by Ashley Harrison
As we have been working to build a future where Hillman City’s Black & Tan Hall serves as a thriving neighborhood restaurant, music venue, and community cultural space, a group of partner-owners at the Hall have also been exploring Seattle’s past and the history of the Black and Tan Club. Along the way, we have made some surprising discoveries about the founders of that famous venue and the role it has played in the history of our city.
The Fabled History
The phrase “black and tan” originated in Harlem and referred to nightclubs where patrons of all races mingled in a time where legal and social segregation largely prevailed. The Black and Tan Club in Seattle operated for almost five decades at 12th and Jackson and was a popular venue for local bands and musicians of national renown, many of whom would hold late-night jam sessions at black-owned clubs after playing for white audiences at downtown locations. Ernestine Anderson, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, and Gladys Knight are among the many legendary entertainers said to have played at the Black and Tan.
Most books tell the tale of the Black and Tan Club’s origins one way. In 1922, Seattle residents E. Russell “Noodles” Smith and Burr “Blackie” Williams opened the Alhambra Cabaret at 12th and Jackson. Ten years later, the establishment was renamed the Black and Tan Club. Noodles’ wealth was rumored to have come from a prostitution ring he ran in Alaska during the Gold Rush and to be kept open by his navigating the police payoff system in Seattle. Prohibition started earlier and ended later in Washington than in other parts of the US, and Seattle’s police and political establishment maintained a “tolerance policy” where businesses could continue to serve alcohol discreetly as long as the officials got their cut of the profits.
Noodles also owned several hotels in the Chinatown/International District, near the railway hub around King Street Station and Union Station—namely the Coast Hotel, although he also owned the Golden West Hotel for a shorter period. Importantly, Noodles’ hotels were open to African-American travelers at a time when many white-owned establishments refused to host African-Americans. (Duke Ellington and his orchestra traveled the country by private railcar so they would have sleeping arrangements even when they visited locales that would not accommodate them. Noodle’s hotels may have helped him establish connections to touring musicians, which meant their after-hours jams often took place at venues Noodles owned.
The Real Story
But Seattle’s historic black-owned newspapers tell a different story about the club’s origins: Noodles and Blackie certainly owned it at a later date, but they were not the founders.
Poring through hundred-year-old issues of Cayton’s Weekly, I found that the Alhambra Cabaret opened in 1920, two years earlier than is commonly accepted. And, it was founded by a man named Harry Legg, who owned and operated the Alhambra Cash Grocery at the street-level retail shop in the same building.
At the time of the Alhambra Cabaret’s opening, Legg would have been about 35 years old and have already reached many notable personal milestones and achieved several historic firsts. He was a business owner, an active member of what was then called the King County Colored Republican Club, the first African-American precinct committeeman from Washington for the Republican Party. Later, he became the first African-American member of Seattle’s Chamber of Commerce and its only such member until after World War II. The Alhambra Cabaret was not even his first business since he appears to have opened the Alhambra Cash Grocery as early as 1916.
The Alhambra Cabaret began operations on February 10, 1920. Well before its name was changed to reflect its integrated patronage, the Alhambra catered to clients of all races. (One of the earliest events held at the Alhambra was a debate amongst prominent white Republican candidates running for elected office in King County.) [Thanks to author and historian Paul de Barros, author of Jackson Street After Hours, for locating this article and sharing the find with me when we were both delving into the origins of the club.]
Harry Legg is clearly a different figure than Noodles Smith. While Noodles’ reputation may have seemed tainted, Legg’s affiliations and endeavors suggest an ambitious, well-connected, and well-resourced young man invested in what we might today call “respectability.” However, in an era where Prohibition laws were widely flouted and police tolerated illegal liquor sales and gambling in exchange for cash (and mayors and councilmembers profited from the whole arrangement), Noodles’ involvement in bootlegging would have been only mildly controversial. Many would have seen it as just so much good business.
Despite their differences, the available historical record suggests that Legg and Smith shared some commonalities. They both possessed an entrepreneurial spirit as well as an awareness that they could hire African-American workers at a time when black employment options remained extremely limited.
