The series has completed a look at the development of the major intersections along Lake Park Avenue, and turned to stories of interest within the Hyde Park and Kenwood communities. The articles are all of varying topics, but relate to the residences that currently or in the past have defined the urban fabric. Additional images for this article, the 27th of the series, and all previous topics are available on the Hyde Park Herald website; click on the Lost Hyde Park icon.
Susan O’Connor Davis
In 1907 Hertel, Jenkins & Company published a manuscript written by Booker T. Washington entitled “The Negro in Business.” In this book, Washington wrote that his aim was not to produce a volume containing a statistical study of black enterprises. Rather he strove to provide stories of successful men and their respective fields, in hopes of inspiring a younger generation.
Washington was the son of a slave and a white father unknown to him. Raised on a Virginia plantation, he was a determined advocate for African Americans and came to prominence as the head of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. There, Washington believed that teaching basic education, in combination with training in manual and domestic labor trades, blacks would play a needed role in society that would lead to acceptance by whites.
The careers Washington documented in 1907 were varied widely. Entries included those of an undertaker, minister, financier, publisher, hotelkeeper and caterer – all paths successfully undertaken in the years following emancipation.
Decades earlier on the eve of the Civil War, the directory of the city of Chicago listed 1,500 Negroes as residing within its confines. These African Americans worked in various capacities, many of which were discussed over 40 years later in Washington’s book. Within the 1861 directory one black was listed as a hotelkeeper, another a butcher; 16 were hairdressers and barbers numbered five.
But one enterprising young man had not yet made his way to our city.
Charles Henry Smiley was 9 years old at the time, also the son of slaves. After the war began the family escaped to St. Catherines, Canada – the final terminus on the Underground Railroad for hundreds of slaves. Six years later, after the war and threat of recapture were over, his parents moved back across the border and settled in Philadelphia. Fifteen-year-old Charles began work as a laborer there.
By 1880 Smiley had married and lived at 1229 Ramble Street with his wife Amanda and two sons. His situation had improved according to the 1880 census; he then worked as caterer, a popular profession in Philadelphia at the time. Before long his growing family made their way to Chicago, where Smiley found employment first as a janitor and then as a waiter.
The latter was the task that particularly suited him. Building on his experience in Philadelphia, Smiley began serving at the parties of Chicago’s elite where he learned the requisites of establishing a catering business here. According to David Shields, author of “The Culinarians, Lives and Careers from the First Age of American Fine Dining,”
Smiley’s “attention to detail, his taste in appointments and decorations, his ingenuity in conceiving presentations and entertainments” vaulted him to the top of the profession.
By the turn of the century, the son of fugitive slaves was the city’s foremost caterer. And Hyde Park played a role in the life of this remarkable man.
In 1867 George Pullman founded the Pullman Palace Car Company, several miles south of our community. His company designed and manufactured sleeping cars for the growing railroad industry. Following the Civil War Pullman hired formerly enslaved blacks as Pullman Porters, chefs and waiters.
The company grew rapidly and in 1879, architect Solon S. Beman came to Chicago at the request of the railroad car magnate to design the company’s town. Following his success at Pullman, Beman was contracted to supervise the design of Rosalie Villas, a planned community located in what was then known as South Park. Located on a two-block stretch of Harper Avenue between 57th and 59th streets, the parcel was developed by Amelia “Rose” Buckingham, hence the name.
Beman’s concept for the Rosalie Villa project included unique and picturesque residences, many of which were originally used as summer homes, combined with amenities including a family-run grocery store, a café, a private club and a public entertainment hall.
The terra cotta – arched 57th Street entrance to the Villas was flanked by the South Park Club on the east and Beman’s Rosalie Music Hall on the west. When hotelier and grocer Louis D. Beman opened the shingle-style hall in 1886, he turned to Charles Smiley to run the Red Roses Café. Smiley was already listed as one of just nine caterers in the city directory, and he used the well-outfitted kitchen of the luxurious facility as a catering office.
