Birmingham’s First Black McDonald’s Owner Once Had a Job Making $5/Hour

Larry Thornton, first Black McDonald's owner in Birmingham, Alabama

Larry Thornton, a self-made entrepreneur, opened the first Black-owned McDonald's franchise in Birmingham, Alabama in 1992. As a child growing up, however, he says he couldn't have imagined himself being as successful as he is now. He was once a Coca-Cola signage painter making just $5 per hour.
As a child, Thornton experienced discrimination as one of the few Black boys at a predominantly white school. He wasn't treated fairly, and therefore struggled academically.

Then he found inspiration from an unlikely ally, a World War II veteran and English teacher known as Miss Nichols who was avoided by all students at school. He described her as a tough, but kind and fair woman. When he and his dad were doing yard work for their neighbors, including Miss Nichols, she would sometimes invite him inside her home for some conversation.

"She said to me, 'I think you ought to go to college,'" Thornton recalled in an interview with Atlanta Black Star. "That's the first time that college ever entered my mind."

Trusting the words of Miss Nichols, he enrolled at Alexander City State Junior College and continued to earn a Bachelors of Science Degree in Fine Arts at Alabama State University.

Thornton worked as an art teacher at a high school before doing freelance painting jobs and landing a job painting signs for Coca-Cola in 1979. He got promoted as a department manager within just four months, but he couldn't stop thinking about his desire to start his own company.

After a conversation with Herman Petty, the first-ever Black owner of a McDonald's franchise which opened in 1968, Thornton was motivated to open his own McDonald's franchise. He used the money he earned from years of work with Coca-Cola and opened his first McDonald's in 1992.

Even as an entrepreneur, he had to overcome discrimination. White owners of McDonald's franchises didn't believe in him when he opened his own franchise. He remembered they even said on his opening day, "We'll own this in six months."

Thornton proved them all wrong. With his dedication to hard work, his franchise became a great success. He even started Thornton Enterprises in 1992 and opened five more locations under its umbrella. He handed over one of it to his son, making him and his son the only black owners of McDonald's in Birmingham.
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