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Howard, Oscar C. (1914–2003)

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Oscar C. Howard with pecan pies, ca. 1950s. From “Cafeteria and Industrial Catering Business” in the Oscar C. Howard papers (P1842), Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.

Oscar C. Howard with pecan pies, ca. 1950s. From “Cafeteria and Industrial Catering Business” in the Oscar C. Howard papers (P1842), Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.

To sum up the broad scope of Oscar C. Howard’s life, one could say simply that he fed Minnesota— literally. The trained chef moved from managing large industrial cafeterias to owning successful catering businesses, which culminated in the development of the Meals on Wheels program. Many others were nourished in a more figurative sense through Howard’s teaching, mentorship, preaching, and philanthropy. Along the way, he broke through countless racial barriers, both official and unspoken.

After working to support himself through high school in his home state of Georgia, Howard began studies in commercial dietetics at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute in 1937, only to be interrupted by the United States’ entry into World War II. Drafted by the Army, he served first as a military policeman in Harlem. Transferred to Governor’s Island, New York, and then to New Orleans’ Camp Plauche, Howard trained other soldiers in cooking and baking. He would later credit his famous Southern pecan pie recipe to his time in New Orleans.

Following the war’s end, Howard completed his bachelor’s degree at Tuskegee, and the school hired him as an instructor and executive chef. Several personal and professional challenges followed this triumph, however, including the failure of his first catering business. He persevered, eventually accepting a position to open and run a large corporate cafeteria in Georgia. That experience led to an opportunity in Minnesota, where he would live for the remainder of his life.

The Twin Cities Arsenal in New Brighton hired Howard in 1950 as it resumed operations to support the Korean conflict. He trained and managed a cafeteria staff of 100 to feed 15,000 workers over three shifts. In the evenings, he launched a small catering business, cooking pies and soup at home and delivering them from his own 1940 Chevrolet. With a reputation for excellent food and service, Howard’s Industrial Catering Company eventually grew into a full-time venture. Based in North Minneapolis, it served many local companies, including Reinhard Brothers, Coast to Coast, and Northwestern Bell, as well as at weddings and other social events. In order to facilitate the hot delivery of food to multiple facilities, Howard developed portable, insulated food shelves. He patented these devices in a range of sizes, and, as a side business, sold the carriers through kitchen-supply retailers and at industry trade shows.

While establishing himself as a chef and business owner, Howard often faced discrimination. This ranged from being turned down for jobs for which he was clearly qualified, to an inability to receive bank loans or food supplies on credit to develop his business. Rather than focusing on these roadblocks, Howard worked tirelessly to chart his own course. He also understood the positive benefit of his presence within a variety of organizations, both on his merits as a successful businessman, and as an African American in previously all-white groups.

The Tuskegee ethic of using one’s success to help others was manifested throughout Howard’s life. Despite the low profit margins, he signed a federal contract in 1970 to feed schoolchildren in low-income Minneapolis neighborhoods. The project appealed to him, recalling the poverty of his own youth. Using knowledge gained through that venture and over years of delivering meals to a variety of customers, he began providing a low-cost, nutritious, daily in-home meal to senior citizens. This grew into the Meals on Wheels program in Minnesota, which would later be replicated throughout the country. The endeavor shifted later from the business realm to management by counties and social service agencies.

Howard frequently spoke to young people on themes of goals and responsibilities. He especially concerned himself with helping African Americans develop their skills and understand what it took to be successful. In 1971, he helped to found the Metropolitan Economic Development Association, which supported minority entrepreneurs with loans, education, and mentoring.

After selling his catering businesses in the early 1980s, Howard turned his focus entirely to philanthropy and public service, serving on boards for the Bank of Minneapolis, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, the Dunwoody Institute, and others. A longtime member and deacon at Zion Baptist Church, following his ordination as a minister, he helped found Kwanzaa Community Presbyterian Church in North Minneapolis. He died in 2003, at the age of eighty-nine.

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Brataas, Anne. “Meals on Wheels Mementos Are Tribute to Program and Its Founder.” St. Paul Pioneer Press, September 5, 1992.

