The Varsity in Atlanta: A Place That Would Serve Blacks in 1954, Outside.

In the novel, “Red Clay and Roses”, Sybil and Nathan, an interracial couple, must find a suitable restaurant in which to dine in Atlanta.  They needed food, but no sit-down service would accommodate them in 1954.  They ended up at The Varsity, a drive-in restaurant that I will be showcasing today.

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Many younger people today cannot begin to understand or relate to the oppressions of the black/African American race in the 20th century.  Although the Civil War was over in 1865, and African American slaves were set free, the oppression of people of color lingered with prejudice, particularly in the Deep South, south of the Mason-Dixon Line.  The Jim Crow laws were state and local laws in the United States enacted between 1876 and 1965 . They mandated de jure racial segregation in all public facilities in Southern states.

Mason Dixon Line_jpg

Some examples of Jim Crow laws are the segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation, and the segregation of restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains for whites and blacks. The U.S. military was also segregated. The new laws in 1965 did not change much for a very long time in the South.  I was born in Georgia in 1960 and my schools were first integrated in 1971, when I was eleven years old and in the fifth grade.  We are; perhaps, the last generation in the U.S.A. to be forced, by law, into segregation.

line map between Penn. and Maryland
line map between Penn. and Maryland
Mason-Dixon Line
Mason-Dixon Line

As for public places, restaurants were some places that had a very serious policy of segregation.  Whites and blacks did not dine together.  Blacks could cook and serve the food, but weren’t allowed to dine at the whites only establishments.  Even after the Jim Crow Law was abolished in 1965, many made their establishments; schools, restaurants, and nightclubs, “Private” or “Members Only” to skirt the law.   The Drive Through service restaurant really didn’t catch on until the 1970s.

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In-n-Out Burger claims to have built the first Drive-Through restaurant in 1948.

Sierra Vista, Arizona, was the first city to have a McDonald’s drive-through. The first McDonald’s drive-through was created in 1975 near Fort Huachuca, a military base located adjacent to the city—to serve military members who weren’t permitted to get out of their cars while wearing fatigues.

Mcdonalds-56607947-676x450

Before the infamous Drive Through service, Drive In service burger joints had the market on quick service feeding frenzies.  These offered a drive up curb service where patrons were often met by girls in shorts or short skirts on roller skates in the 1950s.

One of the earliest and most famous was originally named “The Yellow Jacket,’ Now, The Varsity, it was established in 1928 at the corner of Luckie Street and Hemphill Avenue in Midtown Atlanta. Its founder, Frank Gordy, a Reinhardt University graduate, briefly attended The Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) but dropped out in 1925. Then, as now, the restaurant catered heavily to Georgia Tech students. The present structure, on North Ave. now covers two city blocks, and boasts to be the world’s largest Drive In restaurant.  600 cars can be accommodated at The Varsity at one time in a multi-level garage.  In one night, they served 30,000.

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One of the best-known employees at the Varsity was Erby Walker, who worked there for fifty-five years until he died in 2008. He started at the Varsity at the age of fifteen sweeping floors, and was nearly fired on the first day, but soon graduated to the kitchen. Mr. Walker was noted for his ability to move the service line quickly, especially during the rush period right before a Georgia Tech football game. His signature catchphrase was, “Have your money out and your food on your mind, and I’ll getcha to the game on time!” He retired in 2003, but came back three weeks later. That year Walker was inducted into the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau Hospitality Hall of Fame

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Comedian Nipsey Russell began his entertainment career at The Varsity in the 1940s as a car hop. The creative and resourceful Russell would dress in a flamboyant style and pepper his order-taking duties with jokes and amusing songs, thereby earning him extra tips. U.S. presidents Jimmy CarterGeorge H. W. BushBill Clinton and Barack Obama all visited The Varsity during their terms in office. Madartist Jack Davis has done advertising for The Varsity.

Nipsy Russell in "The Wiz"
Nipsey Russell in “The Wiz”

Along with ‘What’ll ya have?” the Varsity staff, as was common practice, developed their own jargon when calling out orders. Being a restaurant with an open grill, the customers could overhear the staff’s slang and eventually began adopting it as their own when placing orders. Recognizing that the customers enjoyed being ‘in on the joke’ the Varsity eventually began listing its items with both their conventional and jargon references on both their overhead and printed menus.

Hot Dog

a hot dog with chili and mustard
Chili Dog same as a hot dog
Naked Dog a plain hot dog in a bun
M.K. Dog a naked dog with mustard and ketchup
Regular C Dog a chili dog with ketchup only
Red Dog a naked dog with ketchup only
Yellow Dog a naked dog with mustard only
Yankee Dog same as a yellow dog
Heavy Dog a hot dog with extra chili
Walk a Dog (or Steak) a hot dog (or hamburger) to go
Steak a hamburger with mustard, ketchup, and pickle
Chili Steak a hamburger with chili
Glorified Steak a hamburger with mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato
Mary Brown Steak (or Dog) a plain hamburger (or hot dog) without a bun
Naked Steak a plain hamburger
Sally Rand a naked hamburger
Sally Rand Through the Garden a naked hamburger with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise
N.I. Orange a Varsity Orange without ice
F.O. a frosted orange shake
Joe-ree coffee with cream
P.C. pure chocolate milk (always served with ice)
N.I.P.C. a P.C. without ice
All The Way with onions (on a hot dog, hamburger, etc.)
Bag of Rags a bag of chips
Ring One order of onion rings
Strings French fries
Sideways onions on the side
V.O. Varsity Orange, the original carbonated orange soda drink
L.G. Lazy Gordy, a Naked Dog and a Sprite
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19 thoughts on “The Varsity in Atlanta: A Place That Would Serve Blacks in 1954, Outside.

    1. It is amazing how little time has actually passed since all of this came about. Makes me feel older than I am. The world has changed dramatically in the last fifty to sixty years, but IMHO it did not change soon enough.

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      1. You can get the Mary Brown which comes naked with no bun. I am sure Julian could accommodate that order. Or you could have the L.G., The Lazy Gordy (a Naked Dog with a Sprite) and have something to help wash it down.

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      2. It is still there and has been since 1928. Long history, this place. But I think Jules might have been referring to the Kama Sutra menu. The food is acceptable, but certainly not the best IMHO. We used to go after football games. It is fun though and HUGE.

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      3. LOL….I was talking about the building. It is two stories. None of the photos I could find really do it justice. You guys might have your own story going on…Ha!

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    1. Yes. There were many whites only dining establishments in the south in this era. Whites only bars, offices, libraries, schools. It was actually illegal for them to publicly mix in most places.

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