Women Waiter Carriers: Early Entrepreneurs
It’s Black History Month, and I generally don’t participate in events like a month dedicated to any sub-section of ‘human.’ I tend to think it does more to divide and separate, then celebrate. But I sure do love good stories, and the story of women of color selling food to those traveling by train is an inspiration, and one I’d never read before.
First, we women have always done whatever it took, with the tools in our toolbox (in this case cooking), to get what we needed for our families and to reach our goals.
I’d never heard of these fabulous entrepreneurs before there was such a thing. So proud ladies. I can’t help but think what the next unique ‘need’ might be that we can fill with those tools that we women easily master in our everyday lives.
Known as “Waiter Carriers,” African American women found a path to financial freedom through fried chicken in the 1800s, and put Gordonsville, Virginia on the map as the "Fried Chicken Capital of the World.” Trains didn’t have dining cars, and so local African American women began to sell homemade fried chicken, biscuits and pies to passengers through the windows, from the platform.
The name Waiter Carriers came from the long ways the women would come to bring food to the station. Their popularity grew, to where passengers began to purposely route their trips to pass by their station.
Waiter Carriers were able to gain economic independence and empowerment, a major feat for African American women after the Civil War. In a 1970 newspaper interview, Bella Winston, a former waiter carrier who was 80 years old at the time said she learned the trade from her mother. She said, “My mother paid for this place with chicken legs.”
A testament to the depth of economic empowerment and independence gained by the Waiter Carriers who wouldn’t have had any form of financial liberation if not for the trade. Some even bought their freedom through their cooking skills.
By the late 1900s, as dining cars were added to trains and government regulations cracked down on track-side food vendors, Waiter Carriers slowly disappeared. But their legacy still lives on through the many Black-owned restaurants, chefs, and architects of the foodways arena. - Gerald Harris
One last thought. Dollars to donuts the food those women sold to travelers was ten times better than the food they started serving on trains. The train companies should have hired women to sell in every station! Companies that empower others to use their strengths to provide services for customers in their care is what we should aspire to do. It’s a win win for everyone.