VINCE CULLERS, principal of the nation’s first Black advertising agency, so infused his Chicago-based practice with Black pride that Black households clipped out his advertisements from magazines and hung them on their walls. Cullers attributed his firm’s success to creating “ads in a way blacks prefer to be portrayed—proud black people who are also warm and understandable.” He advertised his advertising in Operation Breadbasket’s 1969 Black Expo program booklet with a text-only buy. Rendered in crisp black text on a plain white background, the copy comprised a vertical list of colloquialisms that use black pejoratively, such as “black friday,” “black heart,” and “blackmail,” followed by the tagline “white lies.” Last in the list was “little black sambo.” Cullers’s childhood would have coincided with the era when the children’s story Little Black Sambo enjoyed nationwide popularity, and his aversion to this debasing image resonated with many other Black Americans across the country.
Sambo’s is the most infamous of the restaurants discussed in this book. Much of its thirty-year run saw controversy and public protest. Launched in 1957 by Sam Battistone and Newell Bohnett as a pancake house in Santa Barbara, the company distinguished itself to potential franchisees by offering ownership incentives that would later prove unsustainable and be characterized as a pyramid scheme. The company eventually declared bankruptcy and closed almost half the stores before being bought out by another company in 1986. Though financial issues were the company’s undoing, at least some public commentary has held that the chain’s controversies were at fault—specifically, that the zealous left unfairly took down the chain by playing the race card. Though the chain disputed the etiology of the name (discussed in detail later), saying it was an amalgam of Sam (Battistone) and Bo (hnett), it clearly came from Little Black Sambo, a story first published in 1899.
Little Black Sambo in Popular Culture
Helen Bannerman, a Scot, wrote the story en route back to India, having just left her two oldest children enrolled in English schools. As she sailed to reunite with her husband, Major Bannerman, she penned the story for her children. It was during the trip that “Sambo popped into her mind. She jotted down the story as it came to her, sketching pictures of the little boy to illustrate his adventures.” But for a friend who encouraged her to publish the story, she would have discarded it. The Bannermans had lived in India for ten years at that time, and prior to their marriage, Helen had traveled extensively throughout the British empire with her father. Little Black Sambo was set in India—as her own life was—and Bannerman drew on colonial tropes in writing it. The “Black” in “Black Sambo” was at once adjective, taxonomy, given name, and heritage. Bannerman wrote several other stories of the “Little Black” appellation, including Little Black Quibba, Little Black Quasha, Little Black Bobtail, and Little Black Mingo.
In attaching “Black” to Sambo, the author created a racial redundancy that served only to highlight and subordinate the character for his nonwhiteness. There was no disputing the meaning of Sambo in the British empire. Bannerman’s title drew on a vocabulary of racism that was prominent in visual references and everyday language. The print “Massa Out. ‘Sambo Werry Dry’” made by Henry Pidding, a British printmaker, painter, and draughtsman born in 1797, depicted a Black male servant sitting at a table and pouring wine into a glass, with a satisfied, relaxed, and mischievous grin on his face, as he speaks to the dog seated at his feet. Sambo, in his tortured English, was explaining to his canine companion that having accessed the master’s cellar, he was able to quench his thirst with wine. The image reveals Sambo—Black men—to be slothful and prone to duplicitousness and debauchery given the first opportunity. Other artist renditions of Sambo existed in the form of George Cruikshank’s book illustrations. In these, Frank Heartwell, a White man, was accompanied by his friend Sambo, who is pitch black in the prints, and rendered with poorly distinguished features.
Little Black Sambo quickly crossed the Atlantic to the United States. In so doing, the story was assimilated into the country’s racial hierarchy. The Tennessean published a large spread of the story in 1907 titled “Children’s Stories That Never Grow Old: Little Black Sambo” (Figure 9). Here Bannerman’s tale is told in full. Sambo is born of parents who embody foolishness; lacking real names, they are robbed of individuality and humanity. They are named Black Mumbo and Black Jumbo—together they are Mumbo Jumbo, a hot mess of nonsense. Black Mumbo (Sambo’s mother) sewed his outfit, and his father Black Jumbo bought him a green umbrella. The text reads, “And Black Jumbo went to the Bazaar and bought him a beautiful Green Umbrella and a lovely little Pair of Purple Shoes with Crimson Soles and Crimson Linings. And then wasn’t Little Black Sambo grand?”
It is debatable whether the reader is meant to answer yes. The question reads as rhetorical, suggesting that in fact Sambo is far from grand, but rather a fun-size version of the stereotypically buffoonish and uppity Black male trying and failing to clothe himself in the sartorial flair that is the province of his White counterparts. Cartoons of Black people routinely showed them posturing in ridiculous outfits and critiqued them for risible attempts to elevate themselves beyond their contemptible natural stations. Little Black Sambo evokes Jim Crow, the character Thomas Rice portrayed in his minstrel act; dressed in eccentric garb, layered in accessories, colors, and textures, his appearance “was most ridiculous.” Rice’s performance purportedly drew from his observation of “an old decrepit slave named Jim Crow,” an enslaved man who worked for a stable owner surnamed Crow. This Black man sang a song to himself and danced, punctuated by a little jump, and “was so frightfully deformed as to appear inhuman.” Such was his physical constitution that one of the marked aspects of his comportment was a limp: “a pitiful, yet ludicrous, hobble.” Thus audiences delighted in the privilege of mocking Black debility; welcoming a portrayal of a disfigured creature that was less than human.
