BEN’S CHILI BOWL 1958-2016: A LESSON IN BLACK HISTORY AND GIVING BACK TO THE COMMUNITY!
BEN’S CHILI BOWL GOES FROM MOM & POP TO MOM & SONS
Top photo: The Chili Bowl founders, Virginia and Ben Ali. The sons, CEO Kamal, Nizam, and Sage. The latest Chili Bowl is located at 10th & H Streets NE on Capitol Hill. This brings the number of eateries to seven located in the shadows of the Nation’s Capitol.
In 2016 the world’s media new outpost is not the White House and President Obama’s next confrontation on guns. Its Ben’s Chili Bowl, the black family own business in Washington, DC. In the late 50s Ben Ali left the Virgil Island of Trinidad dead broke looking for the American Dream. He landed in Washington, DC. His best bet for obtaining the dream was to get an education so he enrolled in a historic Black College, Howard University. Ben thought his best bet to become rich was to enroll in Dental School, but shortly after enrolling he had a bad fall. His doctors advised him during recuperation, he should look for another career because a dental career would not allow him to stand on his feet for long periods of time.
Everyday after class Ben would venture down to the 1200 block of U Street NW aka Black Broadway to hangout and shoot pool. The pool hall was once the Minihaha silent theater. He and the poolroom owner became good friends. One day he convinced the owner to allow him to start selling hot dogs out in front of the pool hall to help pay his way through college. Ben would set up business rain or shine out in front of the pool hall after class.
He would deposit the money he earned at the only black bank in DC, the Industrial Bank of Washington one block away. It was here he met a pretty little teller by the name of Virginia Rollins who was born and raised in the state of Virginia. She would not only take his money but she would also take his heart. They were married in 1958 and shortly there after open the Chili Bowl.
Bill Cosby was in the Navy and station at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, he was an up and coming comedian. He spend his leisure time hanging out at Ben’s Chili Bowl courting a young pretty Howard University co-ed by the name of Carmille Hanks. She was a native Washingtonian. Unlike most who make it in the black community, he never forgot. His legendary career as a comedian/actor and outspoken Civil Rights advocate is second to none. He would use his celebrity to support his old friends, Ben and Virginia Ali.
Since the alleged rape charges emerged some dating back as far a 40 years, every time Bill’s name appears in the news, the media can be found camping out at the U Street location, like Bill is going to show up for a chili dog. If not for his support the Chili Bowl would still be a hot dog stand.
The emergence of Ben’s Chili Bowl in 1958 coincided with the modern-day Civil Rights Movement and I was an eyewitness up and close and personal to the trials and tribulations of these two historical game changing moments. One for black history and the other for black business.
My family the Tyler/Bell family settled in DC in the early 1800s. My great-grandfather, Rev. Alfred Johnson Tyler laid the first brick to help build historic Mt. Airy Baptist Church in 1893. The church is located at North Capitol & L Streets, NW in the shadows of the Capitol. The Tyler House a senior citizen complex is located two blocks north of the church at North Capitol & New York Ave. NW and is named after my great-uncle, the Rev. Earl Tyler.
I admire the wall plaque of my great-grandfather the Rev. Alfred Johnson Tyler in the lobby of Mt. Airy Baptist Church
The Tyler/Bell children learned about giving back and community service at an early age. On Sundays after church my Grandmother Amy Tyler Bell who was the matriarch of the family and my Great-Uncle would take me and my brothers into the community surrounding the church and visit the sick and shut-in. My heroes could not catch a football, hit a home run, or shoot a jump shot. My heroes were black women, my grandmother and my mother Mattie Bell. They taught us how to be “Super Stars” in the most important game being played in the World today, the Game Called Life.
The grands of the Tyler/Bell family and matriarch, Amy Tyler Bell aka Grandma Bell / R-L: Tommy, Bobby, Earl, HB, Carol and Ronnie
In 1958 I was a All-Star athlete and senior at Spingarn High School in NE DC going to hell in a hurry. I played football, basketball and baseball. All these sports did not make me a great athlete. There were some brothers in my housing project I could not carry or wear their jock straps. The problem, they never got a chance to take it to the next level. On the weekends my high school football teammates and I would hang out on Black Broadway after our game, especially on the corner of 7th & T Streets, NW. It was the home of the Howard Theater. It was here you could see and mingle with some of the greatest entertainers in the world. The Apollo Theater followed the Howard Theater as a landmark and home of great black entertainment.
