Somewhere among all my junk is a collection of fraying pages from the 15th anniversary book of the first exclusive membership club for Baltimore’s black middle class.
Called the Sphinx Club — and pronounced the way it’s written, with a distinctive “p” — it boasted a glittery art-deco front when it was opened in 1946, at 2107 Pennsylvania Avenue. Charlie Tilghman, an easy-going, likable fellow with a speech impediment was the operator. His financial backer was none other than William L. “Little Willie” Adams, black Baltimore’s undisputed numbers king, who used his cash flow to become a pioneering venture capitalist in the days when no regular financial institutions lent to blacks.
Adams died at 97 this week, the first truly important African American businessman in the city’s history because he was the first to operate both in black and white worlds.
By 1946, Adams was at the peak of his numbers career, which would be over in another four years. Sanctioned by the Democratic machine – which had run illegal lotteries in the segregated city at least since the 1880s – he held the penny gambling franchise for West Baltimore. Most of the nascent black middle-class lived there, packed into an overcrowded district that ran from Madison to Fulton avenues and was beginning to burst to neighborhoods from which whites were fleeing.
In 1946, Baltimore was still a strictly segregated city, where department stores did not serve blacks. For that reason, Pennsylvania Avenue became the period’s main black shopping strip. But get this: Even though blacks could not shop downtown, whites could shop on Pennsylvania Avenue, and did. In fact, some Pennsylvania Avenue restaurants, catering to those white shoppers and shopkeepers, would not seat blacks but would sell take-outs through the back door. Whites also were welcomed – or at least tolerated – at the Avenue’s many night spots, several of which were owned by Adams through various black and white licensees fronting for him.
Looking at that Sphinx Club publication, two things are striking. One is the high number of identifiable Adams numbers operators in the pictures. The second is the evidence of the wide-ranging social activities of the Sphinx’s middle-class members. They shot and showed amateur movies; they played ball, held picnics and costume parties, with name jazz talent providing the music. The recently ended World War II had swelled the ranks of the elite. Members included prominent doctors, dentists, educators, government bureaucrats, and business associates of Adams.
Also among members were some General Motors and General Electric workers, whose hue may have been darker than the norm but who were admitted because their earning power was high and they had found educated, fair-skinned brides who did their best to uplift the grooms.
The Sphinx Club building is vacant and boarded-up these days. Most other Pennsylvania Avenue structures from that period are already razed, including such nightclubs as the legendary Royal, the South seas-themed Bamboo Lounge, the Comedy Club with its huge bar that was in the shape of the Pimlico Race Course. Walter Rouse, an Adams lieutenant, ran Gamby’s; another Adams front operated the Club Casino, and so on.
Adams also owned Carr’s Beach near Annapolis. It was the segregation era’s most popular amusement park, a venue that drew thousands of carousers from Washington and Baltimore who could also gamble because one-arm bandits were legal in Anne Arundel County. Thousands of others listened to WANN’s live broadcasts from Carr’s Beach featuring Ray Charles, Dinah Washington, Arthur Prysock, Little Richard, James Brown, Etta James, The Shirelles, The Coasters, The Drifters and many many others. An aspiring comedian, Redd Foxx, was a regular.
I feel ashamed that when I was writing my book on race and real estate, Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City, the ultimate significance of this escaped me. With the Carr’s Beach and the various Pennsylvania Avenue night clubs being essential stops on the Chitlin’ Circuit of black entertainers, and the Sphinx Club being yet another, it seems quite possible that Little Willie Adams and his lieutenants were responsible for booking the talent that made Pennsylvania Avenue so famous between World War II and the early 1960s. We celebrate the myth of the old Royal Theater. Instead, we should be celebrating Willie Adams.
This is a tantalizing thought. In the retelling of what went on in the 1930s and 1940s, Adams has been so tightly linked to the numbers racket that another considerable contribution has been ignored – his role in forming and promoting the black middle class.
In other words, despite being a high-school drop-out — even though he later got a high school diploma and took college courses — Willie Adams, the self-made man, was a perceptive observer, who spotted societal trends and took advantage of them.
Here is the evidence:
About the same time that the Sphinx Club opened in 1946, Willie Adams opened the Charm Center nearby. It was the first upscale, black-owned fashion boutique in Baltimore and quickly won favor among the wives, girlfriends and daughters of the elite. Up to that time, they had been forced to go to Philadelphia or New York for first-class dresses because Baltimore’s stores refused to serve them.
At the Charm Center, Victorine Adams used her educator’s talents to teach social graces to adults and children. She also lassoed many of her customers to become members of the Colored Women’s Democratic Club, Maryland’s first political organization for black women, also established in 1946. Her activists — with little money from Willie — helped engineer the 1954 election of Harry B. Cole as the first African-American state senator. That spelled the end of the Democratic machine of Jack Pollack, the famous Jewish boss. Victorine herself soon was first elected state delegate and subsequently the first elected woman City Council member of either race.
Oldtimers say that the Charm Center was Victorine’s shop. Not quite. According to records, she had no ownership interest in it. Instead, Willie Adams owned 80 percent of the stock. The rest he gave to a New York buyer whom he stole away from Carver’s, a white-owned competitor on Eutaw Street.
Love is love; business is business. Willie always wanted to be in control. All the people fronting for him at night clubs and taverns always had to sign an undated license transfer application, just in case. Even with Victorine, he didn’t take chances.
Antero Pietila’s book, Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City (Ivan R. Dee, 2010), is available in hardcover and for Kindle.