The Story of Georgia Gilmore: This Montgomery, Alabama Cook Helped Fund the Civil Rights Movement
In searching for the legacy of Georgia Gilmore, you will find the soul of American cuisine.
It’s 1955 and Montgomery, Alabama, is embroiled in its legendary bus boycotts. These events would come to represent the epicenter of the civil rights movement, where some of the most transformative, if not yet fully realized, laws were fought and died for. This era is long and complicated, but through the lens of food we see that hospitality professionals provided practices and strategies that became the most effective tools of resistance. One of the most emblematic figures of this era is a woman by the name of Mrs. Georgia Gilmore.
I first came across Mrs. Gilmore on an NPR program hosted by the extraordinary Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva. This particular Hidden Kitchens segment of their program, which I heard back in 2005, was all about a bold, brash, 35-year-old mother of six who had been working at the National Lunch Company as a chef. She, like many of her contemporaries, was a hospitality worker who relied on the public bus system to take her from her segregated neighborhood to her service job across town. Mrs. Gilmore was also an engaged community member so, as the civil rights movement starts to erupt, she begins taking stands on issues like voter registration and bus segregation as a member of what would come to be known as the Montgomery Improvement Association. The group’s focus was, among other things, the practical and tangible aid of the budding movement. Eventually her activism gets her fired from her job when she decides to stand testimony at the trial of then up-and-coming community leader and preacher Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
As the movement starts progressing, Mrs. Gilmore, at the encouragement of Dr. King, decides to focus her talents. She begins to use her own kitchen to feed protesters. That may seem like a small thing, but as time progresses and the days turn into weeks, these lunches become vital to keeping protesters fortified and motivated. Soon similar groups start popping up all over the city with Mrs. Gilmore organizing culinary talent to form a collective of chefs who made boxed lunches, baked goods, and Sunday suppers to raise money for the movement’s infrastructure. This collaborative action was meant to represent a unified effort. Since many were afraid to say who they were or where they were from, the project became known as the Club from Nowhere.
As a side note, I’ll offer that so much of culinary history, and black history at large, is messy, disparate detective work. You hunt for puzzle pieces everywhere to offer best guesses that you can then extrapolate out to broader truths. Finding this story and learning about the power of these brave and talented men and women was like a lifeline. It told a contrary narrative about where the culinary center of this era laid and made me even more curious about the context in which Mrs. Gilmore lived and worked.
While the Club From Nowhere was certainly a citywide effort, Mrs. Gilmore and her pork chops, stuffed bell peppers, and fried chicken were superlative. She ultimately used her talents to start her own catering company and opened a backdoor restaurant from her home after the year-long boycotts ended. Her table became a vital safe space from which strategy would be organized for the next decade-plus of activism. She was in business right up until her death. Mrs. Georgia Gilmore died on Friday, March 9, 1990, the 25th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery. That day Mrs. Gilmore was in the kitchen fixing food—macaroni and cheese and chicken—for the marchers. At her visitation, her family fed the mourners that food.
This legacy is important to note because, regardless of how amazing her story, Mrs. Georgia Gilmore—even with her decades of culinary acumen—in 1950s Alabama would have had her professional life reduced to the dismissive label of “domestic.” On the surface this may not seem like the most pressing issue of that day, but words mean things, and coding her generational culinary and hospitality service into simple domesticity at the same time the culinary world is on the verge of tectonic shift is fascinating. She becomes the puzzle piece, the iconography, that tells the story of our culinary foundation. Today I cook under the hidden toque of Mrs. Gilmore, who didn’t need the pleats to prove her excellence but who, as Michael Twitty would say, quietly enslaved the palate of a nation who wanted her art while dismissing her artistry.
When I think of Mrs. Gilmore and her exemplary legacy of culinary excellence, I’m reminded of all the traits that made her so powerful. She had to constantly qualify herself at every threshold she occupied as a professional cook, then as an entrepreneur and community organizer. She had to have been one of the hardest workers of the time. She was an obvious and natural multitasker offering respite and emotional support for leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., all while using her professional talents to provide labor and tactical support for an entire movement. She was certainly accustomed to limited or non-existent resources, so she was surely the most resourceful and thoughtful actor in her organization. I offer this analysis because, as a working chef, I have a recurring dream where the modern culinary world is run by black women, bequeathed by the legacy of leadership and resiliency that women like Mrs. Gilmore displayed. Emboldened by this spirit, these women would shepherd a restaurant culture ripe with multicultural culinary knowledge, creative entrepreneurial dexterity, and a moral compass that fosters a naturally inclusive kitchen culture.
If this is your first introduction to Mrs. Gilmore, I’d invite you to check out a beautiful piece written by Clancy Miller for the New York Times in their Overlooked column, which was launched to give hidden figures like Mrs. Gilmore their due. I hope that as Mrs. Georgia Gilmore’s culinary legacy is lifted, we can use the lessons she left us to transform the landscape of a rapidly changing, yet often misguided industry into one that lives up to the promise of our foremothers.