The Kitchen of a Civil Rights Hero

The Club from Nowhere

Get more about Georgia Gilmore from this story's first broadcast earlier this year.

The Kitchen Sisters have a tribute to Georgia Gilmore, one of the unsung heroes of the civil rights era. Gilmore turned her Montgomery, Ala., home into a restaurant and raised money for the movement by selling pies and cakes in local businesses. Gilmore liked to call her establishment the Club from Nowhere and served patrons including Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.

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ED GORDON, host:

On this holiday, when food plays such a role in our gatherings, we hear from Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson, better known as The Kitchen Sisters. Not long ago, they traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, for their Hidden Kitchens series on local visionaries and food traditions. With producer Jamie York, they visited the kitchen of Georgia Gilmore.

(Soundbite of voice mail)

Automated Voice: You have 52 new messages.

Mr. JOHN T. EDGE (Director, Southern Foodways Alliance): Hey, my name's John T. Edge, and I live down in Oxford, Mississippi, and direct the Southern Foodways Alliance. There's a woman y'all need to know about. Her name's Georgia Gilmore. She was a cook in the 1950s in Montgomery, Alabama, and when I think of Hidden Kitchens, I think about the story of her back-door restaurant, her secret kitchen that fueled the civil rights movement.

(Soundbite of car engine)

Unidentified Woman #1: Hi. How you doing? You live on this street? Do you know where Miss Gilmore used to stay?

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah. Miss Georgia Gilmore? That's Miss Gilmore house down there. You see that marker now there, that historical marker?

Unidentified Woman #1: Oh, yeah. I see it now.

You see the plaque in the yard?

Mr. MARK GILMORE Jr. (Councilman, Montgomery, Alabama): Georgia Theresa Gilmore. I'm her son, Councilman Mark Gilmore Jr.

Unidentified Woman #2: Georgia Gilmore...

Mr. GILMORE: She could cook.

Unidentified Woman #2: ...1920-1990.

Mr. GILMORE: She was a stone cook.

Reverend AL DIXON (Montgomery, Alabama): Her food was cooked on the mama level, and Georgia was like `Big Mama,' Southern-type mamas, maybe 10 or 15 of them.

Mr. GILMORE: Now my mother, at the time, was a midwife by profession. She cooked at National Lunch Company in Montgomery when the movement started. When Mrs. Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat in 1955, Mama got involved in the bus boycott.

Ms. JOHNNIE REBECCA CARR (President, Montgomery Improvement Association): She lost her job because the management learned of her being a part of this movement that was going on. My name is Johnnie Rebecca Carr, and I am the fifth president of the Montgomery Improvement Association.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) Caught that Alabama bus, I don't want to ride...

Unidentified Man #4: During the bus boycott, the city of Montgomery brought suit against King and 90 other members of the Montgomery Improvement Association in March of 1956. They were claiming that the bus boycott was an unlawful conspiracy. Georgia Gilmore testified in court. She, in essence, called out this bus driver who'd kicked her off a bus. When Miss Gilmore stood up in court, she got fired.

Ms. GEORGIA GILMORE (Civil Rights Activist): You cannot be afraid if you want to accomplish anything. You got to have the willing, the spirit and above all, you got to have the get-up.

Rev. DIXON: Everybody could tell you Georgia Gilmore didn't take no junk. I'm Reverend Al Dixon. If you pushed her too far, she'd say a few bad words and if you pushed her any further, she would, um--she'd hit you.

Mr. GILMORE: She was swift on her feet. She could move. Mama weighed about 350, 400 pounds. Martin Luther King had called her `Tiny.'

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #3: (Singing) God, here's a battle-ax...

Mr. NELSON WALTON (Montgomery, Alabama): She lived about three blocks from wherever King was living at the time. I'm Nelson Walton. The Reverend King, when he came to Montgomery, I was his first barber. Whenever VIPs would come to town, he would always have Miss Gilmore to cook up a batch of chicken. When she was fired from her restaurant, Reverend King said, `Well, why don't you go in business for yourself?'

