The San Jacinto Club in New Orleans

The sign from the San Jacinto Club, now on display at the New Orleans Jazz Museum. (Photo by the author.)

I do solemnly promise to abide by the Charter, By-Laws, Constitution, Rules, Etc., governing the San Jacinto Social and Pleasure Club for the promotion of its welfare to the best of my ability, so help me God.

Members’ Oath for the San Jacinto

In kind of a spinoff on my earlier series about Louis Armstrong’s Secret 9 and Eddie “Kid” Brown, I’ve been wanting to post something about one of the places at which Brown engaged in some of his boxing matches, the San Jacinto Club.

One of the many social aid and pleasure clubs that were scattered throughout New Orleans over the last 200 years — the most famous probably being the still-going-strong Zulu Club — the San Jacinto was a facility and an organization that encapsulated just about every facet of African-American life in New Orleans in the early- and mid-20th century.

As such, it became one of the cornerstones in the Black community in the Big Easy; not only did it offer social service programs, but it also provided athletic, educational, political, activist and fellowship opportunities for African Americans who’d been shut out from segregated white society.

In a way, then, it was very much like Negro League baseball — and, in fact, the San Jacinto Club periodically fielded a baseball team that took on other amateur, club and semipro Black squads in New Orleans.

But more on that a bit later.

Courtesy Amistad Research Center.

The club’s philosophy was outlined in its charter, which was issued Nov. 7, 1905, with legal approval from Orleans Parish District Attorney James Porter Parker and notarization by public notary Robert Legier. Stated Article II of the charter:

“The objects and purposes for which this corporation is organized are hereby declared to be the cultivation of literature and science by the establishment and general increase of a library, of well assorted and standard books for the free use of of the members of the club, by the establishment of a reading room, supplied with the leading periodicals, magazines, reviews and newspapers of the day, whether scientific, literary or political, to be opened at all suitable hours of the evening, to the use of the members of the club and their guests, without special charge therefor [sic], and secondly, the regulation of social intercourse and amusement among the members of the club, by rules framed after consultation and by mutual consent, to promote enjoyment, harmony and refinement of manners, intellectual improvement and the moral, mental and material welfare of the members.”

The charter named the club’s first slate of officers: W.R. Dubuclet, president; Edward Brugier, first vice president; Charles Stanberry, second vice president; George DeGruy, recording secretary; M.R. Roudez, financial secretary; and A.B. Callioux, treasurer. Callioux, meanwhile, was a painter.)

(I did some cursory research on those gentlemen, and all them were skilled or professional tradesmen, which reflects the type of middle-class Creoles whom were sought by clubs like the SJC. Both Dubuclet and Roudez were coopers. Brugier and worked as a porter, while Stanberry was also a railroad freight handler. DeGruy worked as either a tailor or bricklayer; I couldn’t pin that down for sure.

The entrance to the San Jacinto Club, circa 1920s. (Photo by Villard Paddio, from the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University.)

The club constitution was adopted concurrently with the charter and further established the by-laws, rules and regulations, including an age requirement (members must be between 18 and 60 years old); an admission fee of 50 cents, and monthly dues of 50 cents (or about $12 today); and a monthly regular meeting and an assessment meeting.

Then, the club by-laws also provided the authority of a club committee to establish the athletic program, which eventually included boxing teams and matches, as well as baseball teams. Stated Article XIV:

“This committee shall be composed of five members to be appointed by the President whose duty it shall be to take charge of everything pertaining to Athletics in which this club may be interested to promote contests and make rules governing same among the members and to see that all paraphernalia belonging to this department is always in good condition. A written agreement must be signed by the two presidents before any article is rented from the club so as to know who to hold responsible for said article.”

(At the end of this post I include some more details about the club constitution that reveal and highlight the importance the San Jacinto — like other such social aid and pleasure clubs in New Orleans — placed on honor, education, uplift and community wellness.)

Now, a basic history … Organized in 1903 and incorporated two years later, the club swelled to more than a thousand members — mostly middle-to-upper-class Creoles of color — and found its permanent location at 1422 Dumaine St. by the Twenties or so, and in 1922 it opened a sprawling, completely refurbished clubhouse at that spot in the Treme neighborhood. The two-story structure included office space; a ballroom, dance floor and concert auditorium with a 3,000-person capacity; a reading room and library with 2,000 books; a bar and social club; and a gymnasium.