In the Tennessean strip, Sambo’s face is concordant with widely purveyed images of Black people at that time—a shock of hair, large hoop earrings, an enormous mouth, gleaming white eyes that bulged in their sockets. His body is reminiscent of an old man’s rather than that of a young boy. When he receives his new ensemble, he is naked, save for a short skirt, every bit the primitive, savage African. So robed, he ventures out into the jungle, where he is challenged by a tiger who wants to eat him. As Sambo debates the tiger, his face is contorted into a grotesque mask, with a mouthful of teeth echoing the tiger’s. His hands are splayed and he is bent at the waist in an odd pose. Sambo successfully trades a piece of his clothing for his freedom, but the reprieve is short lived, and Sambo has to repeat the exercise several times with additional tigers.
After bartering away all his clothes, Sambo is disconsolate, having lost his finery, reduced to a loincloth of a dark grassy material. But soon the group of tigers begin fighting each other over Sambo’s clothes, and as they race each other around a tree, they reduce themselves to a puddle of butter. Sambo regains his clothes, is now shown as tall and muscular, and his hair appears in a kinkier mass. In profile, his face is essentially an eye and enormous lips. He is a threatening brute, not a hapless Sambo. The end of the tale is illustrated by pancakes piled high on a plate, accompanied by a small tub of “Tiger GHI” (presumably, “ghee”). Nothing about the story or illustration suggests that it was taking place in India. Inexplicably, the Tennessean closed out the spread with a footer comprising images of two simian-looking individuals standing between the open mouths of two alligators. This surplus denigration of Blackness makes reference to the common representation of Black children as alligator bait.
Several knockoff editions of Bannerman’s story emerged in the United States. “All About Little Black Sambo” was published in New York by Cupples & Leon Company in 1917. In this version, Sambo is short in stature but does not look like a child. He is coal black, shiny, with a large, white mouth rendered in thick outlines as would be a clown’s mouth. Because he wears a coat and knickers but no shirt, he evokes a flasher. He’s not at all cute, and rather sinister. In another rendition, The Story of Little Black Sambo, published in 1910 by Reilly & Britton, the cover announces, “The Only Authorized American Edition.” Figure 11 shows this book cover along with another edition, on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Within the text, illustrations are color versions of those in the Tennessean. As seen in the photograph, on the cover the image is less of a caricature, but the stereotypical features are still distinguishable. Sambo’s hair is straight in texture, but sports loose curls. But inside the book, the images revert to the dehumanizing, beastly renditions shown in the Tennessean. Black Mumbo is rotund as before, holding a frying pan and a spoon, with dark skin, a wide, gap-toothed mouth with huge red lips that stretch the entire width of her broad face, and close-set eyes and nose. She wears a yellow polka-dot scarf over her hair, which is shown to be frizzled. She is barefoot with large feet and wearing a white apron with red polka-dots that match her lips. She is animalistic.
It is important to note that these Sambo imprints were absolutely consonant with the depictions of Blackness in children’s literature. Stories and illustrations minced no words in telling young readers that people of African descent were subhuman, objects of scorn and contempt. Thomas Edison introduced Ten Pickaninnies in 1904, photographing anonymous Black children who were referred to as “snowballs, cherubs, coons, bad chillun, inky kids, smoky kids, black lambs, cute ebonies, and chubbie ebonies.” On February 29, 1912, a resident of Dushore, Pennsylvania wrote in to the “Dear Elizabeth” column at the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, The Evening News. This advice and information column had apparently been receiving many requests related to poetry, and this reader had a question in the same vein: “I would like to get the verses, part of it reads something like this: ‘Ten little nigger boys going to dine, one got shot and then there was but nine.’” Elizabeth was able to furnish the poem that this reader sought, a Mother Goose rhyme first published in the late 1800s and remaining true to the original over time, for “Children like realism in art; they like their ten little niggers very black, their froggies-that-a-wooing go very green . . .”
The poem started almost exactly as the reader remembered, and then recounted a series of incidents that systematically reduced the group of Black boys from ten to none. For example, “Seven little nigger boys chopping up sticks, One chapped [sic] himself in half and then there were six”; “Four little nigger boys went out to sea, A big herring swallowed one and then there were three”; and “Two little nigger boys sitting in the sun, One got shriveled up and then there was one.” In addition to the coarse depiction of violent deaths of Black boys, the verse rendered Black children as things to be counted (as during slavery), rather than as people. Chatto and Windus, the British house that published Little Black Sambo, also published Ten Little Niggers. In the mid-1960s an editor there claimed, “These stories belong to an entirely different age. They’re classically innocent. Certainly there’s nothing malicious about them.”