Burial Record, Oscar Curtis Howard. National Cemetery Administration, US Veterans’ Gravesites, ca. 1775–2006. Ancestry.com.

“Club Takes In Its First Negro.” Minneapolis Star, October 3, 1970.

Gardner, Bill. “A Force Against Hunger Dies.” St. Paul Pioneer Press, November 5, 2003.

Hahn, Trudy. “Oscar Howard Dies; Founded Minnesota Meals on Wheels.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, November 7, 2003.

Howard Family History. Oscar C. Howard papers, 1945–1990. P1842, Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

Howard, Oscar C. Oscar C. Howard, Master of Challenges, An Autobiography. Minneapolis: T. S. Denison & Company, Inc. , 1974.

“Howard’s New Cafeteria Grand Opening Feb. 26-27.” Minneapolis Spokesman, February 25, 1965.

“Inner City Youths to Get Free Food.” Minneapolis Tribune, June 16, 1970.

Jones, Jim. “Caterer Savoring Success After Struggles.” Minneapolis Star, June 17, 1977.

“New Catering Firm Established by Oscar Howard.” Minneapolis Spokesman, November 15, 1957.

Ombu, Ifiemi. “Oscar Howard: Man of the Year.” St. Paul Insight News, January 22, 1991.

“Oscar Howard Named President By State Restaurant Association.” Minneapolis Spokesman, January 4, 1973.

Schaefer, Edward. “Frozen Chittlings Are Specialty Side Business of City Caterer.” Minneapolis Star, September 23, 1968.

“Training Program.” Minneapolis Star, March 18, 1965.

Vaughan, Peter. “’I Don’t Feel I’m a Token…I Feel Times Have Changed.’” Minneapolis Star, November 30, 1970.

“Trustees.” Voices [newsletter of the United Theological Seminary, New Brighton], March 1991.

“Who’s News in Business.” Minneapolis Star, January 1, 1973.

