THOUGH NOT AS WIDELY KNOWN or acclaimed as Mammy’s Cupboard, Richard’s Restaurant and Slave Market at 3011 South Harlem Avenue in the inner-ring Chicago suburb of Berwyn, appeared to have a fairly large and dedicated following. Berwyn, to the west of Chicago, is adjacent to Cicero, a town infamous for the virulent racism put on display to receive Martin Luther King Jr. in 1966. One Berwyn resident, Linda Dudek, was a second-grade student there in the late 1960s, and she recalled the sentiments of one of her seven-year-old classmates following Dr. King’s assassination: “that nigger had it coming.”
Berwyn was a sundown town, a municipality in which local customs and/or laws forbade Black persons (and in some instances, members of other racial or ethnic groups) from remaining in town after dark, under threat of arrest, violent expulsion, or worse. When Richard’s opened in 1952, not a single Black person resided in any of the town’s census tracts. Forty years later, one family, the Campbells, bought a house in Berwyn. The family, parents and children alike, were greeted with arson and other threats of violence. City officials paid little mind, and the family soon moved out. According to the 1990 census, as the twentieth century drew to a close, only fifty-four Black people called Berwyn home.
It was in this milieu of state-sponsored and sanctioned racism that Joseph and Helen Wilkos opened Richard’s Restaurant and Slave Market. The restaurant was a family affair, with several adult children and spouses working in various capacities. Of the Wilkos’s four children, Robert, Delores, and twins Josephine and Patricia, all except Delores worked at the restaurant. As well, both Josephine’s and Patricia’s husbands were employed at Richard’s. An eBay listing for a menu shows that customers were offered a variety of dishes. One of the daily specials for Wednesday luncheon was “Polish Sausage, Red Cabbage,” while regular menu items included “Lobster Tail with Drawn Butter” ($3.25) and “Roast Beef” ($3.00). The menu selections and prices suggest that the Wilkos family was courting a well-to-do clientele, and promotional postcards to women planning weddings made the same point. One featured interior photographs and the following text: “CONGRATULATIONS BRIDE TO BE. Picture your reception in one of our four beautiful rooms, alive with color that will flatter your beauty. Reflect your good taste for food. Our reputation for pleasing the most discriminating of people is your insurance.” An ironic choice of word—“discriminating”—to describe those who would enjoy the notion of dining at a slave market.
It is unclear whether the restaurant was born as Richard’s Restaurant and Slave Market or if the reference to slavery was added at a later date; a 1959 Yellow Pages ad lists the establishment only as Richard’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge, and postcards (see Figures 7 and 8) used the same appellation. Duncan Hines’s 1959 Adventures in Good Eating, a guidebook to restaurants around the country, merely listed the establishment as “Richard’s.” By the early 1960s, however, “Slave Market” had replaced “Cocktail Lounge” in advertisements. The name, brazen in its celebration of abject Black personhood, is singular even within a genre of restaurants that used blatant racism to market their products. It was not an unmarked “speakeasy” type of establishment, where only a few were privy to the name and its operation. The name was generally known and displayed widely. As noted above, the establishment advertised in the Yellow Pages, was reviewed in the press, ran classified ads, and was the venue for the meetings of area organizations. For example, the Chicago chapter of the Alfa Romeo Owners Club called a meeting and shortened the restaurant name to a parsimonious “Richard’s Slave Market, 3011 South Harlem Avenue.” The meeting included a cocktail hour, dinner, election event, and road racing films as entertainment.
In some instances, however, news coverage omitted the “Slave Market” portion of the brand. For example, the Chicago Tribune reported in 1964 that “Richard’s Restaurant” had been bombed with dynamite, leaving the community in chaos. James Smith, an employee who was injured and the only one to appear in the article’s photos, must have been one of the few Black individuals allowed in Berwyn during daylight hours. A porter, Smith was working in the kitchen when an explosion shook the roof and rained debris upon him and a coworker. The Wilkos’s other establishments had also been bombed on other occasions, including the Lulu-Belle, hit by a gasoline bomb, and Richard’s Lilac Lodge, in the community of Hillside, destroyed to the tune of $600,000. Officials suspected that the bombing campaign stemmed from Wilkos and other restaurant owners’ 1958 testimony before Senate committee hearings on rackets. As a result, Berwyn neighbors had “been sort of expecting this.” For his part, Wilkos’s twenty-six year-old son and restaurant manager Robert announced he was hiring private guards and would order them “to shoot first and ask questions afterward.”
