An undated photo of Aleck’s Barbecue Heaven in Atlanta, where the booth at back right was dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. (From Pam Alexander)

A few hours later, she would end up teary-eyed in the back yard of the house she once owned, pointing to a plot of ground on this rainy August evening in Atlanta and murmuring, over and over, “This is where it was.” But first, Pam Alexander took me to Walmart.

She ambled up one aisle and down another in the gigantic store, in search of the photos of notable neighborhood businesses and residents that Walmart had promised to display.

One such honoree was Alexander’s former business, the legendary Aleck’s Barbecue Heaven. It was one of six barbecue restaurants that her father had opened around town. But this one, on what was once Hunter Street and is now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, achieved fame because the man whom the street’s name honors used to eat there regularly. King and other leaders of the civil rights movement hung out at Aleck’s, sometimes planning, sometimes just relaxing, over plates of ribs drenched in the restaurant’s famous spicy Come Back sauce.

“All of the morning business was carried out at Paschal’s,” a motel and restaurant where activists met to strategize, Andrew Young, a prominent civil rights activist and former Atlanta mayor, told me. “But in the evening and late at night, you’d always stop at Aleck’s.”

Walmart stands more or less on the land where the tiny restaurant once operated. The photos were intended as an homage to the area — in the way, I suppose, that towns are named after American Indian tribes that have been conquered and street names reflect the types of trees that were bulldozed to create the subdivision.

After asking a few employees about the photos, Alexander found a manager, who told us the marketing team had ordered them removed because they risked confusing the Walmart brand with something local. The manager said she didn’t know what happened to the photos.

This booth at Aleck’s Barbecue Heaven was a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. The boy in the photo is not identified. (From Pam Alexander)
‘You had to come by Aleck’s’

I first learned of Aleck’s in 1988, when I traveled to Atlanta to cover the Democratic National Convention for the alternative weekly Austin Chronicle in Texas. It was a tiny place, with four beat-up booths along the wall and a small black-and-white television sitting at one end of a peeling Formica counter. I swooned over the charred ribs, which had been smoked over hickory, oak and cherry woods and were served atop a slice of white sandwich bread and beneath a glorious swamp of that Come Back sauce.

During my visit, one booth toward the back was surrounded by mementos and a large black-and-white photo of King — a sort of altar, in a place where he had once sat. Even in this cramped space, where seats were at a premium, no one ever tried to sit there. They knew it was reserved for King’s memory.

With the impending opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington this month, I returned to Atlanta to see if I could find that booth. In my mind, it would be perfect for the museum: a way to illustrate the importance of eating places generally — and barbecue places and Aleck’s specifically — to black history.

Now, all these years later, Alexander met me at the Walmart. I asked about the booth. She had been cryptic in our conversations. “I have more to tell you,” she had texted, finally. She revealed now that the owner of her former house, where the booth had been stored, had told her that a tree fell on it and the booth had been hauled off the property to a landfill. I was crestfallen. But I was here. So we went into the Walmart.

She hadn’t been inside before; she couldn’t bring herself to revisit the site where Aleck’s had once been. Alexander grew up in Aleck’s, stirring the pot of sauce as a child.

Her father was Ernest James Alexander. But most everyone knew him as Aleck — and as a go-to man. “If you were running for office, you had to come by Aleck’s,” Young said. “He knew everything about everyone. The New York Times reporter or Washington Post reporter trying to figure out what’s going on in the community, he’d go to Aleck’s.”

Ernest James “Aleck” Alexander, right, works the pit at his barbecue restaurant with employee Jack Alford in an undated photo. (From Pam Alexander)

Aleck grew up in Liberty, Mo., and attended Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville. While there, he met Virginia Berry, who would become his wife. After graduating, Aleck taught English and coached football at Fort Valley State College for a couple of years, then moved with Virginia to Atlanta, where, in 1942, he opened a rib shack.

About a year later, he opened a second Aleck’s, a takeout joint in a black middle-class neighborhood. In the mid-1940s, he opened his third place, the eatery that would help sustain a movement.

Aleck’s Barbecue Heaven became a beloved hub of both the community and the movement. “Aleck’s was probably as responsible as much as anything for Martin Luther King’s greatest speeches,” Young said. “Whenever he had to write a speech, he’d either get some ribs or have somebody get some for him and take them to his house. ‘You can’t stop eating them, and then you can’t go to sleep,’ he said. He’d stay up all night and read and write because of those ribs.”

Aleck’s stood right next to the West Hunter Street Baptist Church, where the Rev. Ralph Abernathy preached. Abernathy, who died in 1990, was King’s closest adviser and best friend. He co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King led and of which Young was a member, and he became president after King was assassinated.

