Little Black Sambo

I always wondered why people got so uptight about the name of Sambo’s restaurants.  What was so offensive about that well dressed little kid in India outsmarting some tigers, and turning them into butter for his breakfast?? As my sister brought it up, i did some research:

Sambo’s is the name of a former American restaurant chain, started in 1957 by Sam Battistone (who later became the owner of the Utah Jazz of the National Basketball Association) and Newell Bohnett. Though the name was taken from portions of the names of its founders, the chain soon found itself associated with The Story of Little Black Sambo. Battistone and Bohnett then sought to capitalize on the coincidence by decorating the walls of the restaurants with scenes from the book, including a dark-skinned boy and tigers; once critics began voicing objections, the use of the boy’s image was eliminated but the tigers remained. By 1979, Sambo’s had 1,200 outlets in 47 U.S. states, but two years later the company went bankrupt, having changed the name of some of the outlets shortly before going out of business to "No Place Like Sam’s," apparently in response to complaints about the name "Sambo’s" from African-American organizations. Today, only the chain’s flagship restaurant in Santa Barbara, California still exists.  In its last days of existence Sambo’s was sued by Dr. Pepper for allegedly plagiarizing the latter’s popular television commercial in a spot Sambo’s ran to promote its newly-established senior citizen discount program — and even more interestingly, was also sued by non-white employees and applicants who were alleging discrimination in hiring and advancement decisions. Battistone’s grandson, Chad Stevens, expressed a desire to revive the chain at various times in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The Story of Little Black Sambo (1898) by Helen Bannerman, was the story of a boy named Sambo who outwitted a group of hungry tigers. The setting of Bannerman’s story was clearly in India – as can be seen by the presence of tigers and the reference to ghee – and thus it is likely that the "Sambo" character began life as an Indian boy.  Today the book has been renamed, The Story of Little Babaji, and the illustrations that reflected the character’s Indian origins in a non-marginalizing manner.

Which remind me — this may sound spooky, but did anyone see THE HUMAN STAIN starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman? What a horrid name for a book/movie. Good movie, I thought. Anyone read the book? Well, obviously SOMEONE read the book — i mean did YOU read the book?

4 Responses to “Little Black Sambo”

  1. Myra

    You wrote, “I always wondered why people got so uptight about the name of Sambo’s restaurants.” These are the same people with the same mindset, who in 1999, forced the resignation of Washington D.C. mayoral aid David Howard for using the word “niggardly.” Even the NAACP was shocked over that one. The Washington Post reported that NAACP Board Chairman Julian Bond opined that the precipitous acceptance of Howard’s resignation was “niggardly” on [Washington D.C. Mayor, Anthony] Williams’ part.
    Mayor Williams did rehire Howard a month later, but the damage was done.

  2. Anea

    When I lived in Bellingham I had a friend whos parents had owned 2 Sambo’s restaraunts, they got SCREWED when the chain went under but boy did they have a lot of weird SAMBO collectibles in their basement. I dont remember the restaraunt itself (did we ever go to one when I was a kid?).

  3. Burl Barer

    Sambo’s was basically like Denny’s or Sherry’s — same sort of place, same style of all-american cuisine. Sorry, it wasn’t an Indian restaurant. I used to frequent one on Aurora Ave. in Seattle.

  4. Mike Barer

    Of course the fact that the food was lousy did contribute to it’s demise.
    It was the perfect place to chill after the night out though.


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