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Cafe Society, The Wrong Place for the Right People

lead photo
Cover for book by Josephson

This post is the third of a three-part series called Histories of Fourth Street, from East to West, a collaboration between GVSHP and the students in NYU’s Fall 2015 Intro to Public History course. Each group of students was tasked with preparing a presentation around a particular topic concerning a section or block of Fourth Street in conjunction with the public program held on Wednesday, December 16th.  Each group was also tasked with sharing their discoveries with us on Off the Grid. The following post was written by Angela Garra, Julie Marinet and Adrienne Nguyen.

Café Society, the first racially integrated nightclub in New York City, was a groundbreaking institution. Opened in 1938 on Sheridan Square, the existence of Café Society was possible due to the vision of its founder and owner, Barney Josephson, a former shoe salesman, and its location in the welcoming, politically liberal community of Greenwich Village. While Café Society was only open for a little over a decade, its radical politics had an enormous impact, and its legacy lived on long after its doors closed in 1949.

Barney Josephson
Barney Josephson, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Barney Josephson frequented jazz halls such as the Cotton Club during the 1920’s and 30’s while he worked in the shoe business, seeing the likes of jazz legends Duke Ellington and Ethel Waters. On the advice of his brother, Barney quit his job in New Jersey, moved to New York, and set out to fulfill his dream of opening a nightclub. He looked for a place in Greenwich Village, claiming rents were cheaper there, but also knowing it was one of the few places, if not the only place, in Manhattan that would welcome the radically progressive club he hoped to establish. He found a space in the basement of a building at Sheridan Square, where West 4th Street merges with Washington Place. In 1938, Café Society opened as the first racially integrated nightclub in New York City.

The inspiration for the radically progressive club Barney hoped to establish came from the political European cabarets. He wanted to reflect bohemian traditions, unconventional social habits, and a free spirit. Barney also pictured his cabaret as a place for political exchange and Communist meetings. He maintained a politically leftist house policy in his club, as well as a commitment to challenging not only racism but sexism.

Hazel Scott, etc.
(L to R) Count Basie, Teddy Wilson, Hazel Scott, Duke Ellington and Mel Powell at Café Society (ca. 1940)

Café Society welcomed some of the biggest talents in jazz history to its stage, including Josh White, Ida James, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Big Joe Turner, Nellie Lutcher, and Mary Lou Williams. It also welcomed some of the most influential African American intellectuals of the time, including Walter White, Ralph Bunche, Richard Wright, E. Franklin Frazier, Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes, and Paul Robeson. This is all to say  that Café Society was a truly extraordinary place, which again made Greenwich Village the logical place for its founding.

Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday at Café Society (1939)


It was at Café Society that “Strange Fruit” was first performed by Billie Holiday. “Strange Fruit” was the first song of its kind—an explicit song of protest against racism, lynching, and a government that refused to pass anti-lynching laws. The song became incredibly popular, even allowing Café Society to begin to advertise itself and the song —  an indication of the power and influence of “Strange Fruit.”

Café Society’s reputation and influence by the way of its leftist politics ultimately led to its demise. With the growth of conservatism during World War II and the start of the Cold War, the club fell under a cloud of suspicion because of its leftist politics. It had held numerous events during World War II with known Communists, and had long been suspected to be a Communist Party front, given Barney’s unusual lack of entertainment experience. Furthermore, Barney had familial ties to the Communist Party.

In 1941, J. Edgar Hoover opened a file on John Hammond, the club’s “unofficial music director.” Two years later, the FBI began a dossier on Barney that would eventually grow to 2,100 pages. Barney was placed on the Security Index, and his businesses were put under surveillance as well. This was partially due to the fact that Leon, the brother who had convinced Barney to open Café Society, was one of the most outspoken members of the Communist Party in the United States at the time and had allegedly participated in a false-passport operation on behalf of Soviet intelligence. Ultimately, Leon was subpoenaed by the House of Un-American Activities Committee. He refused to answer questions and was convicted for contempt of court. Bad press followed, linking Leon to Barney and Café Society, and business at this club and his other on the Upper East Side dropped by 45%. After losing $90,000 over the course of a year, Barney sold both of his clubs in 1949.

To see the students’ presentation, click HERE.  Special thanks to NYU professor Peter Wosh for continuing this program with GVSHP.

5 responses to “Cafe Society, The Wrong Place for the Right People

  1. Hello! I’m watching PBS American Masters “How It Feels to be Free.” During the documentary it mentions Cafe Society. I of course I googled the venue and from there I opened the first listed site. I’m full of emotions watching and reading the history of beautiful black women (and men) activists and entertainers. I’m an artist inspired…now. Thank you for preserving a history I wished I’d been a part of.

    TL Barwick

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