This burger joint, started by a black woman, tells the true story of Compton

This burger joint, started by a black woman, tells the true story of Compton
Students celebrated the 60th anniversary of Naka's Broiler last weekend, one of Compton's first black-owned businesses. ((Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times))

It took Nathan Muhammad, 11, three drafts to get his speech on the history of Compton just right. 

"Through the dirt people rise to become something greater than themselves," Nathan said Saturday, reading from his black composition book. "This is a quote I created and if you think about it, you would understand that it is what people do in Compton."

He was talking to about 100 fellow Compton residents from a stage in Centennial High School's parking lot. They were all there to celebrate the 60th birthday of Naka’s Broiler, the tiny restaurant across the street.

Event organizer Wini Jackson had asked students around the city, including Nathan, to research the history of both Naka's and Compton.

Jackson and other longtime patrons call Naka's the first black-owned business in the city. It's hard to find records of the black-owned businesses in Compton, but historians say it's fair to assume Naka's was at least one of the first.

Katherine Banks, better known as “Mama Naka” to her customers, opened Naka’s Broiler in 1956 with her husband in the northwest corner of the city.

Katherine Banks, the founder of Naka's Broiler
Katherine Banks, the founder of Naka's Broiler (Handout)

Their daughter, Joy La Nell, had died a decade earlier, and Banks wanted to be near students. So she built her restaurant across the street from Centennial High School, which also opened in the '50s and became the high school for many of the city’s black children.

"I saw three generations grow up, and I felt like I still had Joy La Nell in my life," Banks would later write

The squeezing of both Centennial and Naka’s into the city's edge was no coincidence. Compton was home to a heavily white, agricultural and racist population through the first half of the 20th century.

White people signed racially restrictive contracts that prevented them from selling their homes to black buyers. Black residents knew they weren't welcome in downtown businesses or restaurants, and white Compton homeowners even started a campaign they called “Keep the negroes north of 130th,” said Robert Lee Johnson, the author of "Images of America: Compton."

Still, black migrants from the South continued moving west to California, disembarking at Union Station and heading down Central Avenue until they began to inch toward Compton’s borders.

Naka's Broiler and Centennial High School, both in the northwest corner of Compton.
Naka's Broiler and Centennial High School, both in the northwest corner of Compton. (Sonali Kohli)

The school district built Centennial High School — at the intersection of Central Avenue and El Segundo Boulevard — as black families neared Compton. School board documents don't confirm the district's intent when it chose the location, but it had the effect of keeping black students away from white students, said Albert Camarillo, a Stanford history professor who has written about his hometown. 

“This school was built to stop us from crossing Rosecrans,” said Maple Cornwell, who was a teacher, debate coach and assistant principal at Centennial during that time.

The school had both black and white teachers, and the black teachers, like many of their students, had come from the South, said Jackson, who graduated from Centennial in 1962 and organized Saturday’s event.

“Our teachers were our history books,” Jackson said. “We were looking at the book and listening to the book.”

They were well-versed in black history and in the burgeoning civil rights movement. And in that little corner of Compton, those teachers taught their students how to react to the racism and challenges that they would surely experience as adults.



Event organizer Wini Jackson talks to Willowbrook Middle School Principal Dennis Perry
Event organizer Wini Jackson talks to Willowbrook Middle School Principal Dennis Perry (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

It was a different time, Cornwell said. Teachers knocked on their students' doors unannounced to make sure they were working.

When Cornwell took her family to eat at Naka’s, she often saw students. And when students went to Naka’s, especially during school hours, they had a safe place to eat, and a motherly figure who made sure they got back to school.

She would feed stray students and watch them as they crossed El Segundo and hopped the fence to get back to school, said Billy Williams, who graduated from Centennial in 1966.

“If she saw you didn’t jump the fence on Central, you were in trouble next time you came in,” said Williams, who wore his red-and-gold class ring to Saturday’s celebration.

Banks wasn’t just a mother figure who ushered students back to school — she was an example of a successful black businesswoman.

“She taught me about the business,” said David Fisher, who bought Naka’s from Banks and considers himself her adopted son.

David Fisher, the current owner of Naka's.
David Fisher, the current owner of Naka's. (Stuart Palley / Los Angeles Times)

Cornwell, Jackson and other longtime Compton residents don’t feel like today’s students have the same level of support or real-world preparation. They say students don’t know the history of Compton, where Cornwell remembers living alongside a doctor and a judge.

That’s why Jackson wanted to involve students in Saturday's celebration. These students need to know about the resilience of their hometown's historical figures, so they can succeed, Jackson said.

Daniela Perez, a seventh-grader at Willowbrook Middle School, says she and other students are encouraged to graduate from high school and attend college. But she feels unprepared for what to do once she gets to college.

Regis Inge, a sixth-grade English and social studies teacher at Willowbrook, is the teacher who several students say helps them with their vocabulary, tells them they can be successful and hounds them until they are.

He has a similar background to the teachers whom Jackson valued — he's from Gardena, but his degree is from a Southern, historically black college. Inge was also Kendrick Lamar’s teacher, and the rapper has credited him for teaching him to write poetry.

Nathan Muhammad, 11, shares his speech.
Nathan Muhammad, 11, shares his speech. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“I just don’t like to see the kids fail,” Inge said, between bites of a Naka’s burger. “They know I love them.” 

Inge taught at Centennial from 2009 to 2013, and used to eat breakfast at Naka’s. He still visits the high school once a month to check in on his former students. 

Inge was one of the few people to whom Nathan showed his speech before Saturday — not even his mom was allowed to see it. His notebook was filled with scratched-out words, replaced with more elegant synonyms and better sentences.

Nathan seems to have gotten the message that Jackson tried to send. On stage, Nathan spelled out Compton’s complexities — his city is the birthplace of rappers, doctors and lawyers. But it’s also home to gangs and drugs, the things he called “weak links.”

Nathan ended his speech on a hopeful note, inspired by another Compton success story.

“All we need is unity and we can conquer Compton’s problems and fix those weak links,” Nathan told the crowd. “Like Kendrick Lamar said, ‘We gon’ be alright.’”

Find me on Twitter: @Sonali_Kohli