Who Are Larry James and Jereline Bethune? Here Are 6 Facts About the Barbecue Legends.
From 1954 to 1968, Montgomery, Alabama found itself at the center of the civil rights movement. And at the center of the city’s African American community — especially for those most active in the movement — was Brenda’s Bar-Be-Que Pit.
Founded by husband-and-wife duo Larry James and Jereline Bethune in 1942, Brenda’s (although named Siesta Club at first) was noted to be a safe space for organizers to meet, with Jereline being a participant in the Selma to Montgomery march that led to the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
“My mother and my sister and my auntie would help the NAACP,” Larry Bethune — Larry James and Jereline’s son who was too young to participate then — told the Washington Post about his mother’s legacy. “We had a printing machine, and we could put out fliers about when different meetings were going to be. At the time, there was a fence back there, so you couldn’t see in the back.”
Now, a little over 80 years since Jereline and Larry James opened Brenda’s Bar-Be-Que Pit, the Bethune’s family business continues to thrive in a section of Montgomery that was once a self-contained neighborhood, with Black-owned grocery stores, gas stations, and more being at the forefront. Still housed in the same location generations of locals have always known, Brenda’s — thanks to son, Larry Bethune, and other members of the family — still holds Larry James and Jereline’s initial vision and legacy intact.
Here are six facts about the founders of Montgomery, Alabama’s oldest Black-owned barbecue joint.
Larry James and Jereline Bethune started out as nightclub owners.
Before Brenda’s Bar-Be-Que Pit became a legendary eatery, it was a World War II-era nightclub. At some point, for reasons unknown, Jereline and Larry James converted the Siesta Club (as it was known then) from a place where revelers could grab food after a night of partying into a restaurant named after their second daughter.
Jereline was a pioneer of female entrepreneurship.
Fourteen years after opening Brenda’s Bar-B-Q Pit with her husband, Jereline found herself running the restaurant alone after Larry James’ death in 1956. Not only was she operating a Black-owned, woman-owned business (which, sadly, is still a challenging feat all these years later), Jereline was also a single mother of five.
Brenda’s was more than a safe harbor for Civil Rights organizers.
One of the challenges faced by African Americans during the fight for voting rights was a literacy test, which would-be voters were required to pass in order to register and make their voices heard at the polls. In addition to opening her doors to the movement and facilitating secret meetings — including those that supported the Montgomery Bus Boycott — Jereline Bethune also held classes at Brenda’s, helping those in the community who needed better reading comprehension and writing skills to vote.
Brenda’s is still a family-owned business.
When Jereline’s husband died, her sister and her daughters were the first to help her keep Brenda’s Bar-Be-Que Pit alive. Eventually, her son Larry Bethune, Sr. joined the business and took over its operations with his brother Milton when their mother passed away in 2015.
Today, Larry runs the restaurant with his daughter Donetta. His nephew James Bethune III is the Pit Master at Brenda’s and his son Larry Jr. has expanded the family business to include a diner named Barbara Gail’s Neighborhood Grill. According to Donetta, who’s worked at Brenda’s since she was 8 years old, nearly all of Jereline’s grandchildren have been a part of the restaurant’s staff at some point.
Larry James and Jereline made Brenda’s a carryout-only business, and it remains the same now.
As far back as many Montgomery residents can remember, the Bethune family business has been carryout only. Patrons either enjoy their meals as a “car picnic” or take it home. Orders are only placed through a takeout window rather than physically walking into Brenda’s Bar-Be-Que Pit, and while no one could have predicted that this would one day potentially save the restaurant, Larry and Donetta were able to adapt to necessary COVID-safe restrictions imposed in 2020 without having to change much.
Jereline inspired the generations after her to create their own legacies.
While Jereline Bethune eventually recruited her entire family into her business, she always saw great things for the generations coming after her — even if it didn’t include a future in the restaurant industry. In a 2020 interview with AL.com, Donetta Bethune revealed that her grandmother addressed her, her siblings, and her grandchildren with titles meant to remind them that anything was possible: “Doctor,” “Professor,” and even “Mr. President.”
“They were always very prestigious names,” Donetta said. “It was just her way of speaking life into us, to let us know you can be whatever you want to be.”