Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization

Division of Social Sciences, The University of Chicago

Ronald Lynch, a lifelong South Side resident, remembers a time when “we couldn’t go west of Wentworth, east of Cottage Grove, or south of 63rd Street”. A history of racial violence and institutionalized discrimination meant that most white neighborhoods were considered off-limits to Black Chicagoans in the 1930s and ‘40s. But it is not the limitations of this segregated environment that linger in Ronald Lynch’s memory as he reflects on those days, recalling, “we didn’t think much of it” growing up. The Black Belt of Chicago, which in the 1940s consisted of a strip between Wentworth and Cottage Grove stretching from 26th Street down to 63rd Street, was like “a city unto itself where you could get anything that you needed. We rarely, if ever, had to go downtown.” Born in 1941 and spending the first decade of his life living along 47th Street, Ronald Lynch remembers growing up in the center of it all. The South Center Department Store on 47th Street was one of the nation’s largest of its kind serving a primarily Black clientele, while the Regal Theater right next door was where the top musicians of the day, including Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, came to perform when they were in Chicago. On major commercial strips like 47th Street, 55th Street/Garfield Boulevard, and 63rd Street, you could stroll down the street and frequent multiple nightclubs without walking more than ten minutes—passing countless barbecue joints, laundries, drug stores, grocers, barber shops, and all other sorts of small businesses along the way. Factory workers and janitors lived alongside prominent musicians, lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and politicians. The Black Belt even had its own transportation system. Black-owned jitney cabs traveled up and down South Parkway— what is now MLK Drive—between 31st and 65th Streets, charging dime fares and picking up and dropping off customers at bus stops. 1

During the 1930s and ‘40s, Garfield Boulevard had sidewalk traffic at all hours, as many of the lounges, clubs, and restaurants stayed open until just before daybreak. 2 On hot summer nights, the grassy median of Garfield Boulevard was covered with blankets where people escaping crowded apartments slept. 3 4 At the western edge of the Black Belt was the Club DeLisa on State Street, a longstanding establishment open 24 hours a day, known for having no cover charge and featuring singers, dancers, chorus girls, comedians, vaudeville acts, and even acrobats alongside a house band led by the famous drummer Red Saunders. 5 6 It only took ten minutes to walk along Garfield Boulevard from the Club DeLisa on the western edge of the Black Belt to the famous Rhumboogie Club, formerly known as Dave’s Cafe, on the eastern side. Along the way, you would pass the imposing five-story Schulze Baking Plant, the 1,400-seat Michigan Theater, and a handful of smaller clubs and cocktail lounges before passing under the elevated train station and reaching the Rhumboogie by Washington Park. Music was so vibrant in this area that even the smaller clubs had their own bands, creating a hub for musicians and entertainers of all stripes. 5 On just the single city block of Garfield Boulevard that stretches from Washington Park to the elevated train station, there were 23 musicians who performed regularly at the Rhumboogie Club, Ciro’s Lounge, and White’s Emporium. 7

This part of 55th Street was where elements of the Chicago underworld mixed with Black celebrities, all amidst the sounds of both established and up-and-coming Black musicians. Coleman Hawkins, known for popularizing the tenor saxophone as a jazz solo instrument, used to lead a band at the White’s Emporium. Directly across the street, a prostitution ring operated out of the Spencer Hotel. Only a few steps away on the other side of the rumbling elevated trains, a nursing home for old white men stood across the street from Dave’s Cafe, where the famous mobster Sam “Golf Bag” Hunt, a former enforcer for Al Capone, openly ran a gambling operation in the front room of the building. 8 Dave’s Cafe itself moved to Garfield Boulevard in 1934 because its original location at 51st and Michigan was burned down by the mob. 9 Behind the gambling room, the nationally renowned Oklahoma-born mixed-race tap dancer, producer, choreographer, song-writer, and comedian Leonard Reed produced a show that ran for several years starting in 1934. 10 11 By 1942, after the club was renamed the Rhumboogie, you could find Joe Louis, a famous Black heavyweight champion boxer, cracking jokes and leading the show when he was in town. 12 13 Louis was rumored to own shares in the club, which he later purchased. 14 His fame helped to attract many of the top musicians of the day, such as the great swing band leader Tiny Bradshaw 15 and the early blues musician T-Bone Walker, who recorded an album at the club. 16 The Rhumboogie also provided performance opportunities for up-and-coming musicians like blues singer Dinah Washington, who sang at the Rhumboogie at age 22, a few years before making it big in the national R&B scene. 17 18

