Part 1: The Emergence of Queer Networks in Bronzeville (1900-1940)

In 1920s Bronzeville, Chicago’s African American neighborhood, a visible and well-accepted queer subculture emerged. From State Street to Cottage Grove Avenue, along 43rd and 47th Street, Bronzeville’s commercialized and jazz-influenced urban culture offered African American gays and lesbians several venues where homosexuals and heterosexuals interacted across the color line (the Plantation Café, the Pleasure Inn, the Cabin Inn, Club DeLisa and Joe’s Deluxe), yearly popular Halloween “Drag Balls” popularized by Black gay hustler Alfred Finnie, semi-safe locations (the Wabash YMCA, The First Church of Deliverance, Washington Park, Jackson Park), and a “vice district” which facilitated prostitution.

Homosexuality was quietly accommodated. Bronzeville’s most powerful inhabitants (Reverend Clarence Cobb, Reverend Mary G. Evans, and possibly Louise Smith Collier) and its most famous musicians (Tony Jackson, Rudy Richardson, Sippie Wallace, Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon, and George Hannah) were homosexuals. Joe Hughes, owner of a popular homo-friendly bar, was elected honorary mayor of Bronzeville in 1940. Journalist Theodore Jones regularly hired drag queen Valda Gray’s troupe of female impersonators for parties given for Bronzeville’s upper class.

On the streets, working-class African American queers were also tolerated. For example, Lorenzo Banyard, a Cabin Inn drag entertainer, remembers riding streetcars to the West Side, dressed in drag, without incident. Professional drag entertainers were indeed respected because of their relatively well-paying jobs, which often enabled them to provide for their families’ needs.