In addition to Bannerman’s tale, the Sambo image was popular in other storytelling. Not long after the publication of the Mother Goose nursery rhyme, The Topeka State Journal was running a regular comic strip with a protagonist named Sambo. It depicted him as per standard: black, simian-featured caricature. In one comic, Sambo heads to Australia “All fo’ de pleasure ob his jet Black society.” In a 1909 narrative, Sambo is lassoed and trussed up in a rope by his nemeses, two White boys. They delight in dragging him across rough terrain and a river, with the noose around his neck (“Poor Sambo!” commiserates his pet dog). The reader is given every indication that he will be lynched—said one of the boys, “We’ll tie him to a tree and leave him out to dry!”—but in the end he is tied standing up against a tree while animals of the forest crowd around what they perceive to be their dinner. Sambo manages to escape.
Returning to Bannerman’s story, M. Genevieve Silvester published a comic strip in serialized form, with a set of four frames appearing daily, so that children could collect them all and fashion their own booklet. Once again, Sambo is utterly black in color, with white lips, eyebrows, and, in most images, white circles for eyes that contain no pupils—the empty circles end in the blackness of his skin. Sambo also has white circles elsewhere on his body, which at first blush would appear to be holes in clothing, but because he wears none, these unnamed wounds give him a further otherness. At home, he and his parents are the same color as the iron skillet that Black Mumbo wields while making their pancakes. And for good measure, there is a jar of molasses on the table, another item with which the family is equally matched in tone. Sambo’s crude, blunt rendering—black skin and garishly contrasting facial features—place him at a lesser level than the tigers with whom he tangles; they are drawn with a fine-arts precision that gives them personality and clarity.
Little Black Sambo deeply resonated with American children, parents, schools, libraries, critics, and anyone who paid attention to children’s literature. Community and school groups routinely staged productions. An Indiana puppet club put on two performances in 1936, one of which was Little Black Sambo, and the other was “A Colonial Tea Party.” The juxtaposition of these two plays illustrates the latent connections between Sambo and a colonial vision of Blackness. Children at the Jackson School in Wisconsin staged a performance of Little Black Sambo, in which rudimentary costumes comprised paper masks, decorated to depict the story’s characters. Horizontal stripes on a white background with small ears on the top were tigers; the youth playing Sambo wore a bag painted black, with white eyes, nose, and oversize lips. The book had remained popular forty years after its release, and new editions continued to be produced. For example, in 1942 Grosset and Dunlap released “the well-loved nursery classic of that jaunty jungle boy, Little Black Sambo . . . now presented with modernized illustrations. These gay, new pictures can capture many new admirers for this favorite of many years.”
In sum, Sambo was a pervasive and well-understood denigration of blackness. The name, and the various characters that bore it were unequivocally Black and unequivocally negative. In fact, “Sambo” as a term connected to Black subordination was so well understood that White Americans frequently used it to name black animals. For example, in Salt Lake City, a monkey who nearly escaped captivity in a drive-in theater zoo bore the name, and in Mira Loma California, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Waite gave a foster home to a black sheep named Sambo.
The Birth of a Nation’s Restaurant Chain
It was in this context that the Sambo’s chain launched in 1957 in California. Almost at the same time (1958), Ronald and Matilda Krieger’s restaurant, named Lil’ Black Sambo, opened in Oceanlake, a community in coastal Lincoln City, Oregon. It advertised seventeen varieties of pancakes and ten-cent coffee in 1959. These advertisements for an apparently independent restaurant did not include any depictions of Sambo himself. However, the restaurant remains in business today as Lil Sambos, and the website (lilsambos.com) proudly acknowledges Bannerman’s tale as the source, and defines the original name as Lil Black Sambos. The name change reflected changing times. According to the Statesman Journal, “The Li’l Black Sambo restaurant at the Oregon Coast has gone through a transformation wherein it became Li’l Sambo and its symbolic character has turned from black to white.” But newspapers continued to use the names interchangeably, inserting “Black” on different occasions. For example, the Lincoln City restaurant was to host a breakfast for the National Business Women’s Week, and the location was given as “Lil’ Black Sambo’s restaurant.”
In contrast, the well-known Sambo’s chain that launched in Santa Barbara repeatedly denied its origins in public forums. It ran advertising starting in 1961 in which a stereotyped image of a boy from India appeared as the logo, such as that for the grand opening of an outlet in Medford. Like Richard’s Restaurant and Slave Market, Sambo’s opened in locations that were sundown towns—Medford, Eugene, and Salem, Oregon; and Eureka, California. Or, they opened in towns with a significant Ku Klux Klan presence (e.g., Ukiah, California). According to a journalist reporting that Medford’s ignominious history was a thing of the past, the town had suffered a “minor flap” when a Black meteorologist was appointed to the town by the U.S. Weather Bureau. The opinion piece recounted that the meteorologist’s (his name was not mentioned) presence had elicited “some arm-waving, some tut-tutting and a bit of vicious rumor-mongering.” In fact, the family had suffered a cross burning on their lawn, and left thereafter. Yet, the Medford Times reported that he had simply been promoted and assigned elsewhere, that humanity had prevailed among the residents, “and that was that.” In this telling, Medford had indeed once been a sundown town, but the reputation was no longer deserved, because “a dark face no longer creates a sensation,” particularly traveling entertainers.
