This narrative of John Dabney's life written by the film's co-directors, Hannah Ayers and Lance Warren, draws together existing scholarship and presents previously unpublished sources and facts discovered during research for the film in summer and fall 2017.
John Dabney was a giant of 19th-century Richmond high society. He was a fixture of sophisticated gatherings, a connoisseur of the era’s delicacies (terrapin stew, canvasback duck, "hail-storm" mint juleps), and a family man who with his wife raised five children — among them, schoolteachers, a professional baseball player, and a musician-turned-newspaper editor. He was much admired; each of Richmond’s four daily papers noted his passing in 1900. Yet the man who had met the Prince of Wales and knew how to craft what the papers called "immortal foods" was also defined by what prevented him from doing even more. Dabney, an African American, spent his first 41 years enslaved.
Dabney was born to parents who knew well the demands of domestic service. His mother was a cook, his father a carriage driver, in Hanover Junction, then and now an area of horse farms north of Richmond later called Doswell. Dabney started in service work as a jockey, burnishing the reputations of the DeJarnettes, the white family that held his own family in bondage. When he outgrew the saddle, he headed inside the region’s racecourse buildings to prepare and serve food. There, Dabney began acquiring the skills that would attach to his biography terms that we rarely associate with those who were enslaved: bartender, chef, caterer. These were the stations from which, as a Richmond paper wrote upon his death, he supervised the city’s "every gathering of importance."
Cora Williamson DeJarnette inherited Dabney's mother through her marriage to William DeJarnette, who died not long after their wedding. Cora, presumably confronting limited resources as a young widow and in need of income, allowed her brother, Dabney Williamson, to hire-out Dabney to a restaurant at the railroad station in Gordonsville, Virginia. She would earn his wages while he garnered skills to make him, as newspapers later attested, "a very valuable servant." In Gordonsville, Dabney's son Wendell later wrote, the young man displayed a knack for the work. He reached the position of head waiter at the age of 18.
Dabney's first stop in Richmond may have been at the Columbian Hotel, a fine lodging located on East Cary Street in the heart of the city. "Yesterday afternoon," wrote a correspondent for the Richmond Daily Dispatch on August 10, 1855, "we received a julep which was decidedly ahead of any thing in the spirit line we have ever seen." Culinary historian Robert Moss judges this the earliest surviving account of Dabney's accomplishment and esteem. At age 20, working four blocks from the State Capitol and just two years removed from waiting tables at a rural rail junction, the former jockey was making his mark.
By the late 1850s, Dabney moved from the Columbian to run the kitchen and bar at the Ballard House & Exchange Hotel — the establishment, as his son Wendell later wrote, recognized by many as "the leading hotel in Virginia's leading city." Dabney took the helm after the departure of Spiro Zetelle, a well-regarded cook of Greek origin who excelled in restaurants and catering in Richmond until moving to California in the 1880s. Dabney inherited Zetelle's menu, a complex lineup of 19th-century fine dining standards, and the praise of his patrons indicates that he mastered it.
Between his arrival in Richmond and the beginning of the Civil War, John Dabney married Elizabeth Foster, another enslaved black Virginian. The couple soon welcomed a son, Clarence. But the birth was not celebrated by all in their orbit. John and Elizabeth Dabney's younger son, Wendell, later wrote that Elizabeth's owners thought she was focusing too much on her newborn child and not enough on their own family. "Dissatisfaction at this," Wendell wrote, "and rapidly growing debts, caused them to decide upon selling her."
Faced with the horror of losing his wife and son, likely forever — neither state nor federal law recognized enslaved people as members of families, and offered no protection nor support for reunification — Dabney turned to his savings. His work at hotels and restaurants principally benefitted Cora DeJarnette, but Dabney, as with fellow enslaved Virginians hired-out from farms around Richmond to factory and hospitality trades in the capital, was able to save tips. Dabney had made an agreement with DeJarnette to buy his own freedom through those tips. But his resources, while exceptional for an enslaved person, could stretch only so far. He asked permission to pause his payments in order to secure the funds necessary to free his wife. Cora DeJarnette agreed. "Then," Wendell explained, after enlisting "the help of some of his white friends" to arrange documents for the purchase, Dabney gathered the funds, "and bought my mother."
