SAFE Bar Network
Change Makers Past and Present - A Black History Month Celebration
February is Black History Month, a time to honor activists, advocates, and change-makers of the past and celebrate the people who are making Black history every day. We're shining a spotlight on past and present change-makers in the food and beverage industry.
It's important to remember that there was a time, not that long ago, when African Americans were not allowed to stay at hotels and dine in their restaurant. Black celebrities of the time, like Sammy Davis, Jr., Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, and Nat King Cole, could perform at the hotel but could not book a reservation. In the face of these barriers, Black innovators dared to dream and got to work.
We can highlight change makers starting all the way back in the 1770s and 80s when Rachael Pringle Polgreen, born a slave around 1753, became the first woman of color to own a tavern-hotel, Royal Navy Hotel in Bridgetown, Barbados.
In the mid-1800s Tunis Gulic Campbell, who was the highest-ranking African American politician in the Reconstruction Era, earned a living as a hotel steward in New York City and Boston, Massachusetts. In 1848, he published an action plan for waiters and hotel management, “Hotel Keepers, Head Waiters, and Housekeepers’ Guide.” Hailed as the first book of its kind published in the United States provided practical information for operating a first-class hotel.
Around that same time period Joseph Lee, became a successful restauranteur, hotel owner, and owned a catering service. His businesses served African Americans who were otherwise denied access while traveling through Boston, in the late 1800s to the early 1900s.
The Black Mixologists Club emerged in 1898 in Washington D.C. and played a significant role in shaping cocktail culture. D.C.’s segregation laws necessitated the creation of Black-owned bars, restaurants, and clubs that employed black bartenders. The interest in these black bartenders began spreading outside of their community until they gained regional and national notoriety. Their meticulously crafted cocktails were served to the likes of presidents, socialites, and other dignitaries.
In fact, black bartenders are the cornerstone of modern cocktails. Before the Roaring Twenties popularized the art of mixed drinks, history points to the fact that many American cocktails were likely the invention of Black mixologists — some were famous like Cato Alexander and Tom Bullock, while many worked in establishments, quickly mixing up some of the most important drinks in bar culture.
One of the most influential bartenders was Tom Bullock, a St. Louis native who created one of the most well-known mint juleps of his time. His mint julep was so well known that Theodore Roosevelt’s refusal to finish his mint julep became the subject of an article published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Bullock’s exceptional skill led him to be the first black bartender to publish a book of recipes in the United States, The Ideal Bartender. It was published in 1917 and is still revered as one of the seminal books in cocktail history. Historians cite this book as a mainstay because it accurately depicts pre-prohibition drink culture and provides recipes for cocktails considered classics to this day.
As important as it is to honor contributions by Black Americans it is equally important to celebrate the change-makers of today.
Brown a Balanced, a creation of Josh Davis, is an organization that celebrates Black bar & hospitality professionals and this month they are highlighting 28 Black Bartenders You Should Know on Instagram, @brownandbalanced
Anthony and Janique Edwards created EatOkra as two Brooklyn transplants who didn’t have the means to cook or store food. Immersing themselves in their new community, the co-founders explored ways to support local Black businesses and champion the vibrant, cultural voices of their neighborhood, eventually planting the seed for EatOkra. You can find Black-owned bars and restaurants in your community at eatokra.com/discover
Black Food Folks, created by Clay Williams and Colleen Vincent, provides resources and fosters community among Black professionals in the food and drink industry. Their mission is to counter the erasure of Black voices in the industry by promoting and supporting the work they do and offering a platform for them to connect and share their stories.
Founded in 2016 by Warren Luckett, Falayn Ferrell, and Derek Robinson, Black Restaurant Week® is dedicated to celebrating the flavors of African-American, African, and Caribbean cuisine nationwide. Through a series of events and promotional campaigns, Black Restaurant Week’s culinary initiatives help introduce culinary businesses and culinary professionals to the community. Their innovative approach to a restaurant week includes highlighting other aspects of culinary businesses including catering services, food trucks, and culinary products.
Ariel Smith created a podcast in 2019 to document her findings as she interviews independent food truck owners all over the world. Ninety percent of the entrepreneurs she chats with are Black, and she’s using their data as part of her dissertation for her PhD program in American studies with a concentration in African-American studies at Indiana’s Purdue University.
Known as “The Soul Food Scholar,” Adrian Miller’s first book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, won a James Beard award. His second, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, From the Washingtons to the Obamas, was a finalist for the NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Literary Work – Non-Fiction.
And his third, Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue, will be published in April and promises to explore barbecue from an African-American perspective. Miller believes that the lack of diversity in food media led to white chefs enjoying the spotlight for modern barbecue trends; this tome aims to shift the attention to some deserving pioneers.
These are just a few of the hundreds of thousands of stories of past and present Black change-makers waiting to be discovered, shared, and celebrated.
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*Blog post adapted from, Black Food and Drink Leaders to Watch.