Louisville Barbecue Owner Killed in Police Shooting Fed a Food Desert

Maybe it was something in Odessa McAtee’s dressing that led her son to a career in cooking.

“He loved my dressing,” she said, speaking over the phone Thursday from her home in Louisville, Kentucky. “‘Mama, make me some dressing,’” she recalled his asking all the time.

Her turkey dressing and collard greens were his favorites. “My collard greens? I pick them, I wash them, and I make sure that they are good and clean,” she said. “When I put them in the pot, I put my ham hock and my country ham and some red dry pepper and some regular salt.”

And the turkey dressing? “My dressing is really a secret recipe.”

Taking lessons learned in part from his mother’s kitchen, David McAtee went on to become a beloved fixture on the corner of 26th Street and Broadway in the predominantly black West End neighborhood of Louisville. There, his simple takeout restaurant, YaYa’s BBQ, was a rare source of good food in an area with few businesses of any kind.

McAtee, 53, the youngest of nine children raised by Odessa and James McAtee, died early Monday morning on that corner. He had been shot once in the chest amid a volley of bullets fired by two police officers and two National Guard members enforcing the city’s curfew on a group of people who were mingling and having a good time.

Federal and state officials are still investigating the shooting. The Louisville Metro Police Department released a video Tuesday that it said shows McAtee firing a gun at law enforcement officers. An analysis of that video and others by The New York Times suggests that McAtee did shoot. It also shows that police first fired pepper balls toward McAtee and his relatives, almost hitting his niece.

The notion that McAtee, who adopted the name YaYa after he became a Rastafarian a decade ago, would have fired on police officers is very much at odds with the man his mother and others remember.

“He fed them police, I know that for myself. Gave them food, didn’t charge them nothing,” recalled his mother, who sometimes helped out at the restaurant. “He fed a whole lot more people. Homeless people. He fed them. Why? That’s the way I raised him. To be nice to people. Treat people right.”

David James, president of the Louisville Metro Council, said McAtee’s generosity was well known.

“Say a meal cost $10, and someone said, ‘Hey I lost my job. I only have $5.’ Instead of him saying, ‘Give me $5,’ he would say, ‘You’re going to need that $5,’ and he’d give them the meal,” said James, a 30-year-veteran of the Louisville police force and one of McAtee’s customers.

Shannon Drew went to high school in the West End and remembers McAtee from her student days in the mid-1990s, when he sold barbecue on a neighborhood corner. By the time she saw him again, in 2016, she was the mother of two young sons, staying at a Volunteers of America shelter where McAtee was a chef from 2013 to 2016.

Drew had endured a run of misfortune: After a knee injury left her unable to work her day-care job, she was fired. Unemployment and medical bills left her behind on rent, and she was evicted Christmas Eve 2015.

At the shelter, she saw McAtee every day as he served food. “He encouraged me,” she recalled. “He would tell me, ‘You’re doing the best you can. You’re taking care of your sons; don’t be ashamed.’”

His words of encouragement were important to her sons as well. While she is white, her sons, Jaden and Darius, are biracial. McAtee, she said, was an especially good role model for them.

Last year, she saw McAtee for the last time. She was working at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and he came in to renew his license. “I’m sure with his business, he sees hundreds and hundreds of people,” she said. “Before I said anything, he knew me right away. He asked how my sons were doing.”

McAtee’s death has been particularly hard for a community that was already protesting the killing of Breonna Taylor, a black emergency medical technician, in her home by white police officers in March.

Louisville, according to political and civic leaders, has never fully recovered from government practices that have crippled black economic development and progress in the city for generations.

In 1917, in Buchanan v. Warley, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a city law prohibiting the sale of property to African Americans in predominantly white neighborhoods. But since the policy applied only to laws and not private agreements, white residents began to use racially restrictive private covenants to keep black residents from investing or living in neighborhoods that were mostly white.

The federal government’s “urban renewal” efforts of the 1950s and 1960s further damaged the fabric of black neighborhoods in the name of redevelopment.

As for McAtee’s neighborhood, “a concerted effort through city ordinances and policies of redlining effectively cut the west Louisville neighborhoods off and led to disinvestment and neglect of the West End for many years,” said Cheri Bryant Hamilton, a 19-year veteran of the Louisville Metro Council.

As a result of these and other policies, the West End lacked many of the amenities Americans generally associate with urban living.

“The West End is a food desert, or food apartheid area,” said Hannah Drake, a poet and activist, who said McAtee’s restaurant filled a void. “There are not that many places to eat in the West End. Kids could get food from him after school. Now there is a hole in that community.”

Hundreds of people stood near McAtee’s restaurant for hours after his death, Drake said. For nearly 14 hours, his body remained there while police investigated, said Sadiqa Reynolds, a former deputy mayor and current president of the Louisville Urban League.

“You know how it is to be in community with people who absolutely adored this man, standing across the street from the place they know his body is, and having police on the other side of the street guarding him, and understanding that it was police who took his life?” Reynolds said.

After McAtee’s body was removed and police left, Reynolds sensed a need for closure. She called on Pat Mathison, a gospel singer whose a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace” at the scene lent a modicum of dignity to the moment.

When police finally cleared the scene, there was cheering but also rage, Reynolds said. At that point, she said, “there were a million ways this thing could have gone wrong.”

Something else did go wrong in the neighborhood, early Tuesday morning. Looters broke into a Kroger supermarket and left with shopping carts full of goods. The store was one of the few places in the area where people could buy fresh food or have prescriptions filled.

“After they trashed the Kroger, people in the community came out at 4 a.m., of their own volition, and started cleaning it up,” said Gerald Neal, a state senator who represents western Louisville.

Odessa McAtee, whose youngest daughter also died this year after battling health problems, said the family had not finalized plans for the future of YaYa’s BBQ. But Marvin McAtee said he would keep operating the business.

“Hopefully the business will continue on,” said Glenn Browder, a cousin of David McAtee’s who lives in Santa Ana, California. “David’s brother has sons, and they helped out there. It’s important to the family and important to the city as well.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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