After the Civil War
African Americans in Food Service
F or most blacks, emancipation and the end of the Civil War meant a renewal of hope: of economic opportunity, social mobility, and political expectations.  Institutions like Tuskegee, Hampton, and Howard University were at the center of a debate over what kind of training, education, and preparation African Americans needed to make their way in the world. Booker T. Washington became the spokesman for those who believed that industrial education skills training and vocational--education was the best way for blacks to achieve economic development. All women students at Tuskegee, for example, were taught domestic skills such as cooking, nursing, housekeeping and laundering.
Freedman's Schoolhouse at Atlanta, Georgia (right)
Freedmen's Farm School, near Washington, D. C.
Credit: Photo courtesy Schomburg Digital

During the mid- to late 1800s, African Americans so dominated the catering business that they formed the United Public Waiters’ Mutual Beneficial Association. This organization was established by black caterers in 1869 for the purposes of policing the quality of service of the waiters employed by them, and of the food services that they themselves provided. The organization also provided funds for ill or indigent members, and assisted with burial costs.

The late 1800s were also a period when Black entrepreneurs established many food-related businesses. James Wormley, an experienced caterer and hotel steward from a prominent free Black family in Washington, D.C., opened the Wormley Hotel in 1871. Its dining hall became one of the most fashionable restaurants in the nation’s capital. In the 1870s, Alexander Ashbourne, who had enjoyed success as a dry goods grocer in Philadelphia, moved to Oakland California where he began a new dry goods enterprise. He became one of that city’s leading Black residents. Joseph Lee, who established thriving catering and restaurant businesses in Boston in the 1890s, considered himself a "bread specialist." He went so far as to patent a bread-making machine, and later a bread-crumbing machine.

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