The Cotton Club: Harlem Renaissance’s Troubled Icon

A legendary symbol of Harlem’s glamor: The Famous Cotton Club, known as the Aristocrat of Harlem, immortalized in this captivating poster drawing from around April 1932. Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society

Numerous nightclubs emerged and flourished in Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood during the Harlem Renaissance, a vibrant cultural movement spanning from the aftermath of World War I (1917) to the prelude of the Great Depression and World War II in the 1930s.

One of the most famous was a problematic and heavily segregated establishment known as The Cotton Club or the Aristocrat of Harlem.

A Club of Questionable Origins

The Cotton Club was initially owned by Jack Johnson, a retired Black prizefighter, and called “Cafe DeLuxe.” However, Owen “Owney” Madden, a well-known gangster who was in prison for manslaughter at the time, purchased and renamed it in 1923.

After acquiring the club, Madden transformed it into a heavily segregated and “plantation-themed” cabaret.

The club attracted crowds not only because it served alcohol during Prohibition (a surefire way to attract clientele) but also because it appealed to whites who were intrigued by the notion of journeying uptown to experience Black culture in a “safe” environment.

Throughout the Jazz Age, the Cotton Club was renowned for its impressive floor shows. They were held biannually and showcased some of the country’s most famous Black performers, including Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Adelaide Hall, Lena Horne, and the Nicholas Brothers, as well as the bands of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.

These and many other artists launched their careers at the Cotton Club before eventually gaining exposure through radio broadcasts across the rest of the United States.

Although the Cotton Club played a significant role in the rise of numerous renowned Black artists, it was also notorious for mistreating its Black staff and enforcing demeaning attire requirements. Moreover, the club fostered an often-hostile environment for the performers who drew in the crowds that sustained its operations.

Short-Lived Success

When it first opened, the Cotton Club quickly became a popular topic of conversation among those who were wealthy enough to attend. Club-goers were drawn by the promise of a safe and comfortable environment where they could witness “authentic Black entertainment.”

The club enjoyed great success until 1935 when the Harlem riot forced its closure. The riot erupted after rumors spread that the police had killed a teenage boy who had stolen a penknife from a local dime store.

Although the Cotton Club attempted to reopen in 1936, it did not achieve the same level of success as before. Additionally, since Prohibition had ended by then, it no longer had the same secret weapon.

Critical Reviews of the Cotton Club

Some of Harlem’s Black residents viewed the Cotton Club positively, seeing it as a sign that Black culture was becoming more accepted by the mainstream. Many Black artists also naturally appreciated having a place to perform, especially one that demanded total silence during their sets.

However, many Black critics were less than impressed by the club, its segregated nature, and its treatment of Black employees.

For example, in his autobiography, “The Big Sea,” Langston Hughes delivered a scathing review of cabarets and bars like the Cotton Club, as well as those who visited them.

Hughes described the white patrons as “[sitting] and [staring] at the Negro customers—like amusing animals in a zoo.” He also commented on the lack of equality, explaining that Black people couldn’t “go downtown and sit and stare at you in your clubs” because the white people “wouldn’t even let us in your clubs.”

Additionally, some performers also shared concerning tales about their time at the club.

For example, in his memoir, Dempsey J. Travis described the club owners as 20th-century slave masters, saying that they “chained” jazz musicians to the club “in the same manner as slaves were shackled to the cotton and tobacco plantations in the antebellum South.”

Travis also told a story of how Madden would not let Duke Ellington leave the club unless he paid for the orchestra, replacing him with his own funds.

Mixed Memories of a Harlem Renaissance Staple

The Cotton Club was certainly a staple establishment during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, despite its dubious origins.

Although it has been closed for decades, the many artists whose careers it helped launch live on in people’s memories.

The club has also been replaced by many other, less problematic nightclubs throughout the Harlem neighborhood, which continues to be one of the most exciting and rapidly growing neighborhoods in New York City.