Hidden History: BBQ served with a side of solidarity in Arkansas

MARIANA, ARK – Barbecue has been breaking down racial barriers for years in a little town called Marianna, Arkansas, in the heart of the Arkansas Delta.

Historically, Marianna has always been known for farming. Many of the town’s black people worked the fields, picking and harvesting the cotton.

Today, the town still has a sizable black population, many of them poor.

But since 1964, one black man has brought people in the community – both black and white – together, with nothing more than a simple barbecue sandwich.

“It definitely has brought in a lot of people from out of town, no doubt about it. People from around the state, people from other parts of the country…” Mariana Mayor Jimmy Williams said.

And it’s perhaps even brought people from all over the world.

The story of James Harold Jones and Jones’ Barbecue is a black history tale that’s really an American story.

On the outside, it’s a little building with white walls. On the other side of those white walls, it’s a flurry of activity.

You can hear the sound of embers being shoveled from a fireplace into a barbecue pit – prepping for the meat to be smoked. Foil rips. Barbecue sauce is stirred. Phones are ringing.

This is early morning at Jones’ Barbecue, but James Harold Jones has already started selling his popular pulled pork.

It seems a little early for lunch.

“Breakfast,” a customer responds.

Jones’ Barbecue has called the little white building home since the business opened its doors in 1964. But its history is much older than that. t’s believed to be the oldest black-owned restaurant in the south.

“It’s been in the family for over 150 years. My granddaddy’s uncle is the one who started it,” James said.

James uses the same secret barbecue sauce today that was used back then. He says he uses the same ingredients in the sauce that his father once used.

“I started helping him when I was 14 year old. Now I’m 71, so I’ve been in it for a little while,” James said.

It’s a family tradition that doesn’t care how much money you have – or what color you are. The only color that matters at Jones’ Barbecue is reddish-orange.

“I’ve been coming here since about 1974. It’s a special trip to come here to see my friend,” customer Rick Cothren said.

Mayor Jimmy Williams said he remembers a Marianna where farming and the factory thrived, where he worked for 40 years.

“When they’d come in on a company plane before they’d leave, they’d say ‘Let’s run down to Jones and get some barbecue’,” Mayor Williams recalled, of the big-name executives brought in by the factory and farming industry.

But the taste draws people from all walks of life.

When asked if he ever gets tired of doing it, James responded, “No, no.”

Jones gets a lot of attention after winning the prestigious James Beard Award for his famous “American Classic” sandwich. It’s the so called “Oscars” of culinary work. He’s the only person in Arkansas to ever win it.

The award now hangs, a little lopsided, above the window that peers into his kitchen.

But it doesn’t take a national award to prove Jones’ pulled pork sandwiches on wonder bread, served with a little coleslaw, are good.

“It’s like no other barbecue you’ve ever eaten,” Cothren said.

Another customer said he’s been eating at Jones’ for 53 years.

“It’s so good, It’ll damn near make you run a red light!” he said, before riding off on his bike.

Ironically, in a town where most black people live in poverty, Jones’ Barbecue helps pump money into the economy – and brings visitors to the heart of the Delta who might not otherwise come to visit.

But you better get to Jones’ early… because when the barbecue runs out for the day, it’s out.

“You don’t have no more?” one customer asked.

“I won’t have any more ’til after one o’clock,” James responded.

Just like that, the barbecue is gone, and the ‘open’ sign is turned to ‘closed’. Another day of business come and gone.

“I never know from one day ’til the next day how big a crowd I’m going to have,” James said. “And when it’s out, it’s just out.”

Until tomorrow… when the fire’s burning, coals are raked, and the meat is smoking, prepping for a new day, as it always has for the last 150 years.