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The Complicated History of One Mississippi Restaurant

In the Deep South, any restaurant that has operated for nearly a century is bound to have a complicated racial history. Lusco’s is one of those.

Since opening in its current location on the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, the restaurant has served cotton farmers and soldiers returning home from war. By the time Karen and Andy Pinkston took over in 1976, it had survived the Great Depression and Prohibition.

It had seen the violence of Jim Crow and the civil rights movement — and like restaurants across the South, it had become a site of those struggles.

Along the way, Lusco’s won renown far beyond its home state, and helped establish a style of dining unique to the Mississippi Delta, one loosely based on steak and seafood (and, if you’re lucky, tamales) served in timeworn spaces with the electric atmosphere of a juke joint.

The restaurant has been especially busy since April, when news broke that the Pinkstons planned to retire; its final day will be Sept. 25. Fans from all over have been descending on this remote river city for a last chance at enjoying Lusco’s signature dishes: spicy shrimp, beef steaks, broiled whole pompano and fried chicken.

Carolyn McAdams, who was a fill-in hostess at the restaurant before she was elected Greenwood’s mayor in 2009, is bracing for the void the closing will leave in her hometown. “It’s a tradition,” she said. “Most milestones in your life, you do it at Lusco’s.”

In truth, however, only a narrow sliver of Greenwood residents have ever been regulars. Segregation laws prevented Black people, who now make up about 73 percent of the city’s 14,000 residents, from dining there in its early years.

The owners of Lusco’s resisted pressure from white customers to convert the business into a private club, as many restaurants in the South did to avoid integrating in the 1960s. Still, desegregation didn’t drastically change the racial makeup of its clientele — which remains predominantly white — just as it didn’t erase the socioeconomic disparities between Black and white residents in Greenwood.

Booker Wright, its most famous employee, knew that divide well.

Mr. Wright worked here for 25 years, mainly as a waiter. That ended in April 1966, immediately after he appeared in “Mississippi: A Self-Portrait,” an NBC News documentary about racism in the Delta. The program included footage of Mr. Wright filmed at Booker’s Place, the bar and restaurant he opened in Greenwood with money earned at Lusco’s — and that he operated while still working at the restaurant. In the documentary, he spoke frankly about what it was like to be a Black waiter in the Jim Crow-era South.

“Some people are nice, some not,” he said. “Some call me Booker, some call me John, some call me Jim.” And some, he said, addressed him with a racist epithet. “All of that hurts, but you have to smile.”

Read entire article at New York Times