greens, pork chops and rice at beauty salons, cab stands, and churches. “She offered these women, many of whose grandmothers were born into slavery, a way to contribute to the cause that would not raise suspicions of white employers who might fire them from their jobs, or white landowners who might evict them from the houses they rented,” Edge says.

The money they raised helped pay for the alternative transportation system that arose in Montgomery during the 381-day bus boycott: hundreds of cars, trucks and wagons that ferried black workers to and from their jobs across town each day. Gilmore’s cooking helped pay for the insurance, gas, wagons and vehicle repairs that kept that system going.

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She called the group of women who worked with her in this project “The Club from Nowhere” because, as Betty Gilmore, Georgia’s sister, told Edge years later, “It was like, ‘Where did this money come from? It came from nowhere.”

Gilmore would attend MIA meetings at the church and announce how much she’d raised that week, eventually inspiring another group of women in town to start a similar endeavor, Edge says.

In February 1956, a Montgomery County grand jury indicted King and dozens of other boycott leaders for unlawful conspiracy. Gilmore was among those who testified at King’s trial. As the late Rev. Al Dixon told NPR in 2005,…