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Dorsey, Thomas J.(1812–1875) - Caterer, Rise to Prominence in the Catering Industry, Chronology, Flourishes among Philadelphia’s African American Elite

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Among the elite class of caterers in Philadelphia during much of the nineteenth century, Thomas J. Dorsey ranked as one of the most successful. In many ways, Dorsey’s life reflects the proud history of African Americans. Dorsey, along with a number of other African Americans who were enslaved and oppressed, transcended their status as bondmen and bondwomen and created lives marked by achievement, respectability, and prosperity. Despite extremely limited options for African Americans during the nineteenth century, Dorsey used his keen business mind, culinary talents, and commitment to excellence to build a thriving catering business that eventually brought him wealth and prominence among Philadelphia’s African American elite.

Dorsey was born a slave in Maryland in 1812, and he managed to escape from bondage when he was in his early twenties. Dorsey fled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (a free state) but he was soon captured and returned to Maryland. However, the friends Dorsey made during his short stay in Philadelphia raised funds on his behalf, and eventually Dorsey was able to purchase his freedom officially.

Dorsey made what appears to be a successful transition from fugitive slave to productive entrepreneur, despite the extremely tumultuous times in which he lived. Notwithstanding the somewhat progressive decade, during which Pennsylvania enacted counter measures to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1820 to protect free blacks against kidnapping, by the end of the 1820s, it was clear the racial climate had begun to change. In his book The Negro in Philadelphia W. E. B. Du Bois describes the period from 1820 to 1840, as “a time of retrogression for the mass of the race, and of discountenance and repression from the whites.” The increasing influx of European immigrants attracted to the new industrial jobs played a significant role in undermining the economic opportunities available to blacks living in the city at the time.

Despite shrinking economic opportunities, however, free African Americans, as well as those enslaved, continued taking up residence in Philadelphia. In fact, during the period from 1820 to 1830 alone, Philadelphia saw a 27 percent increase in the number of blacks living in the city. Abolitionist activity increased in the face of growing racial conflict, as laws were passed requiring free African Americans to carry passes. In the midst of increasing racial antipathy, poverty, and growing lawlessness, African Americans suffered through a series of riots, and many saw their homes burned and looted and their neighborhoods destroyed.

However, African Americans in Philadelphia continued their positive efforts, making progress during the 1830s, despite collective efforts on the part of the larger society to create impediments. African Americans built churches, held conventions, and established schools, which saw an increase in attendance over the course of the decade. A number of African Americans, as professional blacksmiths, tailors, morticians, and barbers, went into business, which allowed them to successfully circumnavigate the closed doors to opportunity that society had put in place.

Rise to Prominence in the Catering Industry

One of the most successful areas of entrepreneurship was in the area of food service and catering, particularly in Philadelphia, the center of the African American catering industry prior to the Civil War. Despite minimal formal education, African Americans ruled the catering business; they delivered services with such impeccable manners, taste, and elegance that they elevated themselves from underpaid cooks and waiters to self-reliant entrepreneurs who were prospered. In Philadelphia, reports indicate that some black caterers were able to command as much as $50 a plate for their dinners. Robert Bogle, a pioneer in the catering business, along with Peter Augustin, whose reputation extended beyond Philadelphia, did much to pave the way for other African Americans. Of those who would take up the profession of catering, the most prominent were Henry Jones, Thomas J. Dorsey, and Henry Minton.

These caterers, whose names were household words in Philadelphia during much of the 1800s, ran successful catering businesses and owned profitable restaurants and real estate properties as well. After securing his freedom officially, Dorsey arrived in Philadelphia in 1836, and a pamphlet published by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society indicates that he operated a boot and shoemaking business by 1838. However, by 1844, Dorsey appeared in Philadelphia’s city directory as a waiter and was listed as such until 1861, when he was first listed officially as a caterer. It appears that sometime in the 1860s the term caterer came into fashion; presumably Dorsey began his catering career prior to 1861. When his catering business began remains unclear.

A man of refinement despite little education, Dorsey was one of the most sought after caterers of the time. Indeed, local newspapers declared his presence at reception banquets and balls as key for the event’s success. Diverse in his culinary repertoire, Dorsey’s specialties included filet de boeuf-pique, lobster salad, terrapin, deviled crabs, chicken croquettes, ladyfingers, and champagne jelly.

Dorsey married Louise Tobias, a free woman and Pennsylvania native, very shortly after he arrived in Philadelphia. Louise Dorsey gave birth to their first child, William Henry Dorsey in 1837. The couple eventually had two more children: Sarah and Mary Louise. The success of Dorsey’s catering business afforded his family a lifestyle of relative privilege and comfort, eventually allowing them the luxury of a home on Locust Street, which was considered an especially prestigious address at the time.

Chronology

1812

Born in Maryland

1836

Arrives in Philadelphia

1837

Birth of first child

1838

Works as a boot and shoemaker

1844

Works as a walter

1861

Appears as caterer in the Philadelphia City Directory

1875

Dies in Philadelphia

Flourishes among Philadelphia’s African American Elite

Outside the kitchen, it could be said that Dorsey well surpassed others of his profession. He owned real estate and rented to white tenants, which was most unusual. Dorsey is reported to have owned and operated at least one restaurant as well. He possessed the kind of natural sophistication that gave him influence within his community. Du Bois describes Dorsey, a former slave, as having the sway of an imperial dictator and counted him as one of those who made Philadelphia noted for its cultivated and well-to-do African American citizens. Roger Lane writes in his book William Dorsey’s Philadelphia and Ours that when Dorsey was denied entrance to a ball honoring Russian Grand Duke Alexis, he wrote the future czar an angry letter which boldly called into question the man’s character. It is reported that he even refused his catering services to one potential customer on the grounds that he was a Democrat and therefore disloyal to the government and Lincoln, a serious offense to Dorsey and many other African Americans who were Republican during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.

Hosting such prominent men as Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Charles Sumner in his home, Dorsey was one of the wealthiest and most celebrated caterers of the time. Having known the indignity of slavery, Dorsey was politically active throughout his life. He worked closely with the abolitionists and served for a time as vice president of the Sumner Club, which organized important rallies concerning desegregation and equal rights for African Americans.

By the time he died in 1875, Dorsey had accumulated enough wealth to establish a trust for his family, which was to run through two generations. The trust supplied each of Dorsey’s three children with income of about $500 a year, almost a third of which was generated from their father’s real estate holdings alone. In addition to the trust, Dorsey bequeathed to his family both his Dean and Locust Street homes However, after his wife died three years later, in 1878, the issue of the trust proved to be somewhat troublesome. In 1871, Dorsey’s eldest daughter Sarah died, and it was determined that his other daughter Mary would be the legal guardian of Sarah’s two orphaned children. This afforded Mary a controlling share of the inheritance, which was disputed by William, Dorsey’s only son and eldest child, amidst much controversy. In any case, neither Mary nor William elected to continue Dorsey’s catering business.

The closing of the nineteenth century witnessed the decline of Philadelphia’s catering industry. Many caterers found it hard to compete with the emerging high quality luxury hotels, with their eloquent banquet halls and fine restaurants. Also contributing greatly to the decline was the liquor licensing law adopted by Pennsylvania in 1888. The new legislation, which raised the cost of a permit from $50 to over $2,000, with annual fees of as much as $900, proved much too high for many independent African American businessmen in the catering businesses.

Because of his enterprise, Dorsey was able to have a life of success and prosperity despite little education and few resources. Dorsey’s story not only embodies the proud history of African Americans in the United States, but it challenges subsequent generations to overcome obstacles and strive for success.

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