“Allow me to tell you a story.”
This inviting imperative was posted on the first slide of Duane Sylvestre’s presentation at BevCon 2017 in Charleston, South Carolina, for all to read upon entering the room. It immediately served as a reminder that all history starts with a story.
The learning session, Dark Spirits: The History of Black Bartenders, focused on the stories of 11 iconic African American bartenders. Before sharing the stories—what’s known of them—Sylvestre, a bartender, educator, and representative of Gruppo Campari, emphasized how vital this history is, especially for bartenders of color.
Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights. Sign up for our award-winning newsletters and get insider intel, resources, and trends delivered to your inbox every week.
“It [creates] a connection for people who are not able to identify with the common perception of what a bartender is today,” he explained, drawing attention to the stereotypical young, thin white man with immaculate, abundant facial hair.
Knowing about black bartenders also fosters a connection with their long and influential legacy in the U.S. and diminishes the sense of isolation and loneliness for bartenders of color in the profession. Additionally, calling attention to the significant status of these icons behind the bar shows that bartending can offer a promising future for all in the hospitality industry and that it’s a profession that’s not merely a stepping stone but can be a rewarding path for providing for oneself and one’s family.
These stories, however, are unfortunately some of the most difficult to uncover. The cocktail historian David Wondrich, who teamed up with Sylvestre for the presentation, explained that researching the lives of bartenders of any background tends to be challenging, and finding stories of African American bartenders is an even bigger challenge. He talked about his own experience scouring newspapers from the 19th century about 15 years ago—before the papers were digitized—and finally discovering a reference in “a little article buried on page four in the fifth column down by the bottom.”
White people have generally been the ones with the power to tell the stories they deemed important, and in the 19th century they were not interested in chronicling the lives of African Americans, other than for comedy or mockery. Nor did the abolitionists, who were the allies of the black community, write about black bartenders, as abolitionists also tended to be prohibitionists, said Wondrich. The panelists explained that even black newspapers, such as The Colored American in Washington, D.C., included very few references to bartenders, despite the fact that the Black Mixology Club was based in that city. It was, by the way, a reference to this social club that Wondrich unearthed that led to his connection with Sylvestre—and their joint mission to chronicle the lives and contributions of black bartenders.
Sylvestre and Wondrich went on to tell the stories of 11 black men who were highly successful and influential behind the bar before Prohibition. The bartenders they spotlighted were Cato Alexander, John Dabney, Tom Bullock, Richard Francis, Louis Deal, Jasper Crouch, Jim Cook, Washington Woods, Adam Blake, Benjamin Sheekles, and Beverly Snow. These men’s stories defy common perceptions of professional black bartenders throughout history.
These 11 bartenders were often the most prominent men in both their profession and their local communities; they had money and owned their own businesses and property. Respect was also often extended to them from people in the white community, who were won over “one gin cocktail at a time,” Wondrich said, pointing in particular to the high regard in which the white community held Cato Alexander, a bartender who was born a slave in the 1780s. The New York Post even published verses for Alexander, said Wondrich, in celebration of his wedding.
Another example of a black bartender who was embraced by the white community is Tom Bullock, who worked at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky, just before Prohibition. In 1917 he wrote “The Ideal Bartender”; the introduction to the book was written by George Herbert Walker, the grandfather of former president George H. W. Bush.
John Dabney, born a slave in 1820, was a caterer in Richmond, Virginia, who was known for his drinks and cuisine and who was eventually able to secure loans based on his integrity, as well as his mint juleps, which were reputed to be so impressively executed—and garnished—that they were the only thing Edward VII remarked on during his 1860 visit to Richmond when he was still Prince of Wales, according to the panelists (though Sylvestre noted that it’s possible Jim Cook may actually have made the praiseworthy julep that the prince enjoyed; Wondrich also cited research that shows that it could have been a combined effort of the two men since they may have had a catering business together).
Richard Francis ran the bar at the U.S. Senate (yes, both the Senate and the House had bars), and even blatantly racist politicians cozied up to it, according to Wondrich. Sylvestre added that Francis often “had the ear” of the white men who were deciding key laws and policies about race in America.
But of course there are also countless stories of black bartenders who experienced unjust hardship, heartbreak, and violence fueled by racism. Attendees in the seminar learned, for example, that Louis Deal, who was promoted from waiter to bartender at the Atlas Hotel in Cincinnati, was fired from his job when white bartenders in the city rose in protest, threatening to print 100,000 flyers condemning the hotel and boycott the establishment if Deal was kept on. The reaction to the bartender Benjamin Sheekles in Milwaukee was even more violent: He was chased out of his bar, which was trashed by the mob, and almost lynched. Another mob, in 1835, chased Beverly Snow out of the restaurant he owned in D.C., which was considered by far the best in the city. He escaped with his life and ended up relocating to Toronto.
Wondrich, who describes himself as a “substitute” historian, concluded by saying that he awaits the professional historian who knows all the archives and will write “the alternative history of the bar that includes women, both white and black, that includes black men, that includes Chinese bartenders.” That’s a story to tell.
Sign up for our award-winning newsletter
Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights—delivered to your inbox every week.
Diana Pittet owns Night Owl Hospitality, a cocktail catering company in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and is an adjunct professor at New York University, where she teaches a graduate class on the history, culture, and politics of drinking.