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If economy recovers, Sunset may too

Last week we wrapped up Black History Month with the story of the Sunset, the lounge in northwest West Palm Beach that, in the 1940s and 1950s, drew top bands and hundreds of patrons, both black and white.

Count Basie and his orchestra perform at the Sunset Club in an undated photo. The club drew top bands and hundreds of patrons in the 1940s and 1950s. But in 1978, owners Dennis and Thelma Starks turned the cavernous second floor into apartments and rented out the first floor to a social fraternity.The downstairs lounge continued to draw the likes of James Brown and Ike and Tina Turner and eventually went disco. It still operates as a bar. New owner Vera Kaminester, who bought the property in 2006 for $446,622, says she’s waiting for the city to move on plans for a jazz district and the economy to recover before putting a million dollars into renovations to restore the Sunset to its former, hot and bopping glory. (Photo courtesy of Thelma Starks)

Integration killed the Sunset. Once performers could play where they wanted, and people could watch where they wanted, the club’s fame dwindled.

In 1978, owners Dennis and Thelma Starks turned the cavernous second floor into apartments. Dennis retired and rented out the first floor to a social fraternity.

The downstairs lounge continued to draw the likes of James Brown and Ike and Tina Turner and eventually went disco. It still operates as a bar.

As decades passed, the neighborhood deteriorated.

Dennis Starks died in 1987; “his grave is worn out from him turning over,” Starks said in 2006.

The 75-plus-year-old lime-green and fuchsia building stands like a dinosaur a few blocks northwest of the Palm Beach County Courthouse.

In 2003, consultants for the city suggested creating a jazz district, with the Sunset as its keystone.

Three years later, the city included the idea in a planned $16.2 million renovation of the neighborhood.

There’s not been much movement since then, but the city says it’s now trying to gear up.

In 2006, records show, investors Vera and Joel Kaminester bought the property for $446,622. They said they expected to spend about $1 million to buy and restore the Sunset.

Vera Kaminester now says she’s waiting for the city to move and the economy to recover.

Thelma Starks, who spent most of her life working with the American Red Cross, died Aug. 24, 2008, at 91.

In February 2006 Thelma Starks recalled the club she and husband Dennis ran in its heyday. Click the image below to listen to her recollections and see historic photos:

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Posted in Black Palm Beach Blog and Eliot Kleinberg March 5, 2009 at 10:14 am.


Big Names Drew Impressive Crowds

In honor of Black History Month, we’re revisiting local people or places that have made historical contributions.

The Sunset, built in 1925 at Eighth and Henrietta streets in West Palm Beach, drew the greatest of the musical greats — Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles.

It also drew as many as 1,000 people a night, both black and white.

On Saturdays, neon lights atop the two-story, 14,000-square-foot building shone in the crisp air of a South Florida winter’s night.

On the street, men in tuxedos and women in shining white full-length gowns stepped from idling black limousines.

They mingled with day workers who’d walked from home or parked late-model sedans blocks away.
Many of the maids and chauffeurs who worked in Palm Beach would come. At times, they’d mention to their employers that some big performer was playing on the mainland, and the limos would soon be crossing the bridge.

The Sunset’s second-floor auditorium possibly was the largest dance hall of any black club in Florida.
Huge flowers, rising almost to the balcony, adorned tables. Other tables lined the balcony and looked down onto the dance floor.

“They filled the place. It was elbow to elbow,” Thelma Starks, then 89, said in 2006. Her husband, Dennis Starks, owned the place in its heyday.

Patrons