Racial Tensions in St. Louis Waiters' Unions

16, August 2017
Photo of ladies' dining room at St. Nicholas HotelLadies' dining room in the St. Nicholas Hotel, 1905. Photo by Emil Boehl. Missouri History Museum.

If you went out to dinner in St. Louis during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, odds are your waiter would have been an African American male. At the time, the majority of waiters were black, and the position was seen as one of the most desirable ones available to black workers due to its relatively substantial wage and lack of physical labor. The security African Americans felt in this role was short lived though, because in the 1910s white men saw the same benefits of waiting tables and attempted to force black men out of the industry.

One of the easiest ways for white waiters to eliminate black competition for jobs was to form unions. Although this did allow for collective bargaining for higher wages and shorter hours on behalf of all waiters, it also gave whites the power to exclude African Americans by forming white-only unions. Black waiters were allowed to form their own unions, but the white unions didn’t recognize the black unions’ existence or provide them with any support. In fact, the white unions actively sought to sabotage the black unions by forming agreements with the best restaurants and hotels in the city. These businesses, which had the highest wages for waiters, agreed to hire only members of St. Louis Waiters’ Union Local 20—the white waiters’ union. This left African American waiters with the second-tier positions that didn't pay nearly as well.

Photo of dining room at Tony Faust'sDining room at Tony Faust's, 1890. Photo by Emil Boehl. Missouri History Museum.

By 1914 the number of African American waiters in St. Louis had dropped substantially, and none of the head positions was held by black men. White managers and patrons became more hostile to the few black waiters who remained. Wages also dropped due to the lower-tier jobs. The average black waiter in 1914 was making $7 a week, with meager tips of nickels and dimes. In contrast, white waiters made anywhere from $17.50 to $24.50 a week, with additional tip revenue of $40 to $50 a week.

The only time black waiters received respect from the white restaurants was when the white unions went on strike and the restaurants needed to keep operating. Although the black waiters did a fine job filling in, their white counterparts were reinstated after the strike ended. African Americans were again left to take the jobs no one else wanted in an industry where they once had been king.   

—Rebecca Ohmer, Exhibitions Intern, Summer 2016

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