Georgia Gilmore

Georgia Gilmore Georgia Gilmore (1920-1990) was a key supporter of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the fight for civil rights in the city. She contributed by raising money for boycott expenses by selling cakes and pies, testifying in court on behalf of movement leaders, cooking meals for meetings, and most notably, by transforming her home into an informal “restaurant” where movement supporters could gather. In other southern cities such as Atlanta, Birmingham, and Memphis, black-owned restaurants located at the center of vibrant black communities became places where leaders could strategize over plates of traditional southern food, cooked by someone whom they trusted. The kind of home cooking served at Gilmore’s became known as “soul food” during the civil rights era. To African Americans, the food symbolized the strength of the black community, the resourceful spirit and perseverance of their forebears, and solidarity in the struggle for equality. She was also the lead plaintiff in two landmark Supreme Court cases— Gilmore v. City of Montgomery (1959 and 1974)— that first ended segregation of city parks and then their use by whites-only schools.

Georgia Theresa Gilmore was born in Montgomery on February 5, 1920, to Cleveland and Eula Gilmore; she had seven siblings. When the bus boycott began, Gilmore was a 35-year-old single mother raising four children. Gilmore was also a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She worked as head cook at the National Café, a whites-only cafeteria in downtown Montgomery that catered to blue-collar workers. Because she had been forced off a bus once herself, she was active in the boycott from its beginning, bringing sandwiches and pies to the first mass meetings. In an interview decades later, Gilmore related that people had simply had enough and that for her walking every day instead of taking the bus actually became enjoyable, despite the occasional heckling of whites driving by. She also raised money to support the boycott by organizing a group of women into the Club from Nowhere, so named to prevent whites from discovering its purpose and shutting it down. Club members also cooked and baked and sold their goods to black and white customers alike at beauty shops, laundries, cabstands, doctor’s offices, stores and churches and outside downtown cafeterias. All of the proceeds went to help fund the boycott, which required gasoline and car repairs to maintain its elaborate carpool system. At the mass meetings of boycott participants each Monday night, a Club member presented the large cash donation (often $100-$150), and the crowd gave the Club from Nowhere a standing ovation.

Georgia Gilmore’s Kitchen Nearly three months into the boycott, on February 24, 1956, Gilmore testified in defense of arrested boycott leaders. She joined other housewives, maids, and laborers in an attempt to prove the boycott’s just cause by relating the abuses that they had suffered. In her testimony, Gilmore identified the bus driver who had kicked her off a city bus and recounted the time she boarded a bus and the driver shouted at her to go in the back door, and when she stepped off to do so, drove away. For her testimony, Gilmore was fired from her job at the café. When she approached boycott leader Martin Luther King Jr. for help, he advised her to start her own business and gave her the seed money. Gilmore opened her home as an informal lunch spot, and business immediately soared. Through her employment at the café, Gilmore had acquired cooking and business skills and experience. Additionally, blacks had limited dining options, and Gilmore’s home was located in the heart of Centennial Hill, a thriving black neighborhood.

Patrons ate at a large dining room table surrounded by a dozen card-table chairs and also at a few stools. Cooking in cast-iron skillets on a typical household-style four-burner stove, Gilmore prepared traditional southern fare, including fried chicken, baked chicken, fried fish, meat stew, liver, collard greens, turnip greens, cream potatoes, beans, potato salad, candied yams, and corn muffins. For a fixed price, customers received one meat, two sides, cornbread, and sweet tea. Pie was extra, and it was usually sweet potato pie.

King was one of Gilmore’s regular customers, known for always drinking a second glass of her famous sweet tea. In fact, Gilmore became King’s regular cook in Montgomery and often catered movement meetings. She would walk from her home to King’s parsonage, carrying a large basket of food. As white reaction to the boycott turned violent, Gilmore’s home became a haven where boycott leaders could meet in peace and know that the food was safe. Gilmore continued to cook in her home after the Supreme Court ended the boycott and desegregated Montgomery buses in December 1956.

The following year, Gilmore’s son Mark was arrested for walking across Oak Park soon after African Americans were banned from city parks and recreational facilities. He filed suit and his mother was named the lead plaintiff in Gilmore v. City of Montgomery (1959 and 1974). The city lost the case in 1959 and responded by closing facilities to everyone; by the early 1970s, the city had reopened the parks. The city then lost a related case that allowed whites-only schools to use the facilities, mostly for athletic events, when Gilmore sued on the basis that taxpayers were subsidizing segregated educational institutions.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s many civil rights leaders and supporters, including Pres. Lyndon Johnson and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, ate at her home. Gilmore died on March 9, 1990, as she was preparing food for marchers commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March. In 1995, the Alabama Historical Commission erected a historical marker in front of her house on Dericote Street just south of the Dexter Parsonage where King resided, now a museum.

Further Reading

  • Blejwas, Emily. The Story of Alabama in Fourteen Foods. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2019.
  • Robinson, Jo Ann Gibson. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987.
  • Tapper, Monica. A Culinary Tour Through Alabama History. Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2021.

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