Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Thomas Frazier

Atlanta, Georgia

Thomas Frazier was the headwaiter at many fine hotels and resorts in the late nineteenth century. Born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1852, he was well known and much admired. I first became aware of him from a menu from the Kimball House in Atlanta in 1888. Even though he was an African American working in the post-Reconstruction South, snippets about him occasionally appeared in the Atlanta Constitution, indicating he was something of a local celebrity. One notice informed the readers, “Thomas H. Frazier, who enjoys the distinction of being the best headwaiter at any southern hotel, is off from the Kimball on vacation, and is in Florida visiting the various noted hotels of that state.” On another occasion, the newspaper noted that he received a silver cup on his birthday. Frazier was lavishly praised for his handling of the arrangements at the hotel for President Grover Cleveland’s visit to Atlanta in 1887. These reports confirm the evidence on the menu, leaving little doubt that Frazier was held in high esteem. 

The Kimball House was the best hotel in Atlanta. Situated on an entire city block at the south-southeast corner of Five Points, it had recently been rebuilt, opening on New Year’s Day in 1885. The new seven-story building was much larger than the original structure, comprising thirty-one stores, twenty-two public rooms, and 357 hotel rooms.1 The cover of the menu shown below provides several views of the hotel. There is almost no French on the bill of fare and the regional influences are muted. The presence of New York beef, which was often served at luxury winter resorts in the South, signals that it was a first-class establishment. Still, the modest entrées seem to echo the reality of everyday life after the Civil War. In truth, the cuisine is outclassed by the excellent wine list, then a standard feature at such hotels. 

The back cover features a full length portrait of Thomas Frazier. Extending his hand in a gesture of hospitality, he appears to symbolize the ambience of dining at the Kimball House which itself was a matter of civic pride. Frazier moved away from Atlanta about two years later but returned in 1895 to marry Florence Martin who was a teacher at Morris Brown College. The wedding took place in the home of the bride and was attended by a large number of people, including many white friends of the newly married couple. The Atlanta Constitution reported that “a very handsome present was sent by the permanent boarders at the Kimball, among whom Frazier is immensely popular.”2

Although a menu marks only a moment in time, it can stimulate a process of discovery. This one raises many questions. Frazier was known to be a leader who trained and encouraged those who worked under him. Where did he serve his apprenticeship? He hailed from Charleston, a city with a long line of outstanding African-American caterers and chefs. It is also interesting that Frazier worked at fifteen hotels over the course of a career which encompassed the tumultuous 1890s.3 In addition to strikes by restaurant and hotel waiters and a severe economic depression, Black waiters were marginalized by new ideals of servitude during this period when wealthy Americans began to identify with the European aristocracy. How these seismic events might have affected him is not known. When Frazier died in 1903, he was the headwaiter at the grand Chittenden Hotel in Columbus, Ohio. At the time of his death, it was said that he enjoyed an “exceedingly happy” family life and was a valued member of the Head and Second Waiters’ National Benefit Association. 

1. The Kimball House was bounded by Whitehall Street (now part of Peachtree Street), Decatur Street, Pryor Street, and Wall Street. 
2. Atlanta Constitution, 17 October 1895. 
3. In addition to the Kimball House and Chittenden Hotel, Thomas Franzier was the headwaiter at the Portland Hotel, Portland, OR; Endicott Hotel, New York City; Great Northern, Chicago; Leland Hotel, Springfield, IL; Indian River Hotel, Rockledge, FL; Leon Hotel, Tallahassee, FL; Hot Springs Hotel, Hot Springs, NC; Ocean House, Newport, RI; The World’s Inn, Chicago; Great Southern, Columbus, OH; Hanover Hotel, Philadelphia; Gladstone Hotel, Narragansett Pier, RI; and the New Grand Hotel, Catskills, NY.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Love reading these Henry. Hope all is well.