Colored Citizens of New York and Vicinity Dinner, and Matthew A. Henson

Ana Perez

This menu was the menu for a dinner hosted by the Colored Citizens of New York and Vicinity in 1909, held at Tuxedo in New York, in honor of Matthew A. Henson, an African American explorer. Henson claims to have reached the geographic North Pole on April 6, 1909, so this dinner may have been in honor of this feat. Little information is offered online about The Colored Citizens of New York, but it was most likely an organization/association dedicated to honoring African American men who have achieved major feats and promoting the success of other African Americans in New York and around the area. The guest list on the menu includes multiple male guests and their wives, so it was definitely focused on the achievements of African American males, but was still welcoming to women. The Colored Citizens of New York held an honorary dinner for Booker T. Washington in 1903, so it can be assumed that this organization had large funds, national recognition, and the members, as well as the association itself most likely aligned their values with those of Washington. The presenter of the gold watch and chain for Mr. Henson is shown to be James L. Curtis. Research shows that Curtis was a well-accomplished psychiatrist within the black community.

Cover page of the menu
First page of the menu

Born from a free couple of color in 1866, Matthew A. Henson grew up in a post-civil war Maryland; his family frequently experiencing racist attacks from the KKK. In an attempt to escape the attacks, his family sold their farm and moved to Georgetown in his early years. At the early age of twelve years old, Henson worked as a cabin boy on a sailing ship. Much later at the age of twenty two, Henson was hired to work as a valet for an expedition to Nicaragua. This expedition led to his seven voyages to the Arctic, beginning in 1891 and ending in 1909. Henson became one out of six men to be the first to reach the North Pole. Henson wrote and published a memoir, A  Negro Explorer at the North Pole, recounting these voyages in 1912. In 1944, Henson received the Congressional medal for his expeditions. Henson was certainly a model for Black Excellence, and the Colored Citizens of New York and Vicinity acknowledged this. Henson’s journey to the North Pole was a physical representation of endurance, strength, and courage. Being one of the first men to reach the North Pole, while also being a black man in the 19th and 20th century was no average accomplishment, and won its well earned recognition by the Colored Citizens. 

Portrait of Matthew A. Henson (Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA)

Menu Contents: As previously mentioned, the Colored Citizens of New York and Vicinity was a prestigious association, and their dinner menu is a clear manifestation of that. The content of the menu can lead one to believe that the Colored Citizens strived to be viewed as such. The menu items do not represent traditional southern style “comfort food”, but much more elaborate dishes such as “Kennebec salmon” (large Atlantic salmon from the lower Kennebec tributaries that are caught in the late summer to late fall) or “Parisienne potatoes” . Steering away from the stereotypical chicken based dishes associated with African Americans, this menu represents the radical idea of the twentieth century that African Americans had to present themselves in a new light, shying away from the stereotypical or conventional “Southern” personality to earn the respect of white people. The association of The Colored Citizens is an obvious ode to this philosophy. Dedicating itself to the representation of achievements within the black community, it is clear that this association’s goals were to promote these achievements outside of the black community, which would hopefully benefit African Americans in a white-dominated society. 

General electric advertisement using a racially-biased caricature associating African Americans with the stereotypical image of fried chicken. (Source: https://www.newspapers.com/clip/2800716/yo_next_range_should_be_a_general/)
Menu contents – as you can see, this is a very distinguished menu, featuring high class flavors and ingredients.

This menu tells a story of black communities in the early 20th century. Their values, ideologies, and overall attempts to prove themselves as worthy citizens in society. Comparing the menu to Booker T. Washington’s philosophy to urge black communities to act, speak, and become sophisticated members of society to change the way they were judged and perceived by whites. The Citizens of New York and Vicinity manifested this sophistication by being an association of “elite” African Americans, bringing awareness to the accomplishments of black men, and even actions as small as unconventional, or “fancy”, menu contents.