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B is for Black-and-Tan (AtoZ Challenge – Roaring Twenties)


To our modern eye, the black-and-tan nightclub is a fine example of equality, a place in segregated America patronised by both black and white people.
This was a romantic idea also popular in the Twenties, but the reality was quite different. In truth, blacks and whites interacted in black-and-tans but only in a very controlled, socially stylised way.

It isn’t clear how the term black-and-tan came to be used, but there are at least two plausible origins. One refers to the British police who in Ireland helped the Irish police quelling the Irish Republican Army in 1920-21. These officers wore a distinctive uniform: khaki coat, black trousers, black cap. Irish gangsters in America, who controlled a large part of the bootleg liquor market during Prohibition, might have used this term to describe the clientele of these particular speakeasies.
Another explanation is that white Americans who came to the black neighbourhoods – where black-and-tan clubs were situated – seeking fun and jazz music and dance, liked to pretend to be part of that community while they were there and so, in a sense, they were neither black nor white.

"Duke Ellington's Washingtonians" in Kentuky Club, around 1925.
“Duke Ellington’s Washingtonians” in Kentuky Club, around 1925.

Although these clubs may seem to be progressive to us, interaction inside them was often extremely stylised. It was based more on romantic, often stereotyped, nearly always exoticised ideas of black life and feelings than on the true experience of it. It was more of a ritualistic, symbolic practice than real socialisation and mixing.
Modern white socialites and pleasure seekers loved them and considered them an expression of freedom. Black artists and customers were very wary of them because they felt white people were invading their space. Both black and white high society considered them disreputable places.

Some club would allow anyone to enter but then would stretch a rope across the dance floor so that white and black dancers wouldn’t mix. Many clubs would cater to a black clientele during the day and switched to a white clientele at night, though keeping black entertainment and staff.
Some of the larger clubs, like the famous Cotton Club, would cater to a white clientele and employ black entertainment and staff. While black patronage would not be barred, it would certainly be highly discouraged.
Still, in many clubs, a true interchange would occur, especially on an artistic level. Many white musicians came to the black section of towns to listen to black jazz and learn from black jazzmen.

Though black-and-tan didn’t really uphold any kind of true equality or connection across the colour line, they did take steps toward that direction.


Researching Greenwich Village History – Slamming and Black-and-Tan Saloons: Racial Intermingling and the Challenges of Color Lines
PBS – The Devil’s Music: 1920s Jazz

Cary D. Wintz, Paul Finkelman Encyclopedia of the Harlem Reneissance Vol. 1., Routledge, Abingdon, Oxford, 2012
William Howland Kenney Chicago Jazz: a cultural history 1904-1930., Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1994

ROARING TWENTIES AtoZ - Black-and-Tan - When we think to the 1920s black-and-tan speakeasies today, where races could mix with varying degrees of freedom, we think they were among the first of integretad public places. But was it truly so?


  • N J Magas
    Posted April 2, 2015 at 01:35

    Interesting, though I guess it’s not all that surprising, especially the behavior and social separation within the clubs themselves. I suppose it was an ‘edgy’ entertainment for whites of the day, and not really subversive in any meaningful way. Thanks for sharing!

    N J Magas, author

    • Post Author
      Posted April 2, 2015 at 05:50

      Well, I think that as so many things in the Twenties, there was a genuing drive to do new, wild things. There was a need for new ways of seeing and doing things, a new way of feeling and thinking. But they were bound to the past still, far more than they themselves thought.
      So, between the push to new horizons and the bonds to old ways, the Twenteis gave us a wild view of the future, but little actual changes, at least in terms of society.

      But there were indeed a few changes, if not as spectacular as people normally think, and above all, there was that ‘drive’ that really push things into gear. In that sense, more than on actual, lasting changing behaviour, the Twenties were a breaking point.

  • Mee Magnum
    Posted April 2, 2015 at 04:06

    Great article!! I love reading about that Era. Amazing how times have thankfully changed.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 2, 2015 at 05:51

      I love the Twenteis because they were a ‘vision’. In many respects, the Twenteis were a lot more modern that the decades that came after them. Sometimes I think the Twenteis were even too modern for the Twenties themselves! ;-)

  • Alex Hurst
    Posted April 2, 2015 at 09:23

    I think the Twenties were a fascinating time. As you’ve mentioned elsewhere, it was a “vision”, a vision before war and poverty made America nervous, to there was a certain boldness…. and even with these clubs, which didn’t do much for social inequality, at the very least -exposed- people to one another, which wasn’t the case in the 40s and 50s, especially.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 2, 2015 at 14:25

      I suppose black-and-tans continue to excist in the following decades, though I’m not as familiar with the 40s and 50s as I am with the 20s.

      And yes, I think even if these places didn’t really do a true difference at the time, they did open a path for the following generations. Jazz especially made a big difference, in my opinion, because on the ground of jazz, there really was a willingness to meet and learn from each other. It was during the Twenties that the first integrated bands started to operate.

