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Why Was Picnic Bar Renamed?

February 5, 2010

Illustration by Cindy Lin

Remember Picnic Bar at Sharples? You now know Picnic Bar as Patio Bar, which features the same menu. After getting a question from a reader about the reason for the change, the Gazette asked Linda McDougall, Director of Dining Services, about it. The change was inspired by a cook who “suggested that the word ‘picnic’ had negative connotations in slave days,” said McDougall in an email, “so we decided to change the name to patio so not to offend anyone.”

The Gazette asked Dr. Allison Dorsey, head of the Black Studies Department, to illuminate this concern. In an email, she replied, “I would encourage individuals involved with this decision to make use of the research and reference materials at their disposal. Pursuit of such inane efforts does a disservice to the memory of those who endured American slavery and the efforts of the thousands of people of African descent who struggled to secure liberty, human dignity and basic civil rights.”

The etymology of the word does not appear to relate to American slavery. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, picnic may be traced back to the old French word piquer, which means “to pick, or peck”. The Oxford English Dictionary offers an obsolete definition of the term as “a fashionable social event at which each guest contributed a share of the food;” its earliest citation is from an English author in 1748.

Yet this idea of a picnic as a social gathering around food provided the setting for some of the thousands of lynchings between 1882 and 1962, according to an essay written by Dr. David Pilgrim, the curator of the Jim Crow Museum in Michigan:

Often the lynch mob acted with haste, but on other occasions the lynching was a long-drawn out affair with speeches, food-eating, and, unfortunately, ritualistic and sadistic torture: victims were dragged behind cars, pierced with knives, burned with hot irons or blowtorches, had their fingers and toes cut off, had their eyes cut out, and were castrated — all before being hanged or burned to death. One Mississippi newspaper referred to these gruesome acts as “Negro barbecues.”

Associations with words, of course, vary from person to person according to their experiences.

Have any other questions about Sharples bar names? Shoot them to us at

Correction appended

  • M

    It still features chicken.

  • Argos

    Did the above article actually happen? I can't believe this article happened.

  • Stephanie Appiah

    Can someone illuminate how Professor Dorsey's email statement works with the quote from Linda McDougal? So Dorsey is saying that changing the name of the bar is an inane effort, that shouldn't be attempted? Or that renaming the bar doesn't change the fact that slavery happened? or both?

  • Kate

    was the person who wrote this article intoxicated?

  • Jen

    IMO, going from picnic bar -> patio bar is as Professor Dorsey stated, inane. Fried chicken, cornbread, collard greens, and (gasp) even watermelon are still served. Ergo, no change at all.

  • Allison Dorsey

    In response to the question – yes – the effort is, in my opinion, inane.
    The picnic/slavery/lynching question is a non-issue – an urban legend.
    If perhaps the person who suggested the change, the staff member who supported the suggestion and the student who asked the question had actually studied the issue of lynching, they would understand the great disrespect involved in trivializing this painful history in such a fashion. As Dr. Leon Litwack noted in his essay "Hellhounds," published as the introduction to Without Sanctuary, lynching is "part of the American past we would prefer for various reasons to forget [but] we need very much to remember. It is part of our history, part of our heritage. The lynchings and terrorism carried out in the name of racial supremacy cannot be put to rest, if only because the issues they raise about the fragility of freedom and the pervasiveness of racism in American society are still very much with us."
    This silly word association tries to link the word picnic to lynching because there were occasions at which lynchers also picnicked. This of course ignores the long, long tradition of the black church picnic, the black sorority picnic, the black fraternity picnic etc. etc. etc.
    As I reminded the Gazette reporter "Swarthmore is an institution of higher education which has libraries filled with books including dictionaries. Swarthmore College students, faculty, and staff all have access to the Oxford English Dictionary and other forms of reference materials which supply readers with information on etymology." If students are loathe to take a course while at Swarthmore to learn about America's racial history, they can at the very least, go to the library and read a book.
    Dr. Dorsey

  • Amber Wantman

    Stephanie, what I got from the quote was that renaming the bar was 1. an "inane" effort, and 2. a disservice to the memory of slavery. (Although I wouldn't mind further explanation of #2). Seriously though, why are people so obsessed with being politically correct? So many family guy, 30 rock and other skits are based around the irony that trying too hard to be P.C. is actually offensive!!