The opening of the resplendent structure received significant press in the national media, including the Chicago Defender, whose Nov. 2, 1922, issue regaled the paper’s readers with a lush description of the New Orleans black community’s new jewel. The paper stated that San Jacinto members “are exhibiting their new club quarters with much pride. They claim that there is nothing else like it in the country.”

“Today 112 feet through the city block of Dumaine street, between Marais and North Villare streets,” the paper added, “has risen the San Jacinto’s new home. Two stories above the basement, which has been built into a large and handsome dancing floor and club hall, rests the most complete and modern Colored club house in the entire South, and equaled by few in the far North.

“Here in new and shining quarters, at their hands every modern convenience to facilitate their work and pleasures as well, the hundreds of men who are members of the San Jacinto can find comfort a plenty.”

The library of the club, circa 1920s. (Photo by Villard Paddio, courtesy of the Hogan Jazz Archive.)

An example of the club’s political activism and social-awareness campaigns took place in February 1930, during Eddie Brown’s early boxing heyday at the San Jacinto. Late that month, “a monster mass meeting” slated at the club building to organize a push against oppressive Jim Crow voting laws that robbed thousands of Black Louisianians of the vote. Reported the Feb. 22, 1930, Louisiana Weekly:

“At this meeting plans will be gone into and discussed concerning retaining an attorney to represent the group in attacting [sic] the damnable registration law as it is existing in the state at the present time.

“Speakers of the various civic organizations will address those who are present, and as this subject is a vital one, every one is requested to be present.”

The San Jacinto Club had deep pockets to fund all of this activity and to build and maintain its mansion-like clubhouse — by 1926, the club held assets of about $83,000 (real estate, equipment and cash balance), or roughly $1.2 million in today’s dollars.

Most contemporaneous and modern sources report that the San Jacinto was best known, locally and nationally, as a music venue that for three decades hosted balls, dances and concerts that attracted the best of New Orleans Black society. Countless musical acts played at the hall over the years, from early jazz bands in the 1920s to blues shouters like Ray Charles and Big Mama Thornton and local legends like Professor Longhair, Smiley Lewis, Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew and his scorching band. The hall also hosted recording sessions, most notably jazz greats like Bunk Johnson, who had influenced Louis Armstrong.

There was more, too, according to a Web site by radio station WWOZ (itself a New Orleans institution), making the club a locus of African-American life:

“Often, other black social organizations and promoters rented the hall to put them on — it was one of only a few venues of its size for black audiences under segregation. There were dances, balls, soirees, and battles of the bands. Baby Dolls and Mardi Gras Indians, groups who mask for Carnival, held functions here, too. For decades, the space was central to black social life in downtown New Orleans.

“The building was put to other uses during daylight hours. The traditional brass band drummer Lawrence Batiste told documentarian David Kunian that his backyard abutted the club, so he copped free lessons by listening to bands rehearse there during the day. The American Federation of Musicians Local 496 — the black musicians union — held meetings in the hall in the 40s before establishing its office on North Claiborne Avenue.”

Over the years, a slew of other events, soirees, gatherings and fundraisers took place at the San Jacinto Club, including commemorations of the efforts of free Creoles of color in the Andrew Jackson-led Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812; meetings and fundraisers of the League for Civil Rights and Justice; banquets of the Merry Makers Social and Pleasure Club; and anniversary dances of the Dukes of Windsor Club.

The club’s occupancy of 1422 Dumaine St. continued until 1957, when the structure was vacated by the San Jacintos. The site then went through other uses, such as a nightclub, until the structure was purchased by the city, then destroyed by fire in January 1967. The building was bulldozed and eyed as a possible site for a cultural center. However, eventually the location — and several city blocks around it — became what is today the famed Louis Armstrong Park straddling the French Quarter and Treme.

Cornerstones and other portions of the San Jacinto Club structure have been saved, however, including the hall’s iconic sign, which today is on display at the New Orleans Jazz Museum.

The boxing ring/gymnasium. (Photo by Villard Paddio, courtesy the Hogan Jazz Archive.)

