Windy City Media Group Frontpage News

THE VOICE OF CHICAGO'S GAY, LESBIAN, BI, TRANS AND QUEER COMMUNITY SINCE 1985

home search facebook twitter join
Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2021-09-01
DOWNLOAD ISSUE
Donate

Sponsor
Sponsor

  WINDY CITY TIMES

Queer Bronzeville: African American LGBTs on Chicago's South Side, 1900-1985
The emergence of African-American queer cultures on Chicago's South Side, 1920-1940
by Tristan Cabello
2012-02-29

This article shared 21507 times since Wed Feb 29, 2012
facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email


This is the first of a multi-part series.

In the early 1920s, African American LGBTs were integrated to Bronzeville's mainstream culture and accommodated by its inhabitants, religious figures and political leaders, much unlike their white counterparts who had already created their own "gay" enclave of "Towertown" on the North Side.

From State Street to Cottage Grove Avenue, along 43rd and 47th Street, Bronzeville's commercialized and jazz-influenced urban culture offered African American gays and lesbians several venues where homosexuals and heterosexuals interacted across the color line ( the Plantation Café, the Pleasure Inn, the Cabin Inn, Club DeLisa and Joe's Deluxe ) , yearly popular Halloween "Drag Balls" popularized by Black gay hustler Alfred Finnie, semi-safe locations ( the Wabash YMCA, Washington Park, Jackson Park ) , and a "vice district" which facilitated prostitution.

Bronzeville's most powerful inhabitants ( Reverend Clarence Cobbs ) and its most famous musicians ( Tony Jackson, Rudy Richardson, Sippie Wallace, Frankie "Half-Pint" Jaxon, and George Hannah ) were homosexuals. Joe Hughes, owner of a popular gay-friendly bar, was elected honorary mayor of Bronzeville in 1940. Journalist Theodore Jones regularly hired drag queen Valda Gray's troupe of female impersonators for parties given for Bronzeville's upper class. On the streets, working-class African American queers were also accepted. Lorenzo Banyard, a drag entertainer, remembers riding streetcars to the West Side, dressed in drag, without incident.

Bronzeville's queer population grew rapidly during the Great Migration. Like the millions of African Americans who left the poverty and racism in the South, Black queers traveled to urban centers to find better-paying jobs, but also to take advantage of the opportunities for same-sex encounters.

Blues pianist Antony ( Tony ) Jackson was one of the many queer migrants who decided to leave their native South to take advantage of Chicago's freedom. Born in New Orleans in 1876, Jackson spent his youth in the saloons, gambling halls, and brothels of the Black neighborhood of Storyville.

In search of a place more receptive to his music and sexual orientation, the musician migrated to Chicago in 1908. Blues singer Jelly Roll Morton, a friend of the pianist, claimed that Jackson had migrated to Chicago because "he happened to be one of those gentlemen that a lot of people call [ … ] lady or sissy." According to Morton, Jackson "liked his freedom in Chicago," a freedom that included the ability to work full time in Bronzeville's most renowned cabarets, theaters, and cafés, as well as the possibility of encounters with men of similar sexual orientation.

But Jackson participated in an already rich queer culture. Visible queer individuals—female impersonators, effeminate men, and masculine women—were also amongst the neighborhood's most popular artists and entertainers. Female impersonators, for example, enjoyed great popularity due to the drag balls organized every Halloween and New Year's Eve.

The nation's first drag balls took place during the last decades of the nineteenth century and from their inception their appeal transcended racial lines. The first Chicago balls were also racially integrated, a fact frequently remarked upon by those who attended or wrote about them. University of Chicago sociology student Myles Vollmer observed: "Physically, all types are there. Homosexuals thin and wasted, others slender and with womanish curves, others overfed and lustfully fat. Most of the younger homosexuals have pallid complexions with rather thin hair, due, perhaps, to overindulgence. There is a preponderance of Jews and the Latin nationalities, although homosexuality is no respecter of races. Many of the men are of Polish blood and Negroes mingle freely with whites. There seemingly is no race distinction between them."

