The Cunningest Compounders of Beverages
The Hidden History of African-Americans Behind the Bar (more subhed TK)
Story By David Wondrich
In 1892 Frank Beck, a Cincinnati bartender, opened the Atlas Hotel. With just 18 rooms, it wasn’t much of a hotel. But with a location just around the corner from the hulking new City Hall, and furnished with a large and ornate barroom, it didn’t have to be, either. Indeed, on its opening day the bar served 3,000 people. But unfortunately for Beck, his head bartender turned out to have a bad habit of neglecting his duty, and in early 1893 Beck let him go, replacing him with Louis Deal, one of his waiters. Deal was a “clean and polite and honest” young man and had worked as a bartender before. Beck was more than satisfied with his choice. “Deal did his work better and was more satisfactory than any man who had ever held the place,” he told a reporter from the Cincinnati Enquirer, adding that “so long as he did his duty he intended to keep him where he was.”
The reporter was there because Beck was white, his bar catered to a white clientele, and Deal was, as the Enquirer put it, “ a fine looking young colored man.” The city’s (white) bartending community had objected strenuously to Deal’s employment and managed to talk a large part of Beck’s clientele into a boycott, and suddenly the saloonkeeper had a big fat (and newsworthy) problem on his hands. Beck held out for another week. Then George Bear, head bartender at the prestigious Gibson House and “one of the best known white barkeepers in the city” sat him down and gave him an ultimatum:
He could either discharge Deal or the barkeepers of the city, or at least the more prominent ones, would issue 100,000 dodgers [i.e., flyers], which they would distribute around the city, calling attention to the fact that the Atlas Hotel was the only first-class establishment in the city that employed a colored man as a regular barkeeper.
Two days later, Beck let Deal go. It didn’t do him any good: within two months his place was closed and sold at auction. Deal went back to being a waiter, which didn’t seem to bother anyone. Bear kept mixing drinks at the Gibson House.
For the past fifteen years, I’ve managed to make a living out of researching the histories of old-time bartenders and their drinks, and celebrating them in print. As jobs go, it’s a fun one—at least compared to my previous one, junior English professor. But my “work product” (as the lawyers call it) is pretty lightweight stuff: most publications that are willing to print a piece about historical tippling want an amusing anecdote or two and then a recipe, not a clear-eyed look at serious social issues—or even a bleary-eyed one, for that matter. If there’s a bartender in the piece, he should be a colorful type with a fine moustache, a twinkle in his eye and a knack for waltzing the booze around with ice. And if his other activities include organizing racists to hound a young man out of his job, well, the less said about that the better.
I truly do believe that the traditional American art of the bar—the art of mixing individual iced drinks to order from a wide array of spirits, wines, juices, syrups, bitters, herbs and so forth—is one of the glories of our popular culture, something that can hold its head up alongside the other American “lively arts,” as Gilbert Seldes labeled them back in the 1920s: jazz, movies, comics and such. Judging by the broad-based renaissance recent years have seen in the craft, I’m far from alone in that opinion. But if mixology (for want of a better word) is going to stand with the other lively arts, its place in American life will have to be properly understood, and that requires looking at it as it was, not as we might like it to be. Which means coming to terms with episodes like our Cincinnati one.
Before we get back to that, we need a quick overview of black and white America at and behind the bar—always bearing in mind that this is history that for the most part has yet to be written. Saloon-keeping was always one of the occupations open to free blacks in America, and any part of the country with a significant free black population had black-owned saloons to cater to it. Like white saloons, these came in all sorts, from buckets-of-blood such as New Orleans’s Steamboatman Exchange, where gambling and knife-fighting were the order of the day, to lively neighborhood joints such as Bill Curtis’s Elite Social Club in St Louis (which, despite being the place where Stack Lee shot Billy Lyon on Christmas night, 1895, was on the whole a square and orderly joint) to high-toned establishments such as Washington DC’s elegant Metropole Club. In practice, these saloons generally could not exclude white patronage, and one finds frequent accounts of groups of young white rowdies tearing it up in black establishments, particularly in the less elegant ones.
The converse did not of course apply: white saloons were for white people, and blacks could not drink in the vast majority of them. If they tried, when they weren’t outright ejected they were refused service by the bartenders, charged prohibitive prices—on the order of ten dollars for a fifteen-cent cocktail—or otherwise passive-aggressively fucked with until they left. Even when New York State passed an equal accommodations law in 1895, after a brief spate of black drinkers sighted in the barrooms of the city’s great hotels, or at least the minority of them that actually obeyed the law, things soon went back to normal.
There were also, to be sure, the so-called “black and tans,” saloons where the clientele was racially mixed. But these—the proprietors could be black or white—were found only in the roughest urban neighborhoods or out on the frontier and were with few exceptions neither respectable, nor even minimally safe, for patrons of any race.
That leaves the saloons like Beck’s, where black bartenders served a white clientele (I have yet to come across an example of a saloon where white bartenders mixed drinks for an exclusively black clientele). A few of these—a very few—were even black-owned, such as the famous Cato’s Tavern, a New York City fixture from the early 1810s to the 1840s (you can read about Cato Alexander, its proprietor, here [link to Eater piece]). Not that there were many white-owned ones, either, not if you look at places like Chicago and Boston and Buffalo and New York. When Beck told the man from the Enquirer that “there are colored barkeepers in Cleveland, Chicago, Columbus and other cities,” he might have been technically accurate, but only just. In New York, if, back in the 1870s, you had been able to gain admittance to the great Irish-American sporting figure John Morrissey’s political clubhouse, you would have had a chance to taste Washington “Wash” Woods’ famous rum-brandy Punch. Up the Hudson River in Albany, the politicians drank at Adam Blake’s Congress Hall; his father had been a slave to Stephen Van Rensselaer, the Revolutionary War general. There were a smattering of other black bartenders throughout the Northeast and Midwest. Al Strickland, at Charles Shere’s saloon in Indianapolis, was typical, in that he was in a position “held by no other colored young man in the city.” Their acceptance was grudging at best and at worst—well, there’s the 1893 episode from the Milwaukee suburb of Cudahy, where the town’s ex-Supervisor put Benjamin Skeeckels, a “perfectly harmless” young black man, behind the bar at his saloon, only to see the “not over smooth element” of town attempt to lynch the man. Skeeckels escaped by the skin of his teeth, upon which his tormentors demolished the saloon.
