Hiram S. Thomas, The Troublesome Colored Man of Fort Greene

New York City“The residents of Fort Greene Place, between Hanson Place and Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, have been greatly perturbed of late, as it was whispered among the neighbors that a colored man had purchased a house in that very select block.” Thus began an article in the October 1, 1894 edition of The New York Times titled “They Want No Colored Neighbor.”

It seemed a Dr. Harry B. Smith, who lived at 131 Fort Greene Place but was moving to 419 Park Place, in Prospect Heights, had “put the house… in the hands of an agent,” who had sold it to a Hiram S. Thomas.

When the neighbors got wind of the transaction-thanks to a General Molineaux, who lived on the block, and who had seen Mr. Thomas in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where Mr. Thomas was the proprietor of the Lake House, a large hotel there-they tried to get him to sell the house to them instead, but the price he named was too high.

Also, the article pointed out, Mr. Thomas was a college graduate, and his children-a son and daughter-were, at the time, enrolled in college. And according to his obituary, from 1907, he was the steward of the Capital Club in Washington, D.C., during the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, and had been born a free man, in 1837, in Drummondville, Ontario.

No matter, said the neighbors! They did not want him there.

But they had not figured on a prominent clergyman getting involved. The Rev. S.B. Halliday, the former assistant pastor of the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, under Henry Ward Beecher, wrote a letter to the Times that read, in part:

I have supposed that the residents of Fort Greene Place were so eminently respectable that they could not have feared that their respectability could ever be called in question by the coming of half a dozen respectable families of color settling around them, much less by a single family. What a pretty story it is to get abroad over the country that a black man cannot move into a respectable neighborhood without stirring up a rebellion. It is not, it seems, that he is poor, only that he is not white… I would as soon have a respectable poor
colored man live next me as a white man, and I would not fear his coming would lessen the value of my home, and if I thought so, poor as I am, I would not object to his coming. I think our city is disgraced by the presence of such a spirit in its midst.

Smackdown!

The article concludes: “Mr. Thomas has decided now not to sell under any circumstances.”

But according to building records obtained by by Carl Hancock Rux, Thomas never occupied the house, selling it two months after his purchase, even though the Times wrote on October 3, 1894 that the purchase was complete and “his family will move into their new home about the middle of the present month.”

Hiram Thomas was well-known in Saratoga for taking over the famous Moon’s hotel and restaurant and renaming it the Lake House. “The famous Moon’s Hotel and the pretty little pagodas on the elegantly laid-out grounds were largely patronized,” wrote the Times in July 1888. “Mr. Hiram Thomas, formerly head waiter at the Grand Union, is the proprietor of this place,” though the hotel itself was owned by an Edward Kearney of New York.

Another Times article from later that month introduced the “prominent arrivals” at various hotels, and explained that “there were several moonlight parties to the lake this evening, and the orchestra at Hiram Thomas’s Lake House, formerly Moon’s, was kept at work until a late hour.”

In 1892, an author identified by the Times only as “W.D.” wrote a travel piece on Lakewood, New Jersey, where he was delighted to be the recipient “of great honors in the Lakewood’s dining room, for who should be the head waiter but the dignified and portly Hiram Thomas, from the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga, who has ‘head-waited’ upon me many times in that establishment; and Mr. Thomas stood by me while I ate the Lakewood’s Little Neck clams, and we talked about Saratoga and about Henry Clair, who is soon to open a hotel on Lookout Mountain, at Chattanooga, and about the Lakewood and its grand dining room. It is no small honor, you must understand, to have the dignified head waiter in a big hotel devote his time to you and even stop to talk with you. But I wore my laurels as modestly as I could.”

Thomas’ obituary, however, raises another mystery by naming him the originator of Saratoga chips-what we now know as potato chips. But the conventional wisdom about Saratoga chips is that they were invented in 1853 by an African-American cook named George “Speck” Crum-who, not coincidentally, also worked at Moon’s Lake House.

Interesting.

According to the official website for Saratoga, “local legend” has it that Crum invented the chips after a patron found the thick-cut fried potatoes too thick and soggy, and sent them back twice, and so Crum responded by slicing the potatoes extra thin and over-salting them. But the legend itself is murky; his sister, Catherine Speck
Wicks, who also worked at Moon’s, laid claim to the invention as well.

It’s possible, of course, that Hiram Thomas invented the chips, and that the older Crum took credit for the invention. However, we don’t know when Thomas started working at Moon’s; his obituary only mentions that “as a youth [he] served as waiter in hotels and as steward on the Great Lakes,” and lists no source for the claim that he in fact invented the potato chip.