I WAS BORN AND RAISED IN WASHINGTON, IN THE OLD LeDroit Park area, which was the first what you might call socialite area in Washington. My people moved in there -- 330 U Street -- about 1902. My grandfather was a chef at Harvey's restaurant. My mother was a stage star, played with the Smarter Set at the Howard Theatre, played there and other black theaters from 1910 to 1917. LeDroit Park was for the blacks, teachers and people working at Howard University.
Social prestige wasn't claimed on the fact that people in LeDroit Park had so much money. Social prestige was claimed on the fact that these people aspired to go to school or their children went to school and they held as good a job as people could hold in those days. But the main thing that set those people apart was their social habits. They adjusted themselves to the social scheme better than whites did.
As you know, back then white people's society was based on wealth, tradition and leisure. Since blacks didn't have a whole lot of any one of those, and they certainly didn't have a whole lot of wealth, they did develop traditions, and sooner or later some of us had some leisure. Back then a black was rated first by his educational attainments. And if it wasn't education, then it was the kind of job he had. They were restricted as to what kind of job they could have in those days. So if you were chauffeur or maid to a white family, then you were measured by the way your white family was accepted in white society.
U Street was the street. It was the boulevard. It was the Fifth Avenue of Washington. Everybody who was anybody tried to make an appearance on U Street, especially on Sunday, but especially Easter Sunday. Holidays, you went up and down U Street to see and be seen and to show off your clothes.
U Street was the successor to Seventh and T. Washington's first famous corner of that type where people use to hang out socially was Seventh and T. The cause of that was the Howard Theatre. The Howard Theatre drew all those outstanding artists and entertainers, and the people flocked to it.
The theater is next to LeDroit Park, but strangely it wasn't the LeDroit Park people who hung out there. It was people from all over Washington who came there to hang out. When they put the Lincoln Theatre up on U Street, a white man, Crandell, was sold ideas of putting up a theater for Negroes, as they called them then, on U Street, that was about 1922-1923. Right after that the Republic Theater went up. It was an immediate success.
Those people who had been hanging out at Seventh and T flocked to the new attraction, moving pictures. The moving pictures became more popular than the stage shows because it was cheaper to go to the moving picture theater.
I got involved in the newspaper business in 1944 quite by accident. I had been a successful public relations man and promoter. When I was 26, I was manager of the Masonic temple building, a building put up by Masons at 10th and U streets. I became successful in promoting dances. One of the first things I paid attention to was after-school activities for teen-agers. I organized the federation of student clubs. We took small groups of teen-agers and organized them into social clubs and promoted their social affairs.
Nightclubs were the life of U Street. One of the oldest was Republic Gardens, at 1351 U, owned by W.G. Tindel, a black man. He turned a house into a restaurant and the backyard into a summer garden, taking after the things they had done in New York. He had the first garden restaurant. He kept the business for 40 years.
Then there was the Club Caverns, at 11th and U. Some doctors opened it up as the Rose Room or something. They couldn't make a go of it and sold it to Dan Garrett. And he got a guy from New York who was an expert designing nightclubs, St. Clair Barrington, white man, and he designed this cavern idea. Many of the outstanding stars of the nation played down in the Club Caverns -- Ruth Brown, Pearl Bailey, Willie Bryant, Blanche Calloway, Cab's sister.
The Caverns and the Republic couldn't handle over 100 people. There was nothing bigger until the Club Bali. It played every big name you could think of. The Club Bali was the first nightclub that started charging people admission to come in the door and did it successfully. Club Bali could accommodate 200-300 people.
I'll tell you who played the Club Bali -- the greatest of all, the great Louis Armstrong and his quintet and the great Earl (Fatha) Hines and Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Woody Herman, sax player Arnett Cobb; the white boy sax, Stan Getz.
Then there was the Club Bengazzi at 1453 U Street. Another club, the Capitol City Club, you had to have a key to go in there. It meant a lot of prestige to belong to it. It was across from the Lincoln Theatre.
Newspaper people called a lot of people around U Street Cafe Society. It was a mixture of gangsters, gamblers and young socialites. The young girls hung around with them because the gamblers had the money -- gifts and cars to give them. There were the numbers people, too, like Whitetop Simpkins, Alvin Barnes and Killer Peyton Manning.
When I look back on my life, and on The Capital Spotlight, I'm very proud to say that for the last 50 to 60 years we were part of the entertainment and social life of Washington, D.C., part of the life on U Street.