Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Lexington caterer became one of White House’s most notable black chefs

Laura "Dolly" Johnson of Lexington was photographed in 1891 in the White House kitchen, where she cooked for President Benjamin Harrison. She later moved back to Lexington and opened the White House Cafe on Main Street in 1910.
Laura "Dolly" Johnson of Lexington was photographed in 1891 in the White House kitchen, where she cooked for President Benjamin Harrison. She later moved back to Lexington and opened the White House Cafe on Main Street in 1910. Library of Congress

When Benjamin Harrison moved from Indianapolis to Washington in 1889 to become the nation’s 23rd president, the White House kitchen steward hired a French chef to prepare meals for the new president and his guests.

But Harrison complained that Madame Pelouard’s sauces and pastries were too rich and “laid him out,” according to newspaper reports. He asked for simpler fare, but she refused. So he fired her.

Harrison’s wife, Caroline, wrote to Mrs. H.M. Skillman of Lexington in search of a Kentucky cook. Skillman recommended a well-known Lexington caterer, Laura “Dolly” Johnson, The Lexington Leader reported on Dec. 3, 1889.

It must have been a match made in culinary heaven. Johnson is remembered as one of the White House’s notable black chefs, a tradition that began with George Washington’s slave Hercules and Thomas Jefferson’s slave James Hemings, brother of his mistress, Sally Hemings.

This is Black History Month, and for the past seven years I have written several columns each February telling stories of fascinating people and little-known aspects of black history in Kentucky.

Whenever I need a good story idea, I call Yvonne Giles, who has a passion for Lexington’s black history and the research skills to make it come alive. She is the force behind the Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum on Georgetown Street and the restored African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.

As is often the case with these stories, I had never heard of Johnson until Giles told me about her. Her research provided some important details missing from other accounts of Johnson’s life and career.

Johnson was born in Lexington about 1852. While other accounts say Johnson had cooked for the Harrisons in Indiana before his presidency, the Lexington Leader article in 1889 said she was a respected Lexington caterer who was moving to Washington thanks to Skillman’s recommendation.

“With a Kentucky cook, President Harrison will now be able to administer the affairs of the Nation in a way that will elicit admiration from everybody,” the Leader boasted in that 1889 article reporting Johnson’s move to Washington.

Newspaper reports of the day said Johnson was bi-racial, educated and had earned some wealth before starting her catering business in Lexington. She had cooked for many years for Louisville attorney John Mason Brown, a Lexington native who had been a Union Army colonel during the Civil War.

At the White House, Johnson was responsible for menu planning, shopping and managing two kitchens, one for state dinners and one for the family’s dining. She made soups, cooked meats and supervised Mary Robinson, a Virginian who baked bread and pies, according to Sallie L. Powell’s entry about Johnson in the Kentucky African American Encyclopedia. While on duty, both women wore Dutch blue calico dresses with white aprons.

When Harrison lost his 1892 re-election bid to Grover Cleveland, Johnson remained on the White House staff for a time. But, for unknown reasons, Cleveland later fired Johnson and then tried unsuccessfully to hire her back, Giles said.

On New Year’s Day 1894, Johnson married Ed Dandridge, also a cook, and they moved back to Lexington and went into the catering and restaurant business.

Gen. Matthew C. Butler, a former senator from South Carolina, visited Lexington in September 1904 and made “diligent inquiries” about her so he could eat at her restaurant, the Leader reported.

The newspaper reported on Nov. 30, 1910 that Dolly (often spelled Dollie) Dandridge would soon be opening a restaurant, the White House Café, at 215 E. Main St. “She will serve regular meals and also special orders, and will make this the headquarters of her general catering for entertainments,” the newspaper reported.

But by March, the Leader reported, she had closed the café because she was hired to reopen the dining room at the Central Hotel at the corner of Short and Upper streets. Over the next few years, Dandridge moved her business to several other downtown locations.

“Dollie Dandridge, the White House cook, has closed her dining room at 203 South Upper Street for the summer, owing to the heat and the torn-up condition of the nearby streets,” the Leader reported on July 11, 1912. “She will devote her entire attention to catering for weddings and parties.”

Dandridge died Feb. 1, 1918, at a niece’s home, a small shotgun house behind Hampton Court, and was buried in African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street. The Leader’s funeral notice — the third small item in the “Colored Notes” column on page 11 — made no mention of her fame.