Keeping the Memory of the Chitlin Circuit Alive
A look at eight Chitlin Circuit venues standing throughout the state of Florida.
The Two Spot in Jacksonville. (State Archives of Florida)
If I could go back and meet someone in the past, Zora Neale Hurston would be high up on my list. A world-renowned Harlem Renaissance figure who lived life her way, she traveled to Polk County in 1928 to collect African American folklore in rural turpentine camps and juke joints.
Said to originate on plantations as rooms for socialization, juke joints may represent the first “private spaces” in the country for African Americans. Derived from the Gullah Geechee word “joog,” they sprouted up across the south following Emancipation as a final bastion for those who wanted to get away from Jim Crow and the pressures of the era.
Typically found on the outskirts of towns, in houses or assumed abandoned buildings, jukes were known for their soul food, barbeque, fish fries, gambling, drinks, sexual liaisons, dancing, and live music. According to Hurston, the juke was the most important place in America for its contributions to the birth of blues and jazz.
As a 5th generation Floridian and Gullah Geechee descendant, what Hurston captured in her travels hits pretty close to home. Raised in Polk County, her experiences cover the period my great grandparents finally settled in Central Florida, seeking to survive as workers in turpentine camps, truck farming, phosphate mining, and railroad section hand laborers. Being a part of the first family generation born after desegregation, jukes were a part of the Chitlin Circuit scene that my parents, uncles, and aunts proudly remember as clear as day.
The Apollo Theater in Harlem
The “Chitlin’ Circuit” was the collective name given to a series of black-owned nightclubs, dance halls, juke joints and theaters that were safe and acceptable for African American entertainers to perform in during segregation. Notable venues on the Chitlin’ Circuit were the Cotton Club and Apollo Theater in Harlem, the Royal Peacock in Atlanta, the Fox Theatre in Detroit and the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.
“Chitlins” are a dish made from pig intestines that date back to slavery, when the enslaved were forced to nurture themselves with the less desirable parts of animals provided by the planter class. What was provided in a demeaning manner was turned into soul food delicacy that remains popular in African American communities throughout the country today. Like chitlins, the circuit was established to nurture African-American performers during a time when they were not allowed in most white-owned venues.
While much black history has been ignored, downplayed, lost, and systematically destroyed since desegregation, vestiges of the Chitlin’ Circuit era remain all around us if we’re willing to get out, explore, and experience a part of our southern heritage that has not been given its proper due. Here is a brief look at seven Florida Chitlin’ Circuit sites that still survive.
Baker’s Flamingo Bar & Grill
900 13th Street, Fort Pierce
One of Fort Pierce’s oldest neighborhoods, Lincoln Park was the center of St. Lucie County’s African-American community during the 1950s and 1960s. Established by Levie Baker, Baker’s Flamingo Bar & Grill was the primary chitlin circuit venue in Lincoln Park. During its heyday, the property included a rooming house allowing bands not allowed in local white-owned hotels to stay overnight. Despite legalized segregation, performers such as James Brown and the Famous Flames and Billie Holiday still attracted integrated crowds. In 2006, Lincoln Park was designated as a Florida Main Street community.
Bradfordville Blues Club
7152 Moses Ln, Tallahassee
Inside the Bradfordville Blues Club (Facebook)
The first site in Florida’s listed on the Mississippi Blues Trail, the Bradfordville Blues Club, is located off a rural dirt road where the emancipated gathered for music prior to the Civil War. In 1964, Allen Henry Jr. built the B.C.C. Club on land his family had owned since slavery. Occasionally after closing time, musicians playing in Tallahassee would then head to this one-room juke joint and keep the party going until sunrise. A place where the likes of B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Son Seals, Little Milton, Jimmy Rogers, Bobby Rush, and Sandra Hall have appeared, the BBC still attracts nationally renowned blues acts and was listed in 2012 by Downbeat magazine as “One of the Top International Music Venues.”