From slavery to freedom through food and resistance, John Dabney’s story is one not often mentioned, but one that should be celebrated and honored not only for Black History Month, but for the mark he left on Richmond as well. And that story will be told at the Black History Museum this week with a screening of The Hail Storm: John Dabney in Virginia, a documentary on his life and legacy, which is produced by local filmmakers Lance Warren and Hannah Ayers from Field Studio.
Born into slavery in 1824 in Hanover County, and enslaved for the first 41 years of his life, Dabney went on to become a bartender, chef, and renowned Richmond caterer, known for making 19th century high society’s delicacies such as terrapin stew, canvasback duck, and his infamous “hail-storm” Mint Juleps. He served the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) on his trip to America in 1860 and was a prominent caterer in Richmond until his death in 1900.
Dabney’s Mint Juleps were originally made with peach brandy, rum, and sometimes other Caribbean spirits, mixed with sugar and water. The name hail-storm for this drink came about because drinks were starting to be made with ice, and he made his drinks with a lot of crushed ice.
Before becoming the well-known bartender and respected man he came to be, Dabney was a horse jockey. “The woman who inherited Dabney didn’t really have a huge farm or anything, yet her brother who raced horses saw the potential Dabney had for being a jockey and had him jockey for a few years,” said Ayers.
Once he grew out of jockeying, however, was when the beginning of career would take off.
“When he grew out of jockeying he went into the kitchen where he showed an almost natural skill for cooking and that’s when he was brought to Gordonsville and eventually Richmond to further hone his skills and pursue his career in cooking,” said Ayers.
Dabney first started working at the Hanover Junction as the head waiter in Gordonsville, Virginia. He then later headed the bar at a Richmond hotel, which was owned by William Williamson, the brother of the woman who inherited Dabney. While there, Williamson had chefs and those around him teach him more about cooking and bartending. After gaining experience, he eventually worked at various hotels throughout Richmond such as the Columbian Hotel, a fine lodging located on East Cary Street and even running the kitchen and bar at the Ballard House & Exchange Hotel.
Dabney started growing his reputation around the 1850s according to Ayers. “He’d go to Western Virginia where a lot of hot springs were. There were these resorts where elite Richmonders would go when it got hot and the resorts would advertise that Dabney would be there because he was this famous bartender and he’d even manage the kitchen,” she said.
Around this time is when he started getting attention from the Richmond newspapers. His achievements alone and accolades from whites was unheard of at the time for an African American, and at that point, he was still only 27 years old.
“The ability he had to negotiate… he had to be a good dealmaker as well because he was doing things 99 percent of people in his situation were not able to do,” said Warren.
Before the beginning of the Civil War, Dabney married Elizabeth Foster, another enslaved African American from Virginia and had a son, Clarence.
With his savings from working in restaurants and hotels, Dabney was able to buy the freedom for his wife and son.
“It really changes your view of slavery for him because, Dabney purchasing the freedom of them, who would’ve thought that was even possible in that time period,” said Warren. And even after the war ended and every slave being freed, Dabney still repaid the debt he owed to his former owner for his freedom.
“His former owner told him, ‘everyone’s free now you don’t have to pay me, you don’t owe me anything, but Dabney insisted on paying her the debt anyway,” said Ayers.
In the 1870s, Dabney opened a restaurant spreading his popular reputation even further, which he ran until 1890 when he retired, however he still continued to work up until his death.
Dabney and his wife eventually settled down and bought a house in Richmond. They went on to have five kids, but only three made it to adulthood.
The Black History Museum will screen The Hail Storm: John Dabney in Virginia this Wednesday, Feb. 28. The 26-minute documentary will feature one of his great descendants Jennifer Jackson Hardy and in addition to the film, guests will enjoy Mint Juleps and hors d’oeuvres inspired by Dabney, as well as a post-screening discussion with Ayers and Warren; historian Elvatrice Belsches; and Shola Walker, the co-owner and head baker of Mahogany Sweets, a bakery in Jackson Ward. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased here.