Paula Deen is in trouble. Last month, in a deposition for a discrimination suit brought by an employee, the Food Network star blithely admitted to using racial slurs. Perhaps equally disturbing, she also said she had fantasized about throwing a slavery-themed wedding for her brother, an idea that came to her after eating at a restaurant with an all-black staff.
Deen has apologized, though the Food Network has announced that it won’t renew her contract. Whatever her motivations, she tapped into a long history of slavery fantasy in the United States.
In the years preceding the Civil War, as northern states gradually emancipated their slaves, many expensive hotels in New York and other northern cities made it a policy to hire only black men to wait tables in their dining halls. Although it seems that these waiters were all free men, some may have been only recently emancipated.
The theatrical tradition of blackface minstrelsy developed over the same antebellum decades, feeding a parallel longing for a not-yet-past plantation slavery; New Yorkers could take in a blackface show and then walk down the block for a meal served by black men.
Because New York was a center of the cotton trade, southern cotton merchants and their emissaries spent a lot of time in the city’s hotels. They tended to prefer those staffed by black people, such as the Lafarge House and the Howard House, which could provide a simulacrum of slavery.
Some black waiters, understanding the slave-like implications of their work, rebelled by serving without servility, organizing unions that they hoped would protect their dignity (the first multicity, multiracial waiters’ strike was in 1853), and reorganizing their work to try to shed connotations of slavery.
Tunis Campbell, a black abolitionist preacher and headwaiter at various hotels in New York, adapted military drills to the dining room as a way to impose discipline and machine-like regularity. In 1848, he wrote the first textbook on hotel management, in which he stressed the need for black waiters to serve with dignity.
With the coming of the Civil War and southern emancipation, Campbell went south to serve as a Reconstruction-era legislator in Georgia. Up north, however, whites’ desire for black service workers who evoked slavery increased. This trend reached its height in the policies of the Pullman Company, which hired white men to construct train cars and black men to staff them as porters and waiters.
When Robert Todd Lincoln (son of the Great Emancipator) became Pullman’s president, he continued the tradition of hiring only blacks. Ironically, Pullman porters were among the most radical, empowered black Americans of their era — spreading news of northern freedoms to blacks stuck in the Jim Crow South, building a powerful union, sometimes even joining the Communist Party. On the job, however, they were expected to act out the style of servility that had been shaped under slavery.
In the early 20th century, things began to change, but not because of a decline in racism. Instead, hotel and restaurant managers in New York and across the United States began to replace black male waiters with white women. The labor shortages of World War I were an important catalyst for this shift, but managers also stoked and responded to a broader cultural change in taste: Sexiness was now valued above all in the dining experience.
Even as black men disappeared from the dining rooms of restaurants and hotels, they began to appear on food packaging. As Maurice M. Manring has shown in his book Slave in a Box, packaging design and advertising campaigns for syrup and other food products (Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s Rice or Rastus from the Cream of Wheat box) evoked and played on a racist nostalgia for slavery, much like blackface minstrelsy. Although the racial caricature has been toned down, the same characters are still on the packaging of those products today.
For all the horror of Deen’s deposition, we should remember that the remnants of her racist attitudes still surround us, hidden everywhere in plain sight.
Daniel Levinson Wilk is an associate professor of American history at the Fashion Institute of Technology.