  • Amber Wantman

    …and there's that clarification now! :) Professor Dorsey makes a great point that the name change ignores all of the other connotations that "picnic" has held since its origin.

  • wait

    Put yourself in Linda's shoes. You're a boss, and an employee comes to you and expresses their discomfort at the name of something you oversee. You could go look it up to see if their concerns are based on a historical inaccuracy, or you could just change it because no one is that attached to the old name. Linda is sensitive, well-meaning person, not a historian. I think it was pretty unfair and a little condescending of Dr. Dorsey to say the staff who brought the concern ought to pick up a book — not everyone has a PhD in history, and it doesn't sound totally obvious to me that Linda and the staff should have known better. I'm not sure, but it sounds like a cursory Google search or whatever research we are obligated to conduct when deciding such things would probably reveal at least some confirmation that picnics could have offensive connotations. Evaluating history is hard, I'm not sure I could invalidate someone's concerns based on my own research . And besides, can you imagine having a boss respond to your request to change the name of something that offends you by saying, "I looked it up, you're wrong, so we're keeping the name, even though we aren't attached to it."

    In any case, I do think this wouldn't have happened if we were all less ignorant of the history of slavery, and it is a legacy of white supremacy how ignorant we are of certain histories. I do agree that silly efforts can trivialize real efforts – mostly because it makes everybody sick of what they consider PC oversensitivity – but I think Linda did what was most compassionate in this situation and, unless it is just painfully OBVIOUS that there's nothing wrong with the word "picnic" then I think the people with doctorates in history should be less quick to judge people whose jobs are to make sure their employees feel comfortable in the workplace.

  • Huzilla

    So there's a problem Picnic Bar but there isn't a problem with Asian salad?

    Doesn't Sharples know that Asian people don't ethnically eat salad?

  • Swat Expat

    I cannot believe I just read this and it actually happened at Swarthmore.

  • James Preimesberger

    Wah wah.

  • Argos

    I have no idea what "ethnically eating" means, but I don't think anything Sharples labels as generically Asian actually is.

    Peanut noodle, however, is a common food for astronauts. It comes in retort packages like MREs and probably tastes exactly like ours.

    Now seriously, although many things Sharples serves are probably in some way Culturally Offensive and/or Racist, this is in no way their fault. Puppy Club / Sausage Bar are not deliberate attempts at phallogocentrism, nor is fish taco bar a statement from the lesbian separatist community (though many of us probably wish it was). Likewise, Patio bar is not a statement from Sharples that black people sit around eating fried chicken and watermelon on their porches, or at least we all fervently hope that isn't what is implied.

    Rather, it is an excuse for Sharples to serve "Chick'n Drummies", a meat-like product so violently fried that the bones dissolve into little flaccid shards as you eat them.

    I will, however, gladly stand behind anyone who wants to say that Pho Bar is an attempt at insulting Vietnamese cuisine, although the few times I have gone to Sharples mildly hammered, I have found it quite tasty.

  • I completely agree with "wait." With all respect to Dr. Dorsey, I found both her quotation and her comment condescending both to Linda and to the cook who raised the complaint. I second everything "wait" had to say wholeheartedly and I hope we as a community can do a better job remembering that not everyone on this campus comes from the same place.

  • KMA

    I second what "wait" and "–" said.

  • Andy Reid

    Yeah, I'd like to third (or fourth?) everything "wait" said as being awesome and on target. The change was well-meaning and that's what really matters.

  • Wow

    I'm astounded at the condescending nature of Dr. Dorsey's remark, especially this comment: "If students are loathe to take a course while at Swarthmore to learn about America's racial history, they can at the very least, go to the library and read a book." Students were not the ones who suggested the name change– it was a staff member. Student (reporters) consulted an expert on the matter who is part of the community because it makes for a better article– not because they are "loathe" to take courses on racial history or to pick up a book.

    Really, I'm just astonished.

  • The Destroyer

    It seems that Dr. Dorsey is another professor who thinks her subject is more important than any other.

