Mark Anthony Canty, Sr., Owner/Chef, Eatz on Moore Street; Bristol, Virginia, Lives in Bristol, Tennessee:
“I’m originally from Kingsport [Tennessee] and moved up here in the early ‘60s. Things have changed. When I first moved to Bristol, there were only basically three, well four, ethnic groups here. There were white people, African Americans, a family of Cherokee Indians and Billy Bryant, who was Hawaiian. That was basically the makeup of Bristol.
We spent a lot of time outdoors [as kids]. Bristol was still segregated. I used to tell my boys you couldn’t go to the Paramount back when I was a kid. You could go to the Cameo, but you had to go upstairs to the balcony. It was just different growing up here in what I call the rural South.
Being as it may, opportunity for most African Americans was not great here in this town. I remember as a kid, even growing up in Kingsport, we didn’t have a public swimming pool at first until later on in the ‘60s. But, we used to go on up there at Legion Pool and lean on the fence and watch the white families swim and have a good time. In our minds, we were swimming. When you don’t know anything but this type of living, you learn to adapt.
One of my favorite sayings as a boy growing up was, ‘it’s hard to be big, when little’s got you.’
I had a lot of great vision, even as a kid. I knew that things were going to change, ‘cause it had to. Through education and redistribution of wealth, opportunity was going to finally come to all Americans. I think one of the biggest hopes we had at the time was [during] the Martin Luther King, Jr. era, and President John F Kennedy. That gave me, even as a young kid hope.
I knew it was going to be tough and everybody knows that before there’s a victory, there’s always a battle. But, holding on and having a lot of faith, I still believe in the Constitution of the United States, you know, equal rights and a chance for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That’s what I try to teach my kids. I often tell my kids if you cannot make it in America, there’s no place else left on the globe that you can make it. Education will change your future, especially here in the United States.
Me coming up, we didn’t understand what racism was, but you learned about it. Racism is a learned thing ‘cause kids don’t really see color until somebody educates them to the difference, and starts the poisoning there. I have some white friends of mine and we’ve been friends since we were little kids, and we’re still friends today. It’s never been a color issue, even though it exists. We’re true friends.
The first actual change I saw [was when] they desegregated the public schools. I thought it was one of the most brilliant decisions, Brown vs. the Board of Education, America had made, to uphold the law. Not create new laws, but uphold the laws [creating] equal schools, for equal people.
As a kid, we got the textbooks from the white schools. They were outdated and old, and those were the textbooks we got. I never saw a color movie in school until they integrated schools. All we ever saw was black and white, 8mm. But, I could see the change coming. It was some difficult years because there was more opposition towards blacks than blacks were in opposition to integration.
[Attending a desegregated school] It opened up my mind to that there is a bigger world than the one I was made to exist in. I saw freedom as what freedom was truly about. Not that we had achieved it all, people always talking about time, take a little time, we moving too fast, but if not now, when? And that was the motto going around, that was the slogan that was going out then. If not now, when?
I gave my kids an opportunity and an experience that I was never able to achieve, and I sent all my kids to private schools, Sullins Academy. I can see the academic performance that they were able to achieve from being in that environment. We didn’t go there just to mix, we [went] there to get a step up and get ahead on the educational platform. It has paid off.
[Joined the Air Force] right after high school. I was intent to leave Bristol, ‘cause I knew there was a big, big world out there and I wanted to see it. I didn’t get to go overseas like I’d planned, cause Richard Nixon resigned and we had a couple of Presidents that we didn’t vote in that was able to come in, Spiro Agnew, Gerald Ford, and they closed down a lot of military action.
I think that’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever done, was go and serve my country.
It’s [racism] always been there in the military. Not so blatantly anymore cause they have so much training seminars that this person, doesn't matter what color he is, you depend on him as part of the team. In the military, they teach you the weakest link is the weakest person. The weak link in the chain. So whether it’s females or blacks, hispanics, their service taught people how to really get along. You was there with some of the most frustrated people that had never slept in the same room with somebody of another race or creed or color, and it became a melting pot for them. You got to learn people and understand people and find out about them ‘cause you’re working with them day in and day out.
I didn’t pass tech school [in the Air Force] so I [became] a chef in the Air Force. It was a hard adjustment for a little boy out of East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and nobody prepared me mentally for the service. I wasn’t able to achieve what I first wanted to do, but being in the service squadron I did. I got to meet some great people. God has a purpose and a plan.
Me and my wife Lisa, we’ve been married 31 years, and we always have done catering on a small scale. Me being a chef myself, and have always [loved] to cook, [after being] certified in the Air Force, we decided we needed a bigger venue to do large scale catering. We didn’t know that the restaurant and the fresh, good food that we cook here would catch on that fast, but we’re very pleased, and it was the vision that I had.
We call it Eatz on Moore Street. It took a while, people used to laugh at first but they’re not laughing now. We know we have some of the best home cooked food in 500 miles. We have people from all over the United States and foreign countries that happen to find us on the internet, seen our ratings and have come and shared our food here and been most pleased.
We call our menu a blend of good Southern food and ethnic food. We have some Italian, some old-fashioned South food, some country. We don’t sell any alcohol, but we want to create an atmosphere that people can come in and relax, bring their family in and eat just great home cooking.
