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12 minute read

Stewart White

SARATOGA’S BEST KEPT SECRET

A Story of Thoroughbreds, Wealth, Relationships and The Black Men & Women Workers At The Saratoga Reading Room

AS TOLD BY STEWART WHITE

This is the true story of a little piece of American history. It is the story of a private, but exclusive, members-only club that was inspired by wealthy men and their love of horse racing. It is a true story about a club that is one of the least talked about, yet one of the most prestigious clubs in the world. So prestigious, not just anyone could walk through these gates. It’s a private dwelling that hosts some of the wealthiest people in the country, let alone the entire world.

Last, but not least, it is a true story about a small group of black men and women thriving and surviving in a rich white man’s world. It’s a behind-the- scenes story of the workers who were the heart and soul of establishing the Saratoga Reading Room as one of the most historic and best kept secrets in Saratoga Race Course history.

Beginning of the End…

During the summer of 1989, an abrupt and shocking change took place at the Reading Room. Another gentleman was brought in to run the club. Our new boss’ name was Whitney Travis. What is so important about this change was the fact that Fred, who was black was no longer in charge and that Mr. Travis, our new leader, was an elderly white man. We always had supervisors that were black men. Mr. Travis seemed like a nice man, but honestly, we were all a little leery of him. Right from the start, he started changing rules that had been in place for years. For example, there were members who would ask for me to sign their name on their service checks. I had been doing that for years. There was a particular couple, who regularly sat at my table; Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Aulisi. For years, I had signed Mr. Aulisi’s name to his check for his food and beverages. He would say, “Stewart, sign my name,” which I would do, and I would print my signature underneath. That summer, Mr. Aulisi said for me to sign his name as always. I responded that Mr. Travis had changed the rule and I wasn’t allowed to do it anymore. Mr. Aulisi proceeded to get very upset and next thing I knew, he was speaking with Mr. Travis. Before I knew it, I was told to continue signing Mr. Aulisi’ s name, just as we had done for years. Mr. Aulisi trusted me and that made me feel really good. Mr. Travis also made a couple more changes. He brought in three white waiters from the place he ran in Manhattan. Previously, the only white person on our staff had been JoAnn. As I said before, times were definitely changing, and right before our eyes. I could sense that this was just the beginning and that more changes were yet to come. The new servers turned out to be really professional and very good at what they did. We even took a liking to them. They brought some new ideas that worked out pretty well. With the professionalism they brought to the table, it didn’t take long for life to be good once again at the Reading Room. We just had to give the new guys a chance and get to know them. We would even take them out on the town with us and they seemed to really enjoy themselves. It turned out to be a really good summer! A lot of the staff didn’t trust Mr. Travis. During the summer of 1989, our intuitions came to a head. I was now entering my 17th year at the Reading Room. Next came a move I never anticipated happening. Upon reporting to the Reading Room, I again was looking forward to another racing season of work at my summer job I had loved for the past sixteen years. I said, “Hello Mr. and Mrs. Travis.” He said “Hi,” and then strangely asked me “Where are you working this summer?” My reply was, “Right here.” Mr. Travis told me “Oh, no,” He had brought in his own crew. After seventeen years, this is how it’s going to end? He brought in an entire white staff, from the cooks, waiters, maître d, right down to the dishwashers. In a two-year period, the staff went from entirely black to almost entirely white. The lone black faces were Buster and Mike Settles, who stayed on as food preps. The two Frankies were still taking care of the ladies in the powder rooms and the rooms upstairs. He replaced all the other black employees. I understand things like

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1. 1990 Staff 2. Stewart White as a waiter at the Reading Room 3. Sonny Gooden and Stewart White share their experiences in an interview with Simply Saratoga. 4. Current Reading Room Chef Alex 5. J. White, my inspiration for this story, passed in 2016 6. The Reading Room 7. Stewart White as a guest at the Reading Room, 2019 8. Ma White, my other inspiration for this story, passed in 2019.