But Medford was undoubtedly a sundown town, a fact widely known in the region. The town’s Human Rights Council admitted in 1963 that, in the past, “Negroes and other racial minorities were definitely not welcome here. In some cases of record, many years ago, police officers were assigned to see that no such individuals were permitted to remain here overnight.” The Council concluded, however, that conditions were much improved, an assessment that was overly optimistic. In 1963, Medford retailers conspired to prevent a Black family from buying groceries, prompting them to move away after six months. And, as was true in other sundown towns, Klan rallies and gatherings demonstrated to Black people that their safety depended on White goodwill. In some cases, implicit messaging was not enough, and the Klan terrorized Black individuals, such as George Burr, a Medford bootblack. Klansmen hung him briefly from a tree, cut him down, and ordered him to leave town.
Sundown towns like Medford also made travel difficult. Black travelers relied on sources such as the Green Book to travel, and at least in some municipalities, when businesses refused them service, Black private homes were an option for shelter. No such possibility existed in sundown towns, and driving through them was a risky proposition. This was acute in Oregon—only one city (Portland) in the whole state appears in the 1954 Green Book. Professor Allison Blakely recalled that his friend carried a loaded pistol on his passenger seat when he drove through Medford and other southwestern Oregon cities.
It therefore speaks volumes that Sambo’s executives chose to open a restaurant brand that carried a racial epithet as its name in a town that instilled racial terror in Black people. The Medford restaurant made explicit mention of Bannerman’s story. For example, “Mama MUMBO’S Special” was advertised as a choice of juice, an egg, and four Sambo Cakes. And, despite the story’s original setting in India, the advertisement hails the menu as serving “The finest pancakes west of the Congo.” The same language about the Congo was present in a grand opening advertisement for a new location at 1675 Franklin in Eugene. Not only was the restaurant founded squarely on Little Black Sambo, it supplemented the racial tropes already at the story’s core with derogatory references to Africa.
Industry pundits also understood the genesis of the restaurant name to be the children’s story. In commenting on the new wave of pancake restaurant franchises that were sweeping the nation, the editor of Fast Food Magazine wondered, “Where’s Black Sambo?” He reminisced in a 1960 column about Little Black Sambo’s “heroic pancake eating fest” and noted that his son was endlessly entertained by the book, wanting it read to him at least six times daily. The editor “always liked the Black Sambo diet” and found the pancake craze to be one with significant potential.
The Eureka restaurant found footing with families soon after its launch, and included oblique references to the Sambo story (e.g., “Six Sambo cakes, one fresh ranch egg, two strips of bacon, Tiger butter, and your choice of syrup”). When a new location was in the works for Salem, Oregon, the Sambo’s theme was more explicitly racially marked. The Statesman Journal reported that “The Little Black Sambo restaurant chain is attempting to acquire property in Salem to build a restaurant and 100 living units.” The restaurant would be in a block bounded by Commercial, Liberty, Mill, and Trade Streets SE. It is striking that this newspaper account repeated the name as the full title of Bannerman’s book. Whether this was merely a colloquial usage volunteered by newspaper staff or the formal name filed by the restaurant management, it is important that the company allowed the story to run as such. It opened on April 18, 1966, as the fifty-third outlet in the Sambo’s chain, but, just two months later, the restaurant ran into difficulty, with contractors filing a lien on the building at 480 Liberty Street SE for unpaid work.
Sam Battistone Sr. was still president of the company, along with his partner F. Newell Bohnett, president of the Purchasing Corp. Battistone Jr. was manager of an outlet at 1025 South Riverside in Medford—he would go on to be elected president in 1967, with the founders becoming cochairmen. Battistone Sr. and Bohnett oversaw the opening of additional outlets that all made liberal use of Bannerman’s motifs, and about which no mention was made of the so called “Sam-bo” acronym. Coverage of new store openings (e.g., San Bernadino, California) said little about the chain’s executives, Battistone and Bohnett, other than to state that they were the cofounders of restaurants in five states.
But by 1969, when the restaurant made a public stock offering and began to expand rapidly, restaurant announcements now made specific reference to the origin of the chain’s name. When the brand came to Greeley, Colorado, one newspaper report claimed, “The name Sambo’s is a contraction of the names of company co-founders, Sam Battistone Sr., and F. Newel Bohnett, who began the chain as a single restaurant in Santa Barbara in 1957.” Notwithstanding that this etiology had never been mentioned in the fourteen years that the chain had been operating, it was now trotted out as historical fact. As well, the article downplayed the significance of the tiger, quoting Dick Roberts, the company’s territorial director in saying that the “tiger butter” reflected “imaginative merchandising which is popular with children.”
