Tag Archives: black restaurateurs

In the kitchen with Mme Early: black women in restaurants

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


Filed under proprietors & careers, women

Taste of a decade: restaurants, 1810-1820

oysters090The nation has begun to grow westward though settlement is still mostly along the coast. Seven cities exceed 10,000 in population in 1810, rising to eight over the decade. In the largest city, NY (152,056 in 1820), commerce is on the rise, yet by mid-decade there are only eight hotels and five banks. Pigs run free in the streets. The defeat of Britain in the War of 1812-1815 does not cause an immediate end to British influence on public eateries, though there are a few French restorators. Beefsteaks are popular and oysters are served almost everywhere. Alcohol flows freely. Most eating places are also drinking places and boarding houses as well. Board can include lodging or not — some people pay a weekly or monthly fee simply for meals.


1810 With close to 34,000 inhabitants Boston, the nation’s fourth largest city, has almost 50 victuallers who run either cook shops where householders take food to be cooked or places where cooked food is served on the premises. There are also five confectioners, one restorator (Jean Gilbert Julien), three taverns, three coffee houses, and seven wine shops, some of which serve cooked food.

1811 Robert Wrightson, owner of the Union Coffee House in Boston, advertises for “a young Woman to do Kitchen Work.” He has recently opened a hotel near Cambridge where, he promises, he will stock the finest Champagne, Madeira, Sherry, Port, and London Brown Stout. Also on tap: bowling alleys and “Dinners and other Refreshments provided at the shortest notice.”

1814 In Newport RI, N. Pelichan announces he has opened a Victualling House and is ready to serve “good Beef-Steaks, Oysters, Turtle-Soups, etc. with Pastries, Wines and all kinds of Spiritous Liquors, of the very best quality.” He looks forward to hosting dinners and suppers for men’s clubs and societies which make up a good part of the dining public.

beehiveny18181815 On July 17 Hannah Julien, who has run Julien’s Restorator since the death of her husband Jean ten years earlier, informs the public that she will be serving a “fine green turtle” that day. – In Salem MA, John Remond, who is black and from the West Indies, also runs a restorator where he prepares soups, green turtles, cakes, wafers, French rolls, and other delicacies.

1817 Boasting that he has cooked for wealthy men as well as President James Madison, Henry F.Doyhar promises to furnish breakfasts, dinners and suppers at his Washington, D.C. fruit and pastry shop “on the shortest notice.” Evidently he also has a billiard table on the premises because a few months later he receives a pardon from President James Monroe for keeping it without a license. – Meanwhile, over in Georgetown William Collins lures epicures with “the richest gravies, finest jellies,” York, Cove, and Nantiquoke oysters, canvassback ducks, and “every article that will serve to embellish a supper, and give gaiety and animation to the repast.”

1818 For a day of recreation, Philadelphia families head to Greenwich Point Tavern on the Delaware River. They order a meal or simply graze on turtle soup and ice cream which are prepared every Sunday. If they become bored they take a boat ride across the river to Gloucester Point on the New Jersey side.

1819 A New York oyster cellar on Chatham Street fills up around 9 pm with patrons who drop by for fried, stewed, or raw oysters washed down with their favorite alcoholic beverages. A visitor describes the interior: “There were several tables in little boxes, covered with cloths not very clean, and having broken castors, filled with thick vinegar and dirty mustard, together with knives and forks not very tempting in their appearance.” He is also critical of the age of the patrons (too young), their appetites (too big), and the times (too extravagant).

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1860 to 1870; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980


Filed under miscellaneous

Anatomy of a restaurant family: the Downings

bonedturkies18561The Downing family of caterers and restaurateurs, Thomas and his sons George T. and Peter W., were activists in the causes of the abolition of slavery, black suffrage, and black education. They assisted Afro-Americans fleeing slavery before Emancipation as well as those escaping terrorism in the South in the post-Civil War period. Like many free blacks living in cities, they took up the catering trade. Similar to undertaking and barbering, catering was a personal service occupation which offered a degree of opportunity for enterprising people of color.

thomasdowning2Thomas Downing (pictured), the son of freed slaves from Virginia, specialized in oysters. He opened an oyster cellar on Broad Street in New York City in the 1820s, gradually expanding it and earning a fine reputation. Often oyster cellars were “dives” but his was considered first class. He won awards for his pickled oysters which, along with his boned and jellied turkeys, were especially popular at Christmas (see 1856 ad). Over time he owned the Broad Street place and at least one other in NYC and, according to a Rhode Island directory, another in Providence. However, the press seemed always to confuse the various Downings, so it’s possible the latter was under the direction of a son.

Because of the fame of Thomas’s oysters, his wealth (when he died in 1866, his estate was believed to be worth $100,000 – over $1,670,000 today), and his efforts to end slavery, Thomas was regarded as a patriarch of NYC’s black community. When he was ordered off a trolley car in 1855 because of his race, people in the street recognized him and pushed the stopped car forward until the conductor permitted him to continue his ride.

georgetdowningThomas’s place on Broad was patronized by men in political and financial circles and he was rumored to have influential connections. Both his sons, George and Peter, had enough pull to win concessions for restaurants in government buildings. Peter ran an eating place in the Customs House in NYC, while George, a friend of MA Senator Charles Sumner, managed one in the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. George (pictured) was also well known as the proprietor of a resort hotel, the Sea Girt House, in Newport, Rhode Island.

Thomas saw to it that his children were well educated. But neither this nor their accomplishments saved them from racial abuse. George was an eloquent writer who often confronted racism in his writings. When he lost his concession in the House restaurant in 1869 he wrote a letter to a newspaper asserting that he had been rejected because he defied the rule against serving black customers in the same dining room with whites. Nor did the family’s achievements prevent Peter’s son, Henry F. Downing, a newspaper editor, playwright, and former consul to Loanda, from being refused service in a New York restaurant in 1895.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009


Filed under proprietors & careers, racism