1938 December 28

“Wrong Place for the Right People:” Café Society Opens in NYC


Café Society, a racially integrated nightclub opened in New York City on this evening. Primarily a jazz venue, Café Society had an avowed political purpose — including operating on an integrated basis. It is hard for many people to believe it, but nightclubs in New York City though the late 1930s were not racially integrated. Even the celebrated Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington established his national reputation, did not admit African-American customers. (The exception to this rule were some African-American clubs in Harlem, where whites seeking out jazz music were admitted.) Café Society, which advertised itself as “the right place for the wrong people,” poked fun at clubs that catered to the rich (referred to as “café society”). It had a shabbily dressed “doorman” who refused to open the doors of limousines.

Star performers at Café Society included Billie Holiday, Josh White and other jazz greats. It was widely believed that the initial funding for Café Society was secretly provided by the Communist Party. A second club, Café Society Uptown, opened in 1940. Both clubs closed during the Cold War in part because of attacks on founder/owner/manager Barney Josephson.

One of the star performers at Cafe Society was Hazel Scott, and African-American jazz pianist. Scott was the first African-American entertainer to have her own television network show, on the small and long-defunct Dumont Network. She was also active in left-wing political events and was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in July 1950. Her television show was cancelled a week later on July 29, 1950.

 Learn more: Barney Josephson, Terry Trilling-Josephson and Dan Morgenstern, Cafe Society: The Wrong Place for the Right People (2009)

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