Jazz Institute of Chicago

Bronzeville Conversation: Eddie Flagg, manager of the DuSable Hotel

Bronzeville Conversation:
Eddie Flagg, manager of the DuSable Hotel
by Charles Walton

The DuSable Hotel was an instrument in the expansion of Black Chicago and one part of the Bronzeville experience.

Eddie Flagg: I started as a bellboy in about 1935 in the Ritz Hotel (Oakwood and King Drive, then known as South Parkway). I made quite a name for myself as a bellboy "taking care" of the musicians. The Ritz was principally a theatrical hotel—the Grand Terrace was located in the same building and had the same owner, Ed Fox.

Until maybe 1935, it was named the Trenier Hotel. When I went to work there, the name was changed to the Ritz Hotel. I become manager in 1939.

I went to the DuSable in December 1941. Lovert Kelly [business agent for the Black Bartenders' Union] was instrumental in getting me the job. The hotel opened in November 1941 and was the nicest place around. Bill Johns was the manager. He was not too successful because I had all of the show people coming to the Ritz. As good as I was to them, they weren't about to leave.

When I was hired as manager, I lined up all the musicians and show people to come in with me, taking everybody out of the Ritz with the exception of Tiny Parham and some of the old timers who had been around there. They were so rooted in that place they didn't want to leave. All the other people like Basie, Andy Kirk and others came with me.

In 1942, we didn't have telephones in the hotel rooms. Canada Lee was one of our first guests and was very popular at that time. He lived on the fifth or sixth floor and received a lot of phone calls. Each time he had a call, an old intercom system rang in his room. Since we didn't have phones in the hall either, he had to get up and go downstairs to take his call.

One day he said he was moving because of the phone inconvenience, so immediately phones were installed in the rooms.

When I explained to the owners that I was going to get all the show people into the hotel, they took that with a tongue-in-cheek attitude. I guess they thought I was a young fellow and didn't have the power to bring all these people over to the DuSable from the Ritz, but I did it.

DuSable Hotel

Every band that came to town hit the Ritz. When they found out Eddie Flagg wasn't there anymore, they would say, "Where is Eddie Flagg?" "He's at the DuSable." So they all went over to the DuSable.

$412,000, at that time, was a lot of money. It was put into the hotel for remodeling. The owners figured it would take at least five to six years to get their money back, but they got it back in less than two years. The hotel didn't do anything but make money—we were filled up all of the time.

Then we hit upon an idea! We would put in a cocktail lounge and rent the lounge out, because we weren't lounge people.

The people who owned the hotel were not too happy about the idea of selling liquor. I didn't know anything about running a tavern. Charlie Cole was around at that time. Charlie Cole was, and still is, an enterprising fellow. He knew the tavern business. Ben Cohen, the owner, asked Charlie to run the lounge. He was a Blatz Beer salesman at that time. Cole got John Simmons and Harry Fields together, signed a lease, and they opened the DuSable Lounge. It became a very popular place.

Charlie and his bunch really put the lounge on the map. People thought of the DuSable Hotel and the DuSable Lounge as one, but I kept it as—East is East, and West is West. A lot of people came in downstairs to the lounge and didn't know anything about the hotel upstairs.

Younger people today don't understand why the hotel was so successful. It was because there were no other hotels around to go to, especially of that calibre. Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller or any of them who played the theaters and hotels downtown could not live downtown. It was just out of the question during those years. There was only one hotel and that was the DuSable.

The DuSable was loaded, never a dull day, and never an empty day. We were 100% rented. "We had all kinds of people in the hotel. The top people in the city were guests. I believe every Black visitor who ever came to visit in Chicago, during those years, had to come to the DuSable. They either visited or lived there at one time or another. All the people—the big boys, such as Congressman Mitchell, the first Black Congressman, lived there. Adam Clayton Powell, and his father Powell Sr., both stopped in.

The Ink Spots lived there. Bill Kenny met Margaret in the DuSable Hotel. He didn't marry her until a few years after then. Also, all the Sewell boys lived there.

Louis Armstrong has only stayed in three hotels in Chicago, you can believe this. Louis Armstrong stayed with me in the Ritz Hotel and the DuSable Hotel. After that, he moved downtown to the Morrison Hotel. Lucille calls me now when she comes through town.

From 1942–52, the DuSable, 99% of the guests, and me, were above reproach. The invasion of the addicts did not come until later in the '50s, when everything went wrong.

The bottom began to drop out of all Black hotels in 1953. The downtown hotels started taking "colored" guests. The area around the DuSable Hotel became known as "Dopeville." I lost a lot of guests. New buildings were being built, such as Lake Meadows.

This is around the time when we had to take in the prostitutes. Up to then, a prostitute could not live in my hotel or if she lived in the hotel, she could not bring her "tricks" in.

We had to take them in later because we had to sustain the hotel. It was illegal then, as it is now, to rent a room for an hour unless a person is a railroad man and he would come in only to sleep for an hour or two and then he leaves. We use to rent our rooms 3-4-5-6 times a day with the prostitutes and their "tricks" in them. This was a business we had to keep going and as long as they conducted themselves professionally; it was all right. I had gotten to the point where I said, "I must do this to sustain the hotel and to keep a job".

Walton: In 1955, Mr. Flagg became the manager of the Pershing Hotel at 6400 South Cottage Grove Avenue. The Pershing Hotel had been purchased by the DuSable Hotel owners and also became an instrument in racial integration. The DuSable Hotel was sold in 1955 and placed in a real estate trust by the new white owners.

Copyright ©2002 Jazz Institute of Chicago. All rights reserved.

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