Chicago's Black newspapers often commented on queers' presence on the Stroll, the main commercial artery of Bronzeville.

The Chicago Whip was a specialist on the topic. The column "Nosey Sees All Knows All," written under the pen name "Nosey," often discussed the lives of Bronzeville's queers. In November 1919, Nosey, who was "out on Halloween Eve," had seen "the mother of six children," who "had on a pair of men's trousers, face covered with powder, with hair cut just like a man."

In a November 1920 article, The Chicago Whip asked, "Have We Had a Sex Problem Here?" The article told the story of Sherman Robinson, resident of 3521 S. Wabash Avenue, the "plaintiff in one of Chicago's most unusual divorce cases." According to the reporter, the couple had "been living happily until September 1916, when Ida [ Robinson's wife ] had left [ him ] for a woman she had previously met in Paducah, Kentucky."

Black queers took advantage of the freedom of expression they found in South Side's cabarets, epicenters of non-normative sexual practices such as interracial relations, prostitution and queer relations. The music played in these cabarets reveals the open-mindedness that characterized the South Side during this era. Blues audiences heard the terms "sissy" or "bulldagger," in the Blues singers' lyrics, which spoke of the mutability of sexual desire. Gladys Bentley sang, "If you can't bring a woman, bring me a sissy man." Gertrude "Ma" Rainey explained in a song she wrote entitled "Prove it on me Blues" that she could "wear a shirt and tie," and that she could "talk to the ladies like a man." The "sissies" and lesbians mentioned in Blues songs were never ridiculed for their behavior.

Gay dances and masquerades were regular events of Chicago's Black queer culture. Drag balls, popular on the South Side, were held in the neighborhood every Halloween and New Year's Eve, which enabled them to pass for conventional costume parties.

The most famous of these drag balls were the Finnie's ball, the first of which occurred in 1935 and was organized by an African American queer street hustler and gambler named Alfred Finnie, in the basement of a tavern on the corner of 38th Street and Michigan Avenue. Guests of the ball paid 25 cents to attend. The balls later became staples of the South Side Black queer culture and attracted hundreds of Chicagoans who came to applaud drag entertainers. Professional drag queens were respected because of their well-paying jobs, which often enabled them to provide for their families' needs.

At the end of the 1930s, the South Side's most popular queer cabarets were the Club De Lisa and the Cabin Inn. Club DeLisa, the high point of Bronzeville's nightlife, was a favorite haunt of the 1930s most famous jazz musicians. The club could welcome up to 500 people, who came to see jazz and blues musicians such as Chippie Hill, Tommy Powell and the De-Ho Boy, and Albert Ammons and his Rhythm Kings. Rudy Richardson, a queer pianist and singer, brought a sizeable queer audience.

Nat "Big" Ivy had opened the Cabin Inn to attract working-class Blacks. Female impersonator Valda Gray, the show's producer, familiarized Bronzeville's clubs with drag performances, leading a troupe of drag queens; "Joanne Crawford," "Jean LeRue," "Nina McKinney," "Nancy Kelly," and "Dixie Lee" presented a show every night.

At the time, the practice of having sex with an effeminate man and the identity of being homosexual were not linked. As a result, some men shifted rather freely between sexual relations with women and with men. Others viewed sexual relations between people of the same gender as an acceptable alternative to heterosexual relations. If they had the active role in the sexual relation and acted masculine in other contexts, these men reinforced their status as men with these relations.

Black newspapers and blues recordings appear to have emphasized these concepts, suggesting that sex with female impersonators and effeminate men did not pose a threat to masculinity. For example, when a man stated in the Inner State Tattle Newspaper that women had disappointed him, the reporter commented that this man could "be popular at the next Faggot's Ball."

Another example is the lyrics of Thomas Dorsey's "Sissy Blues" in which the singer claims, "Now all the people ask me why I'm all alone/A sissy shook that thing and took my man from home," which suggested that leaving one's wife for a female impersonator was as acceptable as leaving for another woman.