  • Tasha
    Posted April 2, 2015 at 08:58

    I had never heard of these clubs, once again showing my ignorance. From your description it seems like these clubs were another exploitation technique on the part of the whites, drawn up as a romantic equality. At least it was a step in the right direction.
    Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 2, 2015 at 14:19

      Mhm… I’m not sure the clubs themselves were an exploitation. For the best part of the Twenties, many black-and-tans (at least in Chicago, the city I’m studying) were owned by African Americans and some were very popular. They provided jobs for the community and an influx of money.
      As for the practice of slumming… well, that was a remnant of colonialism, no doubt.

  • Quanie Miller
    Posted April 2, 2015 at 13:57

    Interesting topic! I love your theme and I’m looking forward to learning more:)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 2, 2015 at 14:26

      Hi Quanie and thanks for stopping by :-)
      I’m happy you’re enjoying the topic. I’ve come to love the Twenties myself, it was such an exciting time.

  • Megan Morgan
    Posted April 2, 2015 at 14:01

    This is so interesting, I didn’t know about this. I’ve always heard of ‘black and tan’ as the beer, I didn’t realize it had so many other uses. I love learning about history like this–great article!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 2, 2015 at 14:28

      The black-and-tan is one fo my favourite topic of the Twenties. My story is mostlry set inside a black-and-tan speakeasy. I spent a lot of time reserching it and trying to figure out how it would be.

  • Denise D Hammond
    Posted April 2, 2015 at 15:22

    Interesting topic. Stopping from A to Z. I look forward to future posts.

  • Mel
    Posted April 2, 2015 at 16:31

    Am a huge jazz fan. But only realising how this music genre has pretty seedy roots heh. Do read But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer to really get into the lives of Duke Ellington and such!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 2, 2015 at 20:39

      I think I know about jazz far less than I would like. It’s a very peculiar kind of music, but I do like it too, though I prefer smooth jazz (I know, it isn’t the same thing).
      I hand’t read Ellington’s biography yet, though I read a few others.

  • Sharon Arthur Moore
    Posted April 2, 2015 at 18:34

    Sarah, I do indeed think I am a reader for your stories. When can I get them? I will be popping in to check here regularly, but I may not always comment. I wonder if you had considered the 20s as a past life. It is one of mine.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 2, 2015 at 20:41

      A past life in the Twenties? Hey, that might be ;-)

      At the moment, I’m shopping the first novel of the trilogy around. I’m trying the trad route, you know. But you can read a few excerpts thoughout the blog. They are under the category 8 Sentence Sunday on Dieselpunks.

      I do hope to see you around.

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 2, 2015 at 19:45

    Huh. Not okay by modern sentiments, but progressive at the time. That is always an interesting line to walk in historical fiction… :)

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    Multicolored Diary – Epics from A to Z
    MopDog – 26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary

    • Post Author
      Posted April 2, 2015 at 20:45

      Exploring the everyday life of people who lived before us teaches us so much about our life today. I think this is the meaning of history and of stories :-)

  • Sue Archer
    Posted April 3, 2015 at 00:59

    I hadn’t heard of the term “black-and-tan” and now I really intrigued about how that came about – thanks for the possible explanations! What a strange environment it must have been in those clubs. This made me think of Downton Abbey and their brief foray into inter-racial relationships. I wonder if there were any common experiences on both sides of the Atlantic during those times.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 3, 2015 at 05:46

      I’ve never watched Downton Abbey, but I know there was a thread about interracial relationship.
      It’d be nice to see how it was differently hadled. As I learned researching my novel, ‘race’ as it is understood in America is widely different from how it is understood in Europe. Well, at least continental Europe ;-)

      There are quite a few terms from the Twenties which origine isn’t clear. Stay tuned ;-)

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 3, 2015 at 01:49

    It’s hard to imagine the kind of institutionalised racism which was often just matter-of-factly accepted not all that long ago. My junior high and first high school were about 50% African-American, so the mixing of the races is something I’ve grown up taking for granted.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 3, 2015 at 05:49

      Here in Italy it’s something that is just happening now. Not only a mix of races, but cultures too… which, if you ask me, it’s even trickier.

  • Lanise Brown
    Posted April 3, 2015 at 05:04

    I knew about these clubs but didn’t know they were called Black-and-Tans. It’s sad there has been segregation and racism at any time. At least we have come quite a way in progress. Another interesting post, Sarah. Thanks for sharing. :)

  • Post Author
    Posted April 3, 2015 at 05:49

    And thanks for stopping by :-)

  • Mars
    Posted April 3, 2015 at 15:38

    I hadn’t heard of the term before although was vaguely aware of the clubs, interesting insights!

    Mars xx
    Curling Stones for Lego People

    • Post Author
      Posted April 3, 2015 at 16:56

      I think black-and-tan speakeasy were some of the more interesting places during Prohibition :-)

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