In 1961, when Benjamin Burdell Beamon opened his 24-hour restaurant at the corner of Butler Street (now Jesse Hill Jr. Drive) and Auburn Avenue, it instantly became the place where Black Atlanta met and ate. The restaurant, which occupied a spot that is now a parking lot, was a gathering place for luminaries: a post-show stop for Black entertainers like Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong and a meeting place for the civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, and John Lewis. But Beamon and his restaurant also served an important function for the broader community, by feeding the downtown and Sweet Auburn neighborhoods at a time when segregation kept most dining rooms in Atlanta closed to Black people.
During its heyday, civil rights leaders holed up in the private dining room at B.B. Beamon’s Restaurant on Auburn Avenue. At night, the best musical acts in the country, from Aretha Franklin to Duke Ellington, capped off a show in town with ice cream and Beamon’s milkshakes. On Sundays, congregants from nearby Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church packed in to dine on veal scallopini with macaroni and cheese and congealed fruit salad for 85 cents.
Born in Greenwood, South Carolina, Beamon moved to Atlanta in 1931 with intentions to attend Morehouse College. He wasn’t accepted. Undeterred, and in the midst of the Great Depression, Beamon washed dishes 15 hours a day for $5 a week. He bounced around between jobs, working at a mattress factory during the day and as a dining car waiter on the Southern Railroad in the evenings. At the mattress factory, Beamon’s bosses asked him to plan work parties. He found he had a gift for organizing events.
In 1935, at the age of 23, Beamon produced his first musical event, booking local bands to play at the Black clubs around Atlanta, like the Top Hat (now home to the Royal Peacock Lounge) and the open-air roof garden at the Odd Fellows Building on Auburn Avenue. Within 10 years, Beamon was the South’s biggest Black music promoter, booking Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, and Billie Holliday to perform at his shows in safe clubs and venues part of the “Chitlin’ Circuit” during segregated Atlanta.
By 1955, Beamon was nationally known, even making Jet magazine’s list for “sportiest dressed male” in Atlanta. It was through his work in the entertainment industry at the time that Beamon realized Atlanta lacked good lodgings for Black entertainers. He and business partner Herman Nash opened the Savoy Hotel on Auburn Avenue, within the Herndon Building across the street from the Odd Fellows Building, followed by his eponymous place next door, B.B. Beamon’s Restaurant.
Beamon grew up watching his mother cook meals with what the family grew in their garden, learning from her how to make dishes like grits and eggs. Though he undertook many entrepreneurial ventures in his lifetime, the Auburn Avenue restaurant was his passion project. Investing $60,000 cash into its construction, Beamon hired family members to put in the woodwork and countertops. The result was a gleaming restaurant with a red and blue neon sign out front and tables draped with white linens in the dining room.
B.B. Beamon’s Restaurant brought 24-hour dining to the Black community in Sweet Auburn and downtown Atlanta.
Despite owning both the Savoy Hotel and the restaurant, Beamon never stopped working as a dining car waiter on the Southern Railroad.
“He would get off the railroad, go to the hotel and take a nap, then, go to the restaurant and check on the restaurant, go to the hotel to change, and then head out to a show that he was promoting. He worked 18-, 20-hour days,” says Beamon’s daughter, Sharita Beamon.
His exhausting schedule included community work, too, as a Prince Hall Freemason and an active member of the Atlanta NAACP and Big Bethel AME.
During a 1979 interview for oral history project Living Atlanta, Beamon was asked why he worked so hard. He saw the restaurant and his shows as an opportunity to give back to the segregated Black community in Atlanta.
“The Black community was fenced in and needed busting out,” Beamon said in the interview. “I took pride in it because you were making people happy, they didn’t have anywhere else to go...You felt like you were doing a service for the people.”
His daughter agrees with that assessment, saying that one of her father’s favorite mottoes was, “Service is the rent you pay to be here on Earth.”
This service-minded philosophy is what ultimately led civil rights leaders to Beamon’s restaurant. Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, and other leaders from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference often met at Beamon’s for breakfast. Young describes Beamon’s fondly in an audio tour of Auburn Avenue, saying, “Those breakfasts [at Beamon’s] were part strategy sessions, part church without the congregation. But it was where the ministers went together to plan the full employment drives and the economic activities that later led to Atlanta being a completely desegregated city.”
John Lewis and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee used Beamon’s restaurant as their headquarters, too. Beamon provided free meals to the students who met nearly every day in the private dining room, strategizing sit-ins and protest demonstrations while indulging in ice cream sundaes.
A year after Beamon opened his restaurant, construction began on the Downtown Connector (where I-75 and I-85 merge in Atlanta). The highway officially opened in 1964, with its construction cutting through Auburn Avenue and displacing an estimated 30,000 residents from surrounding neighborhoods, nearly all of whom were Black. Beamon’s restaurant struggled as people began to leave the community. After only a decade on Auburn Avenue, Beamon finally shut down the restaurant and the Savoy Hotel in 1971, mostly due to the changing demographics of the neighborhood.
For more than 30 years, the Savoy Hotel and Beamon’s Restaurant decayed, weeds and trees poking through the brick and cement. In 2008, a tornado swept through downtown Atlanta, demolishing the building and revealing a racist advertisement from the 1800s still visible behind the walls where civil rights leaders like King, Lewis, and Young once ate and planned.
Today, the site of B.B. Beamon’s Restaurant is a parking lot.
Following the closure of the restaurant, Beamon took a position as a sergeant at the Atlanta Department of Corrections, revolutionizing prison food service by preparing nutritious meals for the incarcerated, unheard of in the 1970s. Several staff members from the Auburn Avenue restaurant joined him in the kitchen there.
Beamon died in 1997 at the age of 83. His daughter and family attended a presentation by the Department of Corrections where they hung Beamon’s photo beside his favorite slogan: “Success is not measured by the things you have, but by the people you help along the way.”
At his funeral, Beamon was remembered for feeding the Black community during the 1960s, along with so many Atlantans, when others in the city would not.
While the restaurant and building in which it once occupied are now gone, Beamon’s legacy still resonates here. New neighborhood restaurants carry on that commitment to service, opening doors to feed and nurture the broader community beyond the dining rooms of Sweet Auburn.
Akila McConnell lives in Atlanta and is a culinary historian and the founder of Unexpected Atlanta and Unexpected Virtual Tours. Her book, A Culinary History of Atlanta, was the 2020 Finalist for the Georgia Author of the Year in History. Akila’s superpower is her uncanny ability to always finish dessert.
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