Black Broadway was established on the U Street corridor in the early 40s when Black Americans were not welcome on Broadway in New York City. Black Broadway came to my attention when I was in middle school. I use to see my mother and her sisters, brothers, cousins and friends get dressed up on the weekends and meet at our home in the projects. They were as clean as chittlings. My curiosity eventually got the best of me and I asked “Mom where are you guys going so dressed-up?” Her response, ‘We are going downtown to party!’ My first thoughts of downtown was the White House, why the White House?
The Black Broadway crew (aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors). My mom back row center with white pearls around her neck.
In the 40s and 50s there was Capital Transit a bus line that ran through our housing project and provided the residents their mode of transportation into the city. On Sundays to close out the week, the bus company would allow three to ride on one pass. My homies and I would take turns asking our parents for their bus passes on the weekends.
The joy ride would begin on Kenilworth Ave. NE, the main bus route in our community. Three of us would board the bus at the beginning of the route. We would hand the pass out of the window to three of our homies at each stop, by the time the bus left the projects, there were at least ten to fifteen of us on the bus on that one pass. The bus would take us down the Benning Road NE corridor to the H Street NE on to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW (White House). It would make a U-turn at Lafayette Park and bring us back to the projects. The White House was downtown to me, that was as far as I got to downtown back then.
When Ben and Virginia opened Ben’s Chili Bowl in 1958 Black Broadway was a blessing in disguise for their new business. On the weekends you could see some of the greatest entertainers, politicians and sports personalities hanging out on the U Street/Black Broadway corridor. The personalities included, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Ramsey Lewis, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Redd Foxx, Dick Gregory, Nina Simone, Harry Belaforte, Billie Eckstein, Arthur Prysock,etc., all whom were Ben’s Chili Bowl customers on any given evening.
I remember hanging out on Black Broadway one weekend and saw the Heavyweight Champion of the World walking directly in front of me, Joe Louis. He had two pretty black women on his arms and I think one of them was Lena Horne. There was no one trying to position themselves for autographs or ego tripping, it was just like one big happy family hanging out.
Civil Rights’ bumps in the road to freedom 1957-2016:
1957 my mom would have a nervous breakdown and she would be confined St. Elizabeth’s Mental Hospital in SE DC. The stress was a result brought on by my deadbeat playboy dad and her trying to raise three knucklehead boys alone. After a short hospital stay she returned home to find me carrying white folks bags at the Safeway food store on the weekends. I was hoping this would help her to make ends meet. One weekend, one of my homies offered to take me out to Burning Tree Golf Course in Bethesda, a DC suburb in Maryland to carry golf bags for rich white men. He swore that I could make triple the money–it was an offer I could not refuse.
Burning Tree Golf Course was an all white male membership only. It was the home of some of the richest and most powerful leaders in the Free World. Some of the powerful included, the President of the United States. It was here I met and caddied for the Vice-President, Richard M. Nixon and Attorney General, William Rogers.
In 1959 I would leave DC for Winston-Salem State University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. My high school coach/mentor Dave Brown had talked the legendary Coach Clarence Bighouse Gaines into offering me an athletic scholarship. That in itself was an amazing feat, I didn’t have grades to go to the bathroom. My Brown Middle School Principal had predicted to my mother, I would not live to get out of high school. I was trying to go to hell in a hurry, the change of scenery saved my life.
The late Bighouse Gaines my mentor and savior
Thirty miles down the road in Greensboro, North Carolina, some students from North Carolina A & T said, “Enough is enough” to racism. They started the lunch counter sit-ins that would rock the country. The sit-ins would move up the road to Winston-Salem and against the advice and wishes of Coach Gaines, he threaten to send anyone home who got caught downtown during the demonstrations, but my roommates, Al Mayor (DC), Barney Hood (Chicago), Luther Wiley (Lynchburg, Va.) and I ventured downtown to join the protesters.
