Riding The Chitlin’ Circuit

A writer is only as good as his material, and now and then something profound falls into his lap. For close to two years now I’ve been working on a book for the University of South Carolina Press. Early chapters of the book concern the blues.

A major part of writing is research. It’s akin to mining for gold; you get a lot of dirt but few nuggets. In this case, however, the blues turned up a nugget of gold, black gold.

Frank Beacham, a journalist originally from Honea Path, South Carolina, wrote a penetrating chronicle called “Charlie’s Place.” The story originally appears in his book,Whitewash: A Journey through Music, Mayhem and Murder (available athttp://www.booklocker.com/books/939.html). Frank and I exchanged emails, and he granted me permission to excerpt his account of Charlie’s Place and the Chitlin’ Circuit. It’s a story that’s Old South, and it brought back my childhood in several telling ways.

Envision a dazzling marquee ablaze with these names … Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, B.B. King, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, The Supremes, The Temptations, Muddy Waters, and quite possibly the first true rock and roll star, Little Richard of “Tutti Frutti” fame, Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom.

They came to entertain on the Chitlin’ Circuit, a string of clubs and joints throughout the South where black performers could do their thing in a safe acceptable venue. Finding a place to eat after the show and a room for the night? Well that was another matter. Entertainers destined for greatness had to find accommodations with friends.

That’s the way it was in the era of Jim Crow, that strange name representing the era of supposedly separate-but-equal facilities. That time of sitting in the back of the bus, of drinking from water cooler’s marked “Colored Only,” and not sitting at drugstore counters. Nor, in a bit of reverse discrimination, were whites supposed to mix with blacks to enjoy music, something we take for granted today.

Charlie’s Place was on the Chitlin’ Circuit in an alcove, so to speak, known as Whispering Pines over Myrtle Beach way. The pines began whispering, as Beacham wrote, the night Billie Holliday sang at Charlie’s Place. Thus did the name Whispering Pines come to be. Other black performers destined for greatness came to Charlie’s Place including Georgia’s aforementioned Little Richard.

Charlie Fitzgerald, a chic black entrepreneur from New York, ran Charlie’s Place from the late 1930s until his death in 1955. Charlie’s Place, it should be noted, had a reputation as a peaceful establishment but that didn’t head off trouble. As Beacham wrote, “Fitzgerald’s coziness with whites was out of sync with the time and place. Racial tension in South Carolina began escalating after a federal judge opened the state’s Democratic primary to black voters in 1948. It was to the chagrin of many Southern whites that blacks began to assume a few positions of power.”

The times and tensions conspired to make Charlie a marked man. He stood out as a success. He stood out as a man wealthy and fearless. He did as white people did. Go into a restaurant and sit down. Another sin was letting white kids into his place to see and hear the marvelous black entertainers. It was inevitable that the KKK would pay him a visit.

At 9 p.m. on August 26, 1950, the KKK drove by Charlie’s Place. A Beacham excerpt: In an intimidating visit to his club, Klan members demanded that white patrons no longer be admitted. “They told Charlie they didn’t want the white kids there listening to music,” said Hemingway, (Henry “Pork Chop” Hemingway was the first black policeman in Myrtle Beach and a friend of Charlie’s). “Charlie told them to go to hell. They warned him they were coming back.”

Just before midnight, true to its word, the Klan came back.

Beacham recounts this visit in an updated version of a chapter, “This Magic Moment, When the Ku Klux Klan Tried to Kill Rhythm and Blues Music in South Carolina,” which originally appeared in Toward The Meeting Of The Waters, Currents in the Civil Rights Movement of South Carolina during the Twentieth Century (University South Carolina Press).

The nightriders quickly and violently raided Charlie’s Place. They tied Charlie up and threw him in the trunk of a car. They riddled his club with bullets, silencing the Wurlitzer that had unified blacks and whites via music and dance. They beat people. Once the assault ended, a Klansman lay on the ground bleeding. Beneath his blood-soaked sheet he wore a police uniform. Shot in the back, he died later. No one was charged.

Klansmen beat Charlie with a bullwhip. Somehow Charlie escaped. I, write of this 1950’s violence because I, too, once had an experience with the Klan, albeit most innocent and as a spectator.

I believe it was the summer of 1955 that Dad drove me up town one night well past lightning bug time. I want to say it was a sultry night, stifling and heavy. Just on the outskirts of town headed towards Washington, down on the left, a Klan rally was in progress. A cross burned and men in hoods and sheets stood in a circle while a man in the center shouted. It was just like a scene from Fried, Green Tomatoes, and it scared me to death. I think that’s why Dad took me there. To show me what real terror looks like.

Two reactions have lived within me ever since: a deep fear, for one, and gratitude for another that my Dad was with me and not in that circle of sheet-clad men.

Much of that nonsense is behind us. Thank Heavens we have crossed many a bridge as race relations go. And yet we have a ways to go. Little burrs remain under the saddle. I, for instance, prefer the term black to African-American. I’m simply a white. I choose to think I’m 100 percent American, not a European-Caucasian. I find hyphenated heritages a bit divisive. If we’re all in this together, let’s make our names less reminiscent of a time we’d like to put behind us.

We were talking over race relations one night and I asked a woman whose opinion I respect a question. “Do you think the South would have worked out its race issues eventually without Civil Rights legislation?”

“No,” she said.

For some reason I can’t explain I believe it would have, but then, what do I know. All I can say is that way back in my youth I spent a lot of time playing with my black friends down on my Granddad’s farm. We played baseball, ate together, did farm work together, and we swam in the ponds. We spent many a day knocking down wasp nests (It was as close to war as I ever got), and we sat on the porch of their home many evenings telling scary stories about a crazy man who lived nearby. We were just living. Nothing more.

When school rolled around, we parted ways. They had their school and I had mine. Somehow the school years kept coming and going and the wedge drove in deeper and deeper, and the day arrived when we lost touch for good. That doesn’t mean I don’t think of my childhood friends. I do. Every day. And I’d like to think that they think of me too.

So here it is July 4th, 2010, a time to celebrate independence and freedom. My mind, however, is back somewhere around 1957 or so, a less free time. My black friends and I were young and we didn’t know, much less care, what the much larger world out there thought. But then the baseball games stopped and wasp nests suddenly had no reason to fear our rocks and sticks, and only the winds ruffled the ponds’ surface. We, too, had a role in the big play; we just didn’t know it. And so Frank Beacham’s work touches me in a way I cannot explain and words are supposed to be my strength.

All I can offer is this. We were innocents. Caught up in a system. And it made a huge difference in our lives. Still does.

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