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Graham’s Rib Station & Cabins, legendary for providing a safe haven—and for its mouth-watering barbecue

Springfield-Greene County African American Heritage Trail
An undated photo of Graham's Rib Station in Springfield.

Just off Chestnut Expressway in Springfield, planted between a T-shirt printing shop and an accounting firm, there’s a Chinese restaurant, painted red and yellow. The constant rumble of traffic from the four-lane expressway gives the impression that the spot has always been busy. But back in the days when Chestnut was a smaller street, the smell of barbecue smoke and an irresistible blend of spices wafted through the air. It was coming from Graham’s Rib Station and Cabins. Although the barbecue restaurant is long gone, Graham's lives on as a designated site on the Springfield-Greene County African American Heritage Trail.

Alma Clay, who’s 95 years old, ate at Graham’s during its heyday in the 1940s and ’50s. She says back then, everybody in Springfield's African American community went there. 

“The best barbecue I think I ever ate was at Graham’s,” Clay said.

Fellow Springfield native and former City Councilman Denny Whayne said the Graham's made “probably the best barbecue in the world.”

Graham’s was founded at the height of the Great Depression in 1932. It was built by James and Zelma Graham, an African American couple who withdrew their savings to open the restaurant just a few days before the banks closed, according to their daughter Elaine Graham Estes in an interview with Missouri State University in 2014.

Norma Duncan, who is 82 years old, also grew up with Graham’s ribs. She remembers that it was always busy, with cars lined up near the small restaurant and down Washington Avenue.

“Daddy used to take me up to Graham’s for a barbecue sandwich and stuff like that after integration," Duncan remembers. "And my mother would get so mad at him for doing that because she had a good meal cooked at home."

When segregation was still the law of the land, Duncan says Black people could eat inside Graham's restaurant because it was owned and operated by African Americans—but even then, Black families had to leave their tables and exit the building if a white family entered and wanted to eat there. Duncan says a lot of African Americans like her just ate their food in their cars.

The restaurant was famous for its special barbecue sauce. Alma Clay says it was so good it drew customers far away from Springfield.

“They patented their sauce," Clay said. "And once a year my nephew would come from St. Louis and buy a year’s supply of their barbecue sauce.” 

Wes Pratt grew up in Springfield, and he's helped design the African American Heritage Trail that Graham’s Rib Station is a part of. He says the success of the Grahams’ restaurant made them role models in Springfield’s Black community.

“They were just some significant entrepreneurs and businesspeople," Pratt told KSMU. "And a lot of folks looked up to them because of the fact that they had an ongoing business.” 

James and Zelma Graham also built a series of cabins behind their restaurant during World War II so that Black soldiers who were stationed at Fort Leonard Wood would have a place to stay in town. Graham’s was only one of two locations in Springfield where Black travelers were legally allowed to stay during the days of segregation.

Pratt says the cabins also hosted Black musicians and actors, many of whom performed at the Shrine Mosque downtown.

“The motel, of course, was where Black personalities, particularly entertainers, they could come to Springfield, but they couldn’t stay in the hotels back in the day," Pratt said. "You’re talking about before desegregation and when segregation was legal. So in their heyday, when they could perform in white venues—and perhaps Black folks couldn’t go see them. But they still weren’t allowed to have a hotel room in Springfield so they would stay at the Graham’s.” 

Celebrities who stopped by the Graham’s restaurant include actress Pearl Bailey and composer Duke Ellington. The all-Black Kansas City Monarchs would also visit during away games in Springfield.

James Graham died in the 1950s after more than 20 years with the restaurant. His wife, Zelma, would go on to run the business for another astonishing 40 years herself, eventually selling the building in 1995. Zelma Graham died in 2010 at the age of 106.

Wes Pratt says it’s important to remember the Grahams and other prominent Black leaders in Springfield--and to be reminded of the challenges they were forced to overcome to improve their lives and communities.

“You know these people when you were growing up, when you were a young boy and you didn’t understand at the time you were growing up that these folks had made historical contributions," Pratt spoke of his childhood in Springfield. "Now that I’m a senior citizen and I look back at the history of Springfield, I can take particular pride in the fact that I knew a lot of the people that were the stalwarts of the African American community.” 

Josh Conaway is a graduate of Missouri State University with a B.A. in Political Science and an M.A. in International Affairs. He works as a news reporter and announcer at KSMU. His favorite part of the job is exploring the rich diversity of the Ozarks and meeting people with interesting stories to share. He has a passion for history and running.