James Roberts (born 1950), Interviewed August 8, 1993

James Roberts 18 August 1993, by Marc Stein. Copyright © Marc Stein 2021. All rights reserved.


I interviewed James Roberts at Penguin Place, the Philadelphia LGBT Community Center in Center City, in August 1993. I do not recall how I came to interview him, but Roberts was well-known as an African American gay man who had been active in the LGBT movement since the 1970s. Before the taped part of the interview began, Roberts provided me with the following biographical information:


Date of Birth: 25 January 1950

Place of Birth: Philadelphia

Place of Mother's Birth: Philadelphia

Mother's Occupation: Government Worker

Place of Father's Birth: Philadelphia

Father's Occupation: Government Worker

Race/Ethnicity: African American

Religious Background: Baptist

Class Background: Working Class


Residential History

1950: 2400 block of N. 13th St., North Philadelphia, Philadelphia

1950-67: 1727 Fontain St., North Philadelphia, Philadelphia

1967-88: 228 Johnson St., Germantown, Philadelphia (with breaks)

1973: 1900 Brandywine, Art Museum, Philadelphia

1975-78: 1627 Green St., Art Museum, Philadelphia

1978-80: Carnation St., Germantown, Philadelphia

1988-93: 7740 Stenton Ave., Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia

1993: 358 W. Hortter St., Philadelphia


Work History

1968-72: Student

1970-76: Actor


In 2021 I reconnected with Roberts, who was living in Georgia and approved the publication of this transcript.


Marc Stein Interview with James Roberts, 18 August 1993


Transcribed by Kate Wilson, Rob Marchesani, and Marc Stein.


MS: This is Marc Stein and I'm interviewing James Roberts at the community center library on August 18, 1993. And I thought I would start by asking you to say something about your family background and information about your childhood and early years.


JR: Well I grew up in North Philadelphia, which then as now is a Black neighborhood, an African American neighborhood, although then it was more diverse in terms of the social classes that lived there. Because when I was growing up, Philadelphia itself was far more segregated, so Black Philadelphians of all economic strata were more likely to live in the same neighborhood. Now that neighborhood is basically a poor neighborhood, and a lot of it's torn down. Both my parents worked for the federal government. I have one brother and one sister and all of my grandparents were from the South--three from Georgia and one from Virginia. So my parents were the first generations of their family to live in the North, their parents having all come up to Philadelphia at or just after World War One.


MS: Now you told me before we started the tape that you considered your family background to be working class. And that was the case even though both your parents worked for the federal government?


JR: Yeah, I never really considered us well off. Although they both worked for the government, but still you gotta' realize in those days government workers weren't as well paid as they are now.


MS: Right.


JR: So by the standards of the day, I guess we were somewhere in between lower middle class and middle middle class, but that's all conjecture.


MS: Right, right. And you lived in North Philly, then, for pretty much your whole growing up years?


JR: Until I was seventeen.


MS: And went to public schools in North Philadelphia?


JR: Right. I went to Carver Elementary, which is now the science high school. Then it was a fairly new elementary school and the best elementary school in that immediate area. The other schools having been built, say, around the 1880s, and I went to a school that was built in the late 1940s, so it was still relatively new when I went there. And it was a good school, too.


MS: And high school?


JR: I went to Central High School, which then was the number one ranked academic school, not just in Philadelphia but in the country.


MS: So you feel like you got a pretty good education there?


JR: Mmhmm [assent]. Although I felt somewhat culturally isolated, because there weren't as many African Americans there as I would have liked.


MS: How did you end up going to Central? Was it purely because of where you lived in the city?


JR: Well actually it was I guess what they would now call a magnet school, because you didn't have to live in a certain area of the city. You just had to have a certain academic level to be able to get in. And I took a special test. I heard about the school when I was in junior high school. I'd never heard of it before, but it sounded interesting. And they wanted to know who wanted to be tested to go in. I took the test and apparently I scored high enough, so I got in. But also at that time, they had what was known as a grandfather clause. If your grandfather went there, you automatically could go. They've since struck that down, because a lot of dumb people got to go just because their grandparents went there.


MS: Right. But that wasn't how you got in because your grandparents were born in the South, right?


JR: I did it the old fashioned way. I earned my way in.


MS: Right. Growing up in North Philadelphia, did you ever encounter any gay people that you remember?


JR: Well, growing up, I mean you always have your friends and sometimes they experiment in same-sex activities. None of us would have identified ourselves as gay, and of course bisexual was a term that would have been foreign to us. And what we associated with being a sissy was a man who was dressed effeminately. Not so much the sexual activity, but the way that person would carry themselves. And so they were referred to as sissies and faggots, and of course the women who seemed masculine or wore masculine clothes were called bull daggers.


MS: And you do remember encountering both those types when you were a kid?


JR: Well, I remember observing them. I can't say I ever had any dealing with them.


MS: And what about the same-sex sexual activity that you described? Can you say something about that?


JR: Well, it's something that boys do and assume they'll grow out of. And some do, because for some it's just a matter of experimentation. Others may be lifelong bisexuals, and some may find that they're almost exclusively gay and go that way. But when you're talking about kids in early adolescence, it's not really time to know that.


MS: Right. And was that part of your experience?


JR: Mmhhm [assent].


MS: Can you tell me any stories about that? How old were you when that sort of stuff happened?


JR: I guess around nine or ten years old, and some of the guys in the immediate area, say either on the block or around the corner.


MS: And no one ever thought much about it--is that what you're saying?


JR: It was not talked about openly, although people knew it went on. And a lot of people engaged in it.


MS: Your parents ever find out?


JR: Almost. Almost got caught once.


MS: Could you tell me that story? Do you remember it?


JR: Well a friend of mine from around the corner, he and I were in the vestibule and we were sort of making out and just as we finished, my mother opened the door. And I can remember sweating bullets.


MS: But she didn't say a word about it.


JR: No. She just asked me what I was doing and I said something and then vacated the area as soon as possible.


MS: And was that pretty much what it was, making out, in those years?


JR: Yeah. There was nothing else to do. I mean what could you do at nine or ten?


MS: Right. And was this pretty much same-age kids?


JR: Yeah.


MS: So it wasn't ever really with older or younger kids?


JR: No, I never did that.


MS: Were there any kids who responded negatively that you remember?


JR: Well maybe a couple would say they wouldn't be interested, but nobody seemed to be offended. Course if you scouted carefully enough, you figured out who would say yes anyway.


MS: And how did you go about scouting?


JR: You'd listen to what other people were saying.


MS: So you would talk about who this was O.K. to do with and who wasn't?


JR: Yeah, sort of. In rare cases, you might even compare notes.


MS: Is that right? You remember doing that?


JR: Mmhmm [assent].


MS: So how large of a group of guys would you say were you involved with in that way?


JR: Well, that I knew about, I'd say maybe about a half a dozen. Maybe as many as ten. I don't remember all of them, but it's quite a lot of them.


MS: Was there ever any kind of name calling by other kids?


