Part II: Being Black and Queer in 1940s Bronzeville: Race, Class and Queer Identities in Black Chicago, 1940-1950
This is the second of a multi-part series.
In the 1940s, queers were certainly present in all social strata of Bronzeville's society, silent and visible at the same time.
Just like Bronzeville's heterosexuals, Bronzeville's queers organized themselves around the urban spaces where they lived, and according to their class and gender identities. Working-class queers had created a discourse of their own featuring well-defined sexual systems and different types of personas. Bronzeville's middle class used these identities to help them sustain and achieve their social status. Powerful queers were often able to protect their status by controlling their images.
During and after the Second World War, the mass migration of homosexuals to urban centers altered the social geography of large cities such as Chicago. In response to this influx, many homosexual bars opened their doors in white neighborhoods. The white owners, however, did not allow all segments of the homosexual population to patronize their establishments; lesbians, African Americans, and working-class queers were often excluded. This served to further divide queer populations, in which racial and gender identities as well as social status came to regulate attendance in gay bars. Black queers remained in their neighborhoods and did not enjoy the same opportunities for mobility as whites. During the 1940s, the majority of bars frequented by African American queers in Chicago were located on the South Side.
Bronzeville's working-class African American queers evolved in a variety of places. Cabarets such as the Plantation CafĂ©, the Cabin Inn, the Club DeLisa, and Joe's Deluxe hosted drag shows, queer artists, queer musicians, queer comedians, and had both a queer and straight clientele. For the artists, the professional activities in this bar often represented a sizeable source of income: these establishments were financially stable. These places were deeply entrenched in Bronzeville's neighborhood culture, and were not reserved for queers, as heterosexual couples from the neighborhood mainly frequented them. There was no geographic, social, or cultural separation between queers and heterosexuals: these identities had not yet been fully formed.
Professional female impersonator Lorenzo Banyard, who used the stage name "Nancy Kelly," frequented all of these places during the 1940s. Historian Allen Drexel documented his story in 1996 in a fascinating two-hour interview. Born in New Orleans in 1917, Banyard moved to Chicago in 1924 to live with his maternal grandmother. He spent his childhood and teenage hood in the "whorehouse" owned by his aunt, while studying at Douglas, Phillips High School and DuSable, until economic recession forced him to abandon his studies. He then found a position as a dishwasher at the Wabash Street YMCA, where he would continue to work while he performed in drag shows at night.
Because female impersonators drew a large crowd, bars sought their talents. The 1410 West Roosevelt Road club was well known for paying a decent salary to its artists. Despite the bar's rather dangerous geographical location and aggressive clientele, many female impersonators worked there. One day in 1940, Banyard decided to go to the 1410 West Roosevelt Road, despite his friends' warnings. "You're crazy, you'll be killed!" they pleaded several times. Banyard, set on earning $10 per show, put on his makeup, high heels, and styled his hair with "Max Factor Grease Paint No. 8," a fashionable hair product. He went out in the street dressed as a woman, to go to the club.
As he could perform in at least three shows that night, Banyard knew that he would earn at least $30. His trip to the West Side via streetcar demonstrates how much Bronzeville's female impersonators were part of the neighborhood's social and cultural landscape. Wearing false eyelashes, lipstick, and high heels, Banyard recalled that South Side men approached him. An intoxicated man sat next to him in the streetcar, and flirted with him. Banyard was helped by an old woman on the bus, who invited him to sit next to her, before saying that "women [ in Bronzeville ] were not safe" when they went out alone. Drag queens moved freely in the streets of Bronzeville, using public transport, and traveling down the neighborhood's main streets. They could often pass for "real" women thanks to their elaborate wardrobes.
In the Black queer culture of Bronzeville, queer sexual discourses focused on the female impersonator. As drag queens displayed very feminine characteristics and were attracted to men, they were considered to be women. Two other types evolved around this figure and competed with her. First, the "boys" were masculine men attracted to drag queens who preferred to have sexual relationships with them. These masculine men were considered heterosexual despite engaging in sexual relationships with drag queens and their masculinity was not seen as threatened. Second, the "QTs" were queers who were not interested in drag queens because they "wanted to have sex with normal men." In clubs and at drag balls, the QTs noticed the boys who approached drag queens. They therefore knew that these boys wanted to engage in sexual relations with queers, or QTs. This attitude differed from white discourse, which had created a heterosexual/ homosexual binary system.
Despite the ongoing preoccupation with the notion of respectability, numerous Bronzeville businesses prospered thanks to queer talents. Joe's Deluxe, Miracle Records, Sunbeam Records were all businesses that allowed their owners to rise to the upper class of the neighborhood while making a significant contribution to Bronzeville's queer culture. People involved in queer-themed businesses, such as Joe Hughes, Marl Young, Petite Swanson, Rudi Richardson, Alfred Finnie and Eddie Phlique, were all highly regarded by Bronzeville's population.