My vision was to make people think when they came here at Eatz on Moore Street, that they’d start thinking about the way [their] grandmother used to cook, and that’s the comment we get just so much every day. And it’s pleasing us. All our food is just genuinely, great food. My wife gains the credit on [the fried chicken]. That’s why we named it Miss Lisa’s Fried Chicken.
My barbecue sauce [recipe is] over 100 years old. It’s an old, old family recipe from the Sumter Plantation, South Carolina, where my grandfather, 175 years ago came from Liberia, Africa, to Sumter Plantation. I found it years ago. It’s been a success for us. We hope some day to have it on the market here. Folks that taste our barbecue sauce think it’s some of the best barbecue sauce they’ve ever eaten or tasted.
[On racial profiling today] Sure. I’m thankful for the way that Chief Austin [Bristol, Virginia Police] and the Bristol Tennessee Police Department has changed. I see the attitude in the new people that they have hired today. [There is] more of awareness, not just being black or white, but an awareness of carrying out the law as it should be. We here in Bristol, we don’t fear the police like they fear [them] in other places. The time has changed.
But still, as far as employment and as far as justice and things like that, there [is] still racism in the courts. I watch all our little young men who get involved in illegal activities; they seem to get the harsher sentences. Even first time offenders. Whereas, on the other hand, a lot of these younger white guys that have these kind of offenses, where there’s drugs or whatever, they get moved into alternative programs. It seems like they want to lock our kids up quick. As smarter judges and better thinking judges come on board, it gets a little bit easier. It’s not a perfect world.
I live in a pretty decent neighborhood out near Steele Creek. All in my neighborhood are some really good people. They are really good. And then, I have a neighbor that lives next door; he puts out his big, huge rebel flag. We kind of laugh about it, ‘cause he don’t know no better. We talk about it amongst ourselves and I said, ‘he’s not even a Southerner! He’s from up Baltimore, [or] Boston, and he has no ties to the South.’ It’s not intimidating to me. My friend calls [it] the ‘loser mentality.’ It’s a lost cause.
What it [rebel flag] represents then, and what it represents now is not a whole lot of difference, but it just doesn’t have any power now. Most intelligent people are not going to run up and down the street with a rebel flag to try to intimidate people. Most people that I know don’t. But we still have that. And I laugh all the time every time I go home—I see this rebel flag just waving. And even his own daughter kind of gets upset at her dad, ‘cause she said, ‘ya’ll just some crazy people’.
This past Christmas, I survived and had a liver transplant. I knew that eventually I’d develop cirrhosis of the liver. I thought I’ll need a liver transplant it in 10 or 15 years, but then I thought I’d be 70, 75, I don’t know if I’ll go through it. Then it went south on me. I started failing quite rapidly, and the day after Christmas, the VA sent me to Vanderbilt. At Vanderbilt, they put me on the [transplant] list on the 27th, and in less than 24 hours after I got down there they had a liver for me, which is a miracle. I thank God for that and that opportunity.
Since I’ve had the liver transplant, I’ve had no issues of rejection or infection. I’ve done well with it. It worked like it belonged in me. I’m just so thankful. I’m a faith believing person. I knew it was just one of the plans God had me to go through. But I’m here. I haven’t felt this good in 20 years to be honest with you. I tell folks that all the time I have to be careful, ‘cause sometimes I don’t realize that I’m 60 years old almost, and you want to do things like you did when you was 25 and 30.
[Biggest triumph] Getting saved when I was 13. It was life changing. I remember praying as a kid, I’ve always lived mostly with my grandmother who was a prayer warrior. I was 12 years old at the time, 13 in October, and in June, I was praying and, a lot of people don’t understand, the spirit of the Lord woke me up late that night and the Lord spoke to me. I gave my heart and my soul to the Lord at 12. [He] told me about my life, and he told me about some things that were gonna happen.
He said ‘you’re going to grow up in one of the greatest times in American history’. And that was the Civil Rights movement. The Lord told me that I would have five sons… and I do have five sons. Lord told me that I would live to be a ripe old age. And so far I’m still going. There’s a couple of other things I’m waiting to see. He promised that he would bless me. So I’m here.
[Most difficult time] Raising kids. People think I’m an expert on raising kids, and I have to stop and tell them I’m still learning. The story isn’t written yet. Wait till I get a couple generations below me, and then come back and ask. I just do the best that I can.
I teach my kids the right way, and they have free will. They’ve been raised and taught that they know right from wrong, the expectation and what we expect from our children and for them to do throughout their life, and I’m pleased for the most part.
Morgan [son] is special. He reminds me of David in the Old Testament. He really loves the Lord. He’s the only one when I was sick, well his dad was dying, he’s the one that went behind my back and told my doctor he wanted to give me half his liver. My doctor’s told me and I told him the Lord told me just to hold on, that he’d take care of us. But he is truly a special child.
When I was sick, I was writing my eulogy. And I still would like to have this on my stone; there’ll probably never be a street named after me, or a plaque in my honor placed upon the sidewalk. I’m not looking to have a holiday or anything like that, but what I want people to say is that, first of all he loved God, he loved his family, he loved his wife, and he loved mankind. That’s what I want [people to say]. He was good to people. “