On the night of November 26, 1900, 1412 Pennsylvania Avenue NW was the only place to be in Washington, D.C. Three weeks earlier, President William McKinley had secured a second term in office, but the ball taking place at Grand Army Hall, five minutes from the White House, was not in his honor. The venue instead played host to a blowout organized by the Mixologist Club, an elite guild of the finest Black bartenders in the District.
Paying 35 cents for admission, well-heeled attendees enjoyed dinner and drinks before reporting to the dance floor; the “strains of sweet music” provided by Professor Charles Hamilton’s Monumental Orchestra, according to a recap in The Colored American, “attracted a select number who came to trip the light fantastic.” The evening’s entertainment also included a people’s choice contest to crown the city’s best barman. Sometime after midnight, Edward Matthews, who’d risen from errand boy to head mixologist in his decade on staff at the nearby Philadelphia House, was announced as the winner, receiving a gold watch as his prize. “[One] of the most congenial men in the city,” The Washington Bee would later note. “Ed. knows how to treat his patrons when they call.”
At the turn of the 20th century, the officers of the Mixologist Club, founded in 1898, were fussed-over figures in D.C.’s Black periodicals, whether they were executing an elaborate fête or crafting a flawless Rickey, their town’s native highball. A common knack for preparing cocktails, however, was only one of several factors leading to the guild’s formation.
D.C.’s segregation laws necessitated the creation of the Black-owned bars, restaurants, hotels and clubs that employed these men, including the Philadelphia House, the Academy Restaurant, Gray and Costley and the Sparta Buffet. As admired in their orbit as the ballyhooed white bartenders outside it, the Mixologist Club unified as a declaration of Black agency within the profession, in an era when the race’s proximity to liquor was frequently—and unjustly—associated with lawlessness and vice. “The art of mixing liquors has come to be a highly respectable and profitable calling and men of excellent repute are found in its ranks,” The Colored American wrote in 1900. “To protect the better grade of workmen from the shiftless and unreliable, and to stimulate a broader spirit of fraternity, an organization was found necessary.”
Today, Black industry professionals in Washington, D.C., are gleaning inspiration from their predecessors, developing new methods of support on both sides of the bar. Indeed, collaboration has been a hallmark of the Black bartending community in D.C. since the turn of the century, when it was the best and often only recourse amid legislated oppression.
In 1830, a majority of Black residents in D.C. were free, and in the 16 years spanning the Civil War and Reconstruction, upward of 25,000 more free Black people settled in the city. By 1930, this number had reached more than 132,000—then America’s second-largest Black community after New York, and its most economically prosperous, according to Garrett Peck’s Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren’t. Early Black Washingtonians, barred from most white spaces by Jim Crow laws, laid the framework for the 20th-century emergence of D.C. as “Chocolate City,” a majority-Black town that nurtured African-American excellence in academia, art, entrepreneurship and politics. Out of necessity, they introduced the District’s first Black churches, schools and small businesses—as well as private clubs and societies for the politically engaged.
Robert R. Bowie and J. Burke Edelin, the Mixologist Club’s president and VP, poured drinks for D.C.’s 5,500 person–strong National Colored Personal Liberty League, an anti-temperance lobby with some 600,000 members across the country. Complimented in the papers for his “manly bearing and dignified mien,” Bowie made regular public endorsements for municipal positions and judgeships; Edelin, in 1908, served as the president of Colored Voters for Taft. There was also the Metropole Club, run by Mixologist Club secretary C. Washington Wood, whom The Colored American noted “dispenses refreshments with dexterity and a smile as mellow as a June apple.”
According to Andra Johnson, managing partner of the Latin American cocktail bar Serenata and a co-founder of DMV Black Restaurant Week, the District of Columbia “was one of the first places that Black people had spaces to experience the hospitality that they had been giving for so long. You could be served, be welcomed and be treated like you’re special.” This past December, Johnson took over downtown’s bar Allegory for a talk on the origins of D.C.’s Black drinking culture, complete with a historically informed cocktail list.
Programming such as this actively combats the legacy of erasure that has plagued the contributions of the Mixologist Club, victims of racism and unfortunate timing alike. These bartenders rose to prominence alongside the temperance movement—in fact, the Anti-Saloon League, which became a national organization in Northwest D.C. in 1895, was founded at a church within walking distance of their bars. The onset of Prohibition, which lasted longer in the District than anywhere else in the country, had a doubly deleterious effect on their standing in cocktail history.
“I would have loved to see what they may have been able to accomplish for their profession, had it not been ruled illegal,” says Duane Sylvestre, a spirits specialist for Gruppo Campari. In 2013, he teamed up with Bacardi ambassador Colin Asare-Appiah, local bar owner Derek Brown and others to organize a party celebrating Black cocktail heritage in D.C. and beyond. In 2017, Sylvestre and drinks historian David Wondrich presented on the Mixologist Club and other pre-Prohibition African-American bartenders at BevCon in Charleston, South Carolina, contextualizing their contributions within the wider cocktail discourse.
Johnson’s and Sylvestre’s scholarly efforts are just a few examples of the unified vision shared by Washington, D.C.’s Black bar professionals today. Though it looks and sounds much different than it did in 1900, the grassroots solidarity at the core of the Mixologist Club’s efforts is still palpable. “The people of color that I came up with in my career always find ways to collaborate, educate each other and uphold a standard of quality,” says Glendon Hartley, co-owner of Service Bar on U Street and former president of the D.C. branch of the United States Bartenders’ Guild.
In 2018, Kapri Robinson of Reliable Tavern in Petworth, launched Chocolate City’s Best, a cocktail competition for BIPOC talent in the D.C. region. Robinson and her partners have since expanded that contest into a wider-reaching nonprofit, with a focus on identifying and creating opportunities for growth and advancement within the industry. “I hope that Black people and people of color learn empowerment from our programming,” says Robinson, the organization’s president and engagement ambassador. “I believe in pulling people up the ladder with me, and in turn, them doing the same.”
Johnson, of Serenata, draws another direct line between the city’s past and present with the R.R. Bowie Cocktail Competition, an event she launched two years ago as part of DMV Black Restaurant Week. Named in honor of the Mixologist Club’s president, it brings together bartenders of color who have not had the opportunity to participate in mainstream competitions, while paying homage to their industry forebears through thematic prompts and challenges. “The idea was to build the confidence for younger or newer bartenders, but also pay homage to the fact that we’re not new to this,” she says. “We’ve been here.”