this happen when new management takes over. It just came in such a way that it took everyone involved by complete surprise. Gone were my mother, brother, and all my childhood friends that made the Reading Room such a joyous place to work. With one blink of an eye, it all changed! When some of the members heard of some of the personnel changes, they were not happy. After all these years of working at the Reading Room and having become a familiar face there, it abruptly came to an end. Mr. Petter, Mr. Aulisi, and other members, who I had a very close relationship with, didn’t like the way things went down. They held a meeting and instructed Mr. Travis to reinstate me immediately, which he did. It bothered me that so many of my friends and family were let go. It was a difficult summer for me. I knew that Mr. Travis had a right to bring in whomever he wanted to work, but I just wasn’t prepared for such a drastic change. I tried not to let my disappointment show during the summer of ’89. Sure, I had my job back, but it wasn’t the same. I had to adjust my attitude because I was holding on to a little bitterness that took me a while to shake. Actually, I don’t think I ever did shake it that summer. Most of the members weren’t aware of it because I was good at what I did and taking care of the members and their families or guests, was of the utmost importance to me. I just missed my friends and family members who had been by my side for many years. That summer went by and, as usual, I made lots of money, but it was so different for me. My new coworkers were all nice to work with. They enjoyed my stories of my memories of sixteen years working at the Reading Room. It just seemed like an extra-long summer and to tell you the truth, I couldn’t wait for it to get over. The next summer of 1990 came and I decided that I just had enough, and I decided to not go back. I took a job working with at risk 13 – 18-year-old boys, which I would continue to do for the next 26 years. I don’t even know if Mr. Travis returned. One thing I do believe is that the spirit of the black worker in the Reading Room will always be alive. How could it not be; we were the heart and soul of the Reading Room for decades. In saying that, I think I can speak for all the black folk that I had the honor and privilege of working with. We shared plenty of blood, sweat and tears in helping establish the Saratoga Reading Room as a place where the wealthy enjoyed coming. It was something we took great pride in. It was the members’ club, and we tried to make it a very pleasurable experience for them. We were very dedicated to our jobs. We knew we were representing years and years of black workers at the Reading Room. Sure, some people may have looked at this as a bunch of rich, old white men with their old plantation mentalities, who wanted to continue their ways of thinking and felt the black man should be serving them. I get it, if some people felt that way. That’s not what this story is about. Occasionally, during sales week, you may have had “a southern good ole boy,” come in and be a little demanding. During my seventeen years at the Reading Room, we were treated very well. That’s all we asked. Very seldom did we feel the influx of any racism there. First of all, it wouldn’t have been tolerated if there was. We were a select few, who were given a chance to make a great living for the six weeks of the racing season and we realized the significance of what we had, and we enjoyed being part of it. We also had lots of fun and made lots of money in keeping the tradition of the black worker alive at the Reading Room!!

Hopefully these memories helped bring to light some of what went on behind the gates of the Saratoga Reading Room. Furthermore, it’s a story about a hard-working bunch of black men and women during the 70s and 80s. I am so thrilled to have been a part of it. One final thought. The Reading Room is one of the most historic and best kept secrets at the Saratoga Race Course. One thing for sure, it will always be a prestigious club with high profile wealthy white members and hopefully an occasional black member. Today a lot of the current Reading Room members are family members who are keeping the legacies of their predecessors alive. Thoroughbred Racing is what it is today because of the rich tradition of many of the families that came through the Reading Room gates. Many of the members have gotten younger, but the tradition of coming to the Reading Room before and after the races continues. Many people I have spoken with, born and raised right here in Saratoga, have no idea what the Reading Room is or had not even heard of it. They have no clue that behind the gates were some of the wealthiest and most powerful people, in not just the racing world, but in the entire country. One thing it will never have again is an all-black staff of workers. We were able to thrive and survive in the world of the rich and famous at the Reading Room. It was a lot of hard work, but I wouldn’t trade the experiences for the world. Our friendships grew stronger than ever and we remain as close as ever. I hope you enjoyed my story that began through the eyes of a then young 18-year-old dishwasher and was brought back to life by a now 66-year-old man. Boy, does time fly! In closing, I stopped by the Reading Room in July 2017. It was the first time I had been inside, other than outside the back gate to say “Hi” to Buster, since I left in 1990. It hasn’t changed much inside. It has gotten a little fancier. They serve dinner now with a buffet of fancy foods and have an impressive dinner menu. The kitchen is totally different. It has added more areas for food prep. Inside they have the same table that we used to sit at and divide up our tips. I noticed as soon as I walked inside. Boy, did that bring back memories. The porch, my summer home for fourteen summers, remains the same. It brought back a lot of memories. For a moment, I thought I heard the voice of Mr. Aulisi saying, “Stewart, sign my name.” The yard remains the same. They are still using the same tables and chairs we used

The biggest thing I noticed is that the staff now is completely white. Not a black face amongst them. The chef is a Mexican gentleman named Alex. He is an excellent chef who has an exquisite flair during his food presentation. (He now owns a place just up Route 9 called Izzy bella’s Foodz) The young staffers I talked with seemed to enjoy my stories from back in the day. I jokingly made sure that I mentioned that they probably wouldn‘t have gotten a job back then, because of the color of their skin. They laughed. I am unaware if the workers of today understand or appreciate the tradition of working at the Reading Room that we felt while we worked there. The Black history of the Reading Room is deeply entrenched inside their walls. We were well aware of it. How could we not be? Black faces roamed these floors for many, many years. We were the heart and soul of the place. Those were very special days and I am so honored to be able to share my part of that history with you. Before I end my story, I have to tell you of my going to a party I was invited to at the Reading Room in August of 2019. It was Mr. Petter’s 85th birthday party. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I was so honored to be invited, especially due to the tremendous friendship that Mr. Petter and I have developed over the years. I put on a nice suit and my girlfriend and I went to the Reading Room for his party. I had a lot of emotions going through my head as I prepared to enter the Reading Room gates. I felt as if I was representing all my coworkers and I even felt a WOW moment as I was watching the all-white staff serving me. I remember sitting there and envisioning how we must have looked when we were taking care of the guests. It actually seemed as if we were the hit of the party. Everyone wanted to talk to us. and I even recognized a couple of elderly members, who remembered me, from back in the day. Alex, the chef, was giving us special treatment. He brought us platters of food where we were sitting. He had some of the guests wondering where we got the food. All in all, it was a great time. Mr. Petter and his family were great and with all the compliments I received about my lovely date and my suit, it turned out to be a really nice time. So that’s my story. Hope you had as much fun reading it as I had writing it.