JR: No.


MS: And this continued, then, as you became teenagers?


JR: Well I think it only lasted a few years, between pre-adolescence and say the first couple years of puberty, and then people sort of felt pressured socially to date the opposite sex and go on and do all those things. Regardless of what they wanted to do, that's what they did.


MS: And is that what you started doing as well?


JR: It was very difficult for me because I knew I wasn't interested that much in women, but I went through the motions for a while, and then I said, “Well I can't do this, because I can't use somebody else as a front.” And so rather than use a female as a front, for a long time I didn't do anything with anybody.


MS: What years were those, approximately?


JR: My early high school years, say from about thirteen to I guess about fourteen. Well about fifteen or sixteen actually.


MS: So you did have a sense of yourself, then, by the time you were thirteen?


JR: Well, I couldn't articulate it the way I can now, but I knew that's what I wanted to do and I also thought that I would outgrow it once I turned fifteen or sixteen. And when I didn't, that's when I realized I had to learn to how to cope with it.


MS: Right. And what was that like? How did you go about learning how to cope with it?


JR: Well, in the mid- to late '60s, Rittenhouse Square was a well-known gathering place for gay people, mainly gay men. So I would go down there and just watch basically. And the more I went down, the more I watched, the more people I met, and a lot of them were kind of seedy characters. I mean not the kind of people you want to bring home or have call you on the phone. So they were people I pretty much knew from down there, and I never gave out my phone number or anything, but it was my first observation of self-identified gay people.


MS: And was this a mixed racial group that you hung out with in Rittenhouse Square?


JR: Yeah, pretty much. It was pretty mixed. Mixed in terms of Black and white. I mean I don't remember any Asians or Latinos there.


MS: And could you describe for me something about the way Rittenhouse Square might have looked and the times of day that you used to go and stuff like that?


JR: Well it was very well kept. You had the hippies, because this was also the hippie era. You had the older people that lived in the Square. And you had the gay people that hung out there. So it was like a little bit of everything.


MS: And were there clearly marked areas? Some people have said to me that in earlier years, there were different territories where different types hung out. You recall anything like that?


JR: Well I do remember that the hippies sat on the grass, whereas everybody else used the benches. That's all I can remember.


MS: And was there much mixing between the hippies and the gay crowd?


JR: Oh, some of the hippies were gay.


MS: So there was some.


JR: Yeah.


MS: Would you say it was a gathering place for lesbians as well?


JR: I don't really remember that many women being out there. The women I do remember were basically friends of the men. I don't think it was distinctly a lesbian gathering place. Although as time went on, I noticed there were drag queens, many of them prostitutes, hanging out there, too.


MS: Would you talk to them while you were there?


JR: Yeah, I got to know some of them.


MS: And so did you have your first adult sexual experiences from meeting people at Rittenhouse Square?


JR: Is that true? I think actually it is, yeah.


MS: Yeah? And if you were still living with your parents, I take it that you would go to other people's houses.


JR: Yeah.


MS: Is that right?


JR: Yeah.


MS: Were there any other places in Philadelphia that you would go to to meet other gay people?


JR: Well when I got a little bit older, of course, I started going to some of the bars. But of course, many of the bars were very racially segregated at that time. And they did carding. Sometimes you would get in and sometimes you wouldn't.


MS: So which bars? Or actually maybe I could ask you first: when did you start to go to the bars?


JR: When I was about eighteen. In fact, the first bar I ever went to was a bar in Atlantic City called Val's.


MS: Is that right?


JR: On New York Avenue, which at that time was the gay strip in Atlantic City.


MS: So that would have been 1968.


JR: Right.


MS: And I know Val's because there was a big court case about Val's earlier in the sixties, a couple years earlier, where New Jersey tried to close it down.


JR: Oh really?


MS: And it was a really important case where the New Jersey Supreme Court decided that the police could not harass Val's solely on the grounds of it being a gay meeting place. But you didn't know anything about that?


JR: No, no.


MS: So that was the first bar? How did you end up going there?


JR: Well I had heard about it from somebody. I had a car then, because I was in college and I worked. So I drove out to Atlantic City one night and I found out where the place was, but I walked up and down the street several times before I got the nerve to actually go in.


MS: You remember what you were thinking as you were deciding whether to go in?


JR: Well I just thought that when I went in everybody would notice me and I'd be harassed or I just imagined all kinds of things would happen. Of course it shocked me when I walked in and hardly anybody noticed. So I bought a beer, even though I wasn't old enough to drink, and I just sort of nursed it all night.


MS: 'Cause the drinking age was older than eighteen?


JR: I'm sure it was twenty-one by then.


MS: Do you remember what the bar looked like?


JR: It was a small place. Not much bigger than this room we're in actually.


MS: So about how many people do you think it would hold?


JR: If it was crammed, I guess maybe seventy or eighty, but there was probably about half that number there that night.


MS: And what type of gay people would go there? Just gay men?


JR: Yeah, right.


MS: And mixed racially?


JR: I don't remember too many other Black people there. In fact I may have been the only one. I don't remember. I was so petrified, I didn't really take notice of that kind of thing.


MS: And mostly young people or mixed age?


JR: They looked to be in their twenties and thirties. I don't remember seeing anybody who was what we would call middle-aged.


MS: So do you remember where you heard about the bar?


JR: Probably in the Square. Or maybe amongst some of my other friends, ‘cause while I was hanging in the Square I met some of the people I'd gone to high school with. And they came out. A lot of us came out after high school. And so we started to hang out, too.


MS: So do you remember--were you surprised at any of the people who you found in Rittenhouse Square?


JR: Not really. Because I'd assumed they were gay anyway.


MS: Is that right? From your high school years?


JR: Yeah, they were more surprised to see me.


MS: So maybe I'll ask you about both those things. Why were they surprised to see you?


JR: Well, because in high school I was on the football team and the track team, so I was seen as a jock, so they probably thought it was less likely that I'd be gay than they were.


MS: And why were you not surprised about them?


JR: Because some of them were--well if not actually effeminate, they were people who were identified in high school as being gay. You know how kids call each other names and make assumptions?


MS: Right.


JR: In some cases the assumptions were correct.


MS: So you didn't ever encounter any other athletes from your high school in the Square?


JR: No, no.


MS: Do you remember the first bar you went to in Philadelphia and when that was?


JR: Good question. That's hard to say really. But it's probably in the late sixties and there was a bar on 13th Street called the Ritz Bar, which is a Black bar. There was another bar on Moll Street and of course Moll Street has since been torn down.


MS: Was that SK's?


JR: Yeah, right. Boy, you have done your research.


MS: Now I've heard that at different periods of time, the Ritz was interracial and at other times it was a primarily Black bar. What do you remember about it?


JR: I remember it was primarily Black. You may have seen one or two white people there, but usually they were the kind of white men who liked Black men. And they were just going for that purpose.


MS: What did the Ritz look like inside?


JR: It was a dump.


MS: Yeah?


