Race & Identity
This Author Wrote A Moving Memoir About Her Grandfather: A Waiter And Civil Rights Hero
Yvette Johnson penned "The Song and the Silence" after learning her grandfather's story in college.
Everyone has story that deserves to be told and this one is no exception.
Booker Wright was a black waiter at Lusco's in Greenwood, Mississippi during the 1950s and 1960s who mostly served well-off white clients. He was a hospitality industry expert, whose signature became reciting the menu in a sing-song manner accompanied with a big smile. He was definitely a fan favorite.
But, Wright's hospitality skills weren't the only thing of note in this extraordinary man's life.
Like what you're reading?
Get more in your inbox.
One day, his cheerful singsong menu recital turned into cutting remarks about racism. These were filmed for all to see in 1966, when NBC featured Wright in a documentary, Mississippi: A Self-Portrait.
In the film, Wright describes his life and work, telling viewers at home about his experiences as a black waiter, dealing with customers who were kind and called him by his name, as well as those that were unkind and called him everything but a child of God.
He explained, too, why he was willing to suffer night after night of hard work and racial abuse.
"I got three children," Wright said in the film segment. "I want them to get an education ... Night after night I lay down and dream about what I had to go through with. I don't want my children to have to go through with that."
And how did Wright deal with the racism he faced every day? Well, via his internal motto: "Just remember, you got to keep that smile."
The comments Wright gave in the film led to the end of his job at Lusco's, but also the beginning of his standing as a historical civil rights figure.
Unfortunately, Wright's words still resonate decades later.
One particular person the words resonate with is Wright's granddaughter, Yvette Johnson, who was born after Wright died in 1972. After conducting a lot of research, she had brought Wright's story to the forefront in a new memoir, The Song and the Silence, the Associated Press reports.
The book tells of how Wright began working at Lusco's when he was 14-years-old, eventually saving enough money to open his own restaurant and bar named Booker's Place. He toiled there during the day, and worked at Lusco's at night.
After the documentary aired, and he lost his job at Lusco's, the tension between Wright and the white residents of his town heightened. While struggling with that, Wright continued working long hours at his own restaurant, until, six years after being on NBC, he was shot and mortally wounded in a late-night confrontation with a black man in Booker's Place.
Cosmic timing led Johnson to her grandfather's historic story. Through a college writing course, she met John T. Edge, a Southern food culture guru who became fascinated by the story of Wright and Lusco's while doing graduate work at the University of Mississippi.
His studies provided Johnson with just enough detail to help her discover her grandfather's infamous TV monologue. After watching the documentary, she continued to do her own research, and says she was moved to tears when she learned that her grandfather was described by a Mississippi state senator as "a catalyst for the movement."
The Song and the Silence is a personal memoir that weaves her own family history around the racial and regional history of her grandfather's era under Jim Crow. It is available now from Simon and Schuster/Atria Books.
And if you'd like to check out the historic footage of Booker Wright, you can see it for yourself courtesy of NBCUniversal's archives!