But there’s something else significant to note: the San Jacinto Club not only hosted some of the best “colored” boxing in the South, it had its own athletic teams, including boxing clubs for various age groups.

As outlined in my previous posts about the Secret 9, multi-sport athlete Eddie Brown laced up the gloves for a little neighborhood pugilism at the San Jacinto, but an army of other fighters stepped into the ring at the club.

I’ve obviously previously noted Eddie “Kid” Brown’s appearance in the San Jacinto ring, and I’ll highlight a few other pugilistic encounters around the same time Brown was at his peak. One comes from 1932 — I think it does, but I was a knucklehead and didn’t write the date on the hard copy I have — when the Louisiana Weekly reported on a multi-bout card at the club, the spectators at which displayed the typical liveliness and passion as they crowded around the ring.

The newspaper, as well as the crowd, dissed the top fight on the card, a frustrating draw between Young Jack Davis and Angelo Brown. The publication wrote that the Brown-Davis scuffle “topped a good card at the downtown club. Except for the main bout, which was roundly booed by the crowd, the other decisions were favorably received.”

Louisiana Weekly, Oct. 3, 1936

The article then states that “[a]fter the fights the large crowd wended its way down to the night club dance held in the club’s spacious dance hall and given by the boxers and gym boys.” Such a multi-stage, multi-activity slate of entertainment was common for clubs like the San Jacinto, but this club, whose building covered a full city block, had everything under the same roof, amazingly.

The Jan. 16, 1932, issue of the Weekly reported on a similarly boisterous card of fights at around the same time. The paper was sure to relate the sentiments of the spectators in the San Jacinto arena:

“A card of exhibition bouts were well booed at the San Jacinto arena Sunday evening, when all but two were converted into petting parties, the fighters embracing and patting each other affectionately upon the cheeks. …

“If the card was saved the credit rightfully belongs to Young George Godfrey and Chester Jones, two guys who would run the chance of starving just to fight. …

“And, oh boy, what a performance they gave. They mixed it willingly all the way, slugging, boxing and furnishing delicious dessert for a sour meal. The crowd went wild when the hands of both were hoisted, giving them a well-earned draw.”

Or in July 1936, the San Jacinto Club was ground zero for the launch of an ambitious venture in regional pugilism — a training academy and amatuer boxing tournament led by a local promoter, Jackie Elverillo. Stated the Weekly:

“What might be considered the greatest accomplishment in the local sports world in many years by any individual is the progress of the amateur boxing game revived here some months ago by one well known young man who is a professional fighter by trade and answers to the name of Jackie Elverillo. Elverillo, with his battling grounds in the San Jacinto A.C., has done remarkably well with his 25 or 30 ambitious fight-craving young men whom he trains daily. Jackie has done so well that he has worked up an inter-city amateur boxing tournament with Houston, Texas to be staged here in New Orleans … If this affair proves a success it will be known as the Negro Southern AAU Boxing Tournament.

“As it is Elverillo’s desire to have the best amateurs available to represent this proud Creole City, he will stage a city-wide elimination tournament in the San Jacinto Club that will run three Sundays. …”

The club’s boxing activity also played a significant role in the summer of 1938, when the San Jacinto launched a massive expansion and improvement campaign after a down period of dwindling membership and sagging finances. Now at the club, according to the July 9, 1938, Louisiana Weekly, “many debts left by previous administrations have been taken care of and the club is on an upward trend. …

“A huge drive is on now to swell its membership and among other improvements, the famous San Jacinto Arena, which saw the making of many top-notch fighters, has been enlarged to seat 2000 people. Paul Gray, fight manager, is the general manager of the arena and gymnasium, and A. Graber is [the] boxing instructor. Regular weekly boxing shows will be conducted.”

Testifying to the complete social and cultural experience the San Jacinto (as well as other social aid and benevolent organizations in the city) offered its members and the community at large, the newspaper added that the facility also “houses a reading room and has a large auditorium where dances are held, many big orchestras of the country having appeared there. It also has large reception parlors.”