JR: It was right next to City Hall Annex on 13th Street and it was basically a rowhouse-type building and the first floor was all a bar and it was, shall we say, a little bit dirty, not to the point of being actually filthy, but it wasn't up to the standard of some other places I've been into.


MS: And you mean more straight places?


JR: Well even other gay places.


MS: What other gay places had you been to?


JR: I don't remember what year I first went into the Allegro. That used to be at 15th and Spruce Street. That was probably, if not the first white bar, one of the first white bars I went to. And there was another place around the corner called the Westbury. So between the two of those, it's probably the first white bars I went into. But again, some nights, I guess when they reached their quota of Black people, they wouldn't let you in.


MS: And that happened to you.


JR: Mmhmm [assent].


MS: In the late sixties, early seventies?


JR: Right.


MS: What would you do when that happened?


JR: I mean it was very insulting, so I felt very hurt, because I had assumed that because gay people were an oppressed minority that there was more solidarity. Then, of course, I realized that just because you're gay doesn't mean you can't have the prejudices that other white people have.


MS: Right.


JR: It was a hard way to find out, but I found out.


MS: Did you keep going when you could get in?


JR: I went less often. I never went the route of getting a phony ID when I was underage, but the only time I would go would be if I went with some white friends, because I noticed that if I was with a white person they'd be less likely not to let me in, but if I came by myself or with another Black person....


MS: I see. So your friendship networks at this point were pretty mixed racially, would you say?


JR: Yeah.


MS: Yeah?


JR: Because by this point I knew people in college who were gay or I knew people I'd met in the streets or whatever who were gay.


MS: So it was pretty mixed.


JR: Yeah.


MS: And going back to the Ritz for a second, I'm curious about the people who worked in each of the bars. Was it mostly Black gay men who worked at the Ritz, as far as you knew?


JR: Yeah, although I remember at the Ritz there was one guy. I forget his name. I think his name was George something or other. He was alleged to be straight. But you know how that works. Probably somebody who didn't want to identify with being gay who probably had sex with men and women.


MS: Do you know who the owner of the Ritz was?


JR: No.


MS: So it wasn't obvious to the people who were in there.


JR: No.


MS: Was the bar ever raided when you were there?


JR: No, I never was in a raid. That was always one of my fears, though, that I'd be in a raid and my name and picture would be in the newspaper and my parents would have to come down and bail me out of jail. I was especially concerned about that before I turned twenty-one and was legally able to go into places.


MS: Right.


JR: Before that, I went, but it was always with a little bit of suspicion that maybe something might kick off.


MS: Right. What about SK's? You said that was a primarily Black bar?


JR: Yeah. I was only in there once, though. It seemed like a very dangerous place. I just had a strange vibe when I was in there.


MS: Dangerous how?


JR: Well, I mean, all kinds of people walked in there and it wasn't uncommon, I was told, for acts of violence to take place there. I just didn't feel comfortable being in a gay bar at that time, period, but being in one that seemed to be dangerous, it just sort of turned me off.


MS: Was that more of a hustler bar as far as you remember?


JR: I wouldn't be surprised. Because they seemed to have derelicts, drag queens, people with suits, people on the make. It seemed to be a lot of different things, but a lot of things I didn't want to be involved with.


MS: Now the Allegro was also mostly or exclusively gay men, not lesbians? Is that right?


JR: I can scarcely remember ever seeing a lesbian in there.


MS: What about the people who worked there, the bartenders there? Were they mostly white?


JR: Yeah, although I do remember one or two Black bouncers, which I always thought was ironic because you'd have a Black bouncer keeping Black people out of the club.


MS: So did you experience that?


JR: Yeah.


MS: Did you saying anything to them?


JR: Well I don't remember a Black bouncer keeping me out, but I remember they had them in there. Anytime I got thrown out it was always by a white person.


MS: I see. I know you probably couldn't definitely know this, but do you think the Black bouncers were less likely to keep Black people out?


JR: Well it depends. They may have been the type that would bend over backwards so they wouldn't displease their bosses. So they may have been more adamant than the others, for all I know.


MS: Was there dancing at any of those three bars?


JR: Well the Ritz was too small. They really couldn't have a dance floor because most of the space was taken up by the bar and there were a few tables along the side of the wall. The Allegro had a dance floor on the second floor, if I recall. Fairly large one there.


MS: And did you dance much?


JR: Yeah.


MS: Did you do the asking or were you asked?


JR: It was probably a combination of both. I don't remember what the proportion was.


MS: Right. Well maybe I should shift gears a little bit and ask you about college. You went to Temple? Is that right?


JR: Yes.


MS: Started in 1968?


JR: '67 actually. Fall of '67 I went.


MS: And did you hook up with other gay people there pretty quickly?


JR: Well it was pretty slow. The people I hooked up with first were the people who I knew came out at the same high school and we came out after high school. I sort of hung out with them. But as time went on, especially after I joined the Gay Liberation Front, I started to meet more and more people.


MS: And when was that? When did you join GLF?


JR: That was in 1970 and that's when I met Tommy Avicolli.


MS: And how did you hear about the GLF?


JR: There was some kind of announcement posted somewhere in the Student Activities Center or there was something in the Temple newspaper, but I remember reading about it somewhere.


MS: And you went by yourself?


JR: Mmhmm [assent].


MS: And were you anxious about going?


JR: The first meeting I was kind of nervous. Not that I cared so much who would know I was there, but just the fact that I had never done anything like that before. And of course GLF had one of the first gay dances in Philadelphia history, too. And in fact, that dance became so notorious that people all around the city knew about it.


MS: Were you at the dance?


JR: Yeah. I remember going down there and wondering if anybody I knew would be there--who wasn't necessarily gay but who was there to see who was going to show up.


MS: Did that happen?


JR: Well no, not really. But there were a lot of people I knew who were gay or who I thought were gay who knew about the dance and speculated as to what would happen. In fact, some people were even anticipating there would be acts of violence there, because after all it was in the middle of North Philadelphia. It was on a Saturday night and nobody knew how good security would be, but there was no incident.


MS: This was also in 1970?


JR: It was either '70 or '71. It was around that time.


MS: Was it a mixed racial crowd?


JR: Mmhmm [assent].


MS: Men and women?


JR: Some women, but again mostly men. In other words, multiracial. Everybody, not just people from the campus, came. Everybody came.


MS: Why do you think it was mostly men?


JR: Because historically in this city, and I guess in other cities too, gay men and lesbians don't mix. I find that especially to be true in the white community more than the Black community.


MS: Can you say something more about that? That's very interesting. It's one of the things I'm trying to trace. But why do you say that? Why do you think that's the case?


JR: Well, because a lot of the first gay activists were in fact men. And I think being men founding gay organizations, they chose an agenda that would appeal more to men than to women. And then of course being in a sexist society, men tend to separate themselves from women or make women feel unwelcome. And what usually happens is, and this happens not just to women but it happens to Black people, it seems like white men will start an organization, but then when they're criticized, then they'll bring minorities or women in. But that's after the nature of the organization has been established and there's not as much opportunity for input, so people feel like they've been tokenized and either they stay and remain tokens or they feel like it's not relevant and they go away.


