Black History Month: The historic Four Way Grill

Black History Month: The historic Four Way Grill

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - If you’ve lived in Memphis for any length of time, you most likely know about it or have eaten there at least once.

We’re talking about one of this country’s oldest soul food restaurants, the Four Way on Mississippi Boulevard.

As current co-owner of the Four Way, Patrice "Bates" Thompson is part of a legacy that began long before she was even born.

"Clint and Irene Cleaves started the restaurant and Mr. Cleaves was actually Mayor Crump’s personal chauffeur back in the day,” Patrice said.

The Cleaves’ Four Way Grill opened in 1946 attached to a pool hall and barber shop in the heart of Soulsville.

“So in a segregated time this place was never segregated,” Patrice said. “And that was because of the warm arms of Mrs. Cleaves and Mr. Cleaves and the help of Mayor Crump. It meant a lot for them to be able to sit and have fine dining.”

The scrumptious food and stellar service quickly attracted high-profile customers.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. even played pool at the Four Way in the late 60s.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. plays pool at the Four Way (Source: WMC Action News 5)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. plays pool at the Four Way (Source: WMC Action News 5) (Source: WMC Action News 5)

“It was an outlet for civil rights activists and leaders to be able to come and regroup and take time to talk and be able to eat in a safe place and get a good meal,” Patrice said.

Mr. Cleaves died 34 years after opening the Four Way. His wife kept the restaurant going until 1996, two years before she passed away.

In 2001, Willie Bates bought the shuttered property.

"My husband grew up in this neighborhood,” said Jo Ellen Bates, Willie’s wife and co-owner of Four Way. “I think he has a little red wagon that he used to turn that corner and go down Mississippi and distribute his daily newspapers. So he grew up in this community and it meant a lot to him to be able to invest in a place that he knew."

Neither Jo Ellen nor Patrice know whether Willie initially planned to re-open the restaurant, but eventually, he did.

"Like I said, he didn’t cook, but this was an adventure he decided he would try and, it just worked,” Jo Ellen said.

"And it meant a lot to him to continue being successful in this community helping others to be successful,” Patrice said.

Today, the Four Way, is still an important part of the community and the world.

It’s been featured in rap videos and made Andrew Zimmern’s List on the Travel Channel.

The walls and guest book include a “who’s who” of celebrities and patrons from faraway countries, and that red wagon Mr. Bates used to throw papers in the neighborhood as a little boy is still there at the corner of Walker and Mississippi.

“The wagon reminds me of the hard work and to continue working hard in his memory to keep the legacy going,” Patrice said. “Not only my dad’s legacy, but from the Cleaves to my father and to now and hopefully I’ll be able to pass this along to my children one day. And I want people to know that we’re here, not just entrepreneurs trying to make a dollar, but we want to make people know we love this community, Soulsville, Lemoyne Gardens and it’s now College Park. But we’re here to make everybody happy. We cook our food with love.”

For more on the struggle for civil rights in America, visit our Trail of Hope page at this link.

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