Armstead Barnett Dies; Well-Known D.C. Businessman
June 14, 2003
Armstead H. Barnett, 91, a former cotton-factory worker whose chance
job in the White House pantry led to a career in catering that made
him one of Washington's best-known black businessmen, died June 11 at
the Mariner health care facility in Silver Spring after a stroke.
Mr. Barnett came to Washington in 1933 on a brief family visit and was
asked by a cousin who worked as a White House doorman to help at a
cocktail party there. He accepted, figuring it was better to be paid
to slice vegetables than bale cotton.
He decided to make "service," his preferred term for waiting and
cooking, a life's work. After employment with a wealthy local family,
he joined the White House full time in 1938.
He delighted in the heady atmosphere and lived there as a bachelor. As
his wedding day neared in 1942, he proudly gave his address for his
wedding license application as 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. He said a
skeptical bureaucrat called the White House and got first lady Eleanor
Roosevelt to confirm his residence.
"During that time, working at the White House was one of the best jobs
a black could have," he told The Washington Post years later. "Black
people could not believe I worked there."
During his 16-year White House tenure, he rose from pantryman to
butler-valet while working for Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry
S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Prominent Washington families often called the White House asking for
butlers, and Mr. Barnett grabbed as much of that work as he could. He
said he struggled in those early married years to balance his home
life and demanding work schedule.
Having made contacts with a wealthy clientele, he began his catering
business as a sideline. By 1954, it was a full-time family operation
-- one way he was able to keep his marriage together.
Barnett Caterers, originally at 4713 Sheriff Rd. NE and later at 601
Division Ave. NE, specialized in serving at white-gloved receptions
where guests feasted on Long Island duckling with wild rice, asparagus
with browned butter, strawberries with cream and champagne cookies.
He later expanded into sit-down and carry-out service offering
Southern soul food, such as collard greens and country ham.
He was a tall, broad-shouldered and mustachioed man who was
immeasurably popular with his neighbors in Ward 7, which honored him
in 1979 as Man of the Year.
At the ceremony, he received a standing ovation from such dignitaries
as D.C. delegate Walter Fauntroy, D.C. Council chairman Arrington
Dixon and council members Betty Ann Kane and Willie Hardy.
Hardy told The Post: "There was one time when a woman whose husband
left her sent her kids over to Barnett's office to ask if he would
loan her some food until she could pay him."
Mr. Barnett handled the situation quietly and effectively, sending the
children home with bags of food, and fed the family for more than a
year without asking for payment.
There were moments when his usual quiet graciousness gave way to more
While catering an event for Howard University president James E.
Cheek, he found himself face to face with entertainer Lena Horne and
broke with decorum by asking for her autograph.
"I was holding her chair, and that's how it began," he said. "My son
asked for an autograph first, and I was standing there, so naturally I
He planned to retire in 1979, but the man who bought the business fell
to his death from a ladder while cutting a branch from a tree.
Mr. Barnett stayed on as owner through the mid-1990s and did not have
time to pursue some of his ambitions, such as starting a cooking
school for African Americans and writing a cookbook.
He compensated by gladly mentoring those who wanted to learn the art
of food preparation.
Armstead Harrison Barnett, a Lanham resident, was born in Rustburg,
Va., near Lynchburg.
He grew up in the segregated South and came to Washington when he was
in his early twenties. He said he faced little racial discrimination
from the wealthier families he tended to serve in the 1950s and 1960s.
"We were treated finely," he said.
As his reputation grew, he catered for government-sponsored receptions
and managed to surmount their often-enormous logistical requirements.
His largest party was a 25,000-person racetrack supper hosted by the
U.S. postmaster general in 1968. He arranged the 12 buffet tables and
cooked 24 steamship rounds of beef.
"All the big caterers said I couldn't do it. Jealousy," Mr. Barnett
He had a profound dislike for anything less than the best of service
and felt distress when people -- or governments -- settled for
He said the State Department once asked him to use napkins for hors
d'oeuvres instead of plates.
"Never," he replied.
His wife, Viola Carpenter Barnett, died in 2001. A son, Armstead H.
Barnett II, died in 1990.
Survivors include a daughter, Jean Barnett-Davis of Lanham; a brother,
Harry Barnett of Lynchburg; a sister, Olivia Harrell of Mount Airy,
Pa.; three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
If they give you ruled paper, write the other way.
- Juan Ramón Jiménez