By Jennifer Fronc
On September 28, 1912, George Francis O’Neill headed out to Marshall’s Hotel, a black-owned establishment that offered comfortable accommodations, delicious food, cold drinks, and hot jazz. Located in two neighboring brownstones in the heart of the Tenderloin district, Marshall’s Hotel featured live music and attracted throngs of fashionable New Yorkers -— both black and white -— every night of the week. Indeed, Marshall’s revolutionized social life for black New Yorkers, who began to abandon the older clubs downtown. According to James Weldon Johnson, by 1900 Marshall’s had become the center “of a fashionable sort of life that hitherto had not existed.” The “actors, the musicians, the composers, the writers, and the better-paid vaudevillians” congregated at Marshall’s; white actors and musicians also spent evenings there in the company of their black friends. Luminaries such as Rosamond Johnson, James Reese Europe, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Florenz Ziegfeld, and W.E.B. DuBois all frequented the establishment. In short, Marshall’s Hotel was not a gin-soaked, rat-infested, honky-tonk, but an important gathering place for New York’s black cultural elite.
In response to a request from a social activist organization, the Committee of Fourteen, D. Slattery, Special Assistant to the Police Commissioner, confirmed Marshall’s reputation. He explained that Marshall’s Hotel, located at 127/29 West 53rd Street, operated under an unexpired Liquor Tax Certificate held by James L. Marshall. In his judgment, Marshall’s was “conducted in such a manner, that so far it has been impossible to obtain evidence sufficient to substantiate a charge of keeping a disorderly house. Everything possible is being done to prevent cause for complaint at this location.”
Yet the Committee of Fourteen decided to keep Marshall’s Hotel under surveillance. Although Slattery and the police department offered assurance that the proprietor abided by liquor laws and the laws relating to disorderliness, the Committee regarded Marshall’s with suspicion for one reason: Marshall’s permitted race mixing. For the Committee, “race mixing” emerged as the most easily identifiable marker of disorderliness. As a consequence, the Committee required proprietors—black proprietors in particular—to eliminate race mixing from their establishments. As William S. Bennet, Congressman and Committee of Fourteen member, explained, “If it is a colored place in which white people were not admitted at all,” then it “would seem to me that there is no chance for trouble.” For Bennet and his colleagues on the Committee, the “chance for trouble” in commercial leisure establishments that permitted “race mixing” rested in the increased possibility of sexual activity across the color line, which could potentially overthrow the city’s social and racial order. As Slattery noted of Marshall’s, “white females frequent the place, with negroes, and it is also visited by white people, while slumming and sight seeing.” Marshall’s Hotel was not unique; rather, it was part of a new, emergent leisure culture. In early twentieth-century New York City, a significant number of black-owned cabarets and hotels opened—particularly in the Tenderloin, the theatre district, and Harlem. Black musicians and artists found these to be important sites of cultural production and consumption, but they also functioned as the only public places where “respectable” black New Yorkers met up and mingled with friends. White New Yorkers (particularly those of the bohemian or “sporting” persuasion) also began frequenting such establishments to participate in their “exotic” offerings—listening to jazz music, dancing, drinking, and socializing with black New Yorkers.
George Francis O’Neill was one of the white “slummers” who found Marshall’s Hotel attractive. For his visit, he hired a private car and a chauffeur because, he claimed, in places “of this character” automobiles served as “an open sesame” for women. Unfortunately for O’Neill, the patrons and staff of Marshall’s did not extend a warm welcome; in fact, he was treated with outright suspicion. The bartender refused to serve him “at ten minutes of one,” citing state liquor laws. O’Neill also noticed that the proprietor seemed to be on edge, “go[ing] about the place…to see that no disorder would manifest itself.” 
Initially, O’Neill’s report on Marshall’s Hotel seemed to indicate that his visit was a failure. He had been hanging out and “flashing cash” in an attempt to attract women, but with no success. He was on the verge of leaving when his acquaintance Patrick, a black vaudeville performer, showed up. O’Neill waved Patrick over and offered to buy him a drink, but the assistant manager intervened and pulled Patrick out into the hallway. When Patrick returned, he explained to O’Neill: “‘they were afraid of you…but…I told him you were all right.’” Marshall’s Hotel, after all, had been visited on a number of occasions by Committee of Fourteen investigators—and Marshall and his employees were all too aware of that fact.
