Free Refills: The History of Black Ownership of McDonald’s and the Endless Profit Supply of the American Inner-City.

In so many ways, to celebrate Jade Colin’s being the youngest black woman to own a McDonald’s franchise is to—at the same time—celebrate the company’s long history of explicitly using blackness to extract maximum profit from the community at large. A practice which—like virtually every exploitative venture carried out on black America—was helped along with the financial backing of the U.S. government.

In 1969, McDonald’s found itself squarely in the crosshairs of civil rights activists who were demanding a greater presence of black ownership of its franchises located in the inner-city. In Cleveland’s east side at the time, there were four McDonald’s restaurants, all of which were white-owned. After McDonald’s refused to consider licensing to African-Americans, a coalition of black nationalists and other activist groups in the city organized a boycott against those franchises. All four subsequently closed.

Negotiations were later opened up by the city’s mayor, Carl Stokes, who mediated between Operation Black Unity—a black nationalist group—and McDonald’s. The outcome of the discussions was that McDonald’s agreed to begin selling its franchises to African-Americans.

In Hough—one of Cleveland’s most riot-devastated neighborhoods—a 1.5 million dollar federal grant obtained by the Hough Area Development Corporation for community revitalization efforts, allowed the organization to purchase two of the formerly-closed McDonald’s franchises and staff it with residents from the community. And while those restaurants eventually closed owing to their unprofitability, the pressure applied by Cleveland’s black activist groups appeared to have effected a much broader shift with respect to how McDonald’s viewed black-ownership of its franchises. Most notably, it prompted McDonald’s Corporate to try and get out ahead of the possibility of similar protests like those that took place in Cleveland to start propagating in other urban centers where there were locations, and to forestall that possibility by pursuing a much more aggressive licensing program for African-Americans. As Chin Jou, author of the book, Supersizing Urban Americaand someone to whom it must be stressed this article owes a great intellectual debt—says, “After the riots, the office convened a group of franchisors to sign pledges to recruit African-American franchisees”

By 1972, almost 10 per cent of the company’s franchises were owned by African-Americans. In Cleveland in 1980, the city’s black-owned McDonald’s had gone from zero just eleven years earlier, to sixteen. And by the mid-1980s, of all black-owned chain restaurant franchises in the U.S., black ownership of McDonald’s accounted for 50 per cent of that total.


In large part, these franchises were the result of McDonald’s having taken advantage of small business loans which the government guaranteed to companies who—like itself—were looking to open up their doors in blighted urban centers with an apparent intention to help promote economic growth and revitalization in the area. However, given the sizable figure which African-American patronage of all fast food restaurants accounted for during that time—about 15 per cent—it’s not hard to imagine that the massive building out of black-owned McDonald’s franchises in the inner-cities was understood by Corporate primarily through a calculus of how to maximally and most efficiently extract the community’s resources, rather than as a noble capitalist project of promoting minority business and, thus, economic development in the community.

This anti-black stratagem by the business is perhaps most observable in the phenomenon of black franchisees who sought to expand outside of the inner-city and who were then denied purchasing McDonald’s restaurants in whiter, wealthier areas. In other words, being deliberately locked out of access to greater wealth via white America’s most preferred discrimination instrument: redlining.

As John T. McDonald III, the Los Angeles director of the N.A.A.C.P., told the New York Times in a 1984 article, “We are very concerned about what seems to be McDonald’s redlining in the Los Angeles area, and we are collecting information nationwide . . . We want to see blacks getting their fair share, both as suppliers and as franchise owners. Right now, out of 137 black franchise operators nationwide, only one is in a white area.” Similarly, The Advocate-Messenger reported how the New York chapter of the Black McDonald’s Operators Association had written to the New York regional vice president expressing strong grievances over how black McDonald’s owners are predominantly kept within ghetto areas and denied permission to expand as quickly as are their white counterparts.

In The Business of Black Power: Community Development, Capitalism, and Corporate Responsibility in Postwar America, Nishani Frazier details how even those locations which were nominally black-owned concealed the opportunistic partnering practices that frequently occurred throughout any number of McDonald’s franchises operating in the inner city.

Herman Petty—the first African-American to purchase a franchise—in fact did not outright own it. Instead, Frazier notes, Petty was “part of a ‘salt-and-pepper’ ownership arrangement in which a white owner profited while the black owner maintained the bulk of day-to-day operations.” This approach to partnership was undertaken entirely with an eye toward shoring up profits following white flight out of the city. McDonald’s—with the help of “token Black representation”—would be able to ensure that existing franchises in these once-white locations could adjust and flourish, having suddenly found itself surrounded by “a community it had not initially intended to serve.”

Though unexpected, this customer would prove to be the most favorable to the company’s bottom line. The permanence of poverty in the inner city made for fertile ground on which to develop restaurants that offered cheap, addictive, industrialized food. The proliferation of fast food establishments in the ghetto is the natural result of a core business ethos of anti-blackness and an indifference to deep, structural inequality. And it is as much an outcome made possible by federal dollars and exploited policy as the consumer base itself whom they’re there to poison.


With this dependable revenue stream provided by an abundant supply of poor customers, the fast food industry was positioned to be the beneficiaries of the unique sets of problems afflicting low-income areas, a fact which underscored for those at the top of the corporate structure the importance and necessity of expansion within the inner city. And if all that was needed to secure federal loans and defray some of the risk in capturing more marketshare was an essentially superficial presence of black ownership, then certainly the McDonald’s executive staff could concede a symbolic and utterly cynical gesture of installing African-Americans at the helm of some of its franchises.

Given this history it is extremely disconcerting to witness the number of black media websites heaping praise on this apparent triumph of a young black woman ascending into the corporate ranks of a company that has routinely used black figures to reap the tremendous financial reward offered by black instability in America’s cities. In a geographic analysis of fast food locations in relation to race that appeared in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, researchers discovered that in Jade Colin’s own area of New Orleans, “shopping districts in communities that were 80 percent African American averaged six more fast food outlets than predominantly white areas of the same size.” This spread of fast food restaurants is part of an historic assault on both the health and pockets of black America, and there’s arguably nothing too respectable or empowering about abetting that phenomenon.

Fortunately, new black media outlets like ToneTalks and Breaking Brown are consistently bringing this history to light and reorienting the conversation away from one of apparent #BossMoves, and toward one of #StringPuppetsOfWhiteCapital. This is not, as many tend to interpret, a necessarily cynical position that suggests a kind of defeatist or helpless outlook on the situation for black people in America. Rather, it is one that insists on taking a full account of the story in order to expose the very real limitations of popular Do For Self black business narratives, and the inability to be made whole absent the sort of politics that identifies and frames that oppression around the involvement of the federal government and its colluding with private enterprise to condition the broader failure of the black community.

Critically—and perhaps more optimistically—it is only through this wide-ranging and comprehensive reckoning with the history of racism that descendants of slaves can organize around a specific justice claim and advocate for the kind of policy that can redress those wrongs and help overcome those constraints. Because insofar as the youngest black person to ever own a McDonald’s franchise registers as a truly meaningful step forward for the community at large, Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore are rightly working tirelessly to ground exactly this sort of propaganda as in fact being the oldest of traditions in America’s manufacturing of black disadvantage; demonstrating how it is arguably not “making” history, per se, as TheBlackProfessional.com reports, so much as it is simply participating in a history that is entirely fraught with anti-black racism.