    My apologies that I didn't read a book on lynching just because I didn't know why the name was changed to patio bar. I bet there's a LOT of people here who don't know about any relationship between lynching and picnics. Where we supposed to have started?

  • Lauren Adderley

    Many of you miss the point. There is no relationship between the etymology of the word "picnic" and the act of lynching. The word predates Jim Crow by like a couple of hundred years. I notice that many of you are super offended by Dr. Dorsey's comments but look here – she's pointing out the fact that there are plenty of people who want to go around claiming racism when it's not there. Properly educating yourself would help ease the anxiety that comes from hearing "picnic" and imagining "lynching" when the connection does not exist.

    Personally, this is all just silly for a few reasons. "wait" applauds Ms. McDougall for her compassion. And it was very good of her to take her employee's concerns to heart but she should let her mind be her guide and that's what most bosses do. I have had jobs and have a job where I come up with ideas but when they're no good, they're no good – whether it's a personal thing or not. I'm a black student and I'm from the south. It just so happens that I've had plenty of racist experiences and I've never even heard of the association between the word picnic and the act of lynching. Sure, people ate at lynchings but that doesn't make me never want to eat again. It does, however, make me understand that there are real conversations to be had about race.

    Ultimately, this article fails to get at these real conversations. We're sitting around picking apart Dr. Dorsey about her comments but that doesn't really address the burden of racism. And to what I've read y'all are most offended by how she said it than what she said because she's only saying that people should not go around claiming racism out of ignorance. At Swarthmore, where we value knowledge and appropriate forums, we should be thinking more constructively about the lack that she points out instead of anonymously licking our wounds on the DG.

    Of course, few of you will raise this topic in class. Few of you will have this discussion with Dr. Dorsey. Does that add another flaw on top of lack of knowledge? You decide.

    In the mean time, let's redirect our focus to acts of racism that truly impact people's lives. A very knowledgeable professor on campus told me about a young black man who was beaten up in Pittsburgh over Winter Break. He was well dressed, black, and coming out of his mother's house. The cops assumed he was a drug dealer, being so well dressed – an urban legend. And beat him – an urban fact.

    Now. If you want to start a topic on lynching, let's begin with the racially motivated violence that happened a little over a month ago, which is somehow ok'd and sanctioned by society. And let's talk about how ignorance comes to play in the assumption of the cops, just for kicks, and how even here at Swarthmore may fall into the same trap when we fail to take into account the entire picture and go haywire over assumptions rooted in urban legends.

  • Peter ’11

    Granted the whole issue is inconsequential, but Dr. Dorsey was asked for her expert opinion on an historical matter, and her response was that the grounds of this name change were based on completely ahistorical misinformation. I've actually heard this urban legend and googled it, as I do whenever I hear stories that sound a little fishy to me (aka all the time). I don't strongly fault any of the people working for dining services, but I respect Dr. Dorsey's attempt to ensure that, when we're forming beliefs and actions based upon our sense of history, that this "sense" has some rational grounding and we're not just dicking about. That, to me, is one of the major reasons we have historians in the first place.

  • Timothy Burke

    I also was asked by the author of this story about the name change.

    My basic response was the same as Professor Dorsey's. The word picnic's etymology is, as a matter of historical fact, not at all related to slavery or race. It didn't take long with a bit of Google-fu to verify that this is the case, and to learn something about the origins of the rumor to the contrary.

    What I suggested to Ramya Gopal is that there's some very good scholarship available on folklore and rumor in general and in the work of Patricia Turner, on rumor in African-American communities in specific. It is perfectly possible to have a very sympathetic reading of why and how people come to believe things which are not true and yet not be indifferent (as some commenters here seem to be) to what is or is not true.

    The online essay by the curator of the Jim Crow Museum makes exactly this point. It does not, as the story above suggests, disagree with or offer a counterpoint to Professor Dorsey's argument. It starts by insisting just as strenuously that the rumored etymology of "picnic" is completely incorrect. David Pilgrim also offers an interpretation of how and why the rumor gained credibility.


    As a matter of institutional policy, are some of you seriously suggesting that any staff member who has a belief about the negative meaning or connotations of a word or practice on the campus should, as a matter of sensitive and sympathetic management, be accommodated, whether or not that belief is accurate? If a staff member comes to believe that "Trotter Hall" is an indirectly anti-Semitic reference to pigs and kosher dietary restrictions, should the college change the name?

