Last Friday, the Bellevue College Black Student Union held its annual celebration to close out Black History Month. This event is usually conducted in-person at the college, the event had to be held virtually this year, but that didn’t stop them from making the best of it.
The main feature of the event was a presentation by Lewis Rudd, CEO and co-founder of Ezell’s Famous Chicken, in which he detailed the difficult path he took from humble beginnings in East Texas to operating his thriving chicken business with 16 locations worldwide.
Lewis’s uplifting story hit at the heart of why Black History Month exists. He recounted his experience growing up, walking back from his job at a chicken restaurant in Texas (the same restaurant where the dream of Ezell’s was born), and having to duck down into a ditch when cars came by because “If it was the wrong people in the car, we’d get beat, or maybe disappear and never get seen again.”
Even as years passed and Lewis made his way to Seattle, the scourge of racism wouldn’t stop following him. Lewis and his co-founders battled endlessly against gentrification and redlining as they tried to get their dream off the ground. At one point, Lewis even recounted a banker reneging on a loan after learning that the new location wouldn’t be on the south side of Seattle. “If we stayed in the south area, he would give us the loan,” explained Lewis. The banker said it was “because black people eat chicken.”
But despite it all, Lewis’ story had a happy ending. Through a combination of determination, celebrity visits, and community outreach, the business began to thrive. Now, 37 years since the first Ezell’s opened its doors, the students in attendance were able to taste history. At one point in the presentation, Lewis showed a picture from the very first Ezell’s location of him and his co-founders holding up their sweet potato pies. Thanks to a donation of a hundred $10 gift cards by the restaurant, as he showed the picture, the students in attendance were able to bite into their own slices of sweet potato pie they had picked up or ordered before the virtual celebration. “It should be the same as it was 37 years ago when I baked that one I’m holding [in the picture],” said Lewis. According to Amanda Chamba, the head of the Black Student Union at Bellevue College, the pie remains “AMAZING!” to this day.
Lewis concluded the presentation with a broader perspective, saying that “It is very very challenging to get started and operate a business being black in America. 2020 revealed it… we need to help [others] understand how black people, black businesses, black institutions have been held back, and the consequences of that, and how when we’re asking now for a hand up, it’s not a hand out.”
After the presentation, students in attendance had the opportunity to ask questions, which ranged from the lighthearted inquiries about menu preferences to the more serious about how to run a business and make your dreams a reality.
The Watchdog also spoke with Amanda Chamba about her perspective on Black History Month as a whole in 2021. You can find that story here.