Did You Know The Harlem Cotton Club Was Racist?

Cotton Club Entrance December 2013/ Gotanero /Wikipedia/Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0


The Harlem Renaissance marks one of the most significant time periods for Black artistic expression as Harlem became a hub for the Black middle-class. Aside from timeless literary works, the Harlem Renaissance produced infectious jazz music that revamped the city’s nightlife scene.

One of the premier destinations for prominent jazz musicians of the day was Harlem’s famous Cotton Club. Co-owned by boxing legend Jack Johnson and notorious gangster Owney Madden, the club served a white’s only clientele with an all-Black staff.

Decorated like a jungle-themed Southern plantation, the club purported many racist stereotypes about Blacks as exotic savages which appealed to its intended audience. Dancers at the Cotton Club were held to strict standards; they had to be at least 5’6” tall, light skinned with only a slight tan, and under twenty-one years of age.

This was the spot to get the best booze in town during prohibition and patrons would pay top dollar for it. Black performers, such as Duke Ellington and Ethel Waters, often played at the Cotton Club rather than other local venues because the pay was significantly higher.

Although the Cotton Club excluded most Blacks from coming in, there are some notable exceptions, including Langston Hughes who had a mouthful to say about his experience.

Needless to say, Hughes was not impressed with the establishment’s attempt to bring a genuine Black experience to an all-white audience.

He likened it to a zoo citing,” strangers were given the best ringside tables to sit and stare at the Negro customers--like amusing animals in a zoo.” He believed the influx of whites into the Cotton Club was degrading and detrimental to other local Black businesses that were forced to close because they could not draw in such big names.

A little known fact is while most attention was focused on Harlem’s Cotton Club, the Creole Palace in California (known as the “Cotton Club of the West”) was also a bubbling hot spot for Black entertainers with a few key differences from its east coast counterpart.

The Creole Palace catered mainly to the African American community, was completely Black-owned, and employed both light and dark skinned dancers. Hughes most likely would have had much better things to say about this spot.

While many of us agree that we should support Black businesses, we have to make sure those Black businesses are also supporting us. Jack Johnson was a Black man keeping his own people, many of whom probably supported his career, out of the Cotton Club.

We deserve better than that.


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