While free blacks in antebellum New York City were denied work in most professions and crafts and owned few businesses, they were a visible presence in the food trades especially as waiters. African-American waiters successfully organized and demanded $16 dollars a month, spurring white waiters to form their own organization and request the cooperation of their African-American counterparts. Black waiters were divided over cooperating with the white organization or maintaining their autonomy. While white waiters demanded a wage increase to $18 per month, the First United Association of the Colored Waiters was as concerned about retaining jobs in the city rather than be being forced to seek work in resort areas.
Between seven and eight hundred waiters assembled in Grand Street Hall last evening, to adopt measures to secure an advance of wages from twelve and fourteen dollars a month to eighteen. The first meeting was held about two weeks ago, since which time the proprietors of several eating houses, saloons, hotels &c., have granted the increase demanded. Those who have not, it is expected, will not hold out much longer; but should they still persist in refusing, it is the intention of the waiters to strike. A society of colored waiters has also been formed, and they are prepared to co-operate with the white waiters in any movement of the kind that may take place. To prevent inconvenience to their employers by such action, should they desire to reengage their own men on a strike, a general place of meeting will be designated at which both employers and employed can assemble and reconcile their differences.
The meeting was called to order at eight o'clock by the President, Adolphus Schwind. The minutes were read by the Secretary, W.F. Hamilton, and received with repeated cheering and a unanimous approval. The Secretary stated that the committee had engaged an office at 483 Broadway for the agency of the society. He then read the constitution and by-laws which were adopted at the last meeting. A list of such waiters as desired to join the society was handed in from the different hotels, eating houses, &c., with their initiation fees, which amounted in the aggregate to about four hundred dollars.
The President made an appropriate address, when the preliminary business was transacted. He recommended union among the waiters as the only means by which they could secure their demands. Several hotel keepers had granted the advance, while others offered to do so, but only on condition that they should not join the society. This, said Mr. S., they refused to do. (Applause.) He spoke also of an editorial article in yesterday's HERALD, as a proof that the press of the city supported the movement of the industrial classes for increased wages. This allusion was received with three cheers for the HERALD.
Mr. Florey next addressed the meeting. He disavowed on behalf of the waiters any intention to indulge in riotous proceedings, or to interfere with the peace of society. They were determined, nevertheless, to have their rights, and for this purpose they had formed a society, which would procure from them a fair remuneration for their labor. He mentioned several proprietors of hotels who had acceded to the demands of the waiters; among them were Messrs. Coleman & Stetson, Mr. Judson, and Mr. Ford. He also read a long list of head waiters who had joined the society, and expressed the opinion that there would be no occasion for a strike, as all their employers would grant the advance which had been asked. The society of waiters, he said, was calculated not only to benefit them materially, but to give them a more respectable position in society and in public opinion, than they had hitherto occupied. Mr. F. concluded by calling fpr three cheers for the HERALD for the manner in which it had supported the just demands of the waiters. The cheers were given and repeated.
Mr. John Thomas (colored) of the Irving House, made a few remarks in relation to an advertisement published in the HERALD a few days ago, by some society of colored waiters, which he said was calculated to injure all who had joined in the present movement, both colored and white. That society, he desired it to be understood, did not represent the majority of the colored waiters of the city, and what they had done should not therefore be regarded as the action of that majority. He concluded by promising, on behalf of the colored waiters, a hearty co-operation with the whites.
Addresses were also made by Mr. J. REID and Mr. HAMILTON, after which the following song was sung by Mr. W. E. Topley, the audience joining in the chorus:
Waiters, all, throughout the nation,
Why will you every be vOverburdened by oppression
Overawed by tyranny?
Wait for the good time coming no longer;
Claim at once what is your due;
Toil no more like slaves, and hunger,
To support an idle few.
Be of good cheer, and do not fret.
A golden age is coming yet.
See your wives and children tender
Badly clothed and pine for bread.
While your bosses live in splendor,
And of dainty dished fed.
If united, you are the stronger,
Why not to yourselves prove true?
Toil no more like slaves and hunger,
To support an idle few.
Be of good cheer, &c.
At the conclusion of this song the meeting adjourned.
Source: Foner, Philip S., and Lewis, Ronald L., The Black Worker: A Documentary History from Colonial Times to the Present, Volume 1 The Black Worker to 1869. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978 p. 195-96.