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Georgetown Course Sinks Teeth Into D.C. Food, African-American Culture

December 5, 2013 – Washington, D.C., serves as the backdrop for the intense study of food, race and history in a course taught this semester by Georgetown history professor Marcia Chatelain.

The scholar and historian designed the course, African American Food Culture, for Georgetown College’s Ignatius Seminars Program.

The seminars, named for Jesuit founder St. Ignatius of Loyola, give first-year students the chance to learn about the university’s Jesuit ideal cura personalis, or care for the whole person, in a wide variety of ways.

Each seminar is limited to 15 students, who also have the opportunity to get to know faculty members and their research in a small, intimate setting.

Pivotal Moments

“When I heard that one of the goals of the Ignatius Seminars is to acquaint students with our research interests,” Chatelain explains, “I knew that a food class could bridge my study of African-American urbanization and my interests in the role of food in pivotal moments in 20th-century black history.”

Chatelain passed out ice cream sandwiches at the start of one class, reminding her students that half of them would not have been able to enjoy that kind of treat at a lunch counter in the early 1960s.

Lunch counters became a glaring symbol of the unequal access to public space that black Americans faced before the success of the civil rights movement.

A Deep Color Line

The history professor says there’s a tendency to glance over the culture of food’s connection to historical events, but such discussions quickly turn into explorations about the beginnings, struggles and successes of the movement.

“I think the students have been moved and surprised by how recently Washington, D.C., observed the rules of Jim Crow and segregation,” Chatelain says.

After her lecture on President Kennedy and the architects of the civil rights movement during the 1960s,  “students were really surprised to realize that D.C. – a place they know as incredibly cosmopolitan – struggled with a deep color line,” she explains.

Eateries and ‘Black Broadway’

Chatelain arranged field trips for students in the course to several of city’s eateries that played a role in the “legacy of black food culture.”

Ben’s Chili Bowl, Florida Avenue Grill and Eatonville are all located in the city’s historic U Street Corridor – which was home to the nation’s largest urban African-American community until Harlem took over the distinction in the 1920s.

U Street also was known as “Black Broadway” – where jazz great Duke Ellington spent his childhood and top performers played The Howard and Lincoln theaters.

Ben’s Chili Bowl and Florida Avenue Grill also survived the tumult from the riots that occurred in the neighborhood after the 1968 assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Food and Racialization

Though Eatonville can’t boast the decades that Ben’s and the Grill have seen, it has its own historical significance – it was named for the Florida hometown of Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston and the focal point in her book, Their Eyes Were Watching God.  

“I think about the history and meaning of the food [that] I eat a lot more than I ever used to,” says Sinead Schenk (C’17) of Bronxville, N.Y. “When I eat something, I think about who would have eaten it, as well as the when, where, why and how would it have be eaten in history.”

The class primarily examines African-American food culture in 19th- and 20th-century American history, but current events and political debates also find their way into class discussions.

“We talk a lot about food deserts in D.C. and the racialized component of access to healthy and nutritious foods,” Chatelain explains. “We also discussed, at length, how the government shutdown impacted poor and hungry families, as well as food safety protocols and inspections.”

A New Perspective

In high school, Abdurrahman Ajeigbe (C’17) of Newark, N.J., studied the role of enslaved Africans on plantations, but never learned about the extent of the impact blacks had on American food culture.

“They had an influence in creating soul food and Southern food,” Ajeigbe says. “Their predecessors introduced new plants and new ways to use existing plants to make the distinctive meals of the South.”

He says the course “opened an entirely new perspective of African Americans’ roles in America” to him.