War, slowly and with great doubt, eventually brought freedom. The United States Army, including a regiment of U.S. Colored Troops, liberated Richmond on April 3, 1865. Fires set by retreating Confederates had destroyed the city's industrial district and commercial core, including the Columbian Hotel, where John Dabney first drew public acclaim. Elizabeth Dabney labored to sustain her business of washing, pressing, and repairing clothes. Her husband sought new opportunities. Richmond residents, black and white, began to rebuild, and the burned district provided some of the most promising sites for new development.
One such site was an 11-room women's seminary converted into a home and sold at auction in 1866. Two blocks from the State Capitol, the home at 1414 East Broad Street, on the city's main corridor, caught Dabney's eye as he walked by one day in November. John Dabney later told Wendell that he stood watching a large crowd of onlookers — and few bidders — while unintentionally nodding as the auctioneer announced sums climbing higher and higher. Bidders grew silent, Wendell later wrote, and finally the verdict was in: "Going, going, gone! Knocked down to John Dabney." The promising businessman and young father could just barely afford the final price. His accidental purchase, which became the family's home for more than 30 years, required a loan. But credit wasn't a stretch for John Dabney.
Wendell's autobiographical sketch relays the family lore that became Richmond legend. After the war, Cora DeJarnette became "destitute." She no longer enjoyed the income Dabney's work had supplied, nor the regular payments he made to acquire his freedom. Dabney had resumed making those payments after freeing Elizabeth. But eventually, the depreciation of Confederate currency caused DeJarnette to call for a pause — and with Emancipation, this last source of income seemed to have vanished.
Dabney learned of DeJarnette's plight and paid her a visit. He offered to pay her the balance that remained on his debt when Richmond was freed. Wendell Dabney wrote that his father felt indebted to DeJarnette due to her willingness to let him suspend payments when he faced the prospect of losing his wife. John Dabney told his son that Cora DeJarnette protested, but he did not waver. "I am keeping my word," he reported telling her. John Dabney placed before her a stack of United States currency, and then walked out.
"Richmond," Wendell wrote, "never forgot the deed. My father's note was good at any bank, and his word equivalent to an oath."
The city's white newspapers applauded Dabney's dignity. "All of our people are familiar with John Dabney, the celebrated colored restaurateur of our city," the breathless first account read, "and those who know him best place the most implicit confidence in his honor, and a circumstance which came to our knowledge a few days since proves how worthily this confidence is bestowed." In one remarkable act, Dabney transformed his reputation. He grew his wide acclaim into instant legend.
The story hit the press in September 1866. It circulated throughout Virginia and elsewhere in the South, and appeared in a Richmond newspaper as late as 1938. Over those 72 years, the paternalistic tone of the accounts softened, but remained. White Richmond interpreted Dabney's action as the simple gratefulness of a simple man. They praised DeJarnette's generosity in permitting Dabney to pause payments for his own freedom without acknowledging what she stood to gain from the long-term arrangement, nor, most fundamentally, the fact that she held him in bondage until the war made it impossible. The papers emphasized Dabney's "sense of honesty and personal obligation" without considering that an observer of white elites in the recent capital of the Confederacy might have eyed the tenuous future and sought to cement his place in any way possible. "John will stand," read the first report, "higher than ever in the estimation of every Richmond gentleman." And so he did, whatever his own feelings.
Dabney could not print an expansion of this narrative; slavery had made it impossible for him to learn to read or write. Wendell notes that on the one occasion when a family member of his owner's tried to teach him, "she was detected and sent away, while he received a severe whipping." But John and Elizabeth Dabney left no doubt about their politics. When Elizabeth gave birth to their son, Wendell Phillips, in November 1865, seven months after Emancipation reached Richmond, the couple named him after an abolitionist.