Clearly, by this time, it had become tenuous to make explicit public linkages to the antiblackness on which the restaurant was founded. The owners now attempted to plead both innocence and ignorance. Not only had they named the chain after a contraction of their two names—by happenstance creating a racist epithet that dated to the country’s earliest years—they only took on Bannerman’s imagery after the fact, as a happy coincidence. Even if this explanation were credible, the owners had not articulated why they sought to attach the restaurant to a story that was unflinching in its depiction of Black debasement. They had also failed to explain how these men, born in 1914 and 1924, would have been oblivious to the tale at a time when it was wildly popular across the nation. Critically, legal documents show that the founders were not only aware of the story but explicitly referenced it in recounting the restaurant’s launch. In a major lawsuit, the restaurant’s counsel declared that Battistone’s son, a child at the time, had conjured the chain’s name. He “suggested the name ‘Sambo’s’ as an appropriate title for a pancake house restaurant. The name was suggested because given Bannerman’s book, it conjured up associations with pancakes and, coincidentally, combined the names of the founders.”
The switch in branding was no doubt due to the controversy and protest that the restaurant name, like its namesake book, began to attract. Russell Kirk, a commentator in the Los Angeles Times, wrote with contempt about the national pushback against Bannerman’s book, calling it censorship. And, in a strange conflation, he asked sarcastically, “didn’t you know that Little Black Sambo was a notorious racist?” making the character himself the racist. Kirk held that the opposition was humorless, engaged in zealotry that made it inappropriate to take notice of an individual’s racial characteristics or to be aware of geographical and cultural facts from around the world. Referring to a school ban in New York City, the writer asked, “What’s wrong with the little black fellow? Why, he’s distinctly called black, you see, and that’s discriminatory . . . Is it wicked for Little Black Sambo to be black? Well . . . allow me to inform you that most people who live in Indian jungles are black—mostly distinctly black of skin. I don’t see anything wrong with this.” Citing the book’s author as an English woman and the story’s setting in India, Kirk concluded that “not only is Little Black Sambo no American child—he isn’t even an African Negro.” Finally, Kirk argued that the story of triumph was likely to elicit quite the opposite reaction from White children than what protestors believed; the story would in fact persuade White children to like Black children. Indeed, children adored his bravery and sartorial splendor, and “hug Little Black Sambo dolls to their bosoms.”
Gelastic Jones wrote in to the Fresno Bee to say that it was a surprise to find in a Sambo’s restaurant that “the picture of Little Black Sambo was not black at all, but rather, golden color. I asked about why this was so and I was informed that pressure was put upon the restaurant. At one time the decor was a truly black Sambo, but this was supposed to have been degrading. It seems like this is destroying our American childhood stories unnecessarily.” Jones’s comments echoed those of many other Whites, for whom the tradition of racism was heritage they were not willing to discard “unnecessarily.” And in questioning whether a “truly black Sambo” was in fact degrading, Jones asserts that majoritarian pleasures in the book ought to set the frame for how to interpret it. This was the stance the restaurant management took. Sambo’s continued to shrug innocently, and other issues began unraveling the brand’s position.
Once a Wall Street favorite, Sambo’s began to falter in 1977. Earnings had been falling precipitously and the Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating the company’s reporting practices. At issue was the incentive program for managers. These employees received low basic salaries of $9,000 per year but were able to participate in a complicated incentive program called “Fraction of the Action.” After paying $20,000 for a 20 percent share of their profits, managers could also buy shares in other restaurants. Some managers benefitted tremendously from this program, but this was only possible when the chain was expanding. It was essentially a pyramid scheme. The SEC challenged the fact that corporate was treating the $20,000 payment as income rather than a deposit, and the company had to revise downward its earnings trajectory for the next twenty years and change the incentive program. The new program was rejected by managers, resulting in lawsuits and defections. Market analysts saw the abrupt end of the incentive program as the company’s fatal error. Without the program, managerial staff would not continue working long hours without days off, which had fueled the company’s profitability. One manager, charging that the incentive program was fraudulent, was awarded $925,000 in a lawsuit. Moreover, Sambo’s had to buy back the shares of managers who left, further straining its liquidity, dampening earnings, and increasing debt. Shareholders began to revolt and nearly elected dissidents to the company’s board. Amid this turmoil, Sambo’s was also embroiled in litigation over its name: “Although the company says the story has nothing to do with its name, the chain’s symbol is a tiger, a central character in the story.”
