graphic of history of ice cream
Credit: Image of Ice Cream Cone: Brittany Conerly; Image of Ice Cream Scoops:YuMyArt/Creative Market; Patent: Google Patents; Design: Kitchn

3 Black Pioneers Who Made Ice Cream What It Is Today

updated Feb 2, 2021
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Today, February 2, marks the official 125-year anniversary of the ice cream scoop as we know it. And even though it’s freezing outside right now, we want to raise a waffle cone to the inventor, Alfred Cralle, and two other Black early ice cream pioneers: James Hemings and Augustus Jackson.

“Ice cream is one of those supercalifragilistic, whitewashed things where they wrote Black people out of the history,” says Tonya Hopkins, aka The Food Griot, a food historian in New York. “Before there were mechanical ice cream makers, Black people were literally the ice cream makers.”

The first of these pioneers may have a familiar last name. We’ve heard of Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who was the mother of several of Thomas Jefferson’s children. But her enslaved brother James Hemings, often recognized as the first French-trained American chef, was Jefferson’s personal cook. In the story of ice cream, he doesn’t get enough recognition. As Jefferson’s chef, Hemings was the first to popularize French dishes like frozen custard and creme brûlée here in the States.

James was just 19 years old (in 1784) when Jefferson took him to France, where James studied with a top-notch pastry chef, a caterer, and at Chateau Chantilly, the most acclaimed kitchen in France, according to the James Hemings Society. When they returned to the U.S., Hemings presided over Jefferson’s lavish parties in Philadelphia and Virginia, during which ice cream was one of the rare delicacies on the menu. Back then, only the rich could afford the ingredients and the ice house needed for ice cream. Vanilla beans were rare and precious, sugar was expensive, and copious quantities of cream and egg yolks were dear, too. And then you needed someone to spend hours stirring and churning that mixture into ice cream.

“That’s the perfect recipe for a slaveholder with a sweet tooth,” Hopkins says.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

While Hemings made ice cream fashionable for the East Coast elite, Augustus Jackson, who’s often called “the father of ice cream,” brought it to the masses. Singer Ellis Paul even memorialized Jackson’s accomplishments in an eponymous song.

Jackson worked in the White House, too, as a chef for the First families, including James and Dolley Madison. (Apparently, the First Lady had eclectic taste that included ice cream studded with oysters.) After his tenure, he launched an ice cream business in Philadelphia, where many other Black pastry chefs and confectioners specialized in ice cream. 

One of Jackson’s big innovations was making ice cream more stable by adding salt to the recipe, which lowers the freezing temperature. It also enhances other flavors. But that’s not all that Jackson did for ice cream.

While most early ice creams were frozen egg custards, Jackson developed a lighter kind of ice cream. “It was this eggless, uniquely American style,” Hopkins says. “And at some point, we made an industry out of it.” Jackson is the reason why many ice cream recipes now do not have eggs.

Jackson prospered by selling his ice cream to parlors and ice cream vendors in Philadelphia who were predominantly Black. And as Black ice cream entrepreneurs moved north during The Great Migration, as Hopkins’ podcast details, they spread ice cream culture.

Credit: Image of Ice Cream Cones: Tatjana Zlatkovic/Stocksy; Image of ice cream scoops: Lauren Miller/Stocksy; Design: Kitchn

We can’t talk about the Black history of ice cream without mentioning Alfred Cralle. Cralle invented the ice cream scoop — specifically, the kind with the handy little pusher known as a trigger.

Cralle was born in Virginia in September 1866, just after the end of the Civil War, when newly free Blacks worked to start businesses, establish towns, and enter politics. “That time period from 1866 to right before World War I is arguably the most remarkably accomplished time for African Americans straight out of slavery,” Hopkins says. “It’s heartbreaking to wonder how far along we could have been had Reconstruction not led to Jim Crow and other things designed to put the kibosh on Black progress.”

Cralle worked as a craftsman, carpenter, and mechanic. By the late 1890s, he had made his way to Pittsburgh, where he found a job as a porter at a drug store’s ice cream counter. He noticed people had difficulty scooping ice cream and came up with a solution, inventing a mechanical scooper with a little pusher to help the ice cream release and drop into the dish. Cralle filed a U.S. patent application on June 10, 1896 for what he called his “ice cream mold and disher.” The patent was awarded on February 2, 1897, making today the 125th anniversary.

Although his name is relatively unknown, Cralle was also the first Black inventor to hold a solo patent. At the time, most Black inventors didn’t patent their creations or had to do so with a white partner, so it’s noteworthy Cralle took that step.

Manish Vora, founder of the Museum of Ice Cream, says he finds Cralle’s invention and ingenuity inspiring. When the Instagram-centric art gallery and pop culture playground for ice cream lovers opened in New York City, they celebrated Cralle’s design on a wall of historic and modern scoopers from the past and present. “His story is super relevant to the entrepreneurial spirit and the design spirit of the Museum of Ice Cream,” Vora says.

Do you have an ice cream scoop in a drawer right now? It’s cool to think that most of us have a piece of ice cream history — Black history — right in our own kitchens.