“You say there are not many colored folk in Seattle, and yet if every family in the city would spend just ten cents a day with me I would be able to double and treble my present force of employees, which, of course, are all colored men. The building up of one concern leads to the establishing of another,” said Legg in the September 29, 1917 issue of Cayton’s Weekly.
Similarly, in 1934, Noodles addressed an elegant, eloquent letter to the Seattle City Council’s License Committee citing his concerns over the Liquor Control Board’s imposition of a one o’clock bar closing time. “In one particular instance as pertains to the writer…the one o’clock closing order has so injured business that it became necessary to suspend business entirely and close the establishment. This move immediately deprived forty-six full time and nineteen part-time employees of their positions and placed them in the ranks of the unemployed…. Similar situations and conditions are bound to arise and face proprietors of other beer dispensaries, the writer feels certain,” he wrote. Though Noodles did not mention it explicitly, this restriction would also have interfered with his clubs’ ability to host musicians for late-night shows after performing for all white audiences downtown.
While Legg was more explicit in the written record about the links between the success of black-owned businesses and the overall economic health of the local African-American community, it is apparent that both men were mindful of their role as employers. And from our vantage point nearly one hundred years after its founding, it is clear that the Black & Tan Club could not have come into being without both entrepreneurs and what each contributed to the Club’s impacts and legacy.
After Harry Legg
On September 15, 1923, Harry Legg died in a late-night car accident. He was killed when his car ran into the fence of a cemetery between Tacoma and Seattle, according to the Seattle Daily Times. Shortly thereafter, The Alhambra Cash Grocery went bankrupt and the Cabaret was sold. Interestingly, Noodles and Blackie do not yet directly enter the story.
The next person described as the “proprietor” of the Alhambra Cabaret is Felix Crane, another African-American businessman of the era. Crane was implicated and then exonerated in the Roy Olmstead federal bootlegging indictment. Olmstead was a lieutenant with the Seattle Police Department who operated a significant rum-running operation. When he was discovered and fired, he increased his illegal activities until he became the subject of the federal indictment in 1925. Felix Crane was described, perhaps a bit hysterically, as a “convicted underworld boss” by the Seattle Daily Times.
In 1926, Crane is referred to as a “former proprietor of the Alhambra” and the present owner of a pool hall in the same building. [I was unable to locate any newspaper articles or official documents listing Noodles as the proprietor until 1933. Documents refer to Noodles as a “former proprietor” of the Black and Tan Club by the mid-1940s but it is unclear who assumed ownership.]
Even after Legg no longer owned the Club, though, and control of its operations had passed through several owners, it seems to have retained its ability to attract the patronage of prominent members of the political and legal establishment. In one instance, a 1934 article about a trial for a murder that took place at the Black and Tan Club notes a courtroom disclosure stating that a Superior Court judge, multiple area attorneys, and an assistant US attorney had been present at the venue shortly before the murder occurred.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the profile of the Club increased considerably as leading and influential artists played there, enhancing the Club’s status to nearly legendary. The club remained open throughout the 1960s but was last mentioned in the press in early January 1969, when the owner at that time was shot and killed by two patrons in a dispute over a cover charge. After that story, the club disappears from newspaper records and likely closed its doors permanently.
Community-Owned Newspapers and Media
During Harry Legg’s lifetime, the Seattle Daily Times (now the Seattle Times) and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer made minimal mention of Legg despite all he accomplished. In fact, Harry Legg barely appears in the Seattle Daily Times except in his own advertisements for the grocery store. Two brief articles tell the story of a criminal charge and civil suit brought against Legg when he was alleged to have hit Mrs. Lulu Harris in the head with a can of vegetables after she entered his grocery store to demand repayment of funds she loaned him as bail money.
Despite the Daily Times’ disrespectful approach toward Legg and its practice of only publishing pieces discussing his brushes with the law, and not his achievements, these blurbs do help establish that Harry Legg owned both “Alhambra” businesses at 12th and Jackson. The first piece refers to him as “grocer” and the second as “cabaret man” Harry Legg:
In 1919, Legg’s name also appears in a story about intoxicated youth arrested for imbibing too much hard cider. They were caught up in a police raid of cider dealers who had allowed apple juice to ferment before selling it. Of everything that could have been written about Legg’s life, influence, and precocious accomplishments, only these ‘salacious’ tidbits were deemed to merit publication in the Seattle Daily Times.