In 1979, Sam D. Battistone (the junior Battistone) was replaced as president and CEO. The restaurant had been in trouble financially for some time and had been pressured by its lenders to replace the company’s management. Battistone was moved to chairman, leaving CEO vacant, and Karl V. Willig moved from executive vice president to president. The company lost $2.9 million in the first quarter of the year, compared to a profit of $3 million over the same period a year earlier. As well, losses were forecast for the remainder of 1979. Battistone blamed the SEC’s ruling, arguing that it resulted in enormous management turnover and an inability to find qualified replacements. Inexperienced newcomers were further exacerbating declines in per-store earnings. But shortly after these in-house changes, Sambo’s took up a new management team, imported wholesale from officers at the hotel chain Motel 6. The challenges for the new leadership were described as “squabbles over the name and mass defections of restaurant operators.”
As the company’s finances foundered, the name “squabbles” picked up steam. Protests were erupting in cities where Sambo’s sought to open. In Hartford, the State Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities asked the restaurant to change its name. In Brockton, Massachusetts, a mill city south of Boston, the License Commission withheld the restaurant’s license until it could determine whether it could order the chain to change its name. Other towns on Cape Cod and elsewhere on mainland Massachusetts were also investigating their options, and as the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts considered a ban on the name, the attorney general’s office argued that “the name ‘Sambo’ is understood by numerous residents of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as offensive and demeaning to black people. It is understood as a badge of slavery and as a racial epithet.” Newspapers were often equivocal on this point—syndicated news coverage reported, “‘Sambo’ is offensive, the opponents say, because the word was once an insulting nickname for black people.”
In Ithaca, the Black Caucus sought an injunction against the restaurant’s signage under the premise that it would be a barrier to minority customers and was therefore discriminatory. At that time, the company had already withstood six other lawsuits in other jurisdictions. Chain spokesman David Severson stated in 1978 that, despite having expanded all over the country, it was only in the Northeast that objections were raised, intimating that it was overly sensitive East Coast liberals who were responsible. In fact, as early as 1961, the NAACP had protested the Eureka outlet over the restaurant’s sign. Controversy raged in Ithaca newspaper opinion pages. According to Clarice B. Abbott, the restaurant’s challenges were tantamount to inflammatory race baiting concocted by Cornell’s “ultra-liberals.” Said Abbott, “The silent majority—it seems to me—is getting tired of being pushed around by the minorities and their self-appointed advocates.” Other residents, such as Gould P. Colman, were opposed: “I know, and lots of other people know, that the word Sambo is equivalent to nigger. We also know it is indecent to put up signs . . . even when the sign is justified by the desire to make money. Shame on you, Sambo’s Inc. May our paths never cross.”
Editorials also appeared in the Black press and leading national newspapers. “The owners tried to palm off this atrocious insult by alleging ingenuously that the name had nothing to do with the ‘Little Black Sambo’ of historical infamy but was merely an artful combination of their names,” said Gerald Horne in the Amsterdam News. In an editorial that ran in the Washington Post and other papers, William Raspberry questioned whether “Sam Battistone is putting you on when he tells you he doesn’t understand the flap over Sambo’s, the name of the restaurant chain he heads.” Raspberry noted that Battistone’s protestations in all innocence over the origin of the name, and the company’s stance that offense was taken only by a small subset of oversensitive individuals were not credible.
Sambo’s sued the City of Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1980 in the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit. When, in 1971, the chain sought to open in the town, the City Council balked at the name. Sambo’s agreed to change it, and employed “Jolly Tiger” instead. After doing business as such for six years, it applied to change the name back to Sambo’s. The permits were granted but revoked after the signs were erected, citing contravention of the prior agreement. Sambo’s refused to take them down, and Ann Arbor threatened to sue. Sambo’s then filed suit seeking “declaratory and injunctive relief for violations of its constitutional rights”; that is, to prevent the city from taking any action to restrict or prohibit its use of the name. The opinion was written by Judge Celebrezze, with Merritt concurring, and ruled in favor of Sambo’s.
Ann Arbor claimed that Sambo’s had waived its First Amendment rights in originally agreeing to change the name and the district court had agreed. But the appeals court held that in fact Sambo’s could not have asserted those rights in 1972, as the Supreme Court did not grant commercial speech protection until 1976. The court also held that “we must also reject the proposition that otherwise protected commercial speech is stripped of that protection because of its ancillary offensiveness.” Judge Merritt also opined that just as “our legal system does not permit a state or local school board to threaten the parents of black children with economic reprisals or boycotts in order to induce them to enter a contract foregoing their rights to the equal protection of the law,” the same protections should hold for Sambo’s. Celebrezze also argued that over the past twenty-four years, the company had invested substantial resources in the name Sambo’s and that “substantial goodwill is attributed to that name, and it constitutes a valuable property interest.” This argument is a clear articulation of what legal scholar Cheryl Harris theorizes about whiteness—that it acts as a kind of property right. In this case, Sambo’s financial investments in maintaining a racist name was a property interest that merited protection under the law.