    We live in a community whose central purpose is knowledge and teaching. I'm not sure why some of you think it would be a terrible burden for a supervisor to make a quick call across campus to one of a number of faculty who could confirm or correct a belief of a staff member before taking actions premised on that belief. Arguing that whatever someone believes, they ought to be sensitively accommodated in that belief strikes me as more condescending by far than to have a common expectation for truth and knowledge that holds for the whole of the institution.

  • Wow

    Professor Burke, if a student reporter was to come to you with a question, deciding that you're probably a far better source than most things he or she could Google, would you tell her that if she was "loathe to take a course on racial history" at the very least she could try "picking up a book" ?

    I don't think that the problem is with what Dr. Dorsey is saying– she's absolutely right that these sort of things do trivialize real instances of racism. But was there a more sensitive way she could have conveyed that? If Dr. Dorsey would have had no problem saying something like that to the staff member who felt uncomfortable with the name in the first place, I'm just really taken aback at the lack of compassion.

  • wait

    Wow: To be fair, I was the one who put the "pick up a book" words in Dr. Dorsey's mouth — what she wrote was "read a book." I embellished because what I read in her comments was condescension, and that’s why I characterized her comments that way.

    I should clarify my stance, which I may have muddied up by pointing out that Linda is just trying to be compassionate and accommodating: I actually largely agree with what Dr. Dorsey wrote, including that inane efforts trivialize real efforts, and I actually largely disagree with what Andy Reid wrote, which is that what really matters is good intentions.

    What I should have said is that Linda and Dr. Dorsey have different jobs: Dr. Dorsey’s involves studying history and making use of resources such as dictionaries and books. Linda has different priorities: making sure everything in Dining Services runs smoothly and all her employees feel comfortable in the workplace (as well as other stuff, but I’m summarizing). The historian said that the cook and Linda should have done their research, which she characterized as very trivial (“go to the library and read a book”). I assumed that it wasn’t that easy, and with that assumption voiced my opinion that evaluating history is complicated and involves a lot of training, so historians shouldn’t condescend to people who have different priorities.

    I tried to make this point before, but I didn’t do a great job: a lot of my opinion on the matter depends on how easily debunked the picnic rumor is: if a quick Google search shows that it’s totally false (as Prof Burke and Peter ’11 suggest), then Dr. Dorsey wasn’t so out of line for characterizing the research as trivial. Her tone still bothers me, but I think she was completely in the right for correcting the inaccuracy and pointing out that the change was superficial anyway.

    Professor Burke, you make some good points, especially about how it’s condescending to accommodate people’s erroneous beliefs because we think they don’t (er, shouldn’t have to) know any better. One thing I’d like to point out, though, is that students, staff, supervisors, and whoever else might be less likely to make that call across campus to faculty experts if they believe they will get a response basically saying, “you’re ignorant, your question is so silly it’s offensive to those of us who really know history, go read a book.”

  • Allison Dorsey

    In the hope that the third time will indeed be the charm, a few points of clarification.
    First – No staff person contacted me to ask a question about the urban legend concerning the word picnic. Indeed I’ve had no conversation with any members of the staff on this matter. Despite the ease with which folks too timid to identify themselves but happy to assault my character suggest I was being condescending to a staff member – had a staff member asked me in person or in print about the picnic story, I, like Dr. Burke would have directed them to Patricia Turner’s book I heard it through the grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture and/or to several academic sites which debunk this and other urban legends.
    Second – my admittedly rather acerbic reaction to the Swarthmore College student, a soon to be graduating senior, who emailed me and asked me to “tell me more about the charged history of this word or comment on this change” was rooted in my amazement that said student was writing me to ask about an urban legend that is at least a decade old. An urban legend that has been debunked time and time again – even in a Julie Dash film, Love Song, made in 2000.
    Third – should readers be willing to take the time to go back and read my actual comments they will note that my second response was to a question seeking clarification about my point of view. I ended that response with these words “If students (not staff, not supervisors, not administrators but students who are here to learn) are loathe to take a course while at Swarthmore to learn about America’s racial history, they can at the very least, go to the library and read a book. “ I believe reading is essential to gaining knowledge and therefore understanding. For the record, I reject, whole-heartedly, the sense that working class people are somehow unable to access knowledge by reading and frankly am stunned that readers of this forum are so condescending as to think that only people with Ph.Ds can master understanding.
    Fourth – Dr. Bruce Dorsey and Dr. Marge Murphy both teach courses in which students could learn the racial history of America among other things. I also teach such courses. Lastly, all faculty believe their field of expertise is important, not more important than any other, but important.
    I am happy to speak with individuals who identify themselves should any students or staff members have any further questions.
    Dr. Dorsey

