Abstract: The Hero at the Drive Thru Window: Chicago's Black McDonald's Operators Association and the Redefinition of Community

Marcia Chatelain


Eight-and-a-half months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the ensuing riots spurred by the announcement of the civil rights leader's murder, African American barber-turned-businessman Herman Petty opened the nation's first Black-owned McDonald's franchise. Situated on the corners of 65th Street and Stony Island Avenue on Chicago's South Side, the fast food restaurant represented the corporation's attempt to establish outlets in Black, inner-city cores. The McDonald's corporation ensured the safety and success of their franchises by promoting Black leadership of the restaurants, even displacing white franchisees in order to appease community concerns about the chain's encroachment among their neighborhoods. I examine the history of Chicago's Black McDonald's Operators Association, established in 1969, and their formation of a local and then national network of Black franchisees. These franchises played a critical role throughout the 1970s after rioting destroyed mom-and-pop stores and economic recession downgraded public services to cities. Black-owned McDonald's restaurants became the center of philanthropic outreach and job training, while shaping the business aspirations for Black entrepreneurs. I argue that these franchises developed and thrived with little criticism, despite their corporate ties, because they assumed responsibility for neighborhoods and filled various voids in employment, education, and community.