Aleck’s “was a place where I saw many other people in the movement,” Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, recalled in a phone interview.

Lewis was a co-sponsor of the bill that helped create the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opens Sept. 24. “By having a place where you can talk over a meal, there is a sense of fairness and equality and togetherness,” he said. “People that you have a meal with and break bread with and eat ribs with. . . .” He paused. “It tells a story,” he said. “It’s part of our history.”

Without a trace
Pam Alexander with her father, Ernest James “Aleck” Alexander. (From Pam Alexander)

In 1979, Aleck suffered a stroke. Although Pam was working as a high school teacher at the time, she helped her father run the restaurant. The youngest of three daughters, Pam was the one who became most involved in Aleck’s.

Aleck died in 1986. By then, the other restaurants had gone under. He left Aleck’s Barbecue Heaven to Pam. Her mother helped Pam for about five years; she died in 1996. Pam and her daughters, Tracey and Crystal, made a go of it, even opening a second outlet in the Underground Atlanta entertainment district in 1989, but they closed it about a year later.

Aleck’s struggled through the ’90s. Three of the booths were removed because of the cost to recondition them, and Alexander replaced them with tables. The Martin Luther King booth, though, remained.

In the late ’90s, she said, the city used eminent domain to buy Aleck’s and build a Publix supermarket. The city indicated at the time that it planned to relocate Aleck’s as part of a neighborhood revitalization plan, but Pam and the city couldn’t come to terms. She says the city demolished the building and everything in it except for some stones from the pit, some memorabilia, “Best Barbecue” plaques and the booth she had saved before the demolition began. She moved the items to the back yard of her home.

The Publix went under. The Walmart replaced it.

Now, at that Walmart, Pam and I stood at the far end of the parking lot, in front of some bushes. It was the exact spot where Aleck’s once operated.

Under a scorching Georgia sun, in a blue print dress and flats, Pam gestured at the space, re­imagining for me what was once there. Here, a short-order grill called Limbo. Back there, the Pit O’ Hell. Upstairs, there was a live music lounge and a meeting space. Black power activist Stokely Carmichael was among those who held meetings up there.

Now? No trace.

The church right next to Aleck’s, the one where Abernathy once preached, didn’t fare much better. It is boarded up.

‘I can’t stop thinking about it’
Pam Alexander, former owner of Aleck’s Barbecue Heaven in Atlanta, at Walmart. ( Jim Shahin)

In 2003, Pam won a seat on the City Council. She ran for re- ­election four years later and lost.

She went into real estate, but it was the worst possible time. The housing crash devastated her, and she was forced to sell her house at auction. She moved.

“I left the booth in the back yard under some plastic,” she said. “I intended to go back and get it. But everything got so crazy.”

By now, evening was coming on and the day had turned rainy. Driving around the neighborhood, Pam pointed out the two-story red-brick home where King and his family once lived.

We pulled into the driveway and, through the swishing wipers, gazed at the house. I asked if we could go to her previous home, the one where she had stored the booth. I wanted to see where it last was and hoped that maybe, just maybe, the homeowner’s story wouldn’t pan out. Maybe it would still be there.

She called the homeowner. He agreed.

As we approached the house, we saw a line of cream-colored stones used as a terrace on the front lawn.

“Those are from the pit!” Pam exclaimed. “That’s them. I know it.”

We wandered to the back yard. No booth. We stood in the rain while Pam ventured silently through time.

Where, I asked, had it been?

She pointed to the ground. “This is where it was,” she murmured. She started crying. “This is where it was.”

We walked slowly back to the car. Pam sat in the passenger seat, trying to suppress her tears. She turned her face toward the window.

Should the city have memorialized Aleck’s, turned it into a small museum? Should Pam have somehow, through her misfortune, done a better job of caring for her own history? Should government or a private entity have preserved this place to commemorate not only its civil rights role but also its role as a business empire operated, remarkably, by a black man in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s?

We drove through the rain to an old soul-food restaurant that Pam knew. She ate baked chicken, collards, dressing and peach cobbler. I had smothered pork chops, cracklin’ bread, dressing, chess pie.

I asked a few more questions, but she was plainly exhausted. Besides, she had to get back home to babysit for her 3-year-old granddaughter. We had to go get her car, back at Walmart.

A few days later, she text- ­messaged me. “I am going to replicate the booth,” she said. “I can’t stop thinking about it.”

Shahin is an associate professor of journalism at Syracuse University. He will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: Follow him on Twitter: @jimshahin.