It’s so hard to find anything about the history of Afro-American women in restaurants that I decided to go ahead with a sketchy story rather than none at all. As far as the “historical record” goes, you’d be tempted to think that they had no place in restaurants. That’s certainly false, but they were frequently out of sight. The notice placed by John Kirk in a New York City paper sums up black women’s primary role in public eating places: as cooks and kitchen helpers. Kirk advertised in 1781, “Wanted to hire an active Negro Wench, used to a kitchen, with a good character.”
In his 1899 classic The Philadelphia Negro, W. E. B. Du Bois praised black men for their prominent place in the city’s catering business, writing of “self-reliant, original business men, who amassed fortunes for themselves and won general respect for their people.” He mentioned no women, yet there is reason to think that black women not only did much of the cooking in both black and white restaurants but ran many of the eating places in black communities too. They rarely made fortunes but surely must have commanded respect.
Although black women are nearly invisible in 19th-century documents, we see glimpses of them near its end. Several women ran Denver restaurants in the 1880s and 1890s, including Miss Jane Outland in the 1880s and at least six others in the 1890s, including Tennessee-born Callie Fugett who kept a restaurant on Market Street. In Washington D.C. in the late 1890s a former slave known as Madame Early provided chicken dinners in a cabin called the Café Du Chat Noir. I wonder if she was Haitian.
The first meeting of Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League in 1901 reported that women ran restaurants in Denver as well as Jacksonville and Tampa FL, including two in Tampa that were “among the best in the city.” A few years later, according to a directory of Afro-American businesses in Memphis, about half of the restaurants listed were run by women. Miss Lucy Hughes (pictured) ran the Climax Café and Ice Cream Parlor on N. Main where she sold “hot and cold lunches at all hours,” while residing with her mother, son, brother, and one male lodger who worked as a kitchen helper.
Overall, black women had even fewer employment opportunities than black men. The Department of Interior reported that in 1910 almost half of the 2 million employed black women were farm laborers. Private laundresses came next in the list, followed by cooks in private homes, hotels, and other settings. Only 2,734 women ran restaurants, probably humble eateries such as the one pictured here, one of four run by black business women in Gainesville GA ca. 1913.
After World War I things began to change in big cities. Middle-class black women opened fashionable tea rooms where they provided dainty lunches and hosted afternoon card parties. Chicago’s 1923 blue book of Afro-American society lists a number of these, such as Mrs. E. H. Hord’s Delmonico Tea Room on Prairie Avenue. In Pittsburgh, Mrs. A. E. Bush, a former pharmacy manager and wife of a prominent life insurance executive, opened the Melrose Tea Room which she decorated in old rose and blue. I have found no record of how black tea room operators dressed their black servers but I strenuously doubt they put them in mammy costumes as did so many white restaurateurs of the 20th century.
After the 1960s some black women who ran or cooked in restaurants acquired celebrity status. After her divorce, Helen Maybell opened the Soul Queen Café on Chicago’s near south side. In the 1970s the statuesque Helen (pictured), who was active in the NAACP and loved elegant gowns and furs, opened a second restaurant in which she hosted fashion shows. Leah Chase (who co-owned and cooked at Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans) and Edna Lewis (who promoted Southern cooking, authored cookbooks, and cooked for Café Nicholson in Manhattan, Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn, and others) became venerated figures in their lifetimes.
© Jan Whitaker, 2010