The idea of sitting in a funeral home and having a lively conversation about food nostalgia isn't terribly far-fetched—especially in a historic district like Durham's Hayti, where the life and death of black prosperity is obvious from simply walking through the area.
John Clarence "Skeepie" Scarborough III, owner of the longstanding Scarborough & Hargett Funeral Home Inc., is Hayti's go-to oral historian. He and I are sitting at a large table inside the funeral home's meeting room. A bronze, life-size statue of Martin Luther King Jr. presides over us like a giant lost chess piece. In one hand, King holds a Holy Bible. His other hand is pointing toward somewhere unknown.
Somewhere to eat, maybe?
"Nobody told you about Minnie?" asks Scarborough. He's referring to Minnie Hester's House, one of Durham's notorious women-run liquor houses that also doubled as a late-night kitchen. "Chitterlings, collard greens—that kind of stuff," he explains. "At one o'clock in the morning, that was the only place to get food. James Brown was in town one night. I went to hear him. When he got ready to leave, he told a good friend of his from Durham, 'OK, Bill, now run me over to Minnie's.' She served whatever you wanted till three o'clock."
Scarborough knows about comfort. His stories come from his life's work providing for his community during times of grief, when consolation and empathy are most important. So, when it comes to comfort food, especially that of the dozens of black-owned restaurants that used to serve it in pre-urban-renewal Hayti, Scarborough remembers every detail.
He also remembers how all those great eating establishments succumbed to systemic erasure, similar to what his funeral home is fighting against today. Sometimes, a legacy like Ms. Hester's isn't enough.
"We didn't even think about going downtown," Scarborough tells me, "because we knew that we would have problems. But we didn't have to. Black businesses thrived in anything that we did. We only crossed the train tracks when we had to go pay our bills."