Bronzeville's sexual discourses were rooted in the neighborhood's cultural, social, and economic realities, which were often isolated from the rest of the city. Because of the expanding bar culture, Bronzeville's queers became an essential part of the neighborhood's development, which explained their integration and acceptance.

These queers were however not regulated by a specific "gay" identity. Cabarets, newspapers, drag queens, and prostitutes participated in the creation of diverse and plural identity discourses. South Side queer identities were divided, divisive and multiple. Rather than queer or sexual identities, racial, cultural, gender, and class identities played a much greater role in guiding Bronzeville's sexual discourse.

Tristan Cabello is the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in African-American Studies at Bowdoin College and is currently completing his first book "Queer Bronzeville: Race, Sexuality and Urban Boundaries in Black Chicago, 1900-1985." His exhibit "Queer Bronzeville" is available on the website www.outhistory.org .

CaptionThe Chicago Whip often commented on homosexuals' presence in the Stroll, the main street of Bronzeville. The column "Nosey Sees All Knows All," written under the pen name "Nosey," often discussed the lives of Bronzeville's homosexuals. Images provided by Tristan Cabello


This article shared 21507 times since Wed Feb 29, 2012
facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email

  ARTICLES YOU MIGHT LIKE

Gay News

THEATER 'Wicked' returning to Chicago in 2022 2021-11-30
- The blockbuster musical Wicked will return to Broadway In Chicago's James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., on Sept. 28-Dec. 4, 2022. Now the fifth longest-running show in Broadway history—and featuring songs such as "Popular" ...


Gay News

Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce elects first Black LGBTQ president in organization's history 2021-11-24
- In November, the Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce elected Darien Marion-Burton to serve as the organization's first Black LGBTQ president. Marion-Burton will begin his role in January 2022 and said he's excited to bring a ...


Gay News

Honoring Emmett Till's mother's 100th birthday, Medill launches institute 2021-11-23
--From a Northwestern University press release - EVANSTON, Ill. —- November 23 marks the 100th birthday of Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago boy who was brutally lynched in the Mississippi Delta in 1955. Her decision to "let the ...


Gay News

TV JoJo Siwa in finale of 'Dancing with the Stars' and the winner is… 2021-11-23
- Queer social-media and reality-show figure JoJo Siwa made history on this season of Dancing with the Stars by being part of the series' first same-sex couple (with partner Jenna Johnson)—and the twosome made it all the ...


Gay News

SPORTS Northwestern wins first national title in field hockey 2021-11-22
- In Ann Arbor, Michigan, the Northwestern University field hockey team made school history by winning its first national title, shutting out the Liberty University Flames 2-0, The Daily Northwestern reported. In a tightly contested match between ...


Gay News

184 LGBTQ candidates won elected office in 2021; trans, cisg women best win/loss records 2021-11-17
--From a press release - Washington, DC — At least 184 out LGBTQ candidates won elected office throughout 2021, more than in any other odd-numbered election year in U.S. history. The previous record was 169 candidates set in 2019. Transgender women ...


Gay News

Kane makes history as Blackhawks win first game 2021-11-02
- On Nov. 1, the Chicago Blackhawks turned things around. The team beat the Ottawa Senators 5-1 at the United Center, as co-captain Patrick Kane took sole possession of third in all-time franchise goals (408) and moved ...


Gay News

LGBT HISTORY MONTH Snapshots showcase life in queer 1970s San Francisco 2021-10-29
- The California Historical Society is in the process of digitizing two collections of photographs and negatives from the wild and heady early days of LGBTQ liberation in San Francisco. The snapshots were discovered in boxes in ...


Gay News

In midst of Blackhawks sex-assault scandal, Quenneville resigns 2021-10-29
- On Oct. 28, Joel Quenneville resigned as coach of the NHL's Florida Panthers—two days after the second-winningest coach in league history was among those implicated for not swiftly responding to allegations by a Chicago Blackhawks player ...


