Thomas Dorsey


Basil Dorsey's brother, Thomas Dorsey, also attempted to escape from slavery. He was caught and returned, but friends raised the money to purchase his freedom. He went on to become a prominent caterer in Philadelphia. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about him in The Philadelphia Negro, 1820-1896.

from Chapter IV, 11. The Guild of the Caterers, 1840-1870.

Finally came the triumvirate Jones, Dorsey and Minton, who ruled the fashionable world from 1845-1875. Of these Dorsey was the most unique character; with little education but great refinement of manner, he became a man of real weight in the community, and associated with many eminent men. "He had the sway of an imperial dictator. When a Democrat asked his menial service he refused, because 'he could not wait on a party of persons who were disloyal to the government, and Lincoln'--pointing to the picture in his reception rooms--'was the government.' " 17

17 See in PhiladelphiaTmes, October 17, 1896, the following notes by "Megargee:" Dorsey was one of the triumvirate of colored caterers—the other two being Henry Jones and Henry Minton--who some years ago might have been said to rule the social world of Philadelphia through its stomach. Time was when lobster salad, chicken croquettes, deviled crabs and terrapin composed the edible display at every big Philadelphia gathering, and none of those dishes were thought to be perfectly prepared unless they came from the hands of one of the three men named. Without making any invidious comparisons between those who were such masters of the gastronomic art, it can fairly be said that outside of his kitchen, Thomas J. Dorsey outranked the others. Although without schooling, he possessed a naturally refined instinct that led him to surround himself with both men and things of an elevating character. It was his proudest boast that at his table, in his Locust street residence, there had sat Charles Sumner, William Lloyd Garrison, John W. Forney, William D. Kelley and Fred Douglass. . . . Yet Thomas Dorsey had been a slave; had been held in bondage by a Maryland planter. Nor did he escape from his fetters until he had reached a man's estate. He fled to this city, but was apprehended and returned to his master. During his brief stay in Philadelphia, however, he made friends, and these raised a fund of sufficient proportion to purchase his freedom. As a caterer he quickly achieved both fame and fortune. His experience of the horrors of slavery had instilled him with an undying reverence for those champions of his down-trodden race, the old-time Abolitionists. He took a prominent part in all efforts to elevate his people, and in that way he came in close contact with Sumner, Garrison, Forney and others.

Thomas Dorsey and Frederick Douglass

Du Bois mentions that Thomas Dorsey was acquainted with Frederick Douglass, and Douglass in fact mentions their friendship in his post-war memoir. This must have been a significant friendship, since Douglass also describes attending Lincoln's second inaugural with Dorsey's wife, and it is therefore likely that Thomas was also there: "I was standing in the crowd by the side of Mrs. Thomas J. Dorsey, when Mr. Lincoln touched Mr. Johnson and pointed me out to him." She also accompanied him to one of the inaugural balls afterward ("I decided to go, and sought in vain for some one of my own color to accompany me... It was finally arranged that Mrs. Dorsey should bear me company, so together we joined in the grand procession of citizens from all parts of the country, and moved slowly towards the executive mansion"), where soldiers standing guard attempted to turn them away until Douglass insisted that they check with President Lincoln himself, who, upon recognizing Douglass, "exclaimed, so that all around could hear him, 'Here comes my friend Douglass.'" (from: Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, pub. 1893)