Conversely, Horace Cayton, African-American newspaper editor, and publisher of the Seattle Republican and Cayton’s Weekly, may have single-handedly preserved the record of Legg’s role in the legacy of the Alhambra Cabaret. Legg and Cayton were close associates, and Cayton often reported on Legg’s activities in glowing terms. He said in 1918 before the Alhambra had even opened, “Harry Legg has put Twelfth and Jackson on the map.” When Legg died in 1923, he was barely memorialized in print: the struggling Cayton’s Weekly had briefly rallied as Cayton’s Monthly, then had ceased publication and gone silent in 1921.
Implications for Today
We hope by sharing this discovery, we have shed light on an uncredited and unsung figure in Seattle’s history. At the same time, learning about Harry Legg and the underreported history of the Black and Tan has left us with more questions than answers:
Then and now, what are the challenges and barriers to success for black-owned businesses in Seattle? Harry Legg’s grocery and cabaret were successful businesses, but only the cabaret continued on after his death. Why didn’t the grocery find a buyer, and why did the club then need to align with the underground world of bootlegging, smuggling, and the police payoff system in order to survive? And looked at from another angle, what allowed the Club to persist for nearly 50 years despite multiple changes in ownership and across multiple eras of popular music?
Whose stories are told by the dominant-culture press and who decides which stories are covered? Without Cayton’s Weekly, Harry Legg’s role as the founder of the Black and Tan Club may have gone entirely unrecorded. What stories are the mainstream press missing today, and which outlets are working to actively lift up and record those stories?
Consider the recent South Seattle Emerald series Revolutionary Women and the importance of celebrating these women in their lifetimes as well as the historical importance of preserving these records of their accomplishments and biographies. A hundred years from now, these pieces will play a role in future historians’ understanding of who shaped our city and our neighborhoods. Such coverage fills in critical gaps in the mainstream coverage by the local “paper of record” and even the local alternative press.
What’s Next for the Hall?
The partners are continuing their work to open the doors. We are waiting to obtain the permit for a necessary update to our space before we can officially launch and welcome the community into the Hall. This stage involves a final fundraising push so we can install a sprinkler system in the building. We are looking forward to a huge opening celebration when the time comes!
To support the Hall and subscribe to our newsletter to hear about more exciting historical discoveries, Chef Tarik’s recipes, exclusive sneak-peeks into our innovative operating model, and much more, please visit our Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/blackandtanhall. If the history interests you, please consider giving at the $35/month level to receive a copy of our new handmade, leather-bound history chapbook!
You can subscribe to our event announcements and general updates at http://blackandtanhall.com/subscribe.
With thanks to:
- Cayton’s Weekly, published by Horace Cayton from 1916 to 1921. Digitized by the Chronicling America project at the Library of Congress.
- Seattle Times Historical Database. (Free access is available with a Seattle Public Library card.)
- The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era, Quintard Taylor.
- Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle, Paul de Barros.
- Seattle Municipal Archives and Office of the City Clerk for research assistance into municipal records.
3 thoughts on “The Story of Seattle’s Black and Tan Club and Those Who Owned It”
Fascinating history. Thanks for the ride.
Wow!!! I’m speechless right now. After consuming this article about the origins of the Black and Tan Club. Thank you so much.
Very interesting! The Black and Tan was much older than I had previously thought. I first learned of the Black and Tan in 1963, I was 18, but could pass for 14. I hung out a church that had a Wednesday night youth program. One night a friend of mine, Billy, was beaten up. Because he couldn’t walk by himself I, with helped of his other friend Leroy helped him home. He lived close to 21 an Union, in a house set behind two houses on the street. I understood this was not a good place for me to be late at night, being white, but my friend needed help. I met his mother and believe me she was quite surprised to see this white boy helping her son get home, but over a period of time I guess they just got used to me.
This is when I heard of the Black and Tan. Billy’s mother either was part owner or worked their. Billy’s father, as it turned out, was a jazz musician and played a mean saxophone. Although he lived in New York, Billy talked a lot about him and he loved playing his dad’s album on the record player. His name was Pony Poindexter.
You must log in to post a comment.