By Ana Kinkaid
In the 1890’s, America’s newspapers largely printed stories that only provided coverage about the activities of whites. Occasionally, a random story would appear that mentioned the experience of blacks and immigrants, but only to sensationalize and exaggerate with tales of prison riots or immigrant thefts or murder.
The result of such biased coverage was to create an atmosphere of distrust and fear. People who spoke a different language or came from a different culture or religion were to be seen as harmful and not really Americans.
But one man saw the world differently. His name was Robert Abbott and he lived in Chicago. Through his efforts, America would change forever with a little help from trains and from oysters.
Abbott was born in 1870 to freed slave parents on St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia, home to the Gullah people, an African-descended ethnic group that had continued stronger ties to their original African tribal heritage.
Abbott’s father died when he was a small child and his mother remarried John Sengstacke. His new stepfather’s parents had been a German sea captain and a woman named Tama, a rescued slave from West Africa, whom he married.
With such a background, it is not unusual that young Robert Abbott had a worldview broader than most. From 1892 to 1896 he studied the printing trade at Hampton Institute, a historical black college in Virginia.
Next he trained as a lawyer in Chicago and tried to set up a law practice in the South, but without success. By this time, the Jim Crow laws were in full force, restricting the rights of blacks and immigrants in every sector of life, including the right of a qualified black American to practice law.
Disappointed, he returned to Chicago to look for another avenue to effect change. With the help of an understanding landlady who lent him a spare room, he started a newspaper in 1905 with the modern equivalency of $7 that would soon grow to become the nation’s largest black newspaper, The Chicago Defender.
In that newspaper he wrote that truth often is like a pearl, hard and gritty at first, and difficult to face. But if one shines the light of honesty upon it, it will heal and come to glisten in the sun like a pearl. And then no one has to be afraid to speak or write the truth.
Because Chicago was the hub of the nation’s transportation system, he encouraged the oppressed Southern blacks to come North and seek a better life. The resulting mass black movement North is known as the Great Migration. Influenced by his stories of more humane conditions, thousands came North, fleeing the injustice of the post-Civil War laws, sometimes as many as 5,000 in a week to Chicago alone.
All of these people needed jobs. One of the most sought after jobs was as a Pullman Porter on the sleeper/dinner trains that criss-crossed the nation through Chicago because the they featured the bright blue and silver oyster cars and the tips were better because the celebrities preferred these trains.
Designed by A. E. Stillman, these unique rail cars carried fresh oysters from both coasts and the Gulf to diners in the Mideast. Eight cool salt water tanks hidden deep inside ensured the shellfish arrived in the very best condition.
In the dining cars attached to the trains, fresh savory oysters, served in such countless variations as Oysters a la Poulette, were always popular on the menus from which millionaires and movie stars dined.
But these trains carried more than oysters. The brave porters aboard these special trains often carried Abbott’s newspaper hidden in their suitcases to the many readers across the nation forbidden in the South to own or even read the publication.
These same porters would return from the South with endless hard-to-face but fact-filled stories about discrimination, lynchings, unfair wages and unequal education — all to appear weekly in The Chicago Defender Newspaper when no one else dared write about such injustices.
This little known story is truly part of our American culinary history, not to be forgotten. It’s a story about a tenacious Chicago newspaper editor, a courageous group of Pullman Porters and some longed-for oysters aboard a train that changed a nation — asking it, like Abbott’s original imagery, to face the ugly truth of discrimination and heal it, until like a pearl, the nation shined bright and free.
If you enjoy learning about culinary history and the chefs who shaped America, you can catch Ana Kinkaid at Cook. Craft. Create. ACF National Convention & Show in Orlando, Florida, July 9-13. She’ll be presenting on chefs and culinary history. For a taste of her presentation, check out her blog post on Why Chefs Wear White (and sometimes color too).