Undated ad, 1922

But coming back to the subject of this blog — Black baseball history, of course — here’s an overview of the hardball program offered now and again by the San Jacinto Club. While America’s pastime wasn’t nearly as big as boxing at the club, and while there’s much less record of the San Jacintos’ baseball exploits, there are some accounts of their games.

In September 1916, for example, the San Jacinto’s baseball aggregation worked its way into the pages of the Chicago Defender, which reported the club’s five-inning, 4-3 win (rain shortened it) over the Lion Baseball Club, which the paper called “a fast and clever game that was marked by sensational fielding. …

“The largest crowd of the season turned out to see the two teams play at the Fair Ground’s Jockey Club. The feature of the game was Woods’ stealing home with the winning run. The San Jacinto Club has won 25 and lost 5 games this season.”

Although it was a rare occurrence, the club’s hardball team popped up in the city’s daily newspapers, such as in June 1921, when the New Orleans Item ran a brief about the San Jacintos’ 10-8 loss to the Crescent Stars at Crescent Park. “One of the biggest crowds of the season witnessed the game,” the Item reported. 

Then, in June 1922, a newspaper ad trumpeted an upcoming doubleheader at Bissant’s Park; Corpus Christi squared off against the home San Jacinto Club in the first scrum, with the Bissant Giants to play the winner in the nightcap. (I’m not sure if the park and team with the Bissant moniker is related to the great Bissant family, a prominent Black family in New Orleans that featured several outstanding, accomplished athletes, most notably John Bissant, who starred in multiple high school sports — most prominently baseball, football and track — before shining at local colleges. John’s athletic career culminated with stints with the Birmingham Black Barons and the Chicago American Giants in the 1930’s and ’40s.)

The 1930 season seems to have been a busy one for the San Jacinto men. In April of that year, the squad clobbered the St. Raymond Giants church team, 21-7. I’m going to quote the news brief in the Louisiana Weekly about the game, and just as a matter of probable obviousness, one of the names in the article is a coincidence. The paper stated:

“Led on by Cy Young [not that Cy Young, of course], who cracked out three thriples [sic] and a single in four trips to the plate, the San Jacinto Club nine walloped the Saint Raymond Giants by a record 21-7 score, last Sunday. Bob Mannee poled out a homer fro [sic] the New Orleans team, while Godo smashed one for the Saints.”

A month later, the San Jacintos made the short road trip to LaPlace, La. (maybe maybe 30 miles to the west of New Orleans), where they schooled the hometown White Sox, 9-3. Per the Weekly:

“‘Squatty’ Washington mastered LaPlace’s White Sox the second consecutive time, when he took ’em over 9-3 Sunday afternoon.

“The little right-hander pitched for the San Jacintos and was helped by two round trip smacks by a player whom the arthur [sic] of the article dishonored by merely giving his nick name [sic], ‘Bow Row.’ The player plays second base and poled out his second homer with the bases drunk. The writer likewise omitted the player that swatted a four-bagger for LaPlace, simply calling him ‘Spucks.’”

That jargon and slang and use of nicknames is one of the things I love about sports journalism in the early-to-mid-20th century, especially in the African-American press. It just brought a colorful, familiar feel to the prose and commentary.

Chicago Defender, Sept. 16, 1916

When the San Jacinto Club didn’t appear to have an active baseball team itself, it was still playing a key role in the New Orleans Black hardball scene, as was the case in April 1938. While the ’38 season was getting off the ground, one of the city’s baseball kingpins, “Creole” Pete Robertson, called together other New Orleans baseball leaders to a meeting at the San Jacinto Club “for the purpose of organizing a state baseball league,” according to the April 2 issue of the Weekly.

Robertson, stated the newspaper, was “recently appointed director of the South Central Zone of the US Amateur and Semi-pro Baseball association.” I’m not sure completely what that is, and I’m not going to delve too deeply into that. But it does reflect Robertson’s influence in the city and Louisiana.

Several managers and executives of various squads descended upon the San Jacinto for the meeting, including representatives from the Reserve Mixtures, Hammond Red Sox and New Orleans Black Pelicans and the Crescent Stars of New Orleans.

Reported the April 9, 1938, Weekly:

“Various talks were made on the merits of the league in the state of Louisiana and those present expressed their willingness to take part. Mr. Robertson, acting as chairman, announced that the final meeting would be held … April 14. All teams desiring to enter the league must be present and have their entrance fee at the coming meeting.”

