April 17, 2020
Juke Joints to Black Nightclubs
Couples dancing at a juke joint
Nightlife for African Americans, like other communities, has been an important past time. These early establishments were often referred to as “juke joints,” with "juke" deriving from the Gullah word “joog” or “jug”, meaning rowdy or disorderly. The origins of juke joints date back to slavery, and were often “ built on plantations to provide a place for blacks to socialize during slavery. This practice spread to the work camps such as sawmills, turpentine camps, and lumber companies in the early twentieth century… such places were often seen as necessary to attract workers to sparsely populated areas lacking bars and other social outlets .” [1]
Cartoonist James Hiram Malone (1930 – 2011) described the juke joint in Atlanta’s Buttermilk Bottom (Old Fourth Ward, Atlanta), Georgia where he grew up: “… there were small places… Used to be houses, see? And they just went there and they just made a place for recreational purposes, and they put a jukebox in there… had a few chairs there and a couple a tables, and somebody--you know, they had a stove or something there, and they would serve food and all that kind of stuff, and Saturday night they would dance... [2] Juke joints were relatively similar throughout the country.
Juke joint in Melrose, Louisiana
Po' Monkey's Juke Joint in Merigold, Mississippi
Cell biologist George Langford (1944 - ) told of his father’s general store in Potecasi, North Carolina that “ also served as a juke joint on the weekends, and it was where the people came to listen to music, to the jukebox and to relax .” [3] Many juke joints were housed in buildings that served a dual purpose, including stores and even private homes. Capt. William "Bill" Pinkney (1935 - ) recalled the juke joint near where he lived in Chicago: “… behind the tavern on 35th and Indiana where there was a liquor store in the front, a kind of juke joint in the back with no air conditioning, but with a screen door, where you could sit outside the screen door and hear Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Jimmy Reed, those kind of things .” [4]
Notice of passage of the 18th amendment, 1919
With prohibition spanning from 1920 until 1933, nightlife hardly slowed down. Instead, the speakeasy evolved. Advertising CEO Eugene Morris (1939 - ) described a Chicago mansion that doubled as a speakeasy : "... this house had a pull-down stairway that, when it went up in the ceiling, you didn't know it was there... they said that if the police would come, and they wanted to raid, they would run to this house and run up the stairs, get up in these stairs, and hide up in this crawlspace. Or, there was also a trap door that went down in the basement where you could go down in the, in the, it was a garage underneath, and you could go down in the garage and get away that way ." [ 5 ] Co-founder and CEO of the One Economy Corporation, Rey Ramsey (1960 - ), recalled his grandmother's speakeasy in Philadelphia: "... my mother said that you could see cash that she would be putting--you know, and she would make platters and cook chicken, and fish, and sweet potatoes, and other sort of things, sort of have an after hour and serve drinks ... there were all kinds of stories about the characters who would show up, you know, at the speakeasy, and it had to--she eventually, had to close it because too many people wanted money off the top ." [ 6 ]
Following the repeal of prohibition, nightlife became much more visibly robust across the country. Nightclubs that catered to the African American community, in addition to juke joints, could be found in larger cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and New York City. Former Sears retail buyer Barbara Samuels (1937 - ) remembered the first time she went to a nightclub in Chicago: “ So we decided, okay, should we tell our parents we're going to a nightclub, or should we just go. We decided to just go, because we knew what the answer would be. So we all piled into the limo in our little pique jackets in different colors and went to see Lurlean Hunter and Johnny Hartman. That was the first time any of us had ever been to a real nightclub they brought us sandwiches and we sat there and watched the show and it was great. I think that was the highlight of all my years in high school .” [ 7 ]
PR consultant Ofield Dukes (1932 - 2011) described how Detroit, Michigan when he was a teenager also was a hub for many big names of the day: “… there was Billy Eckstine, and Duke Ellington, and the Will Mastin Trio with Sammy Davis [Jr.] and his father, and the Sweethearts of Rhythm, Erskine Hawkins--all of the big bands. And they would all come to the Paradise Theater for a week. And then Dinah Washington, and Sarah Vaughan… Detroit had Paradise Valley where you had a whole bunch of nightclubs, and it was remarkable for its entertainment .” [ 8 ]
Club DeLisa patrons
Chicago, 1942