With regard to the name being an epithet, the court held that both parties agreed that the name was not intended to be degrading, but that “certain citizens” might be offended and that it can be offensive to “some black people if directed at them,” though other Black people “are not so offended.” Moreover, according to the court, the city had provided no tangible evidence that the restaurant name had disrupted racial harmony. Judge Keith dissented, with one of the primary arguments being that the facts as presented glossed over the offensiveness of the name. Published work had shown that Black children endured taunts from White counterparts, were called Black Sambo, and became the embodiment of the story in all-White classrooms, suffering through class readings. “This offensiveness and harm is not lessened simply because the word is contained in an advertisement or placed on a sign 30 feet in the air.” Citing hearings at the Rhode Island Human Rights Commission, Keith’s dissenting opinion found that the name necessarily acted to discourage Black patronage and unequal access to public accommodations. The commission argued that the name notified Black persons that “their patronage was unwelcome, objectionable, and not acceptable, desired, or solicited.” Keith’s opinion held that Sambo’s had every opportunity to present contrary evidence to refute this assertion but had not, and the commission’s findings were therefore entitled to great weight.
In 1979, Sambo’s was still advertising widely, even courting older adults in the lives of graduating high school students at Cantwell High School in Montebello, California. But by 1981, the restaurant chain was rumored to be on the verge of bankruptcy. Within the month of November alone, the restaurant closed 447 of the 1,114 restaurants it was operating; some restaurants were reportedly closed so abruptly that customers in the midst of their meals were hurried out so that the restaurant could be shut. The closings were meant to stop the bleeding in lost patronage and profitability. But apart from dealing with lawsuits from former managers who lost out in the scuttling of the incentive scheme, the corporation was mired in litigation with itself. Sambo’s sued former company executives Willig (president) and Wagner (executive VP and CEO) for defrauding the restaurant chain; they were indicted with mail and wire fraud and scheming to falsify cattle sale records involved in a kickback scheme. In addition to this $8 million suit, the company also sued former employees in response to their employees’ having supported lawsuits against the company.
The chain eventually succumbed to bankruptcy, and in an ironic twist, several of the chain’s locations were bought by Denny’s, another restaurant chain brand imbricated with racial discrimination—in the 1990s it faced class-action lawsuits for a raft of discriminatory practices ranging from requiring Black customers to prepay for meals to locking them out and barring their entry. In 1983 Denny’s began acquiring Sambo’s stores across the country. But one store—the original in Santa Barbara—remained open, despite losing its luster over time. In 1998, Chad Stevens, the grandson of Sam Battistone, sought to refurbish that location and relaunch a chain. It is unclear what has happened with the plans for a chain, but the outlet now serves what appears to be a large clientele. Santa Barbara’s tourism site “Visit Santa Barbara” promotes the restaurant in a section advising travelers with children. A three-day itinerary for activities on the city’s waterfront includes a visit Sambo’s: “This is the ‘ORIGINAL’ Sambo’s Restaurant that started it all! The restaurant is currently owned and managed by the original founders’ grandson, Chad Stevens. (In fact SAMBO’S name has it’s roots based solely on the original “franchise” formed by Sam (Sam Battistone) and Bo—Sam’s business associate, Newell Bohnett).” The tourism board took pains to head off any charge of racism by bringing the brand’s sanitized etymology to the fore.
Remarkably, Hotel Milo, the site of the original (and current) Santa Barbara location makes no mention of the restaurant at all on its site, sanitized or not. Lindsey L. of Los Angeles pointed out on Yelp in April 2017 that “they don’t advertise this but Sambo’s restaurant is located on the hotel property and it’s a good place to grab lunch since there’s no room service.” Indeed, the hotel fact sheet lists the following amenities: wifi, L’Occitane bath products, pools and jacuzzis, bicycles, a fitness center; minibar and in-room coffee, business services, and an oceanfront bistro serving local fruit and pastries. The only brief mention of Sambo’s is buried in an archived blog post about Spring Break, where it is noted that “Hotel Milo also has an onsite diner named Sambo’s that’s also a favorite early morning option.” This despite the fact that Sambo’s is clearly valued by hotel patrons. For example, Jennifer K. of Thousand Oaks, California wrote in July 2012, “The complimentary breakfast buffett [sic] is mostly breads and cereal, but The Sambo Cafe is right on the property and is a great breakfast stop!”
When Stevens announced his plans in 1998, he reanimated the same debates about the name that took place decades earlier. Historian Robin Kelley was quoted as arguing that the image of Sambo “will always be linked to the stupid, shuffling black male. And no matter what they do, it will never be OK for a white man to operate a Sambo’s.” At that time, Stevens gave the same justification for the name that his forbears used, and attributed the controversy to the 1960s and 1970s being “a very sensitive time. There was a sense of political correctness and militancy.” Still, he also claimed that, “If we get complaints about the name in the future, that’s something we’ll think about and deal with.”
