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The Douglas Hotel: the Harlem of the West

When Lady Day sang on Market Street

Douglas Hotel-Creole Palace, the stop for Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, the Mills Brothers,  Duke Ellington.
  • Douglas Hotel-Creole Palace, the stop for Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, the Mills Brothers, Duke Ellington.
  • Image by San Diego Historical Society

“HARLEM OF THE WEST: THE DOUGLAS HOTEL & CREOLE PALACE NITE CLUB”

MICHAEL AUSTIN, MASTER’S THESIS

During the 1930s and ’40s, the famous “Chittlin Circuit” always stopped in San Diego. The country’s top African-American entertainers — Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, the Mills Brothers, the Inkspots, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie — performed at the Creole Palace and stayed at the Douglas Hotel. Patrons danced the Lindy Hop, the Black Bottom, the Shimmy, and the Susie Q, and the Palace came to be known, in the minds of many, as “Cotton Club West.”

The Douglas Hotel was the only “place of quality lodging and entertainment for black visitors to San Diego during a period of intense segregation in the United States.” Plus, “while black people were not allowed to enter other San Diego businesses, the Douglas served everyone” and had a color-blind hiring policy.

In 1924, William McClosky built the hotel on the corner of Second and Market Street — block H-90, lots E, F, and G. The building included a restaurant, card room, billiard room, and a “nite club." Later called the Creole Palace, the club had a capacity of 200 people.

McClosky built the hotel for Robert Rowe and George Ramsey. Rowe died shortly after the hotel opened. His wife, Mabel, co-managed the Douglas with Ramsey. Employees called her “Miss Mabel.” She lived in a suite at the hotel with her poodle. “A loud-talking woman,” Miss Mabel “draped herself in jewelry.”

She was also a well-known madam who ran Leroy’s Room, a bordello at Fourth and G in the Gaslamp. “It was operated separately from the hotel.”

George Ramsey came to San Diego in 1913. Along with running the Douglas and the Palace, he became the official “Greeter” at the Tijuana Racetrack in the ’40s. His charitable contributions were legend. And his obituary — in the San Diego Union, January 21, 1963 — called him the “Mayor of San Diego’s Harlem.”

The Palace had two shows nightly, at 11:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m., with different acts for each show. Bands played “hot” dance music or slow ballads. Admission was 25 cents.

Ramsey and Rowe patterned the Palace after Harlem’s Cotton Club. But “the Cotton Club had a whites-only policy,” and the Douglas didn’t. On weekends, however, a higher cover-charge and higher drink prices created a predominantly white audience for the floor shows.

Thursday became the biggest night of the week. It was “Kitchen Mechanics’ Night.” Black women employed as maids at the Douglas got the night off from work and could get in the Creole Palace for free.

MASTER'S THESIS EXCERPTS

  1. Many within the black community felt the Douglas to be a "place of sin." The men, many of them sailors and soldiers, would save their month's pay for a night at the Douglas.
  2. During the 1930s, the black community began to have clearly defined borders. Blacks lived in all areas of the city, but most resided in the area from 30th Street to 32nd Street, between Woolman (now Oceanview) Avenue and Logan Avenue.
  3. The Civil Rights movement opened society to blacks and other minorities, and this began the fade in popularity of the Douglas Hotel and other black establishments. Blacks could room, dine, and entertain in any hotel.... By the late 1950s, the glory days were gone.
  4. The Douglas Hotel building was torn down in 198S. Market Street Square stands in place of the Douglas today, with only a plaque to commemorate its colorful past.

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