50 years ago, Herren’s opened door to family and integration

It was one of the best meals Dr. Lee Shelton ever had, but the fact that he ate it at one of Atlanta’s most well-known restaurants was hard for some to stomach.

On June 25, 1963, Shelton, a prominent African-American physician, his wife, Delores, and mother-in-law — a North Carolina domestic worker — became the first black patrons at Herren’s, a downtown restaurant popular with many of the city’s movers and shakers.

That simple meal of prime rib, though, had larger implications. Herren’s is largely credited with being the first downtown Atlanta restaurant to voluntarily desegregate. It happened before passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

At 7 p.m. Tuesday, Georgia State University’s School of Hospitality, the Georgia Restaurant Association and Theatrical Outfit will host “An Evening at Herren’s” at the Balzer Theater at Herren’s, 84 Luckie St. The event, which is $75 per person, will commemorate that breakthrough moment at the restaurant, which was founded in 1934 by Charlie Herren and later owned and operated by the Negri family until it closed in 1987.

“I was just doing my part,” said Shelton, 85, a retired general surgeon. He said he refused to use colored restrooms and didn’t shop at stores where blacks weren’t welcome. He would join civil rights protests.

“I did everything I could to get rid of segregation where I met it,” he said. “It was kind of like bowling — just knocking the pins down.”

The father of four said he wasn’t anxious about being the first.

Ed Negri, who died about two months ago at age 91, co-owned the restaurant and invited the Sheltons to eat at Herren’s.

It was a turbulent time. In nearby Birmingham, Ala., Eugene “Bull” Connor, the commissioner of public safety and a die-hard segregationist, was determined to crush the civil rights movement. That same year, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. penned his iconic “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

The Ku Klux Klan picketed Herren’s. Some customers swore they’d never eat there again. The mail poured in — some positive, much of it negative. Negri was called a “capitalistic communist.” In previous media reports, Negri said he lost $40,000 worth of business in the first year he ran his restaurant as an integrated business.

Paul Negri said he and his siblings were largely insulated from the controversy surrounding their father’s decision to integrate the family-owned restaurant, which was known for its sweet rolls.

“I was not aware of his decision at the time, but after the fact, I discovered they (his parents) were keeping it pretty quiet because of all the hate mail and threats,” said Negri, who was in high school at the time and now lives in Summerville, S.C. The letters were “pretty scary stuff.”

He’s not surprised, though, that his dad would take that stand. “My dad didn’t like the N-word,” he said. “He was a very giving and loving soul.”

In his book, “Herren’s: An Atlanta Landmark,” Ed Negri wrote about a series of meetings of the city’s restaurateurs called by businessman Ed Noble in 1963. Noble wanted to discuss the racial unrest sweeping the South and how it might affect Atlanta. He was particularly concerned about what was going on in Birmingham. Similar happenings here could hurt those in the meetings and the community.

Noble, wrote Negri, pointed out that students at Atlanta’s historically black colleges would soon be on summer break and that there had already been sit-ins in the city. It was only a matter of time before they would be forced to open their dining facilities.

“He said that we should consider discussing that possibility to determine a plan of action that we might better control in our own community, rather than waiting for outsiders to dictate the terms,” Negri wrote. In a documentary about the restaurant, Negri said he weighed the pros and cons. He knew that patrons could easily take their business to other nice restaurants downtown.

Negri said that a friend, a salesman for the kitchen equipment division of a major corporation, told him the civil rights activity in Birmingham had “practically killed his business there.”

Noble, said Negri, thought they should start serving everyone, regardless of race. The discussions went back and forth and were once disrupted by Lester Maddox, an avowed segregationist, owner of the popular Pickrick Cafeteria and later Georgia governor, who urged others to walk out.

Sometimes members of the black community were invited, and Shelton attended at least one of those meetings.

Delores Shelton, in the documentary, talked about taking their children downtown to buy shoes. She said the children would get hungry and “they’d want to eat,” she said. “Well there was no place downtown for them to eat.”

As in many cases, the impetus for change was often a mixture of pragmatism and genuine belief in doing what is right, said Cliff Kuhn, an associate professor of history at Georgia State University.

Bill and Peg Balzer, who later bought the site and donated it to the Theatrical Outfit, became good friends with Negri. “Ed said his mouth got the best of him and he said, ‘I’ll do it’,” Bill Balzer said.

Negri was always modest about what he did, Balzer said. Integrating the restaurant was always “the smallest part of his discussions,” Balzer said.

In the documentary, Negri said that when he told his mother he planned to integrate his restaurant, she asked him “What took you so long?”

Shelton said he was always hopeful.

“I always had the view that all good white people needed was a little encouragement,” he said. “And that the system was kept in place by a small minority.”

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