Ubangi Club, Harlem 1934-37
The Ubangi Club, 1934-1937
Barring the moral guardians who were exceptions to the norm, Afro American gay folk were very much tolerated, accepted and embraced by their community during the early twentieth century so as they didn’t hinder the striving ambitions of their people attempting to be accepted into mainstream U.S. culture. This was especially true in Harlem, the so-called capital of Afro America during its cultural renaissance.
During the waning days of the Harlem Renaissance, an infamously famous spot for entertainment was the Ubangi Club. The club showcased gay Afro American performers and entertainment. There was a house band (above) with members who weren’t shy about placing themselves in compromising positions with one another as they played for the audience, there was a sepia chorus of drag performers, and then there was the legendary Gladys Bentley whose risque song lyrics were often accompanied by “six men with a dash of lavender” about them.
It wasn’t uncommon to see the goings on at the Ubangi written up in many of the Afro American owned newspapers from the period. The club attracted a mixed straight and gay clientele and was said to cater to a mixed racial audience. Various sources from the day claim the club was restricted to white people only----the norm for many of popular Harlem nightspots where the entertainment was often black; but, there were clubs welcoming a diverse crowd and clubs retaliating against the irony of racial discrimination in Harlem by catering to Afro patronage only.
The Ubangi Club heyday ended in 1937 when a law in New York prohibiting cross-dressing entertainment was put into the books and an accusations that it violated the liquor code was enforced. Soon after, the club basically went straight.
Separating myth from fact, most of the people of Harlem during the time famously known as the Harlem Renaissance were a nose-to-the-grindstone hard working folk whose real lives were vastly different than infamous descriptions burned into a collective national memory by “slumming” white folk ----NOT ALL----coming into the neighborhood for hedonistic adventure among a people viewed as primitive and “exotic”----a time when the Negro was in vogue.