MS: And why do you think that that was different among Black lesbians and gay men?


JR: Because among Black people we don't have as much of an option to subdivide ourselves. We can't afford really to lessen our power. This is not from scientific research. From my own observation, I see a lot more linkages between Black gay men and Black lesbians than I see between white gay men and white lesbians.


MS: I guess going back to the period that we were just talking about, though, almost everything you've described so far in terms of your gay activities, where it was primarily a Black space, you've said that there weren't very many women there at all. So where were the connections happening?


JR: Mainly at house parties.


MS: Is that right?


JR: Yeah, because at house parties you would be more likely to see lesbians.


MS: Could you tell me the first house party you remember going to?


JR: No way in hell.


MS: Did it start in high school, going to gay house parties?


JR: No, not ‘till I was in college, probably.


MS: And where would those take place? Mostly North Philly or all around the city?


JR: Yeah, all over the city. Well the Black ones would be either North Philly or West Philly primarily, and if they were mixed or almost all white, they'd be in Center City usually.


MS: But you would go to both.


JR: Mmhmm [assent].


MS: And the ones where you saw connections between Black lesbians and gay men, were those mostly thrown by women or men or were they mixed?


JR: Usually by men, sometimes by women. More often by men.


MS: And what kind of exchanges would happen between the men and women? Was it all very friendly?


JR: Yeah. I mean there was a sexual tension there, but it was more of a sense that we're all Black people and we're all gay or lesbian and even though we're not going to sleep together, we can get along together.


MS: What do you mean by sexual tension?


JR: Well, I mean when you go to an all-male environment, an all gay male environment, I do think there is a lot more cruising and a lot more competition going on. But I've noticed the more women you introduce into a social environment, the less that happens.


MS: So you think that happened back then at those parties. And would there be a charge for the parties? Is that how it worked?


JR: I went to a few rent parties, but mostly in those days people gave parties and they paid for them out of their own pockets. Of course things were much cheaper then, too.


MS: Right.


JR: It's more expensive today to throw a house party. But then, I mean, people just bought some food and they had a party.


MS: Did you ever have one yourself?


JR: No, I didn't have my own house party until probably in my twenties sometime when I had my own apartment. But before that I wouldn't have a gay party at my house.


MS: You were living with your family through college, is that right?


JR: Yeah.


MS: So you were a commuting student, but not commuting far ‘cause your family was in North Philly, right?


JR: Well actually, the summer that I moved out of North Philly was the same summer that I graduated high school and right after that went to Temple. So ironically, when I moved out of North Philadelphia, that's when I went to Temple and I lived in Germantown.


MS: With your parents?


JR: Mmhmm [assent].


MS: And so you were actually a commuting student, but you were going back to your old neighborhoods.


JR: Yeah.


MS: That general vicinity.


JR: Mmhmm [assent].


MS: So let's see, we were talking about house parties and the Temple GLF. What happened at the GLF meetings?


JR: Well it wasn't that structured. I mean of course we planned the dance and we made some contributions to the Temple newspaper, but it was basically a social hour. It was a chance for people to get together and drink coffee, eat donuts, cruise, and just basically gossip. But there wasn't really much business going on, as I recall. It was more of a social thing. But then again, that was important at that time because people needed to bond. You can't have activism until people have socialized together. Because the politics, the political thing, came later.


MS: And was Temple GLF an example of the kind of group you were talking about before, that was founded by white gay men and that then broadened? Or was that different?


JR: Well it was a little bit different because there was no real membership. People just showed up. So there was no agenda per se. But still most of the people who went there were white people.


MS: And were mostly men?


JR: Yeah. But then again, the student body at Temple was mostly white so you would expect that.


MS: Right, right. Did you ever experience any kind of racism within GLF Temple?


JR: None that I can remember. In fact, I just have fond memories of that really. I was treated very well there. People tended to be very friendly. I can't remember any really negative things happening.


MS: And as far as you know, no overt sexism within the group as well?


JR: Well, there were only one or two women who would ever show up and they were usually friends of somebody else in the group.


MS: So it was pretty much a male group.


JR: Yeah. I would only say it was sexist in the sense that nobody took the women that seriously. Because it seemed like they were sort of hangers on anyway. So there was no addressing any kind of female agenda or feminist agenda, but of course by then lesbians hadn't been as radicalized as they are now, so they wouldn't have been as feminist.


MS: Did you join any other groups in the early seventies--political or social?


JR: Briefly, I was with the Gay Activists Alliance, and I say very brief because I only attended a few meetings. They had some rap groups that met and I attended those more often than I did the general meetings. But I stopped going to the general meetings because I had an incident one night that I wasn't very happy about.


MS: You want to tell me about it?


JR: Well it was one summer night. I think it was in 1972 and this may have been the first or second meeting I went to. I went to one of their meetings and at the meeting I raised my hand and I asked them point blank, ‘cause I was only one of two Black people in the room, what was being done to recruit more people of color. And everybody in the room sort of got silent. It was like, why's he bringing that up? Why is that an issue? And then I went on to say that I had been the victim of discrimination at bars that served gay people and I was wondering what that organization could do to address that kind of discrimination. Now the white lesbian who was chairing the group that night, and she may have been the only lesbian there, as I recall, told me to my face that that wasn't a relevant issue and they were going to move on.


MS: Do you remember what her name was?


JR: No I don't. I can't recall if I ever saw her again.


MS: I see.


JR: So the next person who got the floor, I remember his name. His name was Lee Robbins. He's still around. He was complaining about how he was upset because he would ask certain men to go to bed with him and they wouldn't. And he was allowed to go on for several minutes. And I'm saying to myself, “I'm raising an issue that should be more important than who you screw and who you don't screw. The reason they don't go to bed with this guy is ‘cause they don't want to! They don't find him attractive. Now why is that something that should monopolize this meeting?” That was the last meeting I attended.


MS: Were there any other gay men in GAA who you were able to talk to about this?


JR: I don't perceive that any of them cared, except for the other Black person who I later became friendly with.


MS: And who was that?


JR: His name is or was Brent Marceau. He's dead now.


MS: When did he die?


JR: He died about three years ago. And after he came down with AIDS, he became an activist. Before that he was pretty low key.


MS: One of the things I'm trying to do in my interviews is expand the group that I know something about by finding out as much as I can about people who are either gone or have moved on from the city. So is there anything else you can add about his life that you remember, that you knew about, in those years? Was he the same age as you? Was he from Philadelphia?


