Test of Medal: Bar-B-Que Pit Stories

Charles J. Shaw II at the Bar-B-Que Pit, mid 20th Century

Grilling the Kids

Just before the Bowers Museum closed to the public, we opened Test of Medal: Charles J. Shaw and the Montford Point Marines, which tells the story of Charles J. Shaw II, the first Black Marine to train an integrated platoon of marines. Our last post in the series on his life ended with him being awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his pioneering role in the US armed forces, but it only offered a small glimpse at who he was outside of the military. In 1953 Shaw was transferred to Camp Pendleton, California and he and his family eventually moved to Santa Ana. To supplement his family's income, in 1958 he opened one of the first Black-owned businesses in Santa Ana: the Bar-B-Que Pit. More than just a restaurant, it quickly became a keystone of the growing Black community of Little Texas. The the below passages are written by Shaw’s children and show just how important the restaurant was to the family and neighborhood. To read different accounts, click on any of the four tabs below.

Charles Shaw IllBrenda Shaw MatthewsDavid ShawPatricia Shaw
The Bar-B-Que Pit, late 20th Century

Charles Shaw Ill

In 1958 my dad and a friend, Jim Jones, decided to go into a food-to-go enterprise, but it took a lot of work to get the place ready. I remember when my dad took us to see the Pit for the first time. It was a mess of a place and Wilbert and I were put to work cleaning and helping haul loads of junk to the dump just to make it into a business. I was probably in junior high when the business was started. At the time, my dad was still in the Marine Corps working at the commissary in Camp Pendleton. On Fridays I went with my dad to LA where he purchased the meat for the Bar-B-Que Pit as well as made trips to the country to buy the wood used to cook the meat. Washed lots of dishes, too.

This continued my first couple years of high school in the summers. During the school part of the year, after school and weekends I worked at the Pit as well as having a part time job at the A&P. When my dad retired from the Marine Corps, he took over the business full time. He had made agreement to buy Jim Jones' interest and wanted to run it himself. He had his Marine Corps retirement but wanted to have the additional income for the family. By that time, I was attending Oregon State on a football scholarship. Some years after I was married, graduated, and working for the City of Santa Ana, my father had to go on dialysis. He asked me and my wife to run the business until he could get better and take it back over. I was working full time and my wife was teaching full time, but we agreed. My mother would come in the afternoons until my wife got out of school so I could go to my City job. It was a very difficult time. By the time we paid my dad, there was not much profit to speak of. He would not let us get into catering. Eventually after about a year, we decided there was more financial security in my City job and my wife's teaching job, so we gave up the Pit. That was when my parents started renting it out.
One thing I do know, when the business was Shaw's Bar-B-Que, it was a very popular place with a reputation for excellent food. I am sure many people still remember my mom's bread pudding and sweet potato pies. Word got around and we had some customers come quite a distance for our barbeque—people from as far as San Diego and Hollywood like Skillet & Leroy [Ernest 'Skillet' Mayhand & Leroy Daniels], Lawanda Page (Aunt Ester), and even Redd Foxx. Town leaders and politicians often talked with my dad for his opinion about city matters. He made it a point to hire young kids from the neighborhood for part time work usually their first job. Also, there was often a pot of something on the backburner like stew or beans that he shared with people that were hungry but could not afford to buy a meal.
Brenda in Bar-B-Que Uniform with David and Pat, early 1960s 

Brenda Shaw Matthews

I worked at the Bar-B-Que pit during junior high school, high school, and junior college while doing several other jobs. After work, I would go home for a few hours, change my clothes, and go to the Bar-B-Que pit to relieve my mom so she could rest. At one time I added up my work week’s hours and it totaled about seventy. Of course, when I shared what I did over the weekend no one including my teachers believed me. During High School, I was able to go to the home football games at the Stadium on 8th Street. I ran there where my friends saved me a seat and did not seem to mind that I smelt like Bar-B-Que.  After the game I ran the five blocks back to the Bar-B-Que pit. Many times, I served the football players that right after the games.

