David McAtee Represented the Best of African American Barbecue Culture
David "YaYa" McAtee built and served his community through barbecue. With a career that spanned decades, McAtee made a name for himself as a successful chef in Louisville, Kentucky, where he ran Yaya's BBQ Shack. As a community leader, McAtee was where he felt he needed to be last Sunday night: joining others in the streets protesting the horrific murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and calling for racial justice. Yet, something went horribly wrong. Soon after midnight on Monday, June 1, McAtee was killed by gunfire from Louisville police officers.
As is frequently and sadly the case when African Americans are shot by the police, McAtee's mother, Odessa Riley, his four siblings, and loved ones are left with many questions, and few answers. The officers involved in the shooting didn't activate their body cameras as they are supposed to do. The video surveillance footage available so far is inconclusive as to the actual sequence of events. Carla Baker, a longtime family friend, still doesn't know what happened. "I don’t know what made [law enforcement] aim that way," she says. Shockingly, McAtee's body lay in the street for hours until it was removed on Monday afternoon.
Rather than dwell on the indignities that McAtee and his loved ones have suffered, let's celebrate his life in barbecue. In so many ways, he represented the very best traditions and complexities within African American barbecue culture. First off, the brother was very good at what he did. "I used to take my daughter down there and get some of his barbecue sandwiches," says community advocate Christopher 2X. “The neat thing about going there was it was good food, and he was just a nice person."
McAtee reminds us that for much of our nation's history, people of all races associated African Americans with barbecue excellence. Barbecue was born when Native American meat smoking techniques were fused with the ways the British traditionally cooked meat. Because the new cuisine was so labor intensive to prepare, enslaved African Americans became its principal cooks.
Barbecue spread throughout the South as slaveholders took their enslaved barbecue cooks with them. That's how barbecue was transplanted from Virginia to Kentucky. After Emancipation, African Americans were effective barbecue ambassadors. Some were freelance barbecuers hired to cook "genuine Southern barbecue" at special occasions all across the country. Some stayed in the South and opened their own barbecue businesses. Harry Green of Owensboro, Kentucky, did so in the 1890s by digging a pit in his own yard. When millions of African Americans left the South during The Great Migration (1910-1970), Black-run barbecue joints proliferated in places like Chicago, Illinois, Kansas City, Missouri, and New York City. McAtee belongs to that entrepreneurial tradition, and his hustle and dedication to his labor-intensive craft helped him cultivate a loyal clientele.
These days barbecue restaurants and competitions get so much attention that we overlook the vibrant street vending tradition from improvised barbecue spots. When the earliest barbecue restaurants began to appear in the late 1890s, any spot in the country, or someone's urban lawn could spawn a barbecue business. Today, setting up a grill in a parking lot or along a street with heavy traffic will do the trick. These are the kind of places that don't have a fixed location, and they often don’t show up in a Google search. It’s that promise of good revenues from heavy traffic that led McAtee to set up "YaYa's BBQ" in a small building on the corner of 26th and Broadway in the Russell neighborhood of West Louisville.
Like many barbecuers, McAtee dreamed of one day owning a brick-and-mortar, sit-down restaurant. That dream remained deferred far too long because he lacked the financing, a plight common to far too many Black entrepreneurs. Without access to capital from either bank loans or running in the social circles that could lead to private equity investment, Black barbecuers make do with what they have—forced to keep dreaming far longer than their white counterparts.
McAtee will not only be remembered for great barbecue, but also for his big heart and thoughtful gestures. "David is a good person," recounts Baker. "I’ve known him since he was really little. We all grew up together. And he’s really close to my family, to my mom and dad. He calls them every holiday—takes my mother out to eat on Mother’s Day and brings her flowers. He calls me sis. It’s always the good ones that things happen to, but he was special."
He made a name for himself as a successful chef and community leader in Louisville, offering free meals to people in need. When people couldn’t pay for his food, McAtee would give it away for free, friends remember. Food businesses are often deluged with requests to donate food which can take a toll on the bottom line. Despite that challenge, McAtee was always ready to help. Most strikingly, he was well known for giving free meals to police officers, too. It’s a fact that only intensifies the pain of his tragic death. "All he did on that barbecue corner is try to make a dollar for himself and his family," McAtee's mother told the Courier-Journal.
McAtee's generosity didn't end with just giving away food. McAtee was also quick to help friends who needed to work to make some extra money, including Baker. "I didn’t really know it, but now I see he’s well loved by a lot of people," says Baker. “I was watching T.V. yesterday, and I was listening to all the comments everybody was making about him. He’s a very special guy."
McAtee loved his community, and they certainly loved him back. His customers called him "a barbecue man," an honorific and endearing title that few deserve. A title that acknowledged his culinary skill and appreciated his enduring edible gifts. Rest in power, David "YaYa" McAtee.