The following is a short excerpt from a Foodways Texas oral history project recounting the life of Houston barbecue legend, Joe Burney.
My father, Joe Burney was born March 5, 1903 in Baldwin, Louisiana. He moved to Houston and got a job “in service” which meant working as a driver, porter, manservant in those days. He worked for a man named Bob Smith. The Third Ward was a booming African-American business district in the late 1940s. My mom and dad saved their money and bought the Avalon BBQ in the 2700 block of Dowling–they owned it with two other black barbecue men, Oscar Lott and Bill Williams. The small BBQ joint was famous for ribs and links and my dad worked hard to build up a good reputation. He learned to cook juicy links from Matt Garner, one of the old-timers around here.
My dad used to drive around and give away barbecue to old folks who couldn’t get out of the house. When the Avalon burned down, he used the insurance money to build Burney’s BBQ on Holman—it became an iconic Houston African-American BBQ spot in the late 1940s. Unkie Lott started his own place called Lott’s Barbecue on Holman. Bill Williams opened another place on Scott. My mother and father cooked in the evening and worked their regular jobs during the day. The day crew sold the barbecue.
My father did very well, he bought some show horses and he was very proud of them. There was a group of black businessmen that supported each other. They formed a club called the El Dorado Social Club. It became the center of the social scene in the Third Ward. It’s still around today.
My father died October 12, 1958. I was 6 when my dad died. My mom ran the barbecue joint for a year, then sold Burney’s to Harry Green-my dad taught Harry Green to cook at Burney’s. I got a job as at Lott’s Barbecue when I was old enough to work. That’s where I met my husband Waymon Mayberry; he worked there too. I married a barbecue man, of course.
Karen’s son Warren Mayberry, who works in public affairs in Austin, helped make the film titled Barbecue: A Texas Love Story narrated by Ann Richards. The movie debuted at the South by Southwest film festival in 2003.