Did You Know #8

By Megan Hudgins-Cunningham

“Sometimes it seems as if unwritten laws are more carefully observed than the written ones.”

The Chicago Defender archive is one of my favorite resources. The African American newspaper was founded in 1905 by Robert Sengstacke Abbott, starting out as a weekly publication before switching over to a daily release in 1956. It was the second daily African American newspaper in the country, the first being the Atlanta Daily World, which was founded in the 1920s.

One benefit to using the Defender‘s archives is that, depending on the time period one is searching in, it contains information about events in the Edgewater area that one isn’t as likely to find in, say, the Chicago Tribune archives. Take, for example, the subject of today’s posting.

Did you know that in the 1920s, the Edgewater Beach Hotel laid off the entirety of their African American waitstaff? Unfortunately, looking at it now, it doesn’t seem like something that unusual for the time period. As of yet, I have not come across any mention of this in the Tribune’s archives, though I do still continue to search. Rather, I came across it in a 1929 editorial, entitled “The Hotel and the Negro,” in the Defender, as part of a series of articles by Chicago writer Zita Louise Baker. I think I’ll let the text of the article speak for itself.

The Hotel and the Negro

by Zita Louise Baker

This article is the fifth in a series by a Chicago writer, who was until recently a member of the bureau of information of the Chicago World’s Fair. Each one has been written from the viewpoint of those belonging to the white race, and deals with some specific phase of the race question in Chicago.

Some years ago, when Booker T. Washington traveled about, he was able to stop at one of Chicago’s best hotels and secure a room. His color was no bar, for he had distinguished himself in many ways.

Today the opposite condition seems to exist, although I have been unable to find that it is because of a definitely written law enforced by the hotel association. Rather, it is an “unwritten law” which is strictly obeyed by the managers of first-class hotels over the city.

The well educated and refined Colored person arrives in town and desires to stop at a good hotel in the Loop. He tries each of them by turn, and at length is informed that he can be a guest at none. Such is the present situation.

It has been my privilege to talk with the representative of three of the city’s largest hotels, all of whom expressed somewhat the same opinions.

My first interview was with R. H. Retzen, secretary to Harry Moir of the Morrison hotel. Mr. Retzen said that he knew of no rule in force regarding the nonadmittance of Colored guests. Colored maids, he told me, were employed at the Morrison, but no Colored waiters. The maids, he said, always had been very satisfactory.

At the Congress, the manager, John Burke, would not see me, but the comptroller, Mr. Holloway, was very obliging.

“As far as I know, there is no written law appertaining to Colored guests in Loop hotels,” he stated. “At least, I have never heard of any. Here at the Congress we have no applicants for rooms who are Colored, and I do not remember that we ever have had.

“Not long ago Jack Johnson came into the lobby with his following, but they caused no trouble and did not offer to enter any of the dining rooms.”

“What would you have done if they had entered one of the dining rooms and sat down at a table?” I asked.

Mr. Holloway laughed. “Well, I don’t know. They didn’t and that saved the day.”

“But supposing some Colored man or woman were to come in some time and want a meal. Would they be served?” I persisted.

Mr. Holloway looked thoughtful before he answered. “What else could we do but serve them? Unless we cared to risk getting sued. People sue on almost any complaint nowadays, and anyone refused service in a hotel dining room for no particular reason, except color, might feel sufficiently slighted to bring suit against the management. However, I am thankful to say we are not troubled in that way.”

I asked about Colored employees, and Mr. Holloway said that Colored maids and laundry helpers were part of their force. “No, we never have had any trouble with them. They are good workers and there is no clash between them and the white help.

“We never have had Colored waiters in our dining rooms, as we prefer white ones. Our white ones always have been satisfactory, so there is no object in changing.”

Miss Helen Greene, assistant to the manager of the Edgewater Beach hotel, was very charming. She is a tall, slender girl, who, in addition to her other duties, puts out the magazine known as Ripples from Edgewater.

“I have understood you discharged your Colored waiters some three months ago and have rehired them,” I began, by way of introduction.

“Yes, I guess it is about three months since we discharged the Colored men in the dining rooms,” she answered, “but we have not hired them again. At the time we let them go, we put in white waiters and we intend to keep them.

“You see,” she went on,” we were forced to discharge our Colored waiters for one reason only. We have a great many parties and entertainments out here in the evening, and we found it very difficult to secure efficient extra Colored help for those occasions.

“Our steady people were excellent waiters, but it seemed that every time we needed to get in a large number of extra employees, we obtained a good many who were anything but all right. Of course, complaint followed complaint, and we realized we would have to find better help to accommodate our guests.”

“I have heard that there have been numerous complaints because of discharging the Colored waiters,” I interposed.

Miss Greene admitted there had been. “A large percentage of our guests are permanent residents. They, many of them, have been at the Edgewater Beach for years and they have become attached to certain waiters who know them and know what they want and how they want it.

“A cry was raised by some of these guests when the change was made. Some of them wanted their old waiters back, but we were forced to explain over and over again why the change was necessary and now every one seems well satisfied with the white waiters.

“When the Edgewater Beach hotel first opened it had all white employees throughout. Then, a year or two afterward, the change was made to Colored help in the dining rooms. The usual complaints were heard in large numbers then. Some people did not like Colored waiters and did not want them, but after the Colored men had been officiating for a few months, our guests were equally pleased with them. So you see, it is only a matter of readjustment.”

Miss Greene never had heard of any Colored person applying for a room at the Edgewater Beach or entering the dining rooms for meals. She did not know what procedure would be taken if such a thing happened.

“We have nothing against Colored people at all,” she asserted emphatically. “We have liked those who worked for us and when we were compelled to let them go we did all in our power to secure new positions for them.

“At present, we have some Colored help in our laundry, but our maids always have been white.”

The consensus of opinion regarding Colored people as guests and employees may be summed up in the statements made by these three hotel representatives. Sometimes it seems as if unwritten laws are more carefully observed than the written ones.

This subject is a bit more serious than the usual fare for DYK, but I’d say it’s important nonetheless. This is, as ugly and as sad and as unfortunate as it is, still a part of our community’s history, and something that is definitely worth exploring.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject, be they interpretations of and responses to the article, recollections of personal experiences, or anything else.

Baker, ZitaThe Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967) [Chicago, Ill] 17 Aug 1929: 1.