The Troy Street Observer

May 6, 1948: The Abrupt End of the Zanzibar Club

It was curtains for the Zanzibar Club after only three weeks in business on May 6, 1948.

There was a big crowd for the splashy April 16 opening of the Zanzibar Club, at 254 Huntington Ave, across the street from Symphony Hall. For whatever reasons, clubs didn’t make it at this location and the names changed regularly. With the Zanzibar, though, we have a pretty good idea why it failed after three weeks.

Photo of Coleman Hawkins
Coleman Hawkins didn’t know he was playing the Zanzibar’s last stand

The first floor housed the Show Boat, so named when it opened during the revival of the Jerome Kern musical. The Zanzibar was upstairs, in what had been the Arcadia Ballroom.

Zanzibar planned a name-band policy, and they booked Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy for opening week, along with singer Leslie Scott, not long off Louis Armstrong’s big band. Sherman Freeman’s Boston group would provide relief. Everything copasetic? Everybody involved with the club thought so.

Others, including perhaps the Cotton Blossom types downstairs, didn’t think so. The story of how it played out was covered in the Boston Chronicle, the weekly newspaper serving the African-American community, and ignored by the daily papers. “Peeves Fail to Close Nite Club,” reported the Chronicle on April 24.

The Zanzibar was the first business located in the Symphony entertainment district to be owned and operated by blacks, and that scared some of the area’s whites witless.  “This was the first time that a place of business had opened in the Back Bay with such a large Negro patronage.” said the Chronicle. “A move was started at once to create an unwritten Jim Crow law against the use of the club for Negroes.” Club management was pressured by unnamed neighboring businesses to admit fewer blacks. They refused, telling the Chronicle that “under no condition would the club close its doors, but would continue to welcome all patrons who wished to enter.” After a week, they did change club’s name to the Zircon, but it isn’t clear why. Perhaps the neighbors thought a club named after a mineral would not attract those dreaded Negroes, while one named after an island off the coast of Africa would.

Zircon opened with Coleman Hawkins on the bandstand on April 23. “We Are Open And Will Stay Open!” said their advertisement. On May 1, they were still open and advertising, but by the next weekend, the club was shuttered. It was just gone, without a trace, not even a mention in the Chronicle.

We’ll never know just what happened to the Zanzibar, but my guess is, since the club’s managers wouldn’t bend, the anti-club faction leaned on the landlord to shut the place down.

That’s what it was like when people got frightened in 1948.

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