Barney Josephson, who in 1938 founded New York’s first integrated nightclub, the Cafe Society, in the basement of 2 Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, died at 88 on this date in 1988. Formerly a shoe salesman, Josephson said that he “wanted a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front.” Moreover, “I would not have any black waiters. Why?… Given the history of slavery, I felt it was wrong to put black Americans in what would appear to be a servile situation.” Josephson also founded an uptown version of the Cafe Society, but when his brother Leon (who had lent him $6,000 to start the Cafe Society) was held in contempt of Congress in the late 1940s for refusing to testify before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, Josephson’s clubs were blacklisted and he was forced to close them. (He would return to open The Cookery in 1962.) Among the performers Josephson “discovered” (greatly aided by John Hammond) were Billie Holiday, who sang in Cafe Society’s opening show (emceed by Jack Gilford) in 1938, Lena Horne, Zero Mostel, Sarah Vaughan (pictured at right), Josh White, Teddy Wilson, Alberta Hunter, and Big Joe Turner. The Cafe’s walls were covered with murals by Village artists such as William Gropper and Ad Reinhardt. To see a brief video about Cafe Society, look below.
”One thing that bugged me about the Cotton Club was that blacks were limited to the back one-third of the club, behind columns and partitions. It infuriated me that even in their own ghetto they had to take this.” —Barney Josephson