It is not clear how Smiley came to the attention of Beman. Perhaps it was through a Pullman connection, an enterprise where food and its service of were of paramount concern. Four decades after Pullman was founded, company chef and former slave Rufus Estes published a cookbook. “Entitled Good Things to Eat, as Suggested by Rufus,” the book offered a range of recipes. Those for fried chicken, corn fritters and tapioca came from his mother; the recipes for beef marrow quenelles and eclairs returned with him from his sojourns.
Regardless of how Smiley came to the Rosalie, the enterprise provided a platform for success. Café Red Roses, the “headquarters for Pleasure Parties,” advertised its services for weddings, sleighing parties and receptions. Meals were served with short notice from 7:30 in the morning until nine in the evening, and promoted as offering attentive service just steps from the South Park (train) Station.
By the fall of 1886, Louis Beman sold his meat market and the café in order to devote his attention to the grocery store on the site. H.J. Nagle took over the café operation, and expanded its catering options to include a main store near Smiley on 22nd Street.
During the summer of 1887, the Café was offering delicious ices, furnished by the “best caterer in Cook County,” according to the Herald. Smiley’s business grew well beyond the café and he began to provide a full range of catering services, according to Juliet Walker’s “Encyclopedia of African American Business History.” For weddings, there were the obvious necessities including the cake, church decorations and floral arrangements, but Smiley also had the foresight to hire security personnel to guard the wedding gifts. One smart man.
By the turn of the century Smiley Catering was so extensive the operation required 16 horses (including his favorite, a jet black workhorse named Prince) to pull the delivery wagons, and was said to have been the largest employer of African Americans in the city. When David B. Allen of Newport, Rhode Island, visited the business, he remarked that Smiley had “the china, glass, silver and lines to set out a small dinner in such style as to please the most exacting, or to supply a collation to a company numbering hundreds.”
Smiley’s Catering became the go-to company for both prominent African Americans as well as whites, and his dedication to innovation and service allowed him to prosper at a time when other black entrepreneurs were losing their white clientele. Smiley spoke of his success to colleagues at the first meeting of the National Negro Business League in 1901, echoing Booker T. Washington’s sentiment to inspire a younger generation.
He implored them to be exacting in understanding the details of the business, to be polite and have the manners “of a Chesterfield.” The son of fugitive slaves was referring to an English Earl’s view; “A CERTAIN dignity of manners is absolutely necessary, to make even the most valuable character either respected or respectable in the world.”
Your “word must always be your bond,” Smiley remarked; “be honorable and upright, faithfully fulfill all engagements and keep your credit good.” By following these suggestions and giving business all you have, he believed “the young colored man will not only succeed in the catering business but in any business he may undertake.”
In “The Negro in Business” Booker T. Washington wrote of Smiley glowingly, as having “character, good powers of observation, ambition and brains.” Those qualities made him quite a successful entrepreneur. The value of Smiley’s business was $5,000 in 1901, but the following year his health began to fail. He sold his business in 1902 and, not unlike fellow former slave Rufus Estes, embarked on a life of travel.
When Charles J. Smiley died in 1911 at the age of 60, he was one of the last in the black catering profession. A field that was “once monopolized by members of our race, but which has since been, to a large extent, lost,” according to Washington’s entry on Smiley entitled “The Negro Caterer.”
Smiley was a successful, noble and generous man. In March of 1909, he approached a trusted colleague and judge for advice on preparing a will. Having $11,000 but only one living relative to provide for, he concluded that he wanted leave a liberal share of his wealth to a Chicago institution for the purpose of “developing character.”
Smiley wrote, “I am making this bequest because of my limited opportunities to acquire an education and my desire to aid others in acquiring an education.” He died on March 25, 1911, and provided a gift of $3,000 to the University of Chicago for a scholarship for poor but promising students of the colored race.
Thomas Goodspeed wrote of Smiley’s gift, his life and character for the January 1919 University of Chicago Record. “And thus this humble black man has made his life a fountain of perennial blessings for his race and to the world.”