Ms. CARR: She turned part of her home into a dining area. Dr. King and the organization helped her to set up where she could go into business cooking in her own home.

Rev. DIXON: Dr. Martin Luther King, he needed a place where he could go, where he could not only trust the people around him but trust the food.

Ms. MARTHA HAWKINS (Martha's Place Restaurant): Plus they had a lot of secret meetings, and they didn't want nobody to know, so they went to Georgia House. My name is Martha Hawkins, at Martha's Place Restaurant. She inspired me to be able to do what I'm doing.

(Soundbite of music)

Pastor THOMAS E. JORDAN (Lilly Baptist Church): I'm Pastor Thomas E. Jordan, the Lilly Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama. About 12:00, we'd make our beeline to Georgia Gilmore's place. A lot of times you'd have to wait in line to be fed.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #3: (Singing) Why don't you sit down? I can't sit down.

Ms. ALTHEA THOMAS (Organist, Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church): And as these would leave, another set would come, just like a Methodist communion table. I'm Althea Thomas. I'm organist here at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. Sometimes there would be about four professors, clerical workers, a policeman or two.

Mr. GILMORE: Lawyers and doctors, black and white, people like Morris Dees with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Rev. DIXON: She could talk on everybody's level, a confidant. Know what's going down, know what's up.

Mr. GILMORE: Kennedy came, Johnson's been here--Dr. King brought him--Wallace; all of them had a chance to eat at my mother's table. She'd call you little names, you know. `Come here, li'l heifer.'

Rev. DIXON: She'd be cooking that chicken. Sometimes she'd take it right out the grease and put it on your plate. You'd just eat wherever you could find a seat, stand up and eat, whatever.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #5: (Singing) Once there come a black woman...

Pastor JORDAN: Pork chops, stuffed bell peppers. She would have chitlins with slaw and then take the hog maw and cut up in them. She could cook it, man.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #6: (Singing) Run through my kitchen...

Ms. CARR: The bus boycott lasted for 381 days. Georgia Gilmore, another phase of her work was that she had a group called the Club from Nowhere. She just made it up in her mind to start raising money for the movement.

(Soundbite of radio commercial)

Unidentified Man #7: Aren't you hungry? Well, why not buy a pie from the ladies of the boycott?

Ms. THOMAS: They sold pies and cakes in the beauty shops. A lot of them was afraid to let people know who they were, so they called themselves the Club from Nowhere.

Mr. GILMORE: They bought the station wagons for different churches. That's how they organized transportation. And every mass meeting Dr. King would preach, she would turn that money in. She raised more money than anybody there.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #4: Georgia Gilmore died on a Friday on the 25th anniversary of the civil rights Selma-to-Montgomery march. She was fixing food for the marchers, and at the visitation, her family served it to the mourners.

Mr. GILMORE: She cooked that morning, a tub of macaroni and cheese, and she had fixed a tub of chicken. She was getting ready to cook heavy, to get feed to people, and she died.

Unidentified Man #8: Well, I'd say Georgia Theresa Gilmore was one of the unsung heroines of the civil rights movement. You know, Martin Luther King used often talked about the ground crew. She was not really recognized for who she was. But had it not for been people like Georgia Gilmore, Martin Luther King Jr. wouldn't have been who he was.

(Soundbite of "Rainy Night in Georgia")

Unidentified Man #9: (Singing) It seems like it's raining all over the world.

GORDON: The Hidden Kitchens project is produced by The Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, with Jay Allison. You can see photos at npr.org.

(Soundbite of "Rainy Night in Georgia")

Unidentified Man #9: (Singing) Taxicabs and buses passing through the night. A distant moaning of a train seems to play a sad refrain...

GORDON: That does it for the program today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. If you'd like to comment, call us at (202) 408-3330.

NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of "Rainy Night in Georgia")

Unidentified Man #9: (Singing) ...such a rainy night in Georgia. Lord, I believe it's raining all over the world.

GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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