Dabney won praise from customers for his ever-present cheer and charm, and kept a "a still tongue," he told Wendell, in order to maintain "a wise head." If others would tell his story, he would play his part to the benefit of the family. Total submission was not the answer: "If you do everything white folks want you to do," John Dabney counseled Wendell, "you will go either to the penitentiary or the gallows." But he made clear the need for flattery of powerful white men: "Always make him feel that he knows more than you and always act as if you think he is the greatest man in the world." Most of all, Wendell recalled his father saying, "Never let a white man know how much you really do know about anything except hard work."
This grim advice reflected the dark demands of his world. Upon Dabney's death, Thomas Nelson Page, best known today for a widely-reprinted 1904 defense of lynching, offered his admiration in the form of verse written in exaggerated mimicry of black vernacular. Richmond’s papers of record were scarcely better. The Richmond Dispatch assessed Dabney as belonging to a deferent "school of his race now fast passing away," assuring readers that he was "entirely unobtrusive." A Charleston reporter visiting Richmond in 1894 saw in Dabney the happy slave of Lost Cause central casting: "so entirely a picturesque figure of the past," the correspondent wrote, "a type of the negro in ante-bellum days."
John Dabney told Wendell that his "business was too durn good" to leave town and make a new start elsewhere. But in staying, John and Elizabeth Dabney resisted by building a legacy. They sent Wendell to Oberlin College, where he studied music. Wendell returned to Richmond for several years, a young graduate finding his way, teaching grade school, and writing music, before returning to Ohio. In Cincinnati, he founded an opera company, two newspapers, and the local chapter of the NAACP; served twenty-seven years as the city's paymaster, Cincinnati's first black citizen to hold the post; and became a lifelong advocate for African American civil rights.
The other Dabney children, most born in the wake of freedom, also charted impressive paths. Daughters Kate and Hattie became teachers. John Milton, perhaps channeling the epic imagination of his namesake, excelled in professional baseball and later through a 30-year career in the U.S. Postal Service. Eldest son Clarence, whom John Dabney had rescued from sale in the late-1850s, followed his father into the hospitality trade.
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There was much to follow. While Dabney's renown grew deeper roots through his post-emancipation freedom payment, Richmond's elite had for a decade known him as a maestro of mint juleps — in fact, an innovator leveraging new technology. When Dabney took charge of the bar at the Columbian Hotel, ice was in its first generation of common use in Southern restaurants. Culinary historian Moss notes that Southerners could go days and weeks at a time with no food or drink cooler than the temperature of the air. The arrival of ice was a revelation, and Dabney made the most of the new ingredient.
Shipped in large blocks, ice had to be broken down for culinary use. John Dabney tackled his blocks with a carpenter's plane, shaving them into flurries that he mounded into and often around large silver goblets. These "hail-storm" juleps, which he topped with an exuberance of flowers and fruit, were unlike any mixed drink that Richmonders had seen. Dabney thrust silver straws deep into each goblet and encouraged customers to lean in, surrounding their faces with the chill and floral aroma before finally meeting a smooth mixture of sugar, brandy or whiskey, and fresh mint. Wendell Dabney, who assisted his father during several summer stints working in resorts at hot springs in western Virginia, spared no indulgence in recalling John Dabney's creation: "If you have never seen one of the juleps," he wrote, "then your eyes have missed a vision of loveliness, your palate a pleasure of deliciousness."
Dabney's success working in the restaurants of others enabled him to launch eateries of his own and with African American partners even before Emancipation. He opened an establishment called the Senate House in 1862, and the Dabney House Restaurant in 1865 — each located a few blocks from the district of markets and jails that long established Richmond as the second-largest slave trading center in the United States. Indeed, Dabney's proximity to the misery of an area known as "Devil's Half Acre" should temper any sense that his enslavement was characterized only by success and acclaim. And yet, Dabney did enjoy public adoration, once receiving from the City of Richmond a silver goblet engraved with thanks for his "Champion Juleps." He bent slavery as far as it would go, and seized every opportunity that freedom in the unreconstructed South would allow.
The man seemed tireless. "If Pop couldn't do it," Wendell recalled, "it couldn't be done." Yet Dabney's constant labor and long life took a toll. In his 73rd year, he began to experience symptoms diagnosed as nephritis, an inflammation of the kidneys. Eighteen months later, Dabney took to bed with kidney failure that he endured for 13 days before passing away at home on June 7, 1900, six weeks before his 75th birthday. Buried two days later in Mechanic's Cemetery (now part of a complex of six African American resting places known as the Barton Heights Cemeteries), John Dabney was missed by many. But his legacy quickly hit troubled waters.