The Lilac Lounge was rebuilt in 1967 and co-owned by Robert and Sandra Wilkos. The restaurant décor (“authentic African”) featured wall-mounted animal heads, “all kinds of jungle trophies,” a gun collection, and contained an “exotic Safari Room” where adventurous diners could enjoy an informal setting “from the Dark Continent.” The menu, despite purportedly comprising “African entrees,” featured meals with geographic referents far removed from any African country, including “Alaska King Crab,” and “Poulet à la Kiev.” Other entrees simply tacked on African-sounding labels: “Roast Duck Zambizi,” “Shrimp Zanzibar,” and “African Fried Chicken.” Drinks were named more pointedly for standard tropes about Africa: “Elephant Walk,” “Monkey’s Delight,” and “the Headshrinker.”
Other than the bombings, little about Richard’s Restaurant and Slave Market appears in public discourse, save a few restaurant reviews, and the establishment was rather local in its reach. Unlike Mammy’s, or as will be seen, Sambo’s, archival sources do not reveal racial controversy over the name, nor are simple first-person narratives of patronage available. An eBay posting for an unsent postcard (sender’s name illegible) told that, “We were here for dinner May 9 with Charline. Woody has been gone 3 yrs on that date. May 15, 1963.”
Restaurant reviews (also labeled “advertisement,” suggesting that the evaluations were commissioned and/or paid for by the Wilkos family) played up the sumptuousness of the settings at Richard’s. In October 1964, Bud Marker wrote about its four rooms. The main dining room, geared towards family clientele, served a variety of entrees ranging from beef stroganoff and prime rib, to Cantonese beef and Chinese Egg rolls. The Royale Room, a “stately” banquet hall, was adorned with “aristocratic” fittings, while the Treasure Chest offered children’s dining. Finally, there was the Slave Market, the restaurant’s cocktail lounge. Here, “the cocktail waitress dressed in a slave girl costume, makes sure that service is quick and the drinks mixed to perfection.” While classified ads for waitstaff did indicate that costumes were prerequisite, no evidence is available to show what they looked like. Marker also described the lounge as “exotic”—a frequent code for the otherness of Africa—and enjoined readers not to miss the twelve-by-seven-foot mural and slave-girl mannequin.
The restaurant remained popular into the late 1970s, its name a moving target. Whereas in earlier years, the restaurant proudly displayed the full name in Yellow Pages advertising, the 1971 Chicago Yellow Pages now excised “Slave Market,” listing the business as Richard’s Restaurant and Ballroom. However, in other contexts, the restaurant retained the racist nostalgia that undergirded the business from its inception, and the public continued to enjoy it, calling the name “intriguing.” For example, to a more circumscribed audience, such as the Oak Park Leaves newspaper, the establishment continued to purvey itself with the full name, if slightly modified: Richard’s Restaurant & Slave Market Lounge. The addition of “Lounge” clarifies that in fact no auction block is actually on offer.
After twenty-five years in business, Richard’s was described as a landmark destination in Chicago’s western suburbs, a venue of choice for a family’s most intimate and festive occasions, and also a favorite dining location for political figures and celebrities. Several presumably local performers made regular appearances in the Slave Market Lounge, including Jim Stein, guitarist, Bill Solar, pianist, and Wally Valentine on the Cordavox (accordion). Richard’s was still hiring new kitchen staff as late as 1979, but closed along with the other Wilkos restaurants in 1980. Available resources do not report the reason for the closure, but a series of deaths in the family may have played a role. Helen and Joseph Wilkos lost their son and restaurant manager Robert in 1971. The thirty-two-year-old died in a plane crash when two training flights collided in mid-air. Two years later Joseph died at age sixty-six at his winter home in Florida—away from his wife Helen—in 1973. Finally, Patricia and her husband John Vallerugo’s college-aged son John Jr. died in a car accident in 1976. Despite the business having grown substantially, over time, into a prosperous enterprise, accounts of what the restaurant’s closure meant to local residents are unavailable, consonant with the few details divulged about the restaurant while it was open. The secrets of the Slave Market Lounge remain hidden other than that it drew its name from “the many paintings that adorn the walls.” It is chilling to imagine what kinds of images those were.