The 60s were the “Killing Fields” of the Civil Rights movement. Megar Evers was assassinated in his driveway with a shotgun, four little girls were blown up in the 16th Street Baptist church by the KKK, the March on Washington and the I have Dream speech (ML King), President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. His brother Bobby followed in death when he was assassinated in his bid for the Presidency, Malcolm X was assassinated, and in 1968 Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated.
The riots hit DC like an out of control tornado, I was standing on U Street in the corridor of Black Broadway on a bright sun shiny day in April with my co-worker Willie Wood (NFL). Someone drove by and yelled, “Hey Harold they just shot Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee.” All hell broke loose around us in what seem like in a matter of seconds. Willie and I were advised by our DC Recreation Department boss, Stanley Anderson, to stay on the streets, because there was the possibility of us saving a life. Willie was an All-Pro Safety for the Green Bay Packers and during the off-season he would return home and work a second job as a DC school teacher or Roving Leader for the DC Recreation Department (working with youth gangs and at-risk children).
As Willie and I walked the U Street corridor headed toward Ben’s Chili Bowl we met Luke C. Moore walking toward us. Luke was the first black modern-day U. S. Marshall in-charge appointed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Luke lived in DC). We joined arms and continued our walk in the direction of Ben’s Chili Bowl where we spotted Ben standing in front of his restaurant with several other local businessmen. Luke went over to speak with Ben while Willie and I chic-chatted with residents. He returned to tell us that Ben’s Chili Bowl had been ordered to shut-down by the DC Police Department, the order for shutdown came from the White House. Luke, explained that was not a good decision, because first respondents, police, firemen, doctors, nurses, military personnel and youth advocates like ourselves, needed some place to eat. He excused himself and said, “I will be right back.”
Friends of the Court: DC Superior Court Judge Luke C. Moore plays a Santa’s Helper with Redskins’ Harold McLinton (Santa), LB Dave Robinson and WR Roy Jefferson. I enjoy a laugh with Luke and his homeboy, Chief Judge Eugene Hamilton
It took close to 30 minutes before he returned, but he returned with good news. He spoke with the President and he had relented and would allow Ben’s Chili Bowl to stay open for first respondents. Despite this good deed by Luke, the U Street corridor and mom and pop businesses were destroyed, many never to recover. The only black businesses left standing were Lee’s Flowers, Industrial Bank and Ben’s Chili Bowl.
The 68 riots devastated the Shaw/Cardozo community. My friend John Snipes was a well-known businessman and community advocate. He was one of the early board members for Kids In Trouble.Inc. I will never forget the day he brought a group of white tourist around to Harris Playground where I was conducting a baseball practice for the youth. The playground was located at 13th & V Streets, NW a short walk from Ben’s Chili Bowl. When I asked him, what was going on, he said, “These folks are paying me to take them on a tour of the area.” It was then a walking history of U Street history was born, the father was John Snipes. He took the concept to Kamal Ali and his mom Virginia who saw his vision. They provided him with an upstairs office in the Chili Bowl. As the present Historian for the Chili Bowl, I am walking in the shoes of John Snipes who created a trail and left a path for all of us to follow.
Shortly after the riots my wife Hattie and I started our non-profit organization Kids In Trouble, Inc. We found and started the Hillcrest Children’s Center Saturday Program for neighborhood children. The first KIT toy party for needy children was held at the center in December 1968. The first donation for the party came from Ben’s Chili Bowl (hot dogs, hamburgers, chips, etc.).
L-R: John Snipes looks on as legendary radio and television talk show host, the late Petey Greene and Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Bill Raspberry of the Washington Post participate in the Hillcrest Saturday Program’s Community Day festivities.