JR: Yeah, he lived in Mount Airy. He was about four years younger than me. I was twenty-two and he was about eighteen. Of course this goes back to 1972 and we became pretty good friends over the years. We would visit each other's homes and party together. And he moved out of town. He moved to New York first. And then he moved to California. And it was while he was in California that he came down with full blown AIDS and came back to Philadelphia. And of course by then I was working with the city health department and I was able to turn him on to some of the services available for people with AIDS, which weren't that many then. Not that there are a whole lot now. And I encouraged him to become a spokesperson for people with AIDS, between then and the time he died, which I guess was the next year.


MS: And he became that?


JR: Mmhmm [assent]. A damn good one, too.


MS: And did he have some of the same experiences in the bars that you recall?


JR: We never talked about it, although I do remember we talked about that particular incident at the GAA meeting.


MS: And what did he have to say about that?


JR: Well he sympathized, yeah.


MS: Did he keep going to the meetings?


JR: I think he may have went to a few more, but I don't think too many more.


MS: Would you see him in the same bars that you were going to? Do you recall?


JR: Yeah, sometimes. I mean either we did things together or I'd see him out somewhere.


MS: Anything else you can tell me about him in those years, in the early '70s?


JR: Nothing really stands out.


MS: O.K. So you were telling me that white people were not sympathetic at all in GAA. Was that true also of Tommi Avicolli, as you remember?


JR: No, Tommi was the opposite. Tommi was very sympathetic. He was always egalitarian, even though he came from what I would perceive to be a basically prejudiced South Philadelphia Italian background. But still I guess some people react differently to those kinds of backgrounds. Either they become part of it or they react to it or they rise above it, and I think he managed to rise above it.


MS: Did he express any kind of feelings about it at the time, that you recall?


JR: Not really. I don't think at that point he really understood the racial dynamic within the gay community. I think that's the consciousness he probably reached ten or more years later.


MS: Did you know a guy named Sag Powell?


JR: Yeah, I remember Sag. Yeah, in fact he and I went to college together.


MS: Is that right?


JR: Yeah, I remember the first time I ever met him we were in an English class together at Temple. And didn't like him actually. I thought he was a bit of a smart ass, I guess, but as I got to know him I respected him a lot more. He was very talented. I remember he sang and played the guitar.


MS: Was he in GLF Temple?


JR: I don't remember him at GLF so much as I remember him at the rap group that GAA had. I remember him more from that.


MS: And were those general topic rap groups?


JR: Yeah, well I mean basically people talking about their past, their relationship with their parents, maybe something about their current love lives or how they deal with certain social situations. The agenda wasn't political. It was almost always personal stuff, personal recollections.


MS: Did you know Breez Cooper in those years?


JR: I'm trying to remember when I met Breez. It probably was in the early '70s, the early to mid '70s. In fact he and Tommy Avicolli were lovers for a while.


MS: And was that again through GLF Temple? Was Breez involved with that or with GAA, as far as you remember?


JR: That's where it becomes hazy for me. I don't remember exactly where I met Breez. I don't know if he's still around or not.


MS: I actually saw his name on an election ballot for the University City Arts League board of directors. So I'm trying to reach him through that actually.


JR: Oh, O.K.


MS: I assume it's him because it said Gus "Breez" Cooper.


JR: Well there's only one.


MS: And I imagine it must be him, yeah. So did you have any sense of Black gay male community with those people I just mentioned or with any others? Was that really something that came later?


JR: Well we were just friendly. And the fact that we were both Black was a given. But we didn't make a political statement out of it, because we were trying to still cope with our gay identities. I mean we knew we were Black, but the whole idea of a Black gay community was something that just wasn't ready to happen yet.


MS: So there wasn't even a shared sense of discrimination that you just described around the bars.


JR: Well yeah. I mean we both knew that. But how would we respond to it? How would we protest that kind of thing? Now that wasn't yet articulated.


MS: I see. You were saying before that the rap groups focused at least some attention on family issues. How were your family relations at this point? Did your parents know about what you were doing?


JR: I'm sure they knew I was gay, but it's something that wasn't discussed. That's very common in Black families, not to discuss those kind of things.


MS: So was it ever discussed later on?


JR: Oh, I can remember when I was twenty-two my mother kept pressuring me to get married. And I told her, “You know I doubt if I'll ever get married, so why don't you just lay off?”


MS: And that was as heated as it got?


JR: Mmhmm [assent]. It was never a violent thing or an argument or anything like that.


MS: Did you sense any kind of disapproval or rejection or anything like that?


Jr: No, I think she was just concerned that I'd spend my life alone, because people were still in the mindset that if you were gay you would lead a sad, lonely life, despised by all.


MS: And that wasn't the case for you in the early seventies.


JR: No, no. I had a lot of friends.


MS: Did you develop any longer term relationships back then?


JR: The first long term relationship I was in was in 1973. I mean I dated people and I've been involved with people for a few months here and there, but the first relationship I had that lasted a year or more happened in '73 with a guy that was almost ten years older than me at the time. I was twenty-three. He was thirty-two.


MS: Can you tell me his name?


JR: Well I don't think that's fair.


MS: O.K. And where did you meet him?


JR: At the Ritz actually. I had seen him, ‘cause he was, still is, a dancer. He was a dancer then, too. He was performing in a play at what used to be called the Shubert Theatre. It's now the Merriam. And I saw him on stage and then I met him and some of the other members of the cast at the Ritz after one of the performances, so he and I struck up a friendship and we were together a little over a year. We're still friends now.


MS: Did you live together?


JR: No.


MS: Because I remember your saying you lived in the Art Museum area for a good part of '73.


JR: Yeah, well I met him when I was in the Art Museum area, but he had his own place then. So we would sort of go back and forth between each other's residences.


MS: Where did he live?


JR: In North Philadelphia. Actually I spent more time in his place than he did at mine.


MS: Right. And how did you come to decide to leave home in '73?


JR: I just wanted to. I figured I could have more freedom and be able to express myself more openly as a gay person.


MS: So that was a big part of your moving out? Was that the year you finished college or did you move out while you were in college?


JR: Actually it was after college.


MS: And the relationship you said lasted about a year?


JR: Yeah, or slightly over.


MS: And what kinds of things would you do together?


JR: Oh we drove to Canada once. We'd go to the beach a lot. He had friends in New York, so we'd go up there to visit. We went out to dinner, to shows, see plays, concerts. We had a good time.


MS: When you say the beach--Atlantic City or other places?


JR: Primarily Atlantic City, but sometimes Riis Beach up in New York. I don't know what it's like now, but it was pretty wild in those days. You'd see all kinds of things. Nudity, people in drag, people having fights, people almost fucking in the water. You name it, they had it.


MS: Riis Beach, you said?


JR: Yeah.


MS: Where is that in New York?


JR: It's somewhere on Long Island. I don't remember exactly where it was. It was spelled Riis, R-i-i-s.


MS: Oh yes, O.K.


JR: So if you look it up you'd probably see it.


MS: Yes, I think I know where that is.


JR: It was notorious in those days.


MS: And you both lived alone?


JR: I had a roommate and he lived on the third floor of his mother's house in his own private area, so she had the first two floors of the house and he lived on the top floor.


MS: And you said you had a roommate who was also gay?