Although the Rhumboogie Club’s top musicians, dancers, and songwriters drew large crowds, the club was short-lived, closing in 1947—just five years after it opened. 19 The site continued to serve as a venue for music and dance performances for several decades, but it never regained the popularity it enjoyed when it was the Rhumboogie Club. The Club DeLisa lasted a little longer, closing only in 1958. 20 In the 1960s and ‘70s, the South Side’s tradition of music and nightlife continued as newer clubs opened in formerly all-white neighborhoods that became majority-black to the south, east, and west of the original Black Belt. Ronald Lynch, who moved into a series of previously all-white neighborhoods throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, recalls that by the time he was old enough to go to clubs, “63rd Street had more clubs than 55th Street. All up and down that street were clubs.” Ronald Lynch’s first night out in 1958 was at the Pershing Hotel on Cottage Grove just south of 63rd Street, which was just across the street from the famous Tivoli Theater and the Grand Ballroom. Another great spot in the area was “Herman Roberts’ Motel on King Drive, which had a neat room and club space.” It was there that Lynch remembers seeing Dinah Washington, who “used to entertain there all the time.” In the ‘70s, after moving to South Shore, Lynch recalls Tiger Lounge on 79th Street being one of the top clubs. Lynch even owned his own club for a few years near the Tiger Lounge called Ronnie’s Lounge, where his clientele was mainly government workers and included a lot of regulars.

Walking down the relatively empty sidewalks of Garfield Boulevard today, it is difficult to imagine the 24-hour bustle that could be found there decades ago. The buildings that once housed the Rhumboogie Club, the White’s Emporium, and the Club DeLisa have all been torn down, replaced by lots that sit empty. The apartment buildings, corner stores, bars, fast food restaurants, and gas stations there today are but a remnant of the vibrant commercial activity and residential life that characterized the neighborhood’s past. While Ronald Lynch says he is proud to have integrated several previously all-white neighborhoods, he laments how these changes brought about the decline of large Black-owned entertainment and nightlife businesses that brought people together and ensured that “money stayed within the [Black] community.”

Saxophone Illustration by Noah Lee and Elyas Boyan


  1. Travis, An Autobiography, 112.
  2. Travis, An Autobiography, 113.
  3. Farr, “Eddie Johnson’s,” 21.
  4. Travis, An Autobiography, 112.
  5. 14
  6. 15
  7. Farr, “Eddie Johnson’s,” 21.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Travis, An Autobiography, 113.
  10. “Bandits Burn.”
  11. Monroe, “Music and Song.”
  12. Jones, “Mac Johnson.”
  13. Nosey, “Everybody Goes.”
  14. “Joe Louis and Nation’s Bigwigs.”
  15. “Joe Louis New Boss.”
  16. Monroe, “Music and Song.”
  17. “T-Bone.”
  18. “Music and Song.”
  19. “Rhumboogie Makes Good.”
  20. Monroe, “Cocktail Bars.”
  21. “Club DeLisa Up For Sale.”


“Bandits Burn and Rob Dave’s Tavern.” Chicago Defender, May 5, 1934. https://www.proquest.com.

“Cabarets.” Chicago Defender, September 22, 1934. https://www.proquest.com.

“Club DeLisa Groovy.” Chicago Defender, July 16, 1956. https://www.proquest.com.

“Club DeLisa Up For Sale; Rings Down Curtain Feb 16.” Chicago Defender, January 28, 1958. https://www.proquest.com.

Farr, Jory. “Eddie Johnson’s saxophone helps blow the blues away.” Chicago Tribune, April 18, 1982. https://www.newspapers.com.

“Headliners at the Club DeLisa.” Chicago Defender, January 1, 1944. https://www.proquest.com.

“Joe Louis and Nation’s Bigwigs at Chicago Nightclub Opening.” Chicago Defender, April 25, 1942. https://www.proquest.com.

“Joe Louis New Boss of Cafe Rhumboogie.” Chicago Defender, December 7, 1946. https://www.proquest.com.

Jones, Billy. “Mae Johnson now starred at ‘Kit Kat’.” Chicago Defender, February 15, 1936. https://www.proquest.com.

Monroe, Al. “Cocktail Bars Replace Cabarets in Many Cities.” Chicago Defender, October 25, 1947.https://www.proquest.com.

Monroe, Al. “Music and Speed Make Show at Rhumboogie Terrific.” Chicago Defender, April 25, 1942.https://www.proquest.com.

“Music and Song on Rhumboogie Menu.” Chicago Defender, May 4, 1946. https://www.proquest.com.

Nosey, Ole. “Everybody Goes when the Wagon Comes.” Chicago Defender, April 25, 1942. https://www.proquest.com.

“Rhumboogie Makes Good on Promise.” Chicago Defender, April 13, 1946. https://www.proquest.com.

“Rhumboogie Swings Out with Tiny.” Chicago Defender, May 22, 1943. https://www.proquest.com.

Travis, Dempsey J. An Autobiography of Black Jazz. Chicago: Urban Research Institute, 1983.

“T-Bone, Salt And Pepper Make ‘Boogie Groovy.” Chicago Defender, October 21, 1944. https://www.proquest.com.