Black caterers in white tails

Baltimore Glimpses

October 01, 1991|By GILBERT SANDLER

IT'S FALL, and if you read the gossip columns you know that the party season is in full swing. Hosts and hostesses know they'll get highest marks for their parties if they use the right caterer. Catering is a big and highly competitive business in Baltimore, but through the 1930s there were only five caterers in the city. All were black.

As a boy, Gaines Lansey, now chairman of Ideal Federal Savings Bank, worked for all of them. It was a close-knit industry: Thomas Waters (800 block Linden Avenue); Charles Shipley (Madison and St. Mary's); James Hughes (East Centre Street), Bailey Conaway (500 block McCullogh Street) and Bessie Simms (Cathedral at Tyson). "Among them," Lansey recalls, "they had Baltimore society sewn up tight. The most prominent families used one of them for their most important social parties -- including for the highlights of the social season, the entertaining for debutantes and the parties given as part of the Hunt Cup festivities."

Lansey remembers working the parties with complete crews. There were white uniforms for the cooks and kitchen help and white tie and tails for the waiters, of which he was one. ("I bought my white tie and tails for $25 at a used clothing store," he recalls.) He passed lots of hors d'oeuvres at homes in Guilford, Roland Park and Homeland and in the Green Spring Valley. On the day of the Hunt Cup the caterers would start their work with breakfasts at 7 and work through lunch and dinner. Often they'd get home in the wee hours.

Says Lansey: "It's hard today to appreciate the degree to which the catering business in Baltimore was black-owned up through the 1930s. For example, one of the most important events in the history of the city, bringing celebrities from all over America to Baltimore, was the centennial of the B&O in 1927. It was called 'The Affair of the Iron Horse' over in Halethorpe. The railroad was serving 10,000 people a day. Of course, it was all handled by a black caterer -- in this case Waters."

But late in the 1930s, whites began to realize money could be made in the catering business. The downtown hotels established big catering operations. People who gave parties in their homes began engaging the hotels -- the Southern, the Emerson, the Lord Baltimore. And some of the black catering families got out of the business as their children left for other opportunities.

Today, Lansey's memories are of hard days and nights and an PTC "important education in the ways of the world." He also remembers, more than half a century later, his white tie and tails. "Bet I could still fit into it," he says.

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