JR: Mmhmm [assent].


MS: And is this someone you met at Temple?


JR: I don't remember where I met him. I think it was through friends. It may have been through somebody I met at either Temple or GAA, but I don't think I met him at those places.


MS: And I guess you told me before that you became an actor after you graduated from college?


JR: Well actually I got my first paid acting job while I was in college, during my senior year. Then after I got out, part of my time was spent writing research papers and the rest of it was acting.


MS: Writing research papers for whom?


JR: Students. There was a service that operated on the Penn campus at the time. People would have somebody write their research papers for them. So I developed the talent of being able to write a ten-page paper with footnotes and bibliography overnight, on subjects I never took. And the people I wrote for always got either As or Bs. And I would get paid by the page.


MS: What was the name of the business?


JR: Oh, I don't remember that. But they went out of business because I think the campus put pressure on them.


MS: Now to go back for a second to your lover, did you go to the Philadelphia bars together?


JR: No. That’s one thing we didn't really do together was go to bars, ‘cause I don't really believe in going to a bar with somebody you're going with.


MS: It was more a place to pick up people?


JR: Well I mean even if you just go to dance, I think that number one it's the wrong kind of environment to socialize in with a lover, because people have been drinking, people want to cruise. Sometimes you might be accused of cruising somebody else. To me it's just too much confusion. I'd rather go by myself to a place like that.


MS: I see. Well the socializing that you two did do, was it primarily with other Black gay men?


JR: Yeah. I’d say mostly with Black gay men.


MS: And was this another connecting point between Black lesbians and gay men, would you say?


JR: Yeah, ‘cause he had quite a few lesbian friends, too. Course by being a dancer he knew a lot of women, too, from his dance company. And sometimes we'd hang out with them, too.


MS: Straight and lesbians?


JR: Yeah.


MS: And the first acting job was with what company? Do you remember?


JR: A company called the Germantown Theatre Guild in Germantown. I played Oberon, the king of the fairies, in A Midsummer Night's Dream. And of course my mother never let me forget it. It was my first acting job and I got paid for it, so I didn't give a shit what anybody said.


MS: So do you think that was her way of trying to find something out?


JR: It may have been. It may have been. Nothing surprises me.


MS: And did you find the theater world as filled with gay people as it's notorious for?


JR: Yeah, but it's strange in the theater, though. Even though you know a lot of the guys are gay, when you go to a cast party the men tend to dance with women. It almost always happened. I don't care how many gay people you have in the cast, if there's one woman in the cast, the men will dance with women and not with other men.


MS: Why do you think that was?


JR: Well I guess because of the stigma about acting in the first place, and even though people are actors and do brave things on stage, that doesn't mean they are necessarily pioneering people off stage.


MS: Right, right. Let's see. You then moved in '75, you told me, to a different place in the Art Museum area, on Green Street?


JR: Yeah.


MS: And again, did you have a roommate there?


JR: No, I had my own apartment, but I lived in a house that was also occupied by the owner, an Englishman.


MS: Was he gay?


JR: Yeah.


MS: How did you wind up at that place?


JR: Well I'd met him the year before. Again I don't remember where. And we were sort of friendly. I'd come over for dinner or we'd go out some place. And he had a vacancy in his building and I moved in and stayed there for a few years.


MS: And was that a good living situation?


JR: For the most part. Then what happened eventually was he had a crush on me and I didn't return his feelings, so that created a tension between us, and when I got involved in a long-term relationship, that's when I moved.


MS: So was that the first long-term relationship after the guy you mentioned before?


JR: Yeah, because this one lasted a couple of years.


MS: Could you tell me about that? When did that start and who was it with?


JR: I think it was in 1976 and the person's name was Alonzo Mitchell. He's since deceased. He died just last year. Either last year or this year.


MS: And how long were you two together?


JR: About two years.


MS: And what did he die of?


JR: From AIDS.


MS: And where did he live?


JR: He lived also in the Art Museum area, but on Poplar Street when I met him, with two other friends.


MS: Gay friends?


JR: Mmhmm [assent].


MS: And he was Black as well?


JR: Mmhmm [assent].


MS: And do you remember where you met him?


JR: I hate to admit this. I met him at Gay Acres.


MS: What's Gay Acres?


JR: That's an area right next to the Art Museum that is a cruising area, although the part where I met him at was the meadow before you go into the bushes. I didn't hang in the bushes. I still don't. But I remember I had a Great Dane at the time and I brought my dog out there and I was reading a book and he was sitting with a friend of his and we struck up a conversation.


MS: And actually no one has told me about Gay Acres, so I wonder if you could fill me in. Do you remember when you first went there? Was that when you were living in the Art Museum area in '73?


JR: The first awareness I have of it is in the mid-seventies, too.


MS: And where exactly is it? Or was it?


JR: Well if you had a map, I could show you.


MS: Where in relation to the museum itself?


JR: Well if you were standing on the steps of the Art Museum and you were looking toward City Hall, it would be a little bit ahead and to the right towards the railroad tracks and the river. I mean now it's exclusively a place where people cruise and have sex, but then it was also like a meeting place or a place where people just sort of hung out, even if you didn't do any sexual things. I never really had sex in the Gay Acres. That sort of thing never appealed to me.


MS: But you would meet people there?


JR: I can't think of anybody besides him who I ever met there.


MS: But you went there pretty regularly?


JR: I don’t know. What's regularly? Once every other week.


MS: Were there any other outdoor cruising areas? You mentioned Rittenhouse Square and you've mentioned Gay Acres. Were there other places?


JR: At that time I can't really remember any, although some people would go to the bookstores and do things there. That was never my scene, but I had friends who liked to do that.


MS: Were there bookstores that you went to? Gay bookstores in the early '70's?


JR: No, they were more like porno shops. They weren't the kind of place you'd find literature like this. It would be magazines and places where you'd put a nickel or a dime in and saw part of a dirty movie.


MS: Right. Any other gay businesses that you ever went to aside from bars? Restaurants?


JR: I don't remember that many gay restaurants. There were restaurants that gay people went to, but they weren't necessarily gay-owned places.


MS: If you, say, wanted to go out with somebody in a place that gay people went to?


JR: Well, Dave's Deli over at 18th and Spruce Street was popular. 'cause that was one of the nicer places. Then there were some of the greasy spoons like White Towers and some of those little cheap chain restaurants that people go to after the bars closed.


MS: Other people had mentioned Dave's Deli to me. Was it mixed Black/white, mixed lesbian/gay?


JR: Yeah, it was the kind of place anybody would go to.


MS: I see.


JR: Yeah.


MS: So this relationship you said lasted two years?


JR: Mmhmm [assent].


MS: And is there anything else you want to tell me about your lover from that period? Where he was from?


JR: Well he worked in Chester. And he came from sort of a strange family background. He was born premature and his mother didn't take him home ‘till he was almost I think a year old. Until then he lived in a hospital. His father was an alcoholic and at some point when he was young had sexually abused him. So he had a lot of problems. Plus he was epileptic, too. I remember one time I woke up just as he was having an epileptic seizure. I didn't know he was epileptic at that point.


