The past is what brings tourists to Savannah, Georgia—its historic, antebellum South, caught in a quaint, storybook-worthy time warp. A few blocks away is The Grey, as in Greyhound, a destination restaurant in that destination city with a very different story to tell about Savannah’s past – the story of a settling of scores with race.
“I was just thinking what this place was, a separate bus terminal,” Johno Morisano said, “and behind us was the colorful entrance and the colorful waiting room.”
This is what it looked like when it opened in 1938:
…not the wreckage that Morisano, a New York transplant, bought in 2012 and decided to turn into his idealistic dream of what a restaurant could be.
“In my kind of simple thought process, I was a white man; a black woman would be my perfect counterpart to run this space,” he told correspondent Martha Teichner.
“Before the meeting, I thought I would be a symbol here?” Mashama Bailey said. “Am I going to be a living, breathing political statement? Because I didn’t want to.”
Educated in France, Bailey was a sous chef in New York, working for a prominent female chef, when Morisano, a media entrepreneur with no restaurant experience, approached her to be his partner in The Grey.
“We talked about pork hocks, didn’t we? said Morisano. “And we both realized that our grandmothers both cooked pork hocks, and that was a common moment for us.”
And although she was born in New York, Bailey had actually lived in Savannah for six years as a child.
The restaurant Bailey runs is in a building she should have entered through the back door. Le Gray opened in 2014. The place’s steeped history is part of its identity, but Morisano and Bailey steered clear of any discussion of race.
Morisano said: “That question really came home when we had our tragic event here, where we really had to confront it, because it was unspoken.” She added, “It was unspoken; I was often the only black person in the room.”
The tragic event was the death, in front of Bailey, of The Grey’s general manager Scott Waldrup, who was knocked down by three young men fleeing a shooting in 2016.
“I didn’t know how much I trusted Johno until I called him that night,” she said. “Scott was an integral part of The Grey.”
Morisano said: “I answered the phone, and she was just apoplectic, kind of like, you know, moaning and hard to understand and everything. Maybe we started to really see each other as partners at that point. It’s like, in tragedy and hard times, you find out who your friends are.”
What started then, and still continues, is a conversation.
By the time Morisano asked her to collaborate with him on a book about The Grey, they trusted each other enough to face head-on everything they had so far left out.
“I didn’t want to talk about race,” Bailey said. “I didn’t want to talk about my feelings about race, and I didn’t want to talk about his feelings about race.”
And what happened? “We talked about racing; it was tough,” Morisano said.
He and Bailey, along with Morisano’s wife, Carol, rented an apartment in Paris, and the book took shape. “It was like a six-week therapy session, about ownership, pride, pain, fear, confusion,” Bailey said. “It was really about opening up those wounds and healing them.”
This dialogue would become the book “Black, White and The Grey”.
From the audiobook, “Black, White, and The Grey”:
Morisano: “Was I that guy who talked about a good game about progress, diversity, female empowerment…because there was nothing at stake?”
Bailey: “Why would you hate us if we don’t have anything you want?”
Morisano: “Was it part of my racism, my heritage, which remained hidden in my subconscious?”
Bailey: “There’s always a question of intent when blacks and whites do business together.”
Morisano told Teichner, “The emotion was much harder than I thought, and Mashama can tell how many times I cried and how many times she cried.”
“It was less than him! she laughed.
The restaurant is now their safe space.
In 2019, Mashama Bailey won a prestigious James Beard Award, and is expecting another this year, for a cuisine that continues to rack up accolades and shatter preconceptions about what Southern cuisine is.
The Gray survives COVID. A painting hangs above the most visible table. There’s a Greyhound bus in it; Blacks sit in front, whites behind. Morisano said, “More than a handful of people walked out of the restaurant before ordering because they were offended by it.”
The photo is quietly provocative, as is the conversation Bailey and Morisano dared to have.
“I don’t think Mashama and I are solving anyone’s problems,” he laughed. “I don’t think we’re solving Savannah’s problems, South’s problems, America’s problems. We’re not even solving our own problems! What we’re really doing is just creating a dialogue and almost like a safe space for a dialogue between us, and that’s the best we can do, you know, I think.”
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Story produced by Jon Carras. Publisher: George Pozderec.