It’s Labor Day weekend, and for many Southerners that means one thing: barbecue. The association between pit-cooked meat and the holiday celebration goes way back—all the way back to the beginning, in fact.
As the name suggests, Labor Day emerged from the 19th century labor movement. Unions and other labor organizations staged the first celebrations and gatherings in the 1880s, and it was made a Federal holiday in 1894. In the early days, Labor Day celebrations were specifically linked to unionism, and they usually included massive parades with music, pro-labor banners, and lots of American flags and other patriotic symbols, too.
The labor movement was not as strong in the South as in the northeast and midwest, but there were still plenty of Labor Day celebrations early on in the region, and barbecue played a prominent role from the very beginning. In 1895, for instance, “representatives of every class of organized labor” gathered in Atlanta for the city’s first large-scale Labor Day celebration. 1,500 workers marched in a parade, cheered on by thousands of spectators, and then proceeded to Lakewood Park where they were treated to “a big barbecue dinner given by the Lakewood Park management.”
1901 marked the first official recognition of Labor Day in North Carolina, and its celebration included barbecue, too. In Raleigh, the city’s union members and their guests gathered at the State Fairgrounds for music, speeches, and a baseball game between the printers and the pressmen-binders unions. It closed with a feast, and the Raleigh News & Observer noted that, “The tables were laden with Brunswick stew, barbecue, salads, breads, and all the little side dishes that tickle the palate.”
Over time, Labor Day became a more general public holiday dedicated to leisure, and in many parts of the South barbecue cooks took advantage of the opportunity to earn a little money. In Columbia, South Carolina, for instance, a half dozen barbecue stands advertised their wares in newspaper ads each Labor Day during the 1920s and 1930s. As E. B. Lever’s advertisements show, the meat was often sold by the bucketful, with the customers bringing their own buckets to the barbecue stand to be filled. Rival pitmaster S. E. Perry sold his “Bucket Barbecue” for 60 cents a pound and hash at 30 cents. Some of these holiday barbecue stands, like E. B. Lever’s, evolved into permanent barbecue restaurants.
During the 1950s, the AFL and CIO still hosted massive barbecues on Labor Day. In 1955, for example, the combined organizations hosted a Labor Day rally at Denison Dam that drew union members from all over the state of Texas and was capped by a keynote address by Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Sam Rayburn. By this time, however, the Labor Day barbecue had lost many of its connotations of unionism and was treated more as a long weekend of relaxation, and the “barbecue” gradually shifted from the pit-cooked to the backyard variety.
In 1956, the Dallas Morning News reported that members of the city’s country clubs were “preparing for a gala and final summer fling over Labor Day weekend,” with events including dances, swim meets, and barbecues. Newspapers and magazines in the 1950s and 1960s were filled with advertisements for charcoal, grills, and meat for Labor Day barbecues, and cooking out in the backyard has been an inseparable part of the Labor Day holiday ever since.
So, whether you’re assembling a pit to roast a whole hog or picking up an aluminum tray of pulled pork from your local barbecue joint—or, heck, even if you’re just grilling some burgers out on the back porch this holiday weekend—you’re taking part in a long and storied Southern tradition.