  • Peter ’11

    I, for one, heard that "gullible" was not in the dictionary.

    I agree with "Wow" that the author of this article was asking an authoritative source because it makes the article more interesting (clearly, look at the comments!) but, in general if you're doing journalism, it's best to have a good grasp of the topic BEFORE asking people questions so they'll think you're actually worth talking to. I think in this case not doing that researched actually biased the tone of the response.

    Oh, and, viola:

    The best lesson to get out of this is to google everything. You very quickly develop a sense for the sorts of things people say that probably have no grounding in reality. Snopes is always a good source.

    On the other hand, it's super old-fashioned to ONLY recommend books. If I checked out a book for every little thing that I was curious about, I would either be swimming in a mountain of books or I would stop being curious about so many things. Books are for when there's a topic that you want to know more about than a website can tell you but, alas, they haven't made a movie about it yet.

  • Peter ’11

    Also, total non sequitur but that google link that I just pasted gave you a remarkable amount of information about me.

  • Matt Stafford

    What does inane mean?

  • Matt Stafford

    Wow! I have found such happiness after reading this that I have grown to greatly appreciate this community of teaching truth and knowledge that I will now donate my million dollar salary I am receiving to this excellent school!

    In fact, I will create a foundation to further donate billions of dollars to promote sitting around and finding truth rather than helping the billions of people starving across the world.

    P.S. No wonder students at state schools care more about football and parties than "teaching truth and knowledge".

  • ?

    Mr. Stafford, please.

  • ——

    No one asked my opinion, and I do not want to be didactic, but let's think twice before slandering a person in order to stand up for abstract concepts that will likely remain in the Swat bubble.

  • j

    Linda McDougall didn't post some pamphlet on lynching, she just changed the name (a really stupid name) of a SHARPLES BAR. Burke, did you really read what was written, either in this article (suggested that the word ‘picnic’ had negative connotations in slave days–nothing about word origins) or Mr. Pilgrim's (The word picnic did not begin with the lynching of black Americans; however, the lynching of blacks often occurred in picnic-like settings.) The point was NEVER about the etymology of a word (an inane topic indeed) but about its usage through American history. This was not so simple a subject to be cleared up with a google search, and the bottom line was an employee was uncomfortable–whether or not their discomfort was rigorously historically backed up seems a tad irrelevant. Oh, and I can't IMAGINE how anyone reading this article has any urge to take a class with Professor Doctor Arbiter-of-Knowledge Dorsey.

  • k

    j, I don't think your hateful comments have a place anywhere.

    You are clearly not on the level of the conversation being had.

  • Khan

    While we're at it, I must strenuously object to the naming of Asian bar. It implies a homogeneity among the Asian community that is simply offensive and untrue. I am surprised that in this supposedly "enlightened" time we still cling to the Orientalist myth of a broad and uniform "East." Perhaps we should rename it "China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Mongolia Bar."

  • Yves

    … wait, is "j" hateful because… because he's making a… a point you don't like? uh uh uh

    Or, because he's disrespecting a professor who was, in turn, disrespectful?

    uh uh uh

    unless yr bein' ironicz, in which case you win the whole thing, man

  • Argos

    Guys seriously, it's just food. Calm the hell down.
    Sharples is a goddamn dining hall. It isn't run by etymologists or self-oppressing PC junkies, nor is it run by Nazis.

    Prof. Whatsherface is clearly a jackass whom everyone should have ignored, as she cannot possibly have a decent reason to freak out like this.