Joe Hughes was part of Bronzeville's high society. He counted Eddie Anderson and Joe Louis among his friends. Hughes was elected "Mayor of Bronzeville" in 1941. Though Hughes' office was honorary, it was nonetheless representative, and highly symbolic in Bronzeville. Hughes therefore needed to be respected by his fellow citizens. However, since 1936, Hughes's only activity in the neighborhood had been in the capacity of managing a drag club named "Joe's Deluxe." Often described as a "Mecca for Female Impersonators," the club had opened in 1936. The drag shows were the main attraction at Joe's Deluxe, and were regulated by strict rules instituted by Hughes and by the city of Chicago.
The club's management did not allow the female impersonators to wear women's dresses or makeup off the premises. The female impersonators were not permitted to sit at a table without the presence of a woman. Providing her own wardrobe, each female impersonator had close to 25 ensembles in every style. Show producer Valda Gray, a very well known female impersonator, directed the drag shows for more than 16 years. Dixie Lee ( Robert Beck ) was a white female impersonator from the North Side. "Callidonia" was the resident comedian. "Sandra B." ( Chester P. Frederick ) and "Petite Swanson" ( Alphonso Horsley ) were the resident blues singers. "Nancy Kelly" ( Lorenzo Banyard ) and other female impersonators choreographed in the show.
Among the numerous postwar businesses recruiting the talents of Bronzeville's queers were a number of record labels. Miracle Records, in operation from 1946 to 1950, published a variety of records. Miracle Records' first recordings were the work of a homosexual singer named Rudi Richardson. An effeminate man with a high tenor voice, Richardson played the piano on stage as he sang. Born Rudolf Richardson Riles in Memphis in 1924, Richardson began working in Bronzeville's jazz clubs, such as the Chicken Palace, the Hurricane Lounge, Rudy's Chicken Shack and Rupneck's. In 1949, Rudi Richardson published a record under the label Rim. He continued to make frequent appearances in Chicago's clubs in the early 1950s, with a long contract at the Kitty Kat Club.
Of all the resident female impersonators at Joe's Deluxe, only "Petite Swanson" recorded a 78RPM for Sunbeam Records, taking advantage of an outstanding publicity campaign. Billboard announced that this "female impersonator" had signed a recording contract with the label on March 22, 1947. The following month, in an article published in Blues and Rhythm, Bo Sandell gave Swanson's real name, Alphonso Horsley.
In the 1940s, Bronzeville's most powerful man was probably Reverend Clarence Cobbs. Born in Memphis, Tenn., Cobbs moved to Chicago in 1916, where he was first a member of the Pilgrim Baptist Church. The First Church of Deliverance, his spiritualist congregation, started as a storefront on State Street. From its beginnings as a small religious organization of just thirteen members, the First Church of Deliverance boasted more than 9,000 members at the beginning of the 1940s, after constructing a huge building at 4315 S. Wabash, becoming one of the country's largest churches.
On Nov. 25, 1939, the Chicago Defender published an article entitled "State's Attorney Probes Scandal on Rev. Cobbs." According to the article, Reverend Clarence H. Cobbs was "facing the possibility of questioning by state's attorney's police concerning widespread rumors of a scandalous nature," which had been circulating on the South Side for several days. Though the journalist did not specify the nature of said rumors, they had "become so general that the Reverend [ had ] had to come to his own defense over the air on several of his Sunday night broadcasts." During these radio shows, Cobbs reiterated that he was a "full man," and asked the listeners not to believe the rumors. A few months later, when the scandal had spread further, Cobbs began a defamation lawsuit against the Defender.
Bronzevillians were aware of Reverend Cobbs' homosexuality. While African American historian Timuel Black, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, claimed that Cobbs "didn't deny [ his sexuality ] and made no apologies for it," the Reverend never openly admitted his homosexuality, and during his entire life never discussed his sexual orientation. The rumors about Cobbs's homosexuality were mainly supported by the vacation trips that Cobbs would take every year with his male secretary, R. Edward Bolden, as documented by Princeton historian Wallace Best.
Cobbs's social status and the power that went along with this status earned him the respect of his fellow citizens. Certainly not everyone in Bronzeville was aware of Cobbs's homosexuality. Very few people however did discuss the matter: they accepted it without decrying it. Cobbs wished to, and indeed could, control his image, due to a complex web of power relations, combined from his religious activities, control of the media, his own publicity, and his dominant status in the neighborhood, and which resulted in respect for him.
In the 1940s, the acceptance and visibility of queers in Bronzeville was conditioned by their socioeconomic status. By the end of the decade, however, the Black middle class had begun to impose its moral valuesmainly characterized by its effort to control and regulate sexual deviance such as prostitution and homosexuality.
In an article published on Jan. 13, 1949, by the Defender, the word "homosexuality" was printed for the first time in that newspaper. A report on the existence of homosexual practices within the Black community, this mention of the word "homosexuality" is but the first of many, in which the Defender, and later African American magazines such as Jet Magazine and Ebony Magazine would try to define the limits of their community's sexual practices. The creation of a specific African American discourse on homosexuality, driven by Black publications founded in Chicago, held the imposition of the heterosexuality/homosexuality binary in African American culture as a main objective.
Tristan Cabello is the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in African American Studies at Bowdoin College. He 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 . Tristan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .