John Connolly and Joe MalinconicoNorthJersey.com and Paterson Press
The Silk City has lost an icon.
Civil rights activist Russell Graddy, who owned Mr. G’s diner at 10th Avenue and East 18th Street in Paterson, has died at age 90. He “succumbed to a history of coronary ailments,” his daughter Sharon posted on Facebook, thanking the community for its prayers and support.
“Paterson has lost a legend. Russell Graddy was a champion for civil rights and a successful businessman,” Mayor Andre Sayegh posted on Facebook.
“All our streets are mourning,” Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-Paterson, said in a statement. “For his whole life, Russell was a trailblazer and looked out for community first and always. Russell’s positive energy to make Paterson better was bottomless. We all loved him. We will all miss him.”
In 2019, the city named a two-block stretch of 10th Avenue “Mr. Russell ‘G’ Graddy Way.”
Graddy reluctantly accepted the honor, telling Paterson Press that he figured it would be an honor to have a street named after him in a city that also has thoroughfares honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.
Graddy said he had been in Washington, D.C., for King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, preparing food for the rally’s organizers. He also was part of the Paterson group that hosted King’s visit to the Silk City in 1968, just days before the civil rights leader was assassinated. Graddy said King told him about his plans to go to Memphis — where he ended up being killed — to advocate for sanitation workers on strike in the southern city.
State assemblyman Benjie Wimberly posted on Facebook: “Mr. G is a Paterson legend that has made his mark as a civil rights leader, businessman, community organizer, mentor and friend. … Thank you for your positive impact in Paterson and beyond!”
Gov. Phil Murphy tweeted Tuesday: “Tammy and I are deeply saddened by the passing of Russell Graddy, a civil rights activist, community leader, and owner of the iconic Mr. G’s restaurant in Paterson. May his legacy live on.”
Over the years, Graddy said he has broken various racial barriers in Paterson, becoming the first African America to own a home in one Eastside neighborhood, the first African American president of the local Chamber of Commerce, the first African American to gain membership in the Hamilton Club, and the city’s first African American Rotarian.
Graddy was born in the small Georgia town of Wrightsville, where his parents were sharecroppers in the Jim Crow segregation days of the South. He said he recalls picking cotton as a young boy. Graddy decided to leave Georgia when he was a teenager after he was attacked by a white man’s dog.
His first trips north were to the farms around Vineland, where he picked tomatoes and asparagus. Eventually, he settled in Paterson in the 1960s.
Through the 1980s, Graddy owned a succession of businesses in Paterson, including Graddy’s BBQ Pit and Restaurant, Graddy’s Wines, Liquors and Deli, and the Lafayette Club.
Then for almost 20 years, Graddy lived in the Atlantic City area, where he owned a restaurant in that city’s bus terminal. Graddy left Atlantic City in 2004 amid a lease dispute with NJ Transit.
Graddy bought the Paterson diner about 14 years ago. He said the place needed extensive repairs, but he kept in place the original tile floors and walls, as well as the counters and stools, all of which give Mr. G’s the atmosphere of a classic New Jersey diner.
“This is the kind of place I should own,” Graddy told Paterson Press in 2019. “It ain’t high society and it ain’t low. Everybody can stop in here — the politicians, the preachers, the families.”
Pascrell said Monday that “you could get no better pulse for Paterson than over a cup of coffee at his restaurant.”