Former Howard University president H. Patrick Swygert (1943 - ) reminisced about shining shoes outside what he called a “show bar” in Philadelphia as a boy: “ the Pep Bar… known in Philadelphia as a show bar, which, means that they have live entertainment, first-class, live entertainment and a bar… they were fancy, rather fancy places, not quite a nightclub... But to be outside with your shoeshine box, and to see those Packards and those Lincolns drive up, and these fancy guys would step out with these beautiful women and step into that club. And for just a moment, the door would open. And that moment that the doorman opened that club door, you'd hear that band of Count Basie or Duke Ellington, just roaring out on the street. And you would smell that wonderful cologne and that wonderful perfume and that top-shelf liquor .” [9]
White patrons sitting up front for Black entertainment at a nightclub in New York City
Black and white patrons at a nightclub in
New England
While many of these nightclubs in larger cities hosted both African American and white patrons, referred to as "black and tan" clubs, discrimination was by no means checked at the door. Musician and singer John "Deacon" Moore (1941 - ), while describing discrimination he faced during his music career, explained one of the ways many nightclubs stayed segregated for a long time: “… many of the white nightclubs feared that their businesses would suffer if they let black people in the club. They would lose all their business. So, to get around the civil right laws, they would make these quote, unquote key clubs where you had to be a member of the club in order to get in .” [10] Community activist and dancer Alice Key (1911 - 2010) gave an example of racism Black nightclubs faced while she was a dancer, such as the Cotton Club in Culver City, California: “… the American Guild of Variety Artists started rating the nightclubs in Los Angeles. And Earl Carroll and whoever else employed white chorus girls and show girls, they rated A, but if they employed colored, black chorus girls, they rated them B and the salary made the difference .” [11] Dancer Eloise Demaris Hughes (1916 - 2003) remembered the racial dynamic of the Club DeLisa in Chicago while she was a dancer there: “ it was a black show… [but] the white people got all the best seats. They got seats up by the stage and everything. That was a known fact .” [ 12 ]
African American dancers performing at a nightclub in Philadelphia
These nightclubs, with some Black owners, mainly had staff comprised of African Americans that catered to dominantly African American patrons. These jobs and entrepreneurship provided sources of revenue for the African American community. Former mayor of Columbus, Ohio, The Honorable Michael B. Coleman, (1954 - ) explained how both his family and his father’s business partner benefited from a nightclub: “ I worked at my father's rib joint, which is right next to a nightclub, the Green Light nightclub [Toledo, Ohio]… my father's partner owned the nightclub, and it was part of the Chitlin' Circuit, so Bobby "Blue" Bland would regularly come through, B. B. King would regularly come through… and at the age of thirteen, fourteen, I was cooking ribs, selling ribs and preparing ribs 'til the wee hours of the morning. People leave the night club, they come next door to buy ribs from me .” [13]
By the 1970s disco clubs had taken over in all the major cities. R&B singer Meli’sa Morgan (1964 - ) described the disco scene in New York City as being, “ Crazy, over the top… the straights and the, the thugs and the gangs, they all could come and, and release, and everybody got along. There was no fighting… Totally, mixed. I mean, white, black, Chinese .” [14] Fashion illustrator and painter Glenn Tunstull (1950 - ) explained how weekends often revolved around the disco clubs: “ this was the beginning of disco… You're at a club that didn't open 'til midnight, you get there around 1 or 2, you stay there 'til about 7 or 8 and then you'd go to breakfast and then go to work --the weekends would start on Thursday and end on like Monday or Tuesday .” [15]
Disco transitioned into house and techno music, as well as hip hop and rap by the 1980s and 1990s, and with it, disco clubs mostly disappeared. These decades set the trend for a lot of nightclubs and the music they play today. In 2018, Donald Simmons , co-founder and co-owner of Taste nightclub in Chicago explained how the club, started in 1980 by him and his brother, navigated the changes in popular music: “" We started with a little disco… moved into R&B. A couple years later hip-hop started. We didn't deal with rap. And the house music kept the rap out… We played R&B like Luther Vandross and old-school blues all the time. And we still play it ." [16]
Dooley's in East Lansing, Michigan, c.1980s
With the 21st century, “ juke joints, once too numerous to count, have slipped away as their owners pass on .” [17]   Roger Stolle , founder of the Juke Joint Festival held annually in Clarksdale, Mississippi, was asked by the New York Times how many such places still exist, and he replied: “ With actual real, live blues music at least sporadically? Maybe five .” [18]  As for the nightclub industry, the past five years has shown 1.9% growth in the United States after having been on the decline. As time moves on and nightclubs continue to evolve, there should be an effort to maintain plenty of space for places the African American community can gather to dance, eat, have a drink, and be with others after the sun goes down.
