SHIRLEY – It might seem a bit ironic: A restaurant named after a Confederate victory will hold a celebration tomorrow to honor the most famous African-American civil rights leader.
The Bull Run Restaurant, whose name traces back to the first large battle of the Civil War, is having a special breakfast to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s 80th birthday.
Scheduled for the day before Barack Obama’s inauguration, the breakfast will feature a recital of Dr. King’s “I have a Dream” speech, a children’s choir performance of the “black national anthem,” and an address by an African-American pastor.
The Bull Run Restaurant, founded in 1740, was renamed during the Civil War. It happened around the time of the actual battle, when a brawl occurred in the tavern. Later that evening, a bartender declared that patrons had just fought their very own version of the Battle of Bull Run, and the next day the words “Bull Run” were nailed to the wall, said restaurant co-owner Dolores Guercio. The name stuck.
Her husband, Leonardo, whose father bought the restaurant in 1946, said the establishment never supported the Confederacy, nor, as far as he knows, practiced segregation.
Since it was founded, Guercio said, the place has born silent witness to enormous progress by Americans in recognizing the rights of all.
“At the time the restaurant was named, we were fighting over slavery. Now we have a black president,” said Guercio, known to most as Chip. He said he never considered renaming the establishment because it’s historic and well known in the area.
The restaurant hosts many community events, such as toy drives for children whose parents are deployed overseas and a fund-raiser for a family that lost its home to fire. This year will mark its third annual Martin Luther King breakfast.
The celebration will also recognize children who wrote essays about Dr. King’s nonviolent resistance strategies and about how they can solve problems peacefully in their own lives. The 10 best essayists – with competitors drawn from Groton-Dunstable Regional School District, Ayer Middle School, Ayer High School, Lura A. White School in Shirley, the Nashoba Valley Technical High School in Westford, and Congregation Agudat Achim, a synagogue in Leominster – will receive monetary awards and free tickets to the breakfast.
Last year, more than 300 students submitted essays, Dolores Guercio said.
According to Brett Kelley, curator of collections at the National Civil War Museum in Pennsylvania, the first battle of Bull Run, fought about 15 miles from Washington near Manassas, Va., in 1861, was also the first real engagement in the Civil War and a great victory for the Confederacy.
“It was such a crushing Union defeat,” Kelley said. “If the Confederates had been more organized, they could have gone right through and captured Washington after the first battle.”
Massachusetts is hardly the first place he’d expect to find a restaurant named “Bull Run,” Kelley said.
Most of the other businesses named after it are in Virginia, near a tributary of the Potomac called the Bull Run, which gave its name to the battle. The southern state has the Bull Run Golf Club, the Bull Run Farm, and the Bull Run Elementary School.
The Rev. Richard Wright of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Worcester and his wife, Shirley, say they were at first surprised to be asked to speak at a King Day event held at a restaurant bearing the name of a famous Confederate victory. But it’s important, said Shirley Wright, not to dwell in the past.
“Look where we have come since that battle,” she said. The key question we must ask ourselves on Martin Luther King Day, she said, is how to change our behavior to carry his legacy now and in the future.
“We all come from different places,” she said, “but we must go forward together.”
The Rev. Roger Sawtelle, president of the Merrimack Valley Branch of the NAACP, said that by electing Barack Obama, the American people rejected the divisiveness of the past – and that, as a result, Martin Luther King Day holds special meaning this year.
“Dr. King said people should be judged on their character, and not on the color of their skin. And certainly that’s what the American people have done,” Sawtelle said. “By celebrating Martin Luther King Day on the day before the inauguration of Obama, we’re recognizing a new era in the history of the United States of America, because the things that he and others put in motion in the Sixties and Seventies are bearing real fruits today.
“I think in some people’s minds,” he added, “King Day is an African-American holiday. But it’s not, it’s for everybody.”
The breakfast will take place tomorrow from 7:30 to 10 a.m. at the Bull Run restaurant, Shirley, 215 Great Road. Tickets are $20