Sambo's - The controversially named restaurant chain had two Boise locations:
It was 1957 when diner owner Sam Battistone and his business partner Newell Bohnett named their new restaurant Sambo's, based upon Battistone's first name and the first two letter's of Newell's last name combined. Long before Boise's two locations at 2197 N Garden Street and 925 Vista Avenue came to town, the first one opening on Garden Street in 1969, the name of the diner chain stirred up controversy. In Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples, historian Jack Forbes explains the etymological root of the name Sambo, stating that "Sambo came into the English language from zambo, the Spanish word in Latin America for a person of South American negro, mixed European, and native descent." Author Charles Bernstein, who wrote Sambo's: Only A Fraction of the Action, proves how Battistone knew beforehand the offensive nature of Sambo's, but also understood the branding and marketing implications a Sambo like mascot could bring. In fact, the first version of Sambo the mascot was drastically different from the latter, and better known, caricature.
Little Black Sambo came along in 1898. The character was the creation of Helen Bannerman, a British woman who had spent 30 years living in racist and caste organized colonial India where white British citizens were at the top of that hierarchy. Her version of Sambo was partially based on the American racial stereotype of the "pickaninny ," depicted as an African American child possessing large red lips, bulged out eyes, messy hair, low intelligence, and a faithful servile disposition. The pickaninny was but one stereotype among many to become popularized after the end of the Civil War; others include "faithful Mammy," "Jim dandy," and the "sexually aggressive brute," all created to re-entrench false notions of white superiority during Jim Crow in America. In Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sambo - and not Uncle Tom - is the "sell-out" who tells white en-slavers where some escaped people were hiding. He was also of lesser intelligence and submissive. The stereotype of "Sambo" was well known by 1898.
Yet, the character in Little Black Sambo was depicted as intelligent and crafty, always outwitting the wily tigers trying to take his belongings. However, this version of Sambo was also depicted as having large red lips and a simple disposition despite his intelligence, getting tiger striped pancakes as a reward for his many exploits. It was this version of Sambo the pair of Santa Barbara businessmen sought to transform into a mascot for Sambo's in 1957.
That is just what they did. When pressed on the insult the mascot paid to African Americans, Sambo's representation argued that they employed large numbers of black workers and that the name should not be interpreted as racist. In the early years, prior to 1966, Sam Battistone simply leaned into the mascot more, creating a tagline for his chain's number one item, "the finest pancakes west of the Congo." The first Sambo mascot was frequently depicted on an Island, with a tiger, enjoying his pancakes. This version of Sambo had large lips and messed up hair, but come 1966 and the gains of African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, more and more pressure threatened to ruin Sambo's, so in 1966 the mascot transformed into a white looking child with a turban decorated with a gem on his head. The tiger remained.
The name, however, remained and was highly offensive to a large portion of America's population, chiefly and understandably , African Americans. The farther east the restaurants extended, the more controversy there was. At it's peak sometime in the 1970s, there were 1,117 Sambo's Restaurants in 47 states. Boise's Garden Street location was the 108th Sambo's. They were renamed as "Season's Restaurants" in the early 1980s, and totally closed their doors in 1983. By 1986, the Garden Street location was the Golden China Restaurant.
There was no fuss in Boise, or much of The West, when Sambo's came to town, and there was no fuss when it left. It was one of many diners to come and go to most. However, and we certainly didn't find this information, what did Boise's small African American community feel about Sambo's? It is an important question, one I intend to ask.
All the articles I found in local newspapers reported on the controversy surrounding Sambo's locales outside of Idaho, never those in town. Most likely, there was nothing to report.
The last remaining, and original, Sambo's in Santa Barbara changed it's name in 2020. It took 63 years. There is still a "Lil Sambo's" Restaurant in Lincoln City, Oregon, but as their website states, they are not tied to the old restaurant chain. Still racist though!
Thanks for reading!
Mark Iverson of IdaHistory
If you'd like to learn more about the history racist caricatures of African Americans, check out the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University: