Simply walking into Coffee Makes You Black, a cozy restaurant located at 2803 N. Teutonia Ave. in Milwaukee, gives you the immediate feeling that you are at home and welcomed. It is considered a pillar in the community of North Milwaukee. The environment is friendly, as old and new neighbors reconnect over coffee and lunch. The walls are plastered with black historical figures present and past, and diners stay and chat until the last possible minute before the early closing time of 3 p.m.
Brad Thurman has been the original restaurant owner since 2001. Brad is a Milwaukee native, born and raised with a rich and fascinating past. Brad was alive and young during the Milwaukee Riot, a part of the flurry of race riots that swept the nation in the summer of 1967. The Milwaukee riot took place on the evening of July 30, when tensions came to a head after slow response to rampant housing discrimination and police brutality.
I brought my family to our old neighborhood on a rainy March day, where we sat together with Thurman over cups of coffee.
Brad looked across the table at my father. “Do you remember what they did to black men back then after they finished high school?” he asked.
“They rounded them up and either sent them to fight in Vietnam, or sent them to work for the factories,” my father responded.
The riots ignited a revolution among the Milwaukee black community. Instead of sending black men to war and to factories, the community raised money and sent these young men to college. Thurman was one of the black men who went to school and soon after became one of the Oshkosh 94.
According to UW Oshkosh Today, on November 21, 1968, a group of black and white male students attending the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh began a theatrical demonstration that was directed towards the administration when their requests for equal treatment on campus was ignored. This resulted in the arrest and expulsion of 94 students. Thurman was among them. The events are now remembered on the campus as “Black Thursday” and a scholarship was made for current students in their honor.
After making history in Oshkosh, Thurman returned to Milwaukee and opened Coffee Makes You Black with three of his brothers in 2001. The unique name was inspired by an old story in the African American community.
“A child would see their grandmother drinking a cup of coffee and asked if they could have a cup as well,” Thurman said. “The grandmother would disapprove saying, ‘No, don’t you know that coffee makes you black?’”
This was a direct result of the colorism that happens in the black community to this day. Colorism is when a group of people is discriminated against based on their skin color in their own community. For example, a black person with lighter skin may be treated better than one with darker skin. Thurman does not fear being too dark, and he loves being black along with his strong ties to the black Milwaukee community. Although there are times when’s prospects for the black community look bleak, he has hope for the future.
“History tends to repeat itself,” he said. “What we’re seeing now is what we saw 50 years ago, it comes in cycles.”
When Coffee Makes You Black opened, Thurman had one thing in mind: “The great American dollar.”
In the infancy of the restaurant, it wasn’t a restaurant at all. It was a simple coffee shop.
“When I first opened this place, we just served coffee and pastries,” Thurman said. “I just wanted to get the place going and make some money. Then about a year later, I was going to sell it.”
The shop soon turned to a neighborhood meeting place.
“The people in the neighborhood would come by and have meetings,” Thurman said. “They would talk about what was going on in the neighborhood and what they could try and do to fix it.”
When Thurman looked at the community that his restaurant created, he recognized he had a gold mine that was worth more than money could buy.
“When I realized that there was such strong community ties and the employees were so committed to growing the business, I couldn’t do it,” Thurman said.
Coffee Makes You Black stayed open and expanded to selling breakfast and lunch. Nowadays, Brad and his wife runs the store’s daily operations, meaning that they are both frequently at the restaurant that they dedicated the past 17 years to.
Miss LA, a waitress with a magnetic personality, served my family and me coffee and joked with us the entire time. When she heard that I was writing a story about the restaurant, she became intrigued. She sat down with us shortly after we finished talking to Thurman and told us her story and how she became involved with Coffee Makes You Black.
Miss LA has been a customer at the restaurant for nine years and an employee for two years. She also runs the African Beauty Supply Store that is upstairs from the restaurant for three years now, which is actually how she became employed in the first place.
“There was a lot of foot traffic coming into my store from downstairs and there was this disconnect,” she said.
Miss LA explained that her friend was dining at the restaurant one day and she had not yet been served after waiting for 30 minutes.
“I wanted to create a new kind of flair and do something different down here,” she said. “This is a really community-based place.That lady right there at table five has been coming here since the place opened.”
The restaurant is slowly becoming more and more diverse as the years pass. Miss LA expressed excitement as she told us about the upcoming events such as live music nights, participating in Milwaukee Black Restaurant Week, and Milwaukee’s Entrepreneurship gatherings. Miss LA plans to stay at Coffee Makes You Black for many years to come.
“Things here are changing, I don’t know if that’s for the better or worse, but I’m excited to see where things go,” she said.