Who was the first American businessman to furnish hotel guest rooms with amenities and toiletries?
As a young man, when the circus came to town, he set up a refreshment stand outside the big top. He had one at the train station, too. The cook’s apprentice-turned-hotel owner was praised upon his death as “the leading and best Afro-American businessman in the last quarter of a century.” His name was Edwin C. Berry (1854-1931), and he spent his life perfecting the art of hospitality. Berry is credited with being the first hotel owner to furnish his guests’ rooms with amenities and toiletries. What was commonplace now was a novelty then, each room stocked not with individual-sized shampoos and lotions, but with a needle and thread, buttons and cologne.
Born in 1854 to free parents in Oberlin, Ohio, Berry moved to Athens County at age 2. For Berry, work and hospitality were always two sides of a coin, his family taking in boarders during his childhood. Berry’s education at the black-founded, -owned and -operated Albany Enterprise Academy was curtailed in 1870, when his father died. Then his work began in earnest.
Starting out earning 50 cents a day in a brickyard, Berry was quickly noted for his industry, and his salary more than doubled. His job as a waiter in an ice cream parlor proved pivotal. He loved it, and as a cook’s apprentice, he developed a knack for catering. Buoyed by high demand for his services, he and his wife borrowed money from a friend and opened a restaurant in 1878. Over the next 14 years, Berry relocated frequently to accommodate his growing clientele.
In 1889, while still running his restaurant, Berry, a loyal member of the Republican Party in southeastern Ohio, attempted a second venture: a position in the state government. It never came to fruition. In 1892 he expanded his business again, building the 20-room Berry Hotel alongside his restaurant in Athens. Known for its delicious food and top-notch service, the hotel had grown to 55 rooms by the time Berry retired about 1921. In addition to the amenities provided to guests, each room had its own closet and a private bath. “His trade comes only from the best people on the road,” wrote G.F. Richings in 1902.
Most, if not all, of these “best people” were white. Richings, a white writer, clarified: “Colored people who are refined and represent the same class of whites who stop there are never turned away.” In his volume The Negro in Business, Booker T. Washington described Berry as having “a deep sense of loyalty to his race, and [he] would rather lose customers than be ‘disloyal’ to black people.” Reading between Washington’s lines, it appeared that many of Berry’s white guests were not willing to share their accommodations with black guests.
More direct was Berry’s nephew, Edwin C. “Bill” Berry. The younger Berry was a powerhouse of the civil rights movement in Chicago, the head of the Chicago Urban League and a leader in desegregating housing and schools in the city he described as “the most segregated large city in America.” “Uncle Ed catered to a white clientele,” noted an Ebony magazine profile of Bill Berry, “but when Negroes came through town, he put them up. The white people objected, but Uncle Ed refused to retreat from his principles. When the whites started a boycott, Uncle Ed fought them and won.”
Edwin C. Berry died in 1931; he would not have described himself as a civil rights activist. His nephew essentially did it for him.
“Uncle Ed liked to tell this story to young Berry. He would sit hunched over his walking cane, his hands trembling, his eyes ablaze with indignation, and he would ask Berry: ‘Do you know what I told ’em, boy? I told ’em that before I had a big hotel I had a little hotel, and before I had a little hotel I had a restaurant, and before I had a restaurant I had a lunch counter, and before I had a lunch counter I worked on the road for $1.50 a day, and I can do it again.’”
His uncle’s message was loud and clear: “ ‘It was his way of trying to inculcate in me a willingness to fight for the things he considered and I considered to be right.’”