    Now, if the names of the foods written on the bar had been accompanied by little drawings of characters in blackface wearing sunhats, or had been titled "Fried Chick'n? In MY Slave Plantation? It's More Likely Than You Think!"…then we'd have a problem.

    But for now, stop erotically stimulating each other's liberal-minded egos and eat the goddamn watermelon.

  • Student

    I think the great thing is that Prof. Whatsherface has specifically freaked out about the freaking out, which she found to be imprudent.

    Professors with various faces, know this: your job title and rhetorical skills may be awesome, but leave internet fights to the youth. They're just too dumb to win.

  • Deivid Rojas


    Your attitude and insults are completely disrespectful and unnecessary.

    This should be a space where anyone can express their opinion without being attacked.

    You could have stated your point without being so rude.

    Deivid Rojas

  • Peter ’11

    I love it so, so much when these comments threads keep going.

    @ Matt Stafford:

    "What does inane mean?"

    Probably something racist.

    "In fact, I will create a foundation to further donate billions of dollars to promote sitting around and finding truth rather than helping the billions of people starving across the world."

    No point putting lots of money into finding truth (aka, having universities), clearly when you put it like that helping people is better! So please wire the money directly to me and I will forward it on to all of the people starving on the island of Brian (pronounced Bree-Yon) in the land of Dunkleman. Don't bother googling it, I'll work out all the specifics and, anyway, it's the thought that counts, right?

  • Sebastian Flight ’36

    A general thought:

    Reading these comments has, in a sense, continued the process of shattering the confidence that I have in Swarthmore students and faculty to hold a reasonable, respectful conversation on a charged topic.

    I am dumbfounded by the level of disrespect shown towards other community members by students and faculty alike.

    I am particularly confused as to how it is possible to build a community focused on learning when we have professors that have an "acerbic reaction" to legitimate questions. If we told students to stop asking about "urban legend[s]" including those that are "a decade old," we'd have dead silence in most classrooms. If you can learn everything you need to in a book or on the internet, why do we need paid academics to teach?

    How do we solve anything when we are so focused on pointing fingers and living contra mundum?

  • Amen


  • cisterna sinica

    I think the whole discussion (which has gotten WAAAY out of hand, btw) went awry because people were coming from completely different points of (mis)understanding. To the dining services staff and the student who wrote the article, the concern for the word "picnic" was prompted by what they thought were perceived associations between eating and lynching. It's hard to argue against such associations because, as the article writer noted, it "varys from person to person". So, I can see how the writer considered it completely legitimate to consult Prof. Dorsey on this matter (i.e., the question is "what is the historical association and how deep does it run."). The writer, in essence, didn't think that he/she was asking a question about etymology.
    To Prof Dorsey, however, the concern about the word picnic is inane because she knew that it is based off of an urban legend regarding etymology. In fact, this urban legend can become very offensive, b/c as quoted on the snopes page, "These types of hoaxes only serve to make Black people look stupid and by no means is an advancement in education". So, I can totally see why she responded the way she did–she thought she was addressing the resurgence of a truly offensive urban legend. I'm not sure that she would have responded in the same way if she knew that the student didn't know about this urban legend at all.

  • 09

    i love this page. this is essentially a collage of all different types of swatties and mashed together with food porn.

  • huh

    Serious question… why would the "picnic" urban legend make black people look stupid?

  • History 7B

    Well! In Dr. Dorsey's class we learned that during that certain urban legends were spawned to poke fun at black people's perceived ignorance of history and willingness to believe anything. It also makes fun of racial hysteria, i.e. "Black people are always crying racism."

    Hostility toward black people is deeply rooted in American culture. And this hatred has manifested itself in several ways — one of which is by creating urban legends that get spread and make people look ignorant for believing.

    People also sent post cards of lynchings and many (maybe most?) of the photograph evidence that remains of lynching are from such post cards. This week, in Dr. Dorsey's class, we learned that this was absolutely true. This should not be taken as an advocation against sending post cards.


  • Anonymous

    Sebastian, isn't your last name spelled Flyte? You should have conferred with Aloysius.

  • huh

    'Kay, Thanks for the clarification.

  • a concerned student of color

    I think it should be named black person bar. I mean there is thai bar after all….

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