In celebration of Black History Month, Radio Free Richmond is highlighting a different prominent figure in the city’s African American history each week of February.
Kicking off the celebration is the story of Minnie Lue Nichols (sometimes spelled Minne Lou Nichols), a chef, community leader, and business woman who was part of North Richmond’s thriving blues club culture in the post-war era. Minnie Lue and her restaurant and blues club were at the center of a revolution of culture, cuisine, music, and in the way African American women in Richmond lived.
The culture around Minnie Lue Nichols’ restaurant, Minnie Lue’s, was a product of racial tension, a growing population of African Americans in Richmond, and a changing style in music. Politics, food, and culture were inseparable from each other in the blues clubs. Together they offered another way of being free from the Jim Crow rules that dictated much of their lives.
“The blues clubs were the place where the link between power and culture was most evident,” writes Shirley Ann Wilson Moore in “To Place Our Deeds”, the leading history of the African American community in Richmond. “Music places served as large cultural hubs often mixing whites and black, but a lot of the black new comers to Richmond wanted undiluted urban blues. North Richmond blues clubs were their hubs.”
Further, Wilson Moore explains, “Music, the most vital and enduring component of African American culture, represents the most accessible cultural indicator of the state of mind and condition of the black community.” Music was the medium through which the African American community could discuss turmoil, repression, or simply enjoy themselves. The blues clubs facilitated the music and were instrumental to the community.
At the same time, the North Richmond blues clubs were often unregulated by police. They became hotbeds of gambling, vice, and prostitution. Many regulars referred to the clubs as “honky tonks” or “blood baths” due to the regular violence and revelry of the establishments. However, the blues clubs also provided services for the African American community that were unavailable elsewhere, like hair dressing, entertainment, and southern cooking.
It was in this last category that Minnie Lue fit into the scene. Born in Georgia, Minnie Lue lived and studied cooking in New York before moving to North Richmond in 1948. It was difficult for anyone to get a job in the city then. With fewer jobs in the shipyards, many were out of work. But Minnie Lue showed up one day and started cooking at a local restaurant that was down on its luck. She brought with her from the south a signature charisma, and a passion for cooking food that most weren’t accustomed to — chitterlings, greens, chicken, and sweet potato pies. Within four months she turned the place around and took ownership of the restaurant.
The immediate success of Minnie Lue’s restaurant was at odds with the way most African American women — or any woman in the United States at that time — were living. The need for shipyard labor during World War II allowed for women to work in unprecedented numbers, but they were rarely in leadership positions. After the war, however, the transformative impact of women in positions of labor created opportunities for and acceptance of women in authoritative positions.
Part of the desire to work in the blues clubs was highly personal, as well. In Wilson Moore’s book, Minnie Lue is quoted as saying, “It was just easier to take care of a club, give them music in a club, than it was to work all day and night in the yards, then turn around and work at home taking care of babies. Besides, if women were going to cook, they could make some real money off it.”
Minnie Lue wasn’t the only one thinking this way. In the two decades following the end of World War II, there emerged a large culture of women who owned blues clubs in North Richmond. The blues clubs were appealing to women who didn’t want to work in a shipyard or in someone’s kitchen. These women were hugely prominent in the city due to their place in the city’s cultural, musical, and political landscapes.
In her book, Wilson Moore explains that “The blues club women often served as employment referral agents and power brokers in their communities. The clubs, catering as they did to newcomer cultural tastes, had a substantial economic impact on the larger African American community as well.”
The clubs served as a means to spread political ideas. Many African Americans were first introduced to political activism there, and grassroots voter registration took place through these venues. In their later years, the Black Panters were regulars to many of the clubs, and they helped employ many in the community.
Thanks to continued success Minnie Lue eventually landed a larger restaurant, and in 1958 Minnie Lue’s became the first African American establishment in Richmond to obtain a full liquor license. “Minnie Lue Nichols became an astute business woman and community leader as a result of her club ownership,” Wilson Moore describes. “Her establishment became a meeting place for musicians, politicians, and even the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance.”
At its height as a blues club Minnie Lue’s showcased big name musicians like Ray Charles, James Brown, and B.B King.
The clubs eventually began to decline after two decades of cultural, political, and social prominence. In the 1960’s Motown replaced R&B, which was seen by the younger population as of an older generation with a different struggle. Attendance waned. The end of the blues club era was marked by violence and police raids. Crackdowns on gambling and prostitution led to the closure of many clubs.
Minnie Lue’s was one of the only establishments to stay open. This was thanks in part to her cooking, the flavors of which proved more lasting than changing musical trends. The restaurant stayed open until Minnie Lue’s death in 1983, and it continued playing music on the juke box until the end.
Minnie Lue held on to her music throughout the changes. In her book, Wilson Moore quotes Minnie Lue as discussing the draw of blues back then: “Well, if you’ve never felt the blues, I can’t hardly explain. You know how it feels… It was a blues crowd, a beautiful crowd. When the house is full and they’re rocking with members of the band, you enjoy it.”
A big thank you to the Richmond Museum of History and Melinda McCrary for assistance in research for this story.
"To Place Our Deeds: The African American Community in Richmond, California, 1910-1963" By Shirley Ann Wilson Moore. University of California Press, April 2001
"North Richmond Story II" KCRT Documentary, April 2005