2016 we have come full cycle. Someone once said, “If you don’t know your history you are bound to repeat it.” Here it is, Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Eric Gardiner, Michael Brown, a 12-year-old murdered in a Cleveland Park by white cops while playing with a toy gun. In Cleveland again, a black couple’s car riddled with 165 bullets because their car back fired, Freddy Gray a young black man arrested for having a pocket knife. He died as result of a severed spine after cops took him on a wild ride through the streets of Baltimore, let us not forget the young black man shot down in the streets of Chicago by a white police officer while holding a knife but walking away from the the cop who shot him 16 times. And Chicago again, black woman shot to death while opening her front door to a police officer. Close to home, in Upper Marlboro, Maryland in 2007 a young black man Ronnie White was found hung in his jail cell by vigilante/renegade cops. He was waiting to go on trial for the hit and run death of a Prince Georges County police officer. The beat goes on, in Charleston, SC, a young black man was shot in the back and killed because of a traffic stop running away from the police and last but not least, Sandra Bland found hung in her jail cell after a profiling white cop pulled her over for not signaling while changing lanes in Texas.
Justice & Just-Us is an American problem, and to understand why, take a look at who controls the criminal justice system, 95% of the prosecutors in the country are white, 75% are white men, 20% are white women and 5% are black. And you really want to know why America has more people in jail than any other country in the world, especially, black men? Today the prison system is big business. They can be found on the New York Stock Exchange. The Wardens who run the prison are all white and all are millionaires.
The Confederate Flag is not the problem–the problem is the greed of White America. The trial in Baltimore will be a barometer as it relates to equal justice for all. This is the first time in a major police brutality trial that a black Mayor and a black prosecutor are making the decisions and calling the shots. But we must keep our eyes on the prize–“Here comes the judge!” Then again, the race of the judge won’t really matter. The black judges I have witnessed in these cases may as well be white. They lean over backwards trying to be fair when no one else is playing fair but us.
The Ali family opened its 7th restaurant in the DMV area on Wednesday July 9, 2015. The new restaurant is located at 10th & H Streets, NE, Washington, DC. (Capitol Hill).
The new Chili Bowl locations are still a work in progress. The Ali family is way ahead of the curb when it comes to black history and giving back to the community.
Our history is being suppressed in our schools and media outlets across America. In the meantime, the Ali family has made a serious effort to keep their history and the history of Black Broadway alive with regular video presentations, photos and thought-provoking dialogue at their U Street location. Something similar is being planned for the H Street location.
The riots, crack cocaine epidemic, and the subway demolition of Black Broadway, Ben moving to Las Vegas and older son Sage moving to California, were all stumbling blocks, but that didn’t deter Kamal or his mom, Virginia. Against all odds they kept the doors open and the family business running until the family could re-group.
Kamal single-handedly opened a restaurant/bakery near the corner of 14th and V Streets, NW during the subway construction. The new enterprise kept him literally on his toes. I watched him running back and forth between the Chili Bowl and the bakery everyday keeping hope alive!
Kamal and Virginia Ali the muscle and brain trust behind the rise of Ben’s Chili Bowl accepts KIT Life Time Achievement Award
There have been other known and unknown obstacles placed in the family’s path, they have stumbled but have not fallen. Despite the Bill Cosby fallout, tourist from all over the World keep finding their way to the U Street corridor to Ben’s Chili Bowl for their World famous Chili Half-smoke.
High School students from South Africa visit the Chili Bowl
High School students from Australia (down under) pose for photos after lunch at the Chili Bowl
The Stanford University basketball team with native Washingtonians Head Coach Johnny Dawkins and assistant coach Mookie Payne stop by the Chili Bowl for a half-smoke. They were on their way to a European vacation during a break from their studies.
NFL Hall of Fame player Willie Wood receives a Kids In Trouble Life Achievement Award from KIT board member and friend, newspaper columnist, the late Dick Heller.
The definition of friendship comes to mind when I think of the relationship between Ben’s Chili Bowl and Bill Cosby. In a one on one interview in 1974 I asked Muhammad Ali how did he distinguish his friends, he said, “A friend is someone who is always doing something for others and never expecting anything in return.” Bill Cosby has been that kind of friend to Ben’s Chili Bowl and you don’t just kick those kind of friends to the curb when they are down. The late Ben Ali is looking down and saying, “Job well done family.”