The Night the Appalachian Queen of Café Society Fed MLK, Jr. in Rome

For one brief moment in time, two of history’s most fascinating royals met and ate together

The date was September-something, 1964. Influence met influence. A peace-seeker and a woman reputed to be a hellraiser met up in Rome for an exchange that involved food and fellowship. Bricktop, or Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith from Alderson, West Virginia (where Martha Stewart was imprisoned) made the acquaintance Martin Luther King, Jr., formerly known as Michael King from Atlanta.

At seventy years old, Bricktop was 10 years older than the Reverend King’s mother, Alberta. Since the 1920s, she had become famous for managing nightclubs eponymously named for her, throughout Europe and Mexico City. By the time Martin was born, Bricktop was running Chez Bricktop, one of Paris’s hottest nightclubs. Her patrons wrote about her in prose (F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway) and song (Cole Porter). Coco Chanel’s rival Elsa Schiaparelli dressed her. As did Edward Molyneux. She counted Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, Mabel Mercer and Maya Angelou as protégés. And, royals like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and King Farouk of Egypt enjoyed her company and friendship for decades.

Bricktop opened her last nightclub in Rome, where she retired in 1961. She continued to perform her cabaret act on occasion but most of her time was spent playing hostess to guests from around the world.

In the fall of 1964, The King was touring Europe on a goodwill trip, meeting with heads of state, including Pope Paul IV. While in Rome, he expressed interest in dining with Queen Bricktop. He wanted to take her to dinner. Miss Otis sent her regrets but invited the reverend and Ralph Abernathy to attend her birthday party or one of her many birthday parties, given her actual birthday was August 14. Ralph accepted on their behalf with the condition that they would have to leave by nine o’clock. Her response, “If you do, you won’t get anything to eat. In Europe we don’t eat before nine o’ clock.”

Bricktop’s version of the events to follow was published in an excerpt from her autobiography, Bricktop by Bricktop, in the December 1983 issue of Ebony magazine.

Jet magazine (Oct. 29, 1964) featured a blurb about Bricktop’s celebration in their “Cocktail Chit Chat” section. (The magazine refers to her by her married surname “DuConge.”) The black-eyed peas were a hit, according to the mention. Among the guests documented were Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy, pianist Charlie Beal (sic), members of the Toledo, Ohio chapter of Girl Friends: Kathryn Franklin, Doris Armstrong, Naomi Thompson, and Altoise Guy. Franklin, Armstrong, Thompson and Guy were accustomed to being featured in the society pages of Toledo newspapers, but this particular mention by Jet was special. Not only were they being entertained in the home of Bricktop, but they were treated every bit as treasured as Martin Luther King, Jr. If photos exist from the evening, they are in the personal collections of attendees.

One month after this dinner and the completion of his European tour, Dr. King was hospitalized for exhaustion. During his recuperation, he learned he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Within months of showing hospitality in Rome, Bricktop returned to the United States, residing in Manhattan. She passed away quietly in 1984, surviving her illustrious guest, Dr. King by 16 years.

For one brief moment in time, two of history’s most fascinating royals met and ate together. And it’s a bet, over a plate of black-eyed peas, they were just Ada and Mike.

Fresh & Fried Hard: A tribute to Black women and the power found in our kitchens. We will #citeblackwomen and honor history and empower Black women.

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