New York City’s first racially integrated nightclub

CafesocietyaudienceDid it really take until 1938 for the first truly desegregated nightclub to open in New York?

It’s hard to believe, but though black performers entertained whites at Depression-era venues such as Harlem’s Cotton Club, audiences remained separate.

Blacks were either not permitted, or they were relegated to the back of the club.

This kind of segregation was finally undone at a Greenwich Village basement lounge called Cafe Society—a play on the upscale nightclubs for snobbish elites popular in the 1930s.

OnesheridansquareThe club, at One Sheridan Square (right), was the creation of a former shoe salesman with leftist leanings named Barney Josephson.

He’d spent time traveling in Europe and was impressed by the racially mixed cabarets he’d visited.

He was also a huge jazz fan, and at his new venue he booked talent such as Lena Horne, Art Tatum, and Sarah Vaughan. Billie Holiday (below) was the opening night performer, and she later debuted Strange Fruit there.

Cafe Society Sheridan Square (Josephson opened another cabaret uptown) had a good run for a decade or so. “Ultimately, his political cabaret was undone by politics,” wrote Sam Roberts in The New York Times in 2009.

Cafesocietybillieholiday

“In 1947, after Mr. Josephson’s brother Leon, a Communist, refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the cafe owner was pummeled by prominent columnists, customers left, and both clubs were sold.”

[Bottom Photo: Charles B. Nadel via Downtown Express]

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6 Responses to “New York City’s first racially integrated nightclub”

  1. New York City's first racially integrated nightclub Ephemeral New ... - musicBlogs Says:

    [...] Music, art, theater14, West Village15. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.016 feed. You can leave a response17, or trackback18 from your own [...]

  2. ronfwnc Says:

    Barney Josephson made a nice comeback with the Cookery, another Village nightspot that booked interesting artists and lasted into the Eighties. It was located on the corner of 8th Street & University Place, where Dallas BBQ was located for so long.

  3. Ruth Hackett Says:

    Love that people remember correctly.Thanks

  4. Bob_in_MA Says:

    There were a lot of unsegregated places of entertainments 40 years previous to 1938. Though all classes of white New York were plenty racist, there wasn’t the stark prohibition of race mixing until after the turn of the century.

    In the book “Race and Reunion: the Civil War in American memory”, David Blight illustrates how southern whites and their sympathizers managed to export their strict racial code.

    In New York, it was the anti-vice committees that took the lead in condemning race mixing. It was spoken of as if synonymous with prostitution. . In “New York Undercover : private surveillance in the Progressive Era”, Jennifer Fronc recounts how one African-American hotel owner was hounded out of business for serving whites.

    Things generally got worse for African-Americans in the period 1890-1920 in both the North and the South. For instance, clerks in the Federal government weren’t segregated until after Woodrow Wilson took office.

  5. jnobianchi Says:

    I remember the Cookery well. I live a half-block west of where it was. BBQ has moved over to 8th between Fifth and Sixth. The Cookery/BBQ location is now home to the type of establishment that’s a blight of the neighborhood; another damn bank…

  6. Craig Hilden Says:

    I’m amazed, I have to admit. Seldom do I encounter a blog that’s both educative and
    amusing, and let me tell you, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The problem is something not enough people are speaking intelligently about. Now i’m very happy that I came across this in my search for something
    relating to this.

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