How is Sambo’s still a thing? I was walking to dinner in Santa Barbara with my coworkers, post-mudslide. Our company had put us up for a week in a hotel near Stearns Wharf, while the 101 freeway was closed. As we walked past Sambo’s Restaurant, my coworker pointed out the sign, and explained it is a slur for black people, specifically black men.
I was unaware of the meaning of “sambo,” and although I lived in Santa Barbara for several years before moving south, I never have been to that restaurant nor taken note of the sign. However, through a cursory Google search, I found the history about Sambo’s Restaurant in Santa Barbara, in articles such as “The Troubling History of Sambo’s Pancake House” on KCET.org from April 2017. Other articles, from the archives of the Los Angeles Times, show the controversy and opposition surrounded the name since at least the late ’70s.
The current owner of Sambo’s, Chad Stevens, revealed to The Daily Beast in 2014 that the state of Washington denied an application for a trademark on Sambo’s, because it is derogatory to African-Americans. California did not.
I have read and heard the explanation that the restaurant name is not racist because it is a portmanteau of the original owners’ names. However, the original owners did nothing to dispel the misconception, and they did not mind profiting on the happy accident. For decades, they branded the restaurant franchise in the iconography of The Story of Little Black Sambo. They were not victims of an unfortunate misunderstanding, but they were actively capitalizing on racist tropes. So, when other cities, counties, and states are tearing down their Jim Crow-era Confederate monuments and icons, why does a glowing sign of a racial slur in Santa Barbara persist, and with similar brush-offs like “it’s not really racist” or “it’s historical?”
I encourage residents, visitors, and my fellow Santa Barbara commuters to read about the history of Sambo’s and decide for themselves if this is something they want to abide in the community. I also encourage the California Secretary of State to revisit their decision on the trademark, if they have not done so already.