Related Images

Oscar C. Howard with pecan pies, ca. 1950s. From “Cafeteria and Industrial Catering Business” in the Oscar C. Howard papers (P1842), Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Oscar C. Howard with pecan pies, ca. 1950s. From “Cafeteria and Industrial Catering Business” in the Oscar C. Howard papers (P1842), Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
The abandoned Whitesocks School near Rochelle, Georgia, ca. 1970s. Black students were segregated from white ones in the 1920s, when Oscar Howard attended. From the Oscar C. Howard papers (P1842), Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
The abandoned Whitesocks School near Rochelle, Georgia, ca. 1970s. Black students were segregated from white ones in the 1920s, when Oscar Howard attended. From the Oscar C. Howard papers (P1842), Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Oscar C. Howard with his first car, purchased in the 1940s while he was in college. It later served as the delivery vehicle for his catering business in Minneapolis. From the Oscar C. Howard papers (P1842), Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Oscar C. Howard with his first car, purchased in the 1940s while he was in college. It later served as the delivery vehicle for his catering business in Minneapolis. From the Oscar C. Howard papers (P1842), Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Oscar C. Howard with his first car, purchased in the 1940s while he was in college. It later served as the delivery vehicle for his catering business in Minneapolis. From the Oscar C. Howard papers (P1842), Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Oscar C. Howard with his first car, purchased in the 1940s while he was in college. It later served as the delivery vehicle for his catering business in Minneapolis. From the Oscar C. Howard papers (P1842), Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Twin Cities Arsenal cafeteria section head Oscar C. Howard and cafeteria employees, 1957. Industrial Relations Photographs, Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant files, box 143.E.17.2F.,  Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Twin Cities Arsenal cafeteria section head Oscar C. Howard and cafeteria employees, 1957. Industrial Relations Photographs, Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant files, box 143.E.17.2F.,  Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
 Tri-folded catering menu used in the late 1950s by Oscar Howard’s Catering Service.
 Tri-folded catering menu used in the late 1950s by Oscar Howard’s Catering Service.
Drawing to accompany application for United States Patent 3,129,317, awarded to Oscar Curtis Howard on April 14, 1964, for Heated Dinner Transport Apparatus. Oscar C. Howard papers, 1945–1990, Cafeteria and Industrial Catering Business, Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Drawing to accompany application for United States Patent 3,129,317, awarded to Oscar Curtis Howard on April 14, 1964, for Heated Dinner Transport Apparatus. Oscar C. Howard papers, 1945–1990, Cafeteria and Industrial Catering Business, Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Restaurant trade-show booth for Howard’s Industrial Catering displaying patented heated food carriers, ca. 1960s. Photo by H. M. Schwang Photo Company. Oscar C. Howard papers, 1945–1990, Cafeteria and Industrial Catering Business, Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Restaurant trade-show booth for Howard’s Industrial Catering displaying patented heated food carriers, ca. 1960s. Photo by H. M. Schwang Photo Company. Oscar C. Howard papers, 1945–1990, Cafeteria and Industrial Catering Business, Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Restaurant trade-show booth for Howard’s Industrial Catering, displaying patented heated food carriers and advertising the Operation Leap Frog feeding program, ca. 1960s. Oscar C. Howard papers, 1945–1990, Cafeteria and Industrial Catering Business, Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Restaurant trade-show booth for Howard’s Industrial Catering, displaying patented heated food carriers and advertising the Operation Leap Frog feeding program, ca. 1960s. Oscar C. Howard papers, 1945–1990, Cafeteria and Industrial Catering Business, Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Howard’s Catering Service in Minneapolis, building exterior, ca. 1960s. Photo by Marvin Makler Photography. Oscar C. Howard papers, 1945–1990, Cafeteria and Industrial Catering Business, Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Howard’s Catering Service in Minneapolis, building exterior, ca. 1960s. Photo by Marvin Makler Photography. Oscar C. Howard papers, 1945–1990, Cafeteria and Industrial Catering Business, Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Paper order form used in the late 1960s by customers of Oscar C. Howard’s Meals on Wheels food delivery program.
Paper order form used in the late 1960s by customers of Oscar C. Howard’s Meals on Wheels food delivery program.
Handwritten mass-quantity recipes for Swedish meatballs and creamed chipped beef, used by Oscar C. Howard in his catering business. Oscar C. Howard papers, 1945–1990, Cafeteria and Industrial Catering Business, Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Handwritten mass-quantity recipes for Swedish meatballs and creamed chipped beef, used by Oscar C. Howard in his catering business. Oscar C. Howard papers, 1945–1990, Cafeteria and Industrial Catering Business, Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Handwritten mass-quantity recipe for chow mein, used by Oscar Howard in his catering business. Oscar C. Howard papers, 1945–1990, Cafeteria and Industrial Catering Business, Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Handwritten mass-quantity recipe for chow mein, used by Oscar Howard in his catering business. Oscar C. Howard papers, 1945–1990, Cafeteria and Industrial Catering Business, Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Training classroom at Howard’s Self-Service Cafeteria. Published in the Minneapolis Spokesman, March 4, 1965. Oscar C. Howard papers, 1945–1990 (P1842), Cafeteria and Industrial Catering Business, Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Training classroom at Howard’s Self-Service Cafeteria. Published in the Minneapolis Spokesman, March 4, 1965. Oscar C. Howard papers, 1945–1990 (P1842), Cafeteria and Industrial Catering Business, Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Howard’s Cafeteria with four catering delivery vehicles, 3300 Fourth Ave South, Minneapolis, ca. 1970s. Photo by H.M. Schwang Photo Co. Oscar C. Howard papers, 1945–1990 (P1842), Cafeteria and Industrial Catering Business, Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Howard’s Cafeteria with four catering delivery vehicles, 3300 Fourth Ave South, Minneapolis, ca. 1970s. Photo by H.M. Schwang Photo Co. Oscar C. Howard papers, 1945–1990 (P1842), Cafeteria and Industrial Catering Business, Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Plastic container for frozen pork chittlings, marketed and sold from the late 1960s to 1970s by Oscar C. Howard under the Chef Oscar brand.
Plastic container for frozen pork chittlings, marketed and sold from the late 1960s to 1970s by Oscar C. Howard under the Chef Oscar brand.
Oscar C. Howard (right) and a Byerly’s grocery store employee near a display of Chef Oscar’s BBQ Sauce, ca. 1980s. Oscar C. Howard papers, 1945–1990 (P1842), Cafeteria and Industrial Catering Business, 68601, Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
Oscar C. Howard (right) and a Byerly’s grocery store employee near a display of Chef Oscar’s BBQ Sauce, ca. 1980s. Oscar C. Howard papers, 1945–1990 (P1842), Cafeteria and Industrial Catering Business, 68601, Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
Photo related to United Negro College Fund. Pictured are (left to right) Oscar and Virginia Howard, Minneapolis Mayor Donald Fraser, and Claudeth and Gene Washington, December 1984. Oscar C. Howard papers, 1945–1990 (P1842), personal papers (1945–1990), Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Photo related to United Negro College Fund. Pictured are (left to right) Oscar and Virginia Howard, Minneapolis Mayor Donald Fraser, and Claudeth and Gene Washington, December 1984. Oscar C. Howard papers, 1945–1990 (P1842), personal papers (1945–1990), Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.
Advertisement for the Minneapolis Foundation featuring Oscar Howard. Published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, page E3, November 8, 1995.
Advertisement for the Minneapolis Foundation featuring Oscar Howard. Published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, page E3, November 8, 1995.