All four of Richmond's white-owned daily newspapers noted Dabney's passing. They were not immediately joined by the city's sole black paper, The Richmond Planet, edited and largely written by anti-lynching advocate and former city councilman John Mitchell, Jr. Mitchell had made his name through repeatedly risking his life to report on lynchings and save from execution African American Virginians entrapped in Jim Crow justice. The caterer who charmed white elites, even if he did send their money to his northern-bound children, may not have moved the daring young journalist, activist, and politician dedicated to directness in seeking black freedom. When mention of Dabney's death did appear in the Planet three weeks later, Mitchell mustered only twelve words of acknowledgment at the end of a sentence about the passing of someone else: "Armistead Walker, Sr., died Tuesday, 26th [of June], while the well-known caterer John Dabney was buried several weeks ago."
Following the publication of two articles in Richmond newspapers in 1938, and a subsequent piece in Newark, New Jersey, the home of some of his descendants, in 1957, memory of John Dabney's life faded. No records exist of what happened to his wife or most of their children beyond their adult lives. Wendell Dabney, the best chronicled of the bunch, had no children of his own. And so, when the co-founders of a food festival in Richmond stumbled upon a mention of Dabney in a 2015 article in the Charleston City Paper written by Robert Moss, they were keen to honor his legacy but lacked raw materials to get started.
"I went to the Valentine, Richmond's history museum," recalls Maureen Egan, who with her business partner, Susan Winiecki, launched the Fire, Flour & Fork food festival in 2014. Egan and Winiecki, who in 2017 published a book, Richmond's Culinary History, that included a chapter on Dabney, started from scratch. "I asked for everything they had, which wasn't a lot," Egan says of her first visit to the archives. "But what they did [have] was fascinating." She found the only known photograph of John Dabney, and at the Valentine and later the Library of Virginia pieced-together a series of newspaper articles and ephemera that sketched the outlines and some of the textures of his story.
Egan and Winiecki were not working alone. Robert Moss synthesized his own archival research on Dabney in two chapters of a 2016 work, Southern Spirits, while historian David Shields chronicled Dabney's life and career in his 2017 anthology, The Culinarians. Egan, Winiecki, Moss, and Shields all drew on what appears to be the original work of historical scholarship on Dabney — a thoughtful, painstakingly-researched entry in the The Dictionary of Virginia Biography and The Encyclopedia of Virginia written in 2013 by Philip J. Schwarz.
Egan and Winiecki presented the first John Dabney Dinner in 2015 during the Fire, Flour & Fork festival, and despite scant records managed to find and invite several Dabney descendants. Focusing on the Hardy family of Brooklyn, New York, Egan and Winiecki contacted Jenny Jackson Hardy, John Dabney's great-great-granddaughter. They asked if she knew about her ancestor's remarkable life. She did not. As they all learned together, Jenny's son, Jeremy, journeyed to Richmond to take part in the inaugural dinner. Jenny attended with Jeremy and her daughter, Elsa, the following year, and with her husband, Jonathan, for the third celebration — now a "signature event" of Fire, Flour & Fork — in 2017.
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John Dabney commanded his own destiny, and did so with savvy. But he inhabited a time and a place where white dominance remained largely unchecked by Civil War defeat. Consequently, as Philip J. Schwarz has noted, "Dabney inwardly experienced the ‘two-ness' that sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois described in The Souls of Black Folk." He lived his life as "an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings." He applied his intelligence, entrepreneurial spirit, and endless effort to carve out a place of power and relative safety in a white world that demanded subservience.
Looking over the sweep of Dabney's life, we see food and drinks with style to spare. Looking closely, we see much more. Dabney's story illustrates slavery and freedom in 19th-century Virginia in unexpected ways, while revealing the life of an individual little-known now but unmissable in his day. As his descendants begin to make sense of Dabney's role in the story of their own lives, his legacy continues.