I haven’t been able to find out what exactly happened after that in terms of Robertson and the proposed state baseball league, largely because the various archives and libraries that have the Louisiana Weekly’s complete run on microfilm haven’t been open for months.

But you can see that the San Jacinto was a significant social and economic hub for Black New Orleans, especially in terms of athletic exploits. I’m sure that as I continue to explore the New Orleans Black baseball scene, more reports about the San Jacinto Club, its offerings and its athletic representatives will filter in. The organization was a small but important part of the complex, rich tapestry of African-Americans sports and life during segregation, and its full place in that tradition is still out there to be discovered.

**********

The exterior of the club, 1956. (Photo courtesy the Ralston Crawford Collection of Jazz Photography.)

APPENDIX

I just wanted to add a few things from the San Jacinto Club, namely stuff from its charter, by-laws and constitution, because they really, I feel, show what the organization stood for, and what social aid and pleasure clubs did for the Black population of New Orleans.

Possibly the biggest mission of the San Jacinto wasn’t athletic pursuits; it was providing financial help to its members and family, especially when a member was sick or passed away. It was sort of a private insurance cooperative in which much of the members’ dues and fees was used to aid members and families in distress — health care if they were ill, funeral expenses if a death had occurred. The club also offered a version of a pension system for older members.

This is the club By-Laws’ Article XI, titled “Relief Committee” (the language is verbatim):

… Each member of this committee must within (24) hours after being apprised of a member being sick in his district he shall notify the President of this committee who must bestow continual attention to the sick members as soon as he has been notified that a member is sick and confined to his room. He shall go immediately to the residence of said member or as soon thereafter as possible. He has the full power and the responsibility to draw on the Treasurer for the pension of a sick member, provided, said member furnish a doctors certificate from the physician in attendance which must specify that said member has been sick and confined to his room seven (7) days. Each member of this committee must visit each member at his charge at least twice a week. Each member of this committee must visit each member of his district as soon as he is called upon. In case of death of a member it will be the duty of said committee to proceed together and carry out the law relative thereto. Each member of this committee must exercise strict surveillance on each sick in his charge and see that the sick is confined to his bed or room [or] otherwise declare his pension null …

The exterior, 1920s. (Photo by Villard Paddio, courtesy of Hogan Jazz Archive.)

And this is Article XIII of the By-Laws, providing for after-death services (also verbatim):

“In case of death of a member the club will be notified by the family of the deceased and the club will show particular respect for him by having the flag at half mass [sic] and a tax of 25 cents will be imposed upon the members of the club and within the shortest time possible after the meeting of said collection remit to whomsoever has been designated by the deceased as his beneficiary. Should there be no designation the club will not recognize any claim with the exception, if said member does not belong to any other organization and same can be proven, the club will dispose of said collection for the burial of said member. As soon as the President shall receive notice of the death of a member he shall go to the family of the deceased and offer the service of the club.”

The other facet of the SJC’s purpose and function was the strict rules by which members were required to abide, ensuring that all members were refined, gentlemanly, upstanding citizens at a time when Black citizens of New Orleans were trying to earn equal standing in society. Club members felt that one way to achieve that equality was “proving” to whites that Clack residents were upstanding citizens who deserved respect.

Hence the strict club rules. Here’s Article XII of the SJC Constitution:

“Any member who will commit a dishonorable act and be proven guilty of same shall be expelled from the club and can never become a member of said club.”

Some of the more particular requirements included:

  • All members entering the club parlors must be wearing their coats and take off their hats;
  • Expectorating on club floors, i.e. hocking loogies, was banned;
  • “Members shall not sit themselves on the front porch without their coats on. Louid, vile and boisterous talking or sitting on the banisters is strictly prohibited. Members wishing to enter the club and not wearing a coat must enter by the gate”;
  • Members who weren’t competing in any game — I’m guessing cards, chess, etc. — couldn’t interfere in the game.
  • “Any member entering the club rooms intoxicated and making himself otherwise boisterous, fighting or destroying the property of the club shall be liable according to the offense to a fine of 50 cents to $2.50 or be expelled.”

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