In a book titled Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880-1902, author Willard B. Gatewood includes a few sentences about Albany, NY’s Home Social Club. According to Gatewood, it “represented the pinnacle of the city’s black social structure.”
Portraying the club as an aristocratic, elitist organization seems unfair, based on my research. Yes, the club’s membership included some black professionals over the years, but among its long-term adherents were waiters, barbers, and railroad porters.
Founded by William Henry Johnson in 1887, the club was limited at first to twelve members, but this seems to have been expanded to fourteen later on. Its meetings were often reported in the newspapers, and though much of the coverage focused on its elaborate dinners, meetings seem to have fostered plenty of discussions about the issues of the day as they related to African Americans.
Some of the members, indeed, had achieved respected positions in their fields. Member Robert Douge was probably the African American by the same name who graduated from Albany Law School in 1890– though instead of working as an attorney he was a soldier and a musician. Charles M. VanBuren, usually referred to as “Prof. C. M. VanBuren,” was a notable actor. Thomas H. Diggs was one of the proprietors of the Adams Hotel.
But many of the men were regular working stiffs. Bill Yopp, a former slave, worked as a porter on the private car of the president of the Delaware & Hudson. John W. Price was a barber in Lansingburgh, and Joseph Price was one of the top Pullman porters of the day, serving many important passengers (including Franklin D. Roosevelt). William H. Brent, the club’s treasurer for many years, was a waiter at the Stanwix Hall Hotel. And, Johnson himself, though often referred to as “Dr. Johnson,” earned a living by cutting hair and selling a medicinal remedy he’d created called Golden Seal.
The club provided a way for local black citizens to socialize, and to discuss – even argue over – issues of the day. Topics of speeches included “The Political Future of the Negro American,” “Fraternal and Social Societies,” and “The Negro as a ‘Citizen’.”
Discussions (usually accompanied by cigars and drinks– at one meeting “everybody talked and smoked for a long while”) surely got hot and heavy at times. Journalist J. E. Bruce (also known as “Bruce Grit”) attended some of the meetings, and told the group he “believed that the cultivated and refined among us had passed beyond the point of judging each other harshly because of differences of opinion on any question. It is a great accomplishment to be able to oppose the public acts and utterances of any man and retain his personal respect.”
Bruce commended Johnson – the club’s founder, one-time president, and long-serving secretary – for “his guiding hand [which] is everywhere visible in all that makes for harmony, good fellowship, unity of thought and of action in the regeneration and redemption of the Negroes in this community.”
Meetings were almost always held at the homes of members, and among them were several “first class chefs.” Consequently, the annual January dinners featured a wide assortment of delectable items. In 1889, the feast included raw oysters, terrapin fricassee, wild turkey, roast pig, corn, mashed potatoes, lobster salad, quail on toast, cottage pudding, and mince pie, followed by. “burnt brandy, cigars, sherry and whiskey.” In 1901, the menu offered creamed oysters, sherry, roast turkey, suckling pig, peas, asparagus, and mashed potatoes, followed up with mince pie, ice cream, egg nog, fruit, and then “Cigars, Smoke, Talk.”
Without having been able to attend a meeting of the Home Social Club, we can only guess at whether the food or talk were the main attraction. However, meetings were called “a feast of reason and flow of bowl,” by the newspaper The Colored American in 1901.
The Home Social Club met regularly into the early years of the 20th Century, but seems to have become less active as time went on. It was still holding events in the 1930s, but may have become dormant after that.
Photos, from above: William Henry Johnson, Robert Douge, and William H. Brent from the Autobiography of Dr. William Henry Johnson, published in 1900.