Gay News

Pres. Biden nominates Gigi Sohn FCC Commissioner; would be first out LGBTQ FCC Commissioner 2021-10-28
--From a press release - Washington, DC — Today President Joe Biden nominated Gigi Sohn to fill a vacant seat at the Federal Communications Commission, putting her on-track to become the first out LGBTQ FCC commissioner in history, if confirmed by ...


Gay News

LGBT HISTORY MONTH Angela Davis, revolutionary 2021-10-24
By Victoria A. Brownworth - "You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time," said Angela Davis, 78, the country's most famous living revolutionary. She was born ...


Gay News

lllinois Holocaust Museum hosts talk on Stonewall and the LGBTQ-rights movement 2021-10-24
- On Oct. 17, Skokie's Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center hosted a "Legacy of Stonewall and the LGBTQ Rights Movement" panel discussion to kick off its latest exhibit, "Rise Up: Stonewall and the LGBTQ Rights Movement." ...


Gay News

LGBT History Month: Staten Island museum throws open Austen's closet door 2021-10-22
- It's been a long time coming, but officials at the Alice Austen House on New York's Staten Island have thrown open the closet door, now fully embracing the lesbian pioneer and photographer who lived in the ...


Gay News

LGBT History Project: Tee A. Corinne: Photographer of lesbian sexuality 2021-10-19
By Victoria A. Brownworth - Over her decades as a lesbian photographer and artist, Tee Corinne said, "I'm one of the most obscure famous artists." Famous? Yes. Obscure? Certainly not within artistic circles nor within the queer art world where she ...


Gay News

Legacy Walk plaques added for Pauli Murray, Matthew Shepard 2021-10-17
- The Legacy Project unveiled two bronze plaques recognizing LGBTQ+ historical figures Pauli Murray and Matthew Shepard on Oct. 16. The plaques, part of Northalsted's half-mile Legacy Walk, recognized Murray and ...


 



Copyright © 2021 Windy City Media Group. All rights reserved.
Reprint by permission only. PDFs for back issues are downloadable from
our online archives. Single copies of back issues in print form are
available for $4 per issue, older than one month for $6 if available,
by check to the mailing address listed below.

Return postage must accompany all manuscripts, drawings, and
photographs submitted if they are to be returned, and no
responsibility may be assumed for unsolicited materials.
All rights to letters, art and photos sent to Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago
Gay and Lesbian News and Feature Publication) will be treated
as unconditionally assigned for publication purposes and as such,
subject to editing and comment. The opinions expressed by the
columnists, cartoonists, letter writers, and commentators are
their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay,
Lesbian, Bisexual and Transegender News and Feature Publication).

The appearance of a name, image or photo of a person or group in
Nightspots (Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times
(a Chicago Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender News and Feature
Publication) does not indicate the sexual orientation of such
individuals or groups. While we encourage readers to support the
advertisers who make this newspaper possible, Nightspots (Chicago
GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay, Lesbian
News and Feature Publication) cannot accept responsibility for
any advertising claims or promotions.

 
 

TRENDINGBREAKINGPHOTOS







Sponsor


 



Donate


About WCMG      Contact Us      Online Front  Page      Windy City  Times      Nightspots      OUT! Guide     
Identity      BLACKlines      En La Vida      Archives      Advanced Search     
Windy City Queercast      Queercast Archives     
Press  Releases      Join WCMG  Email List      Email Blast      Blogs     
Upcoming Events      Todays Events      Ongoing Events      Bar Guide      Community Groups      In Memoriam      Outguide Categories      Outguide Advertisers      Search Outguide      Travel      Dining Out      Privacy Policy     

Windy City Media Group publishes Windy City Times,
The Bi-Weekly Voice of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans Community.
5315 N. Clark St. #192, Chicago, IL 60640-2113 • PH (773) 871-7610 • FAX (773) 871-7609.