African-American tea rooms

When I wrote my book about the history of tea rooms, Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn, I knew very little about tea rooms run by and for African-Americans. There were few historical sources available on the internet then and even a research trip to Chicago turned up nothing. Since then I’ve discovered that there were many of these tea rooms and that they shared numerous characteristics with tea rooms run by and for whites, yet were also different in significant ways.

It’s easy to see why black women, and men, wanted to create their own tea rooms. For one thing, even in states where Jim Crow policies were not enacted into law it was common for white-run tea rooms and restaurants to engage in racial discrimination. Secondly, starting a business represented the fulfillment of the idea of self-help for blacks as advanced by leaders. Perhaps that was what inspired Mittie Burgess, a Georgia-born caterer in her late 30s, to name her newly opened 1916 place in Lexington KY the Booker T. Washington Tea Room. Although Mittie’s tea room was in the South, quite a few of the proprietors I’ve been able to trace were part of the 20th-century’s Great Migration of Southern blacks to Northern cities.

Like white tea room proprietors, blacks who took up this business tended overall to be of higher social status than the average restaurant owner, white or black. Proprietors I’ve come across included a woman who was a former pharmacist and a man who had been a college professor. Some of the more elite women who operated tea rooms were married to life insurance executives, ministers, doctors, and successful business men. Others were wives of porters, cabbies, and chauffeurs but still seemed to have achieved standing in their communities.

Mayme Clinkscale (above postcard) was prominent as a Chicago business woman, civic leader, and figure in black society. She was a graduate of Wilberforce University and the Bryant-Stratton Business College, and not only ran the Ideal Tea Room but also a successful State Street millinery business called the Style Shop. Her advertisement for the Ideal Tea Room opening in 1922 said it was designed for club, society, and lodge banquets, and furnished with “the latest and best in silverware, linen, and glassware.”

A number of tea rooms were clearly meant for the black upper crust. Common phrases in advertisements and news stories include “exclusive,” “the elite of the city are found [here],” or “where the wealthier class of colored people dine.” Mentions of table appointments and decor often include silver bud vases, exotic themes, and carefully coordinated color schemes. Menus offered fried chicken and corn sticks as well as steaks and salads, but were less likely to list rural Southern favorites such as pigs’ feet or greens.

Tea rooms in African-American communities in the teens, 20s, and 30s, frequently hosted important social events. Community leaders hailed them as badly needed establishments. Groups such as the NAACP Women’s Auxiliary, black sports writers, and the Negro Business League held luncheons and dinners at tea rooms. Red Caps from Grand Central and Penn Station hosted their peers at the Gilt Edge Tea Room during a national convention in NYC. Newspaper people from the black newspaper The Amsterdam News celebrated a colleague’s college graduation at Harlem’s Jack and Jill Tea Room in 1928. They certainly received a warmer welcome than had Charlotte Bass, black publisher of the California Eagle, when she and several of her guests were refused service at the Old Adobe in Ventura CA.

Since they were small and did not make money from alcoholic beverages (not legally anyway, during Prohibition) all tea rooms were hard to operate profitably. Yet I sense that owners of Afro-American tea rooms had to work even harder than whites to succeed. They seem to have been open much longer hours, covering meals that ran from breakfast until late into the night. They were also more likely than white tea rooms to offer entertainment such as music and dancing. Many took in table boarders, regular patrons who contracted to eat their meals there for a week or month at a time.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

19 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

19 responses to “African-American tea rooms

  1. Renee

    Thank you for publishing this article. I teach tea etiquette and I was looking for information on African American tea rooms. My grandmom and aunties use to give afternoon teas when I was a little girl. I am trying to find pictures for my presentations.

  2. Anonymous

    Interested

    In rural areas, didn’t grandmothers sponsor tea time with their fellow sisters in christ in their homes? I don’t think they had tea rooms in virginia or west virginia.

    • I’m sure you are right that women in rural areas gave teas in their homes. I know there were white tea rooms in those states but I’d guess they were not welcoming to Afro-American patrons, plus they were not usually in rural areas. So far, at least, I haven’t discovered any A-A tea rooms in VA or WV.

  3. jo

    Inspired by your post and would like to include a link to this article in my post.

  4. Anonymous

    This is the first, and probably last, time that I will add a comment to a blog; however, there is an up and coming African American tea room in Harlem, NY called CuriosiTeas and the owner is a beautiful, kind soul.

  5. Tresa Carter

    Jan, I Love the information. I am studying tea, working on certification through the Specialty Tea Institute in New York and planning on opening a tearoom in Michigan. Trying to find information on the black experience and tea is difficult. May I please quote your blog in my “tea talks?”
    Thank you, Tresa

  6. This was very nice to read as I am a black woman and own a tea room in Decatur, Georgia. I hope you don’t mind that I did share this posting as well via my facebook. Again thank you for sharing the history.

  7. tanya

    Wonderful information… I had no idea African American tea rooms ever existed! Very inspiring, my friends are going to “recreate” one in honor of Black history month! I tried to find more information but couldn’t find any. Thanks!!
    Tanya

  8. Judy

    Happy holidays!
    Love this article…question-did you find any african american tea rooms in the District of Columbia?

  9. Mary Ann

    I wonder if Harlem’s Jack and Jill Tea Room, noted above, is connected in any way with the organization “Jack and Jill,” a wellknown organization for middle-class black families and their children. It is at least interesting that a tea room and an organization, both connected to black elites, would share this rather ideosyncratic name. Anyone know anything about this?

  10. Jan,

    I love your blog! I have the link on my own blog – “My Nineteenth Life” – about 19thc American life.

    Once I’m done with my current 19thc criminals series, I wanted to do entertainment, restaurants and shopping. Would you mind if I use one of your posts on my blog? You would get all the credit, of course! Let me know if that’s okay, and I’ll give you a heads-up when I would be doing it.

    Thanks,
    Kathy

  11. Dawn

    Wonderful article. Glad to have the information. Of course, delightfully written too!

  12. Pingback: African-American tea rooms | Restaurant-ing through history | The African American Black Blog Directory

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