‘Cue the Right Thing

Written by Jimmy Magahern Category: History Issue: August 2015
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PHM0915PFHIST02Bill Johnson’s Big Apple might have looked redneck, but the iconic Western “Let’s Eat”-ery was actually a welcoming haven for all colors in Phoenix’s segregated ‘60s.

Among all the social media send-offs mourning the May 24th closing of the original Bill Johnson’s Big Apple restaurant on Van Buren Street, one Twitter update, posted by local civil rights activist Rev. Jarrett Maupin, stood out.

“Original Bill Johnson’s closing,” he posted over a black and white photo of the 59-year-old barbecue shrine’s iconic neon sign, which sandwiched the restaurant’s name between a massive longhorn steer’s head and the kitschy “Let’s Eat” diner slogan. “In ‘50s/’60s they served EVERYONE. No segregation, period. #civilrights#az”

Maupin, a 28-year-old South Phoenix Baptist preacher and former protégé of Rev. Al Sharpton, has a knack for finding allies in the most unlikely places. It was Maupin, after all, who enlisted the help of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, subject of an ongoing Justice Department investigation on racial profiling, to have his posse guard local black churches on the Sunday following the racially-motivated church shootings in Charleston, S.C., an odd alliance that sparked sharp criticism from even other prominent black pastors.

But Bill Johnson’s, a Phoenix civil rights landmark? From the outside – and even more so the inside, with its walls covered in cowboy memorabilia, the cigar-store Indian by the door and servers sporting toy six-gun holsters on their hips – the good ol’ boy theme didn’t exactly scream inclusiveness, especially to people of color.

“My grandmother and her friend Bennie Smith used to take me and my sister [recording artist Marissa Jack, recently engaged to Dr. Phil’s son Jordan McGraw] there to eat all the time, and I used to wonder, ‘Why do we eat at this place?’” Maupin recalls. “You know, it looked pretty redneck to us!”

His godmother, Tommie Taylor, also dined regularly at Bill Johnson’s and said she had no problem with the cowboy decor. “Hollywood has changed it all around, but the truth is, a lot of the cowboys of the Old West were black,” says the retired teacher. According to historians, African-Americans accounted for about 25 percent of the 35,000 cowboys who worked in the frontier cattle industry. “Even some of the cowboy songs have a lot of elements similar to the African-American music of the period.”

Maupin’s grandmother, the late Opal Ellis, gave her grandchildren an even better reason to feel comfortable at Bill Johnson’s. A civil rights firebrand who led Phoenix’s first civil rights sit-ins in the 1940s by occupying a Downtown coffee shop that refused to serve blacks – and who later marched on Woolworth’s – Ellis told a remarkable story about the restaurant.

“She would tell my sister and me that when Martin Luther King Jr. came to speak at ASU, they went to see him, and Bill Johnson’s was the only establishment on the old Route 66 [now Van Buren] between 16th Street in Phoenix and ASU in Tempe that would serve them and provide access to restrooms. She and her friends never forgot that. My grandmother was a loyal patron. A lot of black people have powerful memories of the important role that the restaurant played in changing those Jim Crow laws here.”

Ellis told Maupin that, like many restaurants in Phoenix at the time, Bill Johnson’s had a “Whites Only” sign, but the owners chose to hang it upside down, inside the restaurant and at the very bottom of the door – perfectly in line for an indignant boot-kicking.

“They kind of mocked the segregation that was going on in the city at the time by having the ‘Whites Only’ sign flipped upside down at the bottom of the door,” Maupin says. “You saw it on the way out, but you didn’t see it on the way in.”

That sign was about the only thing missing from the long list of items auctioned online in late June after the closing of the Van Buren restaurant, the last in a family-owned chain that, at its peak, had included seven locations throughout the Valley. The empire ended in bankruptcy and a bitter power struggle involving Bill and Gene Johnson’s sons Rudy and Johnny on one side and their daughters Sherry and Dena, along with Dena’s daughter (and the company’s final CEO) Sherry Cameron, on the other.

PHM0915PFHIST03Diana Johnson, who was married to Rudy Johnson for 33 years until his death in February 2014, never saw that sign. But she says it makes sense that the family, which had moved to Phoenix in the ‘50s from newly-integrated Compton, Calif., would have mocked the segregationist rules of the era.

“That is who the family was,” she says. “Gran [her nickname for matriarch Gene] set the standard: Everyone was welcome. And even though the restaurant had a sad ending, with the feud tearing the brothers and sisters apart, I believe that quality was in the family as a whole. They all believed that way, and still do today, I’m sure.”

Anna Johnson, wife of Rudy’s brother Johnny, now 72, says her husband backs that up. “He talked about one time he was working with his dad and a white couple called Bill over, complaining that a black family was eating at the table next to them,” she says. “Bill told them if they didn’t like it, then they could leave. He believed everyone was equal. Rich or poor, color didn’t matter. My husband Johnny was raised this way.”

Diana says the Johnson family was just as accepting of the gay community, a fact which countered the restaurant’s tough cattleman image even more.  

“My husband was 6-foot-2, a big handsome cowboy. Feared poker-player, avid motorcycle rider. He was a man’s man,” she says. “But when I met him in 1980, I was a little taken aback that his closest friends were two gay hairdressers! They were a young couple starting a hair salon in Scottsdale, and they were at his house as much as I was. He said knowing them personally changed his perceptions of gay people. And that’s the way they all ran the restaurant: Customers became friends, and employees became family.”

As a tribute to Rudy, Diana’s catering company – where she carries on cooking with the barbecue recipes she learned from Gene – books only one wedding show per year: the Phoenix LGBT Wedding and Honeymoon Expo in August.

“I do it because I know my Rudy would want me to pioneer through that, too, just as the family did for civil rights in the ‘60s,” she says. “They were on the right side of history then, just as they would have wanted to be now.”