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.
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