In choosing the name for our community-based, multi-racial partnership, our founding members had Duke Ellington’s Grammy-winning, 1927 song ‘Black and Tan Fantasy’ on their minds. Like many of Ellington’s early works, the song was composed in collaboration with his orchestra, in particular his trumpet player, Bubber Miley. It was expanded from a 3-minute popular song into a short film that includes both Ellington & Miley, which was designed in part by Ellington’s management team to position the ascendant jazz pianist as a composer. The film also constitutes one of the first music videos ever created in America.
Our name also pays homage to Seattle’s famous Black and Tan Club, one of many Black-owned nightclubs in the Central District which incubated Seattle’s jazz scene and provided a gathering space for the Black community, which was excluded from attending or performing at any concerts or dances north of the ‘Yesler color line’ enforced by the white musician’s union and downtown venue owners. The Black and Tan Club passed through many hands and several reinventions, but survived until the late 1970s in a nearly five-decade run. The Club provided a space for joy, music, dance and drink, through the hard times of Prohibition, Depression, World War II, and beyond.
We are aware that for communities in Ireland and those with Irish ties or heritage, this phrase denotes British soldiers sent to Ireland beginning in 1920 who were responsible for terrible violence and brutal suppression of Irish people seeking political self-determination. The Black and Tans were disbanded in 1922 only after they’d committed atrocious acts, including civilian massacres.
We acknowledge the lasting harm caused by the British Black and Tans, but our naming choice hearkens back to older histories closer to home, and this association should not erase, displace, or appropriate earlier meanings of the phrase in Black history.
In Seattle’s recent past, the phrase describes welcoming, integrated spaces. It references a storied Black-owned business in Seattle which persisted for decades and left a mark on the cultural landscape. Within American history, it speaks to the long struggle for shared political power and access. It invokes collective revelry and joyful debauchery, combining values of openness and integration with a culture of improvisation. It even represents reclamation of names originally meant to disparage. These are the meanings and histories we strive to lift up with our name.
‘Black and tan’ has been used since at least the 1880s to describe clubs and dance halls where patrons of all races mixed together in a segregated era. White institutions such as newspapers, police, and clergy often targeted or campaigned against these clubs wherever they emerged. A New York club which may have been the first to bear this name, The Black and Tan, is referred to as a ‘place of bad repute’ in a brief 1885 New York Times report regarding the proprietor’s arrest and the club’s closure. This slang term arose from Harlem’s vibrant scene but may have been more widely popularized by Jacob Riis’ disapproving use of the phrase in his 1890 work How the other half lives: studies among the tenements of New York: “The border-land where the white and black races meet in common debauch, the aptly-named black-and-tan saloon, has never been debatable ground from a moral stand-point. It has always been the worst of the desperately bad.”
Even earlier, in the late 1860s, the Reconstruction-era Republicans had what was referred to as a ‘black and tan faction’, an arm of the party which included African-American and white voters. The other arm of the party was an explicitly anti-Black faction referred to as the ‘lily-whites’. (Recall that during that time period, the Republican Party was associated with abolition while the Southern Democrats fought to uphold slavery.) It’s even possible that Seattle’s Black and Tan Club was named partly with this political heritage in mind. When it was founded in 1919 (originally named The Alhambra Cabaret), one of its earliest public events was a debate organized by the King County Colored Republicans Club. Its founder Harry Legg was active in this group and was also the first African-American precinct committeeman from Washington for the Republican Party.
In 1932, the Alhambra was renamed as the Black and Tan Club by its new owner, Noodles Smith - perhaps referencing his predecessor’s political engagement, but more likely hoping to channel Duke Ellington and channel the success of New York jazz clubs like the problematic but wildly popular Cotton Club, where for several years Ellington and his orchestra played for a whites-only audience. If that was Noodles Smith’s aim, he was successful enough that Duke Ellington played after-hours shows at Smith's nightclubs whenever he and his orchestra visited Seattle on tour.
Through our name, we lay claim to a lineage of Black jazz improvisational culture, of Black entrepreneurship and success, of artists making their way in an unwelcoming world, and to collectives which flout the ‘color line’ and resist the segregation of the times through joyful acts of day-to-day living. This is a history which aligns how we strive to be in community with our neighbors through today’s challenges of Covid-19, continued racial oppression, and the climate crisis.
These images are of murals in the basement of the Louisa Hotel in Seattle's Chinatown-International District. This space hosted the Club Royale, then the Sky-Hi Club, and it shared a wall with a famed club called the Bucket of Blood. Like the Black and Tan Club, these speakeasy clubs catered to a clientele from many racial backgrouds. Likely painted in the 1930s, the murals were recently rediscovered during building renovations and are being stewarded by the Woo family, which owns the building. They will be restored, protected, and made partially visible from the street via a glass door with an interpretive sign. People can read more and watch for future tour opportunities here. Photos by Ashley Harrison.
This article was written by Ashley Harrison with input from several partners and Good Jobs Fellows, especially Adrienne Sutton, Christina Chan, and Joe Seamons. Ashley and her husband Ben Lefor joined Black and Tan Hall as a partner-family in 2017. Ashley’s work with Black and Tan Hall is focused on researching Seattle’s early-20th century history and creating pieces that link today’s Black and Tan Hall to our local past. She is currently working on an app-based walking tour of a selection of Seattle businesses featured in the Green Book guides. Look for more information on this project in Spring, 2021.