After Patrick vouched for O’Neill, “things seemed to brighten up.” Marshall, the proprietor, even relaxed and joined friends at a table. Soon the band started playing, couples began dancing, and some patrons stood to sing along with the performers. O’Neill turned and saw “a negro woman…caress[ing] a [drunken] white man.” On the other side of the dance floor, he observed a white woman, who he judged “to be of the degenerate type,” because she “was on very familiar terms with the colored entertainer[s].” O’Neill observed that she would jump up and “very boisterously [applaud] their mediocre performances.”
Unlike a couple hours earlier, Marshall did not intervene to put a stop to this behavior. At that precise moment, he became guilty of running what the Committee of Fourteen considered a disorderly establishment. And because of O’Neill’s report, the Committee of Fourteen’s Executive Secretary, Frederick Whitin, summoned Marshall to his office a few days later. During that meeting, Marshall was forced to sign a “promissory note” that he would segregate his establishment, providing separate facilities for his white and black patrons—all despite the fact that New York State civil rights laws prohibited segregation in public accommodations.
The Committee of Fourteen functioned by forging cooperative relationships with the national and state brewers’ associations, liquor dealers’ association, and the insurance companies that bonded any establishment that requested a liquor license. The Committee provided proprietors and brewers with economic incentives (or, more accurately, disincentives) to clean up their barrooms. This style of partnership speaks to the remarkable powers of private organizations in the battle against perceived immorality and corruption in New York City during the Progressive Era. The Committee had abandoned hope that the police and justice system would (or even could) intervene to correct the greed, corruption, and prostitution evident in the city’s drinking establishments. Therefore, it made an end-run around the law and the legislature and went straight to the source—the insurance companies and liquor dealers, who were already on the offensive against temperance organizations. The Committee of Fourteen developed a mode of interest group politics, approaching and accommodating business interests, and forcing them to become partners in its (moral) program. The businesses worked with the Committee because it offered them a way to continue to operate. The alternative—an alcohol-free city as imagined by groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League—was ultimately not acceptable to the Liquor Dealers’ Association. The Committee’s style of partnership thus succeeded where “morals legislation” would not.
Many in immigrant and working-class New York were aware of the reach, scope, and power of these social activist organizations and the presence of their undercover investigators and, as a consequence, worked very hard to avoid them. Through the undercover agents’ reports, it became evident that even though many New Yorkers were critical of these private organizations and their tactics, they also realized that they were at a distinct disadvantage if they wanted to stop them. As one female proprietor alleged (in earshot of an undercover investigator), Committee of Fourteen Executive Secretary Whitin had “a yacht and takes new girls on it for 3 or 4 days then ships them back but forms committees for the poor people.” She continued, “There ain’t a man can touch Whitin with money no matter how much he’s got…as Henry Beecher once said do as I say but don’t do as I do.” One bartender confided in an undercover investigator (whom he believed to be an ordinary patron) that he could not admit unaccompanied women to the back room of his saloon. He complained that “between the police, the Excise Department, and the Committee of Fourteen,” saloon proprietors have “to be cautious.” However, “whatever you can do with the police,” he discovered, “it [was] absolutely impossible to ‘handle’ the Committee of 14.”
In their bitter complaining, these proprietors and bartenders identified the key to the Committee’s success: municipal police, who often existed in a symbiotic relationship with the entrepreneurs of the underground economy, were easily bribed. The investigators for the private organizations did not occupy the same position as the police, and were not held to the same standards of accountability as public employees (for example, investigators would not be expected to take the witness stand). Private organizations like the Committee of Fourteen aspired to create conditions in which saloonkeepers, bartenders, patrons, and others learned, embraced, and then enacted self-policing disciplines. In the case of Marshall’s, and scores of other places, the organizations succeeded.
* Jennifer Fronc is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She currently serves as a consultant for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and is a former Big Onion walking tour guide. Fronc’s book New York Undercover: Private Surveillance in the Progressive Era was published in 2009 by the University of Chicago Press.
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