But that was the North. Dixie did things very differently indeed. Sure, at any time except during the very height of Reconstruction, when equality laws were enforced at gunpoint, a black man would not be served in a white bar. Yet black bartenders in such establishments were not only tolerated but often even celebrated. That had nothing to do with Reconstruction: indeed, it went back to the early days of the Republic. In Virginia, the tradition was particularly strong. In Richmond, the Quoit Club, which brought together thirty of the city’s leading citizens (including, e.g., Chief Justice John Marshall of the United States Supreme Court) every other Saturday from May to October to toss quoits, eat barbecued pig with cayenne and drink porter, Mint Juleps and the Club’s Punch, had Jasper Crouch to preside over all the catering and cooking. A black freedman who was acknowledged for his particular and unparalleled expertise in Punch-making, he had, as Samuel Mordecai recalled in 1856, “acquired the gout in this congenial occupation, and also the rotundity of an alderman.”
Other celebrated black Virginia mixologists made their reputations while still slaves. John Dabney, enslaved to the De Jarnette family, was able to purchase his freedom with the money he made mixing Mint Juleps in Richmond, where he was acknowledged as (according to the Richmond Times) the city’s “cunningest compounder of beverages, and the most skilful architect of pyramidal adornments and floral and fruity garniture” (the Antebellum Julep did not fuck around when it came to garniture, and nobody invested as much in it as did Virginia’s black mixologists). The saloon he ran during the Civil War, until the Confederate government closed such establishments, was the best in town. His only rival in concocting elaborate Juleps was Jim Cook, also a slave. In 1860, when the Prince of Wales visited Richmond during his American tour, the city fathers put Cook forward to construct him one (or two, or three—accounts differ) of his ornate, even architectural multi-serving Juleps. Cook’s Julep(s) would prove to be the Prince’s fondest memory of the city.
The most successful of Virginia’s black mixologists, however, did his work not in Virginia proper but in Washington DC. Richard Francis, known universally as Dick or “Uncle Dick,” was born in freedom to free parents in Surry County, Virginia in 1827. By 1848, he was in Washington, at Andy Hancock’s small, ramshackle and curio-filled bar on Pennsylvania Avenue, not far from the White House. He would work for Hancock and then his son for some 35 years, through war and Emancipation and one administration after another, mixing drinks for senators and congressmen and cabinet secretaries, for touring actors, literary lions and other celebrities. And not just mixing drinks for them—after all, he was a bartender, not a Julep-making robot. He conversed with his customers, cultivated his regulars, got to know them. As one old-timer recalled in 1903, “he could count friends among the whites by scores and hundreds.” Among them were such dignitaries as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. In 1884, another of his friends, President pro tempore of the Senate George F. Edmunds, made sure that when the lucrative position of managing that institution’s private restaurant came open, Francis got it. He would die four years later, an illiterate bartender who was able to leave his family a fortune in Washington real estate. And by the time he died he was able to see his son in possession of a medical degree from the University of Michigan and sitting on the city’s school board.
The Southern tradition of employing black men behind the bar continued after Emancipation. Not everywhere was as open to it as Virginia and Washington DC, but one can nonetheless find example from most Southern states, from Georgia and the Carolinas to Louisiana and Texas and on up the Mississippi River as far as St. Louis, where, for Example, Tom Bullock (a Louisville native who had tended bar at the tony Kenton Club there) presided over the bar at the exclusive St. Louis Country Club and, in 1917, published the first cocktail book written by a black bartender. There were even black bartenders on the riverboats that were such a feature of life on the Mississippi.
Yet I don’t want to present all this as some pretty picture in sepia. Even after the Civil War, these men led precarious lives and held their positions at the suffrage of a petty, capricious and all too often violent white majority. Back in 1835 Beverly Snow, another bartending Virginia freedman whose Epicurean Eating House had introduced elegant drinking and fine dining to Washington DC, let loose some mildly censorious remarks about the behavior of the “wives and daughters” of some of the city’s white “mechanics,” or workingmen, and lost his house and his business and very nearly his life in the rioting that ensued. He was lucky: in 1907, in the southern Arkansas town of McGhee, Sam Fleming got in an argument with his white fellow bartender. The argument led to blows, Fleming gave the man a thorough thrashing and was arrested for his pains and thrown in jail, whereupon “a party of masked men removed the hinges from the jail door, took Fleming out and hanged him.”
Those who avoided trouble did it at what must have been a serious cost to their pride and humanity. When, in 1875, a party of well-dressed black men stepped up to the bar at Lexius Henson’s opulent Augusta, Georgia saloon, he had to tell them that it was “a white man’s bar, and they ought not to try to injure his business” by drinking there and eject them. Maintaining that double standard must not have come easy. Likewise, wearing the genial mask of the host, no matter how provocative, even inhuman, the guest, can be an intolerable burden. Decades later, when William Zantzinger, shitfaced drunk at the bar of Baltimore’s Hotel Emerson, began striking cursing the bartender and striking her with the toy cane he was carrying, Hattie Carroll continued to fix him the bourbon and ice he was shouting for even as the stroke that would kill her was coming on.