In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou wrote:
People in Stamps used to say that the whites in our town were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn’t buy vanilla ice cream. Except on July Fourth. Other days he had to be satisfied with chocolate.
Some people—including a writer for the Guardian newspaper—think Angelou was sharing a fact. They misunderstand what’s meant by “used to say”—it was a grim joke: “How racist were the people in Stamps? They were so racist a Negro could only buy vanilla ice cream on the fourth of July.”
In the Jim Crow South, some white businesses refused to serve black people and most had special conditions for black customers: order at the back door, eat in the back yard, use the “colored” wash room, watch movies in the balcony, etc.
But there’s no evidence vanilla ice cream was forbidden to anyone. White business people were business people first. They sold white products like milk and bread and ice cream to black people because black people’s money was green.
Folklore is never about what’s historically true. It’s about what’s emotionally true, so black people joked that a Negro couldn’t even buy vanilla ice cream where they grew up. Humor has always been a survival tactic for people in hard times.
Researching this brought up an interesting fact: In 1894, the New York Times mistakenly credited a black man with inventing ice cream:
THE ORIGIN OF ICE CREAM: The man who invented ice cream was a Negro by the name of Jackson, and in the early part of the present century kept a small confectionery store. Cold custards, which were cooled after being made by setting them on a cake of ice, were very fashionable, and Jackson conceived the idea of freezing them, which he did by placing the ingredients in a tin bucket and completely covered with ice. Each bucket contained a quart, and was sold for $1. It immediately became popular, and the inventor soon enlarged his store, and when he died left a considerable fortune A good many tried to follow his example, and ice cream was hawked about the streets, being wheeled along very much as the hokey-pokey carts are now, but none of them succeeded in obtaining the flavor that Jackson had in his product.- New York Times, March 11, 1894 (p. 18)
Ice cream is, of course, much older than the possibly mythical Mr. Jackson. The first historical appearance of ice cream was around 500 BC in Iran.