When in College my task on Tuesday after school was to peel 200 lbs. of potatoes and dice them for the homemade potato salad. And roll out crust dough and line two hundred 4 in. tins, put wax paper between them and store them in the freezer. It was not uncommon for us to have to quickly make one hundred more sweet potato pies if we ran out on Saturday.
The Bar-B-Que pit was opened from Thursday to Sunday. Thursday and Sunday, it was opened from 10am to 8pm.  Friday and Saturday, it was opened from 10am to 2am. Monday through Wednesday we prepped.  Everything was made from scratch. When the family business first opened, we had to work all the way to Sunday, when my father announced we are now making our money. I earned $3.00 a week and the earned money had to go into a savings account. Working at the pit taught me many things like good work ethics, time management, the value of hard work, to save up your money and spend it wisely, and to have fun.
Signature of Charles Shaw in the sidewalk outside of the Bar-B-Que Pit (left) and Chales and Sarah Shaw, mid 20th Century (right)

David Shaw

The Bar-B-Que Pit, located at 305 North Hesperian Street, was established in 1958 by a partnership of two marine families: Mary and Jim Jones and Sarah and Charles Shaw. In the early days, the families rotated working weekends. One family would work the Bar-B-Que Pit one weekend then the other the next weekend and this continued until about 1963. Soon thereafter my dad retired from the United States Marines after a 20-year career in the Military and bought Mary and Jim Jones out of the business to become the sole owner in 1963. 

The Bar-B-Que Pit was a pillar in the neighborhood and a landmark for people from Los Angeles and throughout Orange County. My dad hired many of the neighborhood kids, friends of all my siblings, to work. We all refer to it as our tour of duty; it was our military training. You were held accountable, you were required to adhere to the standard of the Bar-B-Que Pit, and you were going to have life lessons like no other. My friends still talk about those days with fond memories. I went on to play sports in college and pro football. The demands of my coaches were simple compared to the standards and expectations that I was raised to follow. I could follow direction.
The Bar-B-Que Pit was run by the Shaw family up until 1979 when my dad passed, and mom was no longer able to run it. Family members initially ran the business after my mom, trying to carry on the legacy of the Bar-B-Que Pit. Shortly thereafter Fred Burrell approached my family, my mom Sarah Shaw, with the idea of carrying on the legacy of the Bar-B-Que Pit. From that point on Fred Burrell operated the Bar-B-Que Pit. His Goal was to carry on the business my family had established and provide the community with southern style Bar-B-Que. While Burrell was the main person in charge of running the Bar-B-Que Pit, it never changed ownership.  The Shaw family owned and operated the Bar-B-Que Pit from 1963 to March of 2018.

Patricia Shaw outside the Bar-B-Que Pit with friends, c. 1970

Patricia Shaw

My first memory I have working at the Bar-B-Que Pit was going to buy supplies on Tuesday in Los Angeles.  My father, David and I would get up early in the morning and drive to Los Angeles, to purchase our meat, fish and dry goods  On Wednesday we would purchase supplies in Santa Ana—candy, sodas, and paper goods—in preparation of opening on Thursday. I remember going back to school after summer break and was asked to draw a picture of what you did over the summer.  My picture was always a red building with my family in front and watermelons on the side. My brother David and I sold watermelons over the summer to make money to put in our Bank of America savings accounts. 

My time spent at the Bar-B-Que pit with my family was tough and required long hours, but I would not change it for anything in the world.  I stocked the candy, put sodas in the refrigerator, and of course cooked Bar-B-Que, standing on a Coca Cola box. I remember the pit catching on fire and the noise was terrifying. I would run out and my dad would yell at me to get some water. 
It might sound like all we did was work with no time to play; however, I have fond memories of a GREAT community that surrounded the Bar-B-Que Pit.  We had Tony the Locksmith, Wing Family Grocery Store, Bristol Drug Store, and Hank’s Tamale Shop. During this time in Santa Ana the African American Community was very strong.  Mr. Harrell was our resident Dodger Baseball Expert, Eugene O Covington was our tax man, who taught me how to save money, Kelly’s Barber Shop was where all the world’s problems were solved. I grew up watching my dad where his word was truth and respected.  My dad would send me to any of the above stores to pick up items for the Bar-B-Que pit and the cost was put on a running tab. 

Sadly, the Bowers Museum is currently closed to the public, but much of the story of Test of Medal: Charles J. Shaw and the Montford Point Marines can be seen on the Bowers' website. Click here to see more on the life of Charles J. Shaw II.

Images provided by the Shaw family. Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. References are available on request. Information subject to change upon further research.

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