MS: Really.


JR: I found out by actually seeing him have a seizure, so I didn't know what the hell was going on. And I remember that I didn't want him to swallow his tongue, so I did the one thing you're not supposed to do. I stuck my finger in his mouth to make sure and he clamped down on it. And I pulled it out and there was a flap of skin like that.


MS: Oh my.


JR: I didn't do that again.


MS: But you were together, you said, for a couple of years?


JR: Mmhmm [assent].


MS: Did he work?


JR: He was a fashion designer, but he was the type of person who was used to having usually older men take care of him, so I guess the big tension in our relationship was the fact that I didn't make that much money and he was used to being taken care of.


MS: Were you older than him?


JR: Only by a year.


MS: Let me shift gears again for a second. If you had to name a gay neighborhood in Philadelphia in the early '70s, what would that have been?


JR: Probably the Spruce Street area, like between I guess about 16th and 21st or 22nd Street.


MS: And what does it mean to you if I call it a gay neighborhood?


JR: Well I know a lot of gay people lived there and also that was where the old Merry-Go-Round was. I know you came across that one.


MS: Yeah. I was wondering if you would mention that as another cruising area.


JR: I didn't really think about that until I heard about that area, but late at night guys would just sort of circle the block. They'd go down 20th and then I think it's Delancey Street. No 21st, then Delancey, up 20th, then down Spruce again, and they would just circle the block until they picked somebody up.


MS: Did you ever hang out there?


JR: Well I used to walk through there with other people, but I would never get in anybody's car. It always seemed creepy to me. ‘Cause you'd see all these license plates from New Jersey and Delaware and they just seemed like sharks circling bait. It just never turned me on.


MS: So what made it a gay neighborhood was gay people living there and the cruising area?


JR: Yeah.


MS: It was not so much that there were gay businesses?


JR: No, I can't really remember any gay-identified businesses in those days. Those places where gay people went usually were restaurants.


MS: Any other gay neighborhoods in Philadelphia?


JR: Now?


MS: No, then.


JR: In the '70s?


MS: Yeah.


JR: Well there were sections of the city where gay people lived, but you wouldn't call them a gay neighborhood per se.


MS: Where were those places? I guess you're saying that there were people who felt a little safer there.


JR: Well the Art Museum area was one, because at that time in the early '70s it was starting to be gentrified. It had been pretty much a Puerto Rican neighborhood, but the first people who gentrified it were gay people and now it's pretty much a middle-class yuppy-type neighborhood.


MS: And the gentrification started in the early '70s?


JR: Yeah, I'd say late ‘60s, early ‘70s. I know when I got my second apartment there in '75 they were selling shells of houses for like $30,000. And $30,000 in 1975 money is a lot of money just for four walls.


MS: Right, right. Other areas that were more friendly to gay people? How about where your parents lived in Germantown?


JR: That was pretty much a straight area.


MS: How about West Philadelphia?


JR: Well I knew a lot of Black gay men who lived in West Philadelphia, but I wouldn't say it was a gay neighborhood.


MS: Right.


JR: But it seemed like especially around 48th Street, in some of those apartment buildings around Spruce and Pine, around 48th and 47th, a lot of gay people lived in those buildings. A lot of Black gay men in particular.


MS: And were there Black gay bars that you went to up in West Philly?


JR: I do remember some bar on Walnut Street. I don't remember the name of it. And of course there was the old Olympia at 52nd and Baltimore. Every Wednesday night they had a free night there or maybe it only cost a dollar to get in. A lot of Black gay men would gather there.


MS: What kind of place was that? Can you describe it for me?


JR: It was like an old dance hall or an old catering hall and one night a week they would have gay dances there and people would come from all over the city. Basically, Black people would come.


MS: Men and women?


JR: Yeah, although more men than women.


MS: And it was basically gay.


JR: Yeah.


MS: Who ran it? Do you know?


JR: No, I don't know. But I know it stopped when some of the straight boys from the neighborhood came in and started fighting and doing all kinds of crazy shit.


MS: You remember when that was?


JR: Sometime in the mid-‘70s.


MS: But you started going in the earlier '70s?


JR: Yeah, I'd say around ‘76 they stopped. '75, '76.


MS: How about gay bars in North Philly? Were there any?


JR: They were more like speakeasy-type places, places that were run illegally where you'd have to knock on the door or go in some back alley and bingo.


MS: But there were those kinds of places?


JR: But they didn't usually last very long, mainly because they weren't licensed.


MS: So they were real temporary.


JR: Yeah.


MS: You ever have any encounters with anti-gay violence in the early '70s?


JR: Not me personally, no.


MS: Did you hear about things, though?


JR: Oh, yeah.


MS: Do you remember any stories specifically?


JR: Well I know some of it was from the police. I remember one guy, a Black gay man, got beat up by the police. I remember that.


MS: What were the circumstances?


JR: I think he'd been drinking and for some reason he got into a discussion with the police and they beat him up. But then again, in a case like that you don't know if it's because he was Black or because he was gay.


MS: Right. Center City this was?


JR: Mmhmm [assent].


MS: Any other things you remember like that?


JR: Well I can remember seeing people walk down the street and somebody'd be driving by in a car and call him a faggot. Or maybe throw a can or a bottle at him. I never saw anybody get hit, but I saw people get things thrown at them.


MS: What parts of the city?


JR: Usually in Center City. But I can't say I've really witnessed that much anti-gay violence. Of course I know it's prevalent. The research tells you that.


MS: Right, right. What about housing discrimination? Did you hear anything about people having trouble getting rentals because they were gay?


JR: I can remember when I moved to Carnation Street, I had to tell the real estate guy that the person I was moving in was my cousin. And he seemed kind of cynical about that because at the time there was no protection.


MS: This was in '78, you told me before? Something around there?


JR: Yeah.


MS: Were you two able to move in there?


JR: Yeah.


MS: And this was with a lover?


JR: Mmhmm [assent].


MS: Is this the same lover that you mentioned before?


JR: Right. Then I told the real estate agent that we were related, ‘cause I had a feeling that if I told him that we weren't related, I wouldn't get the apartment.


MS: Right. But you didn't have trouble like that earlier on with your other two places, ‘cause at least the second place you said you had a gay landlord.


JR: Yeah.


MS: First place was the landlord gay?


JR: I don't know if he was gay, but the person who I lived with had already lived there, so I was basically his roommate.


MS: I see.


JR: It was his apartment, so it wasn't like I had to deal with the landlord myself.


MS: I see. But did you know how your roommate ended up there?


JR: No. Although I do remember it was a huge apartment. It took up a whole floor and we only paid $180.


MS: Well let me shift gears again and ask you about things that you might have been reading at that time. Were you reading any gay newspapers or magazines? You said you were reading a lot of James Baldwin?