Turning Point

1930 - Carrying $2.50, a snack, and a change of clothes, sixteen-year-old Oscar Howard sneaks out of his family’s farmhouse. Determined to avoid the undependable life of a sharecropper, he hitchhikes seventy miles to live with an aunt and attend the local high school.

Chronology

June 24, 1914

Oscar Curtis Howard is born in rural Rochelle, Georgia, to Randle and Maria Pate Howard. He was later joined by two younger brothers and sisters.

1921

Famed scientist George Washington Carver visits the segregated Whitesocks School that young Oscar attends, encouraging the students there to pursue education as a pathway to helping others.

1937

Howard enrolls in a new commercial dietetics program at the Tuskegee Institute, designed for students to pay for their education by working in the school’s cafeteria and interning in local hotels.

1942

Howard acquires a position managing the officers’ mess hall for the Army’s 99th Squadron, also known as the Tuskegee Airmen. He leaves when he is drafted in the fall.

1949

Howard is hired as director of food service at West Point Manufacturing Company in Shawmut, Alabama. In addition to being head chef at the main cafeteria, responsibilities include food preparation, distribution to six offsite plants, and staff training.

1950

Dorsett & Hansen Catering hires Howard to run its in-plant food service at the Twin Cities Arsenal. When the catering company later goes bankrupt, Howard is the only employee retained by the Arsenal, and he moves into full leadership of the cafeteria.

1965

Howard’s Self-Service Cafeteria opens in Minneapolis on February 26. Behind the scenes, a classroom and hands-on training program prepares young people for employment in food and service industries.

1966

The International Geneva Association gives Howard the Geneva Oscar Award, for “outstanding contributions to the preparation and serving of foods in Minneapolis." He is the first African American admitted to the Minneapolis branch of the organization.

1968

Through a Small Business Administration loan, Oscar Howard’s Frozen Foods, Inc., begins production of Howard’s Frozen Chittlings. The regional product failed to find an audience and Howard was eventually forced to close this business.

October 3, 1970

The Minneapolis Athletic Club approves Howard’s membership, making him the first-ever black person to join. Eighteen months previously, bylaws had amended the 1914 charter that allowed only whites to be nominated for membership.

1973

The Minnesota Restaurant Association elects Howard as president. His prior work there included developing the University of Minnesota’s lodging and food service management program and increasing opportunity for minorities and people with disabilities.

1974

T. S. Denison publishes the autobiography Oscar C. Howard: Master of Challenges, detailing Howard’s perseverance through experiences of racism in rural Georgia, efforts to gain an education, and eventual success as an entrepreneur.

1990

Howard accepts the Salvation Army’s annual Others Award in recognition of service in founding Meals on Wheels, as well as on advisory boards for People to People, the American Red Cross, Metropolitan State University, and United Theological Seminary.

2003

Howard dies in Minneapolis on November 3. He is survived by his wife of twenty-six years, Virginia; a daughter from his first marriage, Jacqueline Howard; stepchildren Ellen and Woodfin Lewis; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.