A city’s hidden soul

creoleNOTE: When I first fancied myself a reporter, I became obsessed with picking at scars and probing the underbelly for dirty secrets often ignored or glossed over by local media. This fixation is reflected today in my historical fiction, which focuses on revealing factual incidents that politicians and flack artists often disdain. I thought it would be fun to share, in a series of posts, a few of my research discoveries—some of which become amplified in my novels.

Creole Palace
At a time when San Diego tourists may have encountered a sign that read “No Dogs, Negros, Mexicans” and the City Council took umbrage with Black women dancing in scanty attire or the unregulated commingling of Black and White clientele, Billie Holiday held forth in a forgotten venue, rueing strange fruit hanging from a Poplar tree.

In the same ballroom, Duke Ellington warned it don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing. Fro Brigham, later a fixture at Patrick’s II, managed the spot during the 40s and 50s, when patrons travelled all the way from LA to dig the vibe.

This all but forgotten establishment, The Creole Palace, gained a reputation as being the Cotton Club of the West before its demise in 1985. It was housed at 2nd Avenue and Market Street in the Douglas Hotel, the only major downtown guesthouse to provide accommodations for African-Americans during the 1920s to 1950s. African-American owner George A. Ramsey, whom the local media then labeled “the unofficial mayor of Darktown,” joined with partners Robert and Mabel Rowe in 1924 to relocate and rename Ramsey’s Creole Café inside the new Douglas Hotel.

Only an 18” X 24” plaque remains as a reminder of this once prominent pillar of culture. The Douglas Hotel fell in 1985 to be replaced by a redevelopment housing project. Unlike two other historic downtown hotels—the Horton Grand and the Saddlery, the City took no action to preserve the structure for future reconstruction.

Today, when racist signs and bigoted attitudes have been replaced by benign neglect and less than subtle erosion of the Civil Rights Act, a preserved Douglas Hotel—like the Horton Grand and Saddlery—might have stood as an important example of what was and what could be.

 

For more information, please, see African-Americans and Historic Preservation in San Diego: The Douglas and the Clermont/Coast Hotels by Leland T. Saito at https://www.sandiegohistory.org/journal/v54-1/pdf/douglashotel.pdf

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