Stevens had precisely that opportunity when Yelp reviewers began commenting on the racism inherent in the restaurant’s name. His responses were confused. Even as he denied any racism, intended or otherwise, he acknowledged that the restaurant had used Bannerman’s original story, a break from the founders’ position. Indeed, the current website displays a menu featuring the same racist tropes as the midcentury outlets (e.g., Mama Mumbo and Papa Jumbo entrées). Trailing off in digressions and non sequiturs, he asserted that the meaning of Sambo was essentially in the eyes of the beholder. As seen in the quotes below, his speech was marred by the kinds of linguistic incoherence that characterizes White discourse about racism:
Dear C.O.C. I first want to thank you for your post and I understand your feeling about the negative conitations associated with the name Sambo. But when using this name for my family restaurant it was a combination of my grandfathers name (Sam) and his partner (Bo). They used a story about a boy from India that lost his clothes to some tigers. The tigers ran around a tree and turned into butter and is Mother made him Pancakes. This boys name was Sambo, and it was never ment to be used in a negative way. I am sorry that some people still feel this way about the word Sambo. When we use the name Sambo at the restaurant it is used in a positive manner, I hope you can understand the legacy of a great restaurant chain my grandfather and his partner created. On a side note did you know the Vice President of Nigerea is named Sambo? Thank you once again and if you would like we could talk in more detail. I am open to learning and understanding different points of view. Chad (9/11/2012)
Juliana, I am unsure if you know that the name Sambos has many meanings. The former Vice President of Nigeria in 2014 name is Namadi Sambo, should he change his name. Also the word Sambo is a type of wrestling based on Judo. The way we use Sambo is its about an Indian Child from a popular book “Little Black Sambo,” which is a top selling book in Japan. I do not support anything raciest and despise anyone or group that supports raciest thoughts. I am proud of what my grandfather created almost 70 years ago and I hope that the good thoughts about the name carry on. I agree that the bad thoughts and using the name in a negative connotation should stop. Thank you for your views. (8/11/2015)
However, using the search tool on Yelp’s website reveals that few of the more than six hundred reviews make any mention of racism. Of these, some made hesitant commentary about the possibility of the branding being racist but reported enjoying their meals and the establishment nonetheless; others dismissed the charges altogether. A reviewer on TripAdvisor, TravelingIguana from Newtown, Massachusetts, wrote on November 12, 2017, “Right next door from morning through lunch is the unfortunately named “Sambo’s” (really? can’t you change the name in 2017? So racist.).”
Other internet forums decried accusations of racism as political correctness. Perceiving the original restaurant’s demise to be the fault of militant and deluded Black agitators, they railed against the stifling “PC” tenor of public discourse, particularly about something so innocent as a restaurant. Sambo’s was remembered fondly by many, who wrote about the positive experiences they had in the restaurant, something that was unfairly denied others upon its closing. For example, at the website “Old L.A. Restaurants,” the site’s author stated that a colleague once remarked “that the only tragedy of the civil rights movement of the sixties was in the demise of Sambo’s Restaurants.” As Chad Stevens contended, the Civil Rights movement is cast here as essentially a protracted exercise in political correctness. The author asserted that the term Sambo only came to denote an “ugly racial image” years after the restaurant launched in 1957, and that the chain simply could not make enough modifications to satisfy opponents. One hundred and thirty-seven comments such as the below came in to the post:
This PC junk is out of hand! We went to the one on 6th and Vermont in Los Angeles as teenagers in the early 70s. We were a wild bunch, and we never associated the place with anything racial, and believe me we would have if there was a way. (Robert, February 13, 2017, 8:11 am).
I miss Sambo’s! So tired of the PC left. My best memory of Sambo’s was going there after Grad nite in 79 with my date, pancakes and coffee as the sun came up. (Carol, December 4, 2016, 10:31 am).
I wish for those simpler times without the word smithing that goes into everything these days. (Mark Ryan, July 27, 2016, 12:02 pm)
The people who had an ax to grind with ‘Sambo’s’ did nothing but destroy a restaurant chain, put thousands of people out of work, and accomplish absolutely nothing in the name of civil rights. (Chuck Parmenter, March 28, 2016, 9:54 am)
Remember as a 10yr old kid the political and black community railing against the local coffee shop. I couldn’t see their point. That was the beginnings of reverse discrimination, blacks muckraking, and its only gotten more rediculous since then. At 10 it was apparent a black movement was out to get revenge by destroying an innocent restaurant because of a name and characature. Their way to lash back but good people got hurt. (Mike L., August 8, 2015, 8:29 pm)
How tragic that the stupidity of political correctness killed off a well loved restaurant chain. Just ridiculous. Believe it or not one of my favorite stories as a kid in the ’60s was Little Black Sambo. At that time it had no offensive connotations and never occurred to me. If anything it was a good reference. (Jeff Brodbeck, October 22, 2014, 9:39 pm)
Some Restaurants did have a black (not Indian Boy). It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It is sad that so many ignorant People targeted Sambo’s as racist. (James, April 2, 2014, 6:18 am)
Wow. My father actually bought Sambo’s stock. We watched it go down in flames. I was pre adolescent, so I was unaware of the lawsuit and racial terrorism inflicted on the owners. Shame, shame. People seem to judge on such limited information, never having all the facts. And who are we to judge, anyway? (Jennifer, July 27, 2013, 1:33 pm)