JR: A lot of James Baldwin and a lot of Gore Vidal, because number one, they were both great writers and they were more or less openly gay and they included a lot of gay subject matter in their books. I especially liked Myra Breckenridge. That was a fun book. Hated the movie, but the book was really good.


MS: And what were your favorites of James Baldwin?


JR: Oh I liked just about everything he did: Giovanni's Room, Another Country, The Fire Next Time, If Beale Street Could Talk. Just about everything I read of his I liked. ‘Cause I could identify more with Baldwin because he came from the same kind of environment I came from. But I liked Gore Vidal because he challenged the status quo in a different way. Being an upper class white person himself, he sort of turned the tables around on his peers, whereas Baldwin was speaking on behalf of the dispossessed.


MS: Right.


JR: Gore Vidal was one of the elite, so he had a different vantage point.


MS: Any other novelists you remember reading back then? Do you remember the first gay novel you read?


JR: It may have been Giovanni's Room actually.


MS: You remember where you got hold of the copy?


JR: Probably just some regular bookstore. There weren't really gay bookstores back then.


MS: Right.


JR: So anything you got you got from the mainstream bookstores.


MS: Right. What about newspapers and magazines? You ever come across any?


JR: Well in those days, most of the magazines and books that were geared for gay people, not so much books but magazines and periodicals, basically were guys posed in their underwear and they were sort of like sex stories.


MS: Right.


JR: There wasn't much political commentary. Nothing about affirming the self-esteem of gay people. It was more like heavy breathing and they just stopped short of showing you real sex organs. And in the stories they didn't use four letter words necessarily, but they described events leading up to a sexual encounter, even if they didn't really go into great detail about what happened during the encounter.


MS: Do you remember something called The Gay Alternative?


JR: No.


MS: Or the Weekly Gayzette?


JR: I remember the Gayzette. I don't remember much about it, but I do remember it. And I remember there used to be a lot of nudist magazines, too, that gay people would buy. People weren't having sex, but they were doing everyday things, except they didn't have any cloths on.


MS: Do you remember where you would buy those?


JR: There used to be a lot of stores on Chestnut Street where you could get those kind of things.


MS: In Center City?


JR: Yeah.


MS: So again, this was sort of the sex stores that catered to straight people as much as to gay people?


JR: No, these weren't the dirty bookstores. These were regular bookstores that had a certain section where you could buy those things.


MS: I see. Around what neighborhood of Chestnut?


JR: Not too far from here, I don't think. It's hard to remember going back that far.


MS: Right, right. You remember something called Robins Bookstore?


JR: On 13th?


MS: From back then?


JR: Yeah, that's still there, in fact. Yeah. That's right around the corner.


MS: But it didn't strike you as particularly gay.


JR: I can't remember going in there that often. Not in those days anyway. I probably go in there more now than I did then.


MS: Maybe I'll ask you a question that may sound off the wall. Do you remember what you were doing at the Bicentennial, the celebration around July Fourth?


JR: Yeah, I was working in the Bourse building then. I was working in an exhibit called the Americana Jubilee where they had a lot of different simulated historical artifacts, like the boat that Washington used to cross the Delaware. What else did they have? Some of Stephen Girard's furniture. They reconstructed some of his rooms. And we would take tours all through the exhibit. It was financed by Mrs. Paul's, the fish stick company. And they had a little restaurant in the back. This is before the Bourse became what it is now, sort of a failed....


MS: Mini-mall?


JR: Whatever it is.


MS: So you were a tour guide, basically, through this exhibit.


JR: No, we acted out vignettes more so than anything else.


MS: So what were you acting out?


JR: Actually I was a tour guide, too. And I sang in the welcoming room, too, and sometimes outside on the microphone. It was a bomb. Well the whole Bicentennial was a flop. I could remember seeing, 'cause where we were was right on Independence Square. And I can remember seeing Frank Rizzo, and of course he killed the Bicentennial because on the Fourth of July he had snipers on the roofs of all the buildings, because there were some threatened protests. And of course the tourists stayed away in droves after that.


MS: Right, right. So you don't remember anything specifically that you were acting out in the jubilee exhibit.


JR: No, it was bad theatre. You don't want to remember shit like that.


MS: Maybe I'll go way back because I forgot to ask you something. Did you know anything about the Black Panther Convention that was held at Temple in 1970? It was called the Revolutionary People's Constitutional Convention.


JR: I probably heard about it, but I didn't go.


MS: But you weren't in attendance.


JR: No. In fact, I find it impossible if something like that had been held at Temple and I didn't know about it.


MS: Well maybe we can just finish up. I'm really interested just in your general thoughts about what you think it was like to be African Amercian and gay in the early 1970s, when so much seemed to be happening in both the gay community and the Black community.


JR: Well it was a very promising time, because it seemed like the whole society had become more liberal and more tolerant. And in some ways you could do things back then you couldn't do now. I mean I was less self-conscious holding hands with another man or kissing in public than I am now. People smoked marijuana more openly in the early seventies than they do now. And I think for the gay people who were radicalized, I think there was more of a missionary spirit. We were in uncharted waters, because we were the first generation that not only was openly gay but politically gay, too, if you can get my distinction. So I think it was sort of liberating. We were the first generation that said that it was all right to be gay. And didn't care who knew about it. And of course that was around the same time, in the early seventies, when the American Psychological or Psychiatric Association came out and said that being gay was no longer a mental disease or a mental illness. And that was a great boost.


MS: And what did that time mean for you as a Black person? Was it filled with the same kind of promise?


JR: Well yeah. I mean even though Martin Luther King and the Kennedys had been killed, it was a time when affirmative action was being tried. A lot of Black people were able to go to school who hadn't been able to go before. Television was opening up. We had Black movies and some of the biggest recording stars in the country were Black, like Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder. So it did seem like the whole society was becoming more liberal, in spite of the fact that Richard Nixon was president at the time.


MS: Right, right. And would you say those two worlds came together for you or really were separate—your being gay and your being Black?


JR: When I was with other Black people I was more conscious of being gay. And when I was with white gay people, I was more conscious of being Black. Because you sort of feel caught between homophobia, even internalized homophobia, in the Black community, whereas I've always had to come up against racism in a primarily white environment to some degree or less.


MS: But I guess it strikes me with everything you've said that you spent an awful lot of time primarily with other Black gay men. Is that accurate?


JR: Yeah, and that's still true today. Not that I don't want to spend time with white people, but we live in a segregated city.


MS: Right.


JR: Because Philadelphia is still one of the most segregated cities in America.


MS: Had much changed between when you came out in the late '60s and 1976 for Black gay men? Or would you say it was pretty much the same story?


JR: That's a tough question, because on the one hand you can acknowledge as a Black person that you can be more openly gay, but still you always have the sense that even if society did a 180 degree shift overnight and tolerated gays a hundred percent, that doesn't mean the racial problems would be solved.


MS: Any final words?


JR: I can't think of anything else to say. I'm just surprised I said that much.


MS: Well thank you.