By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 11, 2005
It's almost midnight, and the night crawlers have taken over the Ebony Inn. Next to a faded "No Drinking and Loitering" sign, young men with braided hair and baseball caps sip beer from paper bags. A black Cadillac Escalade rests on the uneven asphalt of the parking lot like an oversized ornament.
Inside, scantily clad exotic dancers Chocolate and Vanilla are on all fours, grinding their hips for about 30 admirers. Dollar bills float like confetti onto the dance floor. A muscular man tucks bill after bill into Vanilla's black G-string, then squeezes her flesh as if he's palming a basketball.
She smiles as if she likes it.
"Give it up, yo. Give it up," yells her emcee, a wireless mike in one hand, a wad of cash in the other. "Don't be scared to come up. Get out your dollar bills."
Two months have passed since Maryland lawmakers added Prince George's to a roster of counties that banned nudity and sexual displays in venues that sell alcohol. The legendary Ebony Inn in Fairmount Heights is such a place, but the law's reach stops at its door. Legislators gave it an exemption from the new rules.
It is perhaps the most politically connected nightclub in the region, a place where history clashes with a community's vision of its future. It remains a Prince George's institution because of a compact man with curly black hair, a thick moustache and squared-off glasses. He spends long hours in a cluttered office above a drive-through liquor store next door to the Ebony Inn.
He's former state senator Tommie Broadwater Jr., who has spent a lifetime in the spotlight. He and his family own the Inn, the liquor store, a bail bond business, a motel and a takeout barbecue rib joint -- on a seesawing stretch of Sheriff Road known as the Hill.
Broadwater's oldest friends call him "Rocky" -- short for Rockefeller. But he was also known as the political godfather of Prince George's County.
The tan walls of Broadwater's office are covered with photos that showcase his wide-reaching clout. There's Broadwater shaking County Executive Jack B. Johnson's hand. There's Broadwater at the fundraiser he organized at the Ebony Inn for Jesse L. Jackson's 1988 presidential bid.
And there, behind a large black television, is the biggest portrait, framed in gold and lit up like a shrine. It's Broadwater with Maryland state senator and political ally Nathaniel Exum (D-Prince George's).
"We're very close," said Broadwater, looking up at the photo.
In April, Exum amended a legislative bill to exempt the Ebony Inn from having to fire Chocolate and Vanilla. The law takes effect in October.
Exum could not be reached for comment.
Lillie Thompson-Martin, the energetic mayor of Fairmount Heights, shakes her head over the exemption.
"Some people have to follow certain rules, and other people have it different," said Thompson-Martin, 58, in a voice somewhere between disgust and disappointment.
Fairmount Heights, a tidy residential community that hugs the District border, is a regular on the list of the county's top crime-infested neighborhoods. But housing prices are rising and big developments are sprouting elsewhere in the county.
That's given Thompson-Martin hope. Where drug dealers once peddled and prostitutes sold their bodies, she envisions a bank, a pharmacy, a grocery store and new townhouses.
"What we are really trying to do is make it a comfortable place, where people can feel right at home," said Thompson-Martin, a retired postal employee.
But how do you persuade a banker, a pharmacist and a grocer to move onto the same block as the Ebony Inn? How do you persuade middle-class families to live with Chocolate and Vanilla sashaying next door?
In her mind, the Ebony Inn's exemption couldn't have come at a worse time.
Yet Thompson-Martin, like other residents, is conflicted. The Ebony Inn has been around for as long as she can remember. It's a piece of history, her history.
"It's a Fairmount Heights institution and it has stood the test of time," she said with respect.
The Ebony Inn was owned by blacks when whites ran the region.
It was the kind of place where a down-and-out soul singer from Fairmount Heights called Chuck Brown could get noticed. Now, you Google his name and the word "soul" and you get 643,000 hits.
It was the kind of place where a poor African American called Tommie Broadwater Jr. could dream of money and power.
As a boy, Broadwater, who grew up around the corner, worked in the Inn's barbecue pit. He cut ribs, swept floors, did anything for pocket change and food for his family's table.
In 1974, after he rose from poverty to riches in the insurance and bail bond businesses, Broadwater achieved what no black from Prince George's had ever achieved: He was elected to the state Senate.
He brokered jobs and appointments for African Americans, planting the seeds of a black power elite that one day would re-engineer the county's political and social landscape.
Not long after his election, he bought half of the Ebony Inn (his son later bought the other half). Soon, the Inn became the fulcrum of his business and political life.
It was known for its North Carolina-style barbecue and Broadwater's generosity. He used it to solidify his political support among working-class blacks.
Thompson-Martin remembers how whenever someone died, Broadwater would set up a barbecue, send over chicken wings, do whatever he could to contribute.
"He's a real free-hearted person," said Thompson-Martin. "He gives a lot from his restaurant. I know it personally."
Even back then, the Ebony Inn changed character as darkness fell. In 1981, the county's liquor board investigated allegations of illegal nude dancing at the Inn but turned up nothing.
In 1983, Broadwater, at the height of his power, was convicted of food stamp fraud at a supermarket he owned in Fairmount Heights. He spent four months in a federal penitentiary and lost his Senate seat.
But the Ebony Inn lived on. It remained a place where Broadwater, who attempted several political comebacks without success, continued to wield influence. He held fundraisers for presidential hopefuls, U.S. senators and governors.
A new generation of young, black politicians keen on dismantling the white political establishment of Prince George's came to the Ebony Inn to seek his wisdom. It included a young Wayne K. Curry, for whom Broadwater once baby-sat.
In 1994, Curry became the first black county executive in Prince George's, fulfilling Broadwater's two-decade-long quest.
Today, the parking lot has a neighborhood feel by day. Older men and women drink beer and sway happily to soul music from their car radios. A line of cars, including Cadillacs and SUVs, snakes towards the Inn's drive-through window.
Many of the Inn's employees are Broadwater's relatives. On this day, he is taking orders for rib sandwiches, chicken wings and sweet potato pie. Now 62, he's had bypass surgery. Yet he shows few signs of slowing down.
The Inn has an air of the 1970s, with blue faux-leather recliners, disco mirrors, potted plants in wicker baskets.
A psychedelic collage of black musical superstars covers the walls -- all listed by their first names: Josephine (Baker), Billie (Holiday), Bootsy (Collins), Dionne (Warwick).
"I think of my place with pride," Broadwater said. "We're like the Kennedy Center. We have different acts and a variety of entertainment at the Ebony Inn."
It's the dancing on Wednesday and Friday nights that worries the neighbors. On a recent Wednesday, a large bouncer searches young men for weapons. The parking lot is filled with cars with D.C. license plates.
Inside, as Chocolate and Vanilla dance, a woman in fishnet stockings, high heels and a see-through top grinds her bottom against the crotch of a burly man in a dark corner. Dollar bills tucked into her hip garter bunch up like hand fans.
"People have a right to enjoy this type of dancing if they want to," Broadwater said, describing it as "clean, wholesome adult entertainment."
He's not breaking any rules, he said. "The stigma we have now is not justified. We have no problem here at night."
Tell that to Col. David G. Rice, the town's police chief, and he'll shake his head. In recent months, his officers have been catching prostitutes and couples on quiet residential streets.
"When they ask them where they were coming from, it's, 'We've just left the Ebony,' " Rice said. "People don't want to look out their windows and see you having oral sex."
Tell that to Broadwater, and he'll shake his head.
"You can't expect the owners to control that," he said.
A few moments later, he added with a smile:
"We have the elite of Prince George's here, and they love it."