[1] “Juke Joints and their History (part one),” americaoncoffee.com .
[2] James Hiram Malone (The HistoryMakers A2005.256), interviewed by Evelyn Pounds, December 7, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 9, James Hiram Malone remembers Buttermilk Bottom's juke joints and sense of community.
[3] George Langford (The HistoryMakers A2012.165), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 6, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 1, George Langford describes the segregated town of Potecasi, North Carolina, while he was growing up.
[4] Capt. William "Bill" Pinkney (The HistoryMakers A2003.178), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, August 8, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 4, William Pinkney shares childhood memories of Chicago.
[ 5 ] Eugene Morris (The HistoryMakers A2006.006), interviewed by Tracey Lewis, January 24, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 6, Eugene Morris describes his earliest childhood memories.
[ 6 ] Rey Ramsey (The HistoryMakers A2008.075), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 29, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 4, Rey Ramsey describes his mother's family background, pt. 2.
[ 7 ] Barbara Samuels (The HistoryMakers A2003.301), interviewed by Larry Crowe, December 17, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 11, Barbara Samuels remembers visiting the Regal Theater and the Chicago Theater in Chicago, Illinois.
[ 8 ] Ofield Dukes (The HistoryMakers A2003.112), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, May 31, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 1, Ofield Dukes talks about being an usher at Detroit's Paradise Theater, and Paradise Valley.
[ 9 ] H. Patrick Swygert (The HistoryMakers A2003.115), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, June 2, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 8, H. Patrick Swygert remembers the vibrant music scene in Philadelphia during his youth.
[ 10 ] John "Deacon" Moore (The HistoryMakers A2010.040), interviewed by Denise Gines, June 8, 2010, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 7, story 8, John "Deacon" Moore reflects upon his experiences of discrimination in the music industry, pt. 2.
[ 11 ] Alice Key (The HistoryMakers A2007.313), interviewed by Jacques Lesure, October 31, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 2, Alice Key recalls dancing as a chorus girl at Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club in Culver City, California.
[ 12 ] Eloise Demaris Hughes (The HistoryMakers A2003.017), interviewed by Larry Crowe, January 23, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 1, Eloise Hughes describes the Club DeLisa.
[ 13 ] The Honorable Michael B. Coleman (The HistoryMakers A2012.100), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 4, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 12, The Honorable Michael B. Coleman talks about his early work experiences.
[ 14 ] Meli'sa Morgan (The HistoryMakers A2016.027), interviewed by Harriette Cole, September 23, 2016, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 5, Meli'sa Morgan describes the disco scene in New York City.
[ 15 ] Glenn Tunstull (The HistoryMakers A2007.261), interviewed by Adrienne Jones, September 13, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 6, Glenn Tunstull describes his lifestyle in New York City.
[ 16 ]  Dave Hoekstra. "Oldest black-owned nightclub in city faces uncertain future," chicagoreader.com . May 2, 2018.
[ 17 ] Alex Crevar. “Driving the Juke Joint Trail,” New York Times . May 17, 2013.
[ 18 ] Ibid.
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