Marsha Carther, of Dallas, Texas, has always loved road trips. She remembers traveling with her family as a young girl, heading to Detroit over the summer to visit relatives. One special item that was always in the car. “My mother made shoebox lunches for us kids,” she says. “If you were Black, you couldn’t just pull off and go to a restaurant and eat, so people would prepare food for road trips, and put them in shoeboxes.”
Though the contents of shoebox lunches could vary, they typically contained fried chicken, a side (greens, macaroni and cheese, etc.), cornbread, and something sweet—like a piece of fruit or a slice of pound cake. “You wanted something that was going to hold up,” says Juan Reaves, who co-owns Smokey John's Bar-B-Que and Home Cooking in Dallas with his brother, Brent. “You needed something that was going to keep while you traveled, something that you didn’t need to heat up for it to be good.”
Today, several African American businesses across the country are keeping this rich heritage alive by offering their own shoebox lunches, honoring this slice of history in the process.
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Among them is The Historic Magnolia House in Greensboro, North Carolina which was one of the only hotels between Atlanta and Richmond, Virginia, where African American travelers could stay during the Jim Crow era. The Green Book listed The Historic Magnolia House several times between 1955 and 1961, and many big names are said to have been guests—including the likes of Ray Charles, Ike and Tina Turner, Carter G. Woodson, and Jackie Robinson.
The Historic Magnolia House is again open for travelers—and now, they're serving delicious shoebox lunches like the ones its original guests would have packed.
We really wanted to celebrate the resourcefulness, resolve, and resilience of a generation that said, ‘Hey, look, we're still going to travel. We can't go into a restaurant, so we'll just pack our lunches.'
Patrick Coleman, owner of Cornbread Restaurant and Bar in Southfield, Michigan
“Everything we do replicates how the house originally functioned,” says owner Natalie Pass-Miller. “We implemented the shoebox meal as a part of the educational experience, and we try really hard to keep it aligned with historical culinary traditions.”
As one of only four North Carolina Green Book locations that are still operating, The Historic Magnolia House kicked its shoebox lunches in gear at the start of the pandemic as an effort to educate and engage their community. Pass-Miller has since partnered with local schools, from elementary to the university level, to provide the shoebox lunches and educate younger generations about their special place in history. Guests at the house can also try the boxed meals, or passing road trippers can pick them up during lunch hours.
The Reaves brothers of Smokey John's also began their shoebox lunch program in 2020, as a way to honor local Black heroes. “Black history, for a lot of people, is only George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King,” says Brent. “Our true history is not really documented in books, but the people know. The people remember. We’ve had tremendous conversations just talking to people about their own shoebox lunch experiences.”
At Smokey John’s, the brothers offer the traditional foods in actual shoeboxes, complete with informative inserts. Each year, they create a new theme for the educational element: The first year’s leaflet focused on introducing the shoebox lunch concept as an iconic piece of history; the second year highlighted local Black entrepreneurs; and the third year was a 101 on historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Next year? They plan to focus on local media, “uplifting Black voices that have been influential in our community.”
The history of shoebox lunches follows the many ebbs and flows of Black history in the United States—including that of the Great Migration, when six million African Americans left Southern states to relocate to other areas of the country. With hopes of escaping the unrelenting violence and lack of opportunity in the South, and seeking better lives for their families, they brought their culture and traditions with them as they moved north.
Erick Williams, the owner and executive chef at Virtue Restaurant and Bar in Chicago shares that his grandparents left Mississippi during The Great Migration, eventually settling in Illinois. For him, shoebox lunches were about empowerment, as African Americans used them to nourish both their bodies and spirits, defying racism by traveling despite the dangers. “Black people needed to know how to navigate space, we needed to have a compass to guide us from the South to the North, even after segregation,” Williams says. Shoebox lunches offered this to Black travelers. “They could eat good and didn't have to be in places where people didn’t want them. So, we want to talk about those stories, and how Black contribution has been the engine that has moved us forward.”
There was pride and personality instilled in these shoeboxes, which were sometimes decorated, Williams says, with plaid paper or other patterns.
When he saw that Patrick Coleman, owner of Cornbread Restaurant and Bar in Southfield, Michigan, had already created a modern version of these boxes, Williams reached out to collaborate. The boxes made by Coleman, whose parents moved to Michigan during the Great Migration, outline the history of shoebox lunches with bold, black ink drawings of a mid-twentieth century car, the Green Book, and information on segregation. They have been shipped to 38 states—to schools, corporate functions, book clubs, and more.
“We really wanted to celebrate the resourcefulness, resolve, and resilience of a generation that said, ‘Hey, look, we're still going to travel. We can't go into a restaurant, so we'll just pack our lunches,’” Coleman says. “I'm one generation removed from Jim Crow. The fact that my family couldn’t go South and go into a restaurant, and today in 2023, I own a restaurant, is very inspiring. I stand on their shoulders.”
In this way, shoebox lunches continue to serve as more than just food; they represent love, culinary expertise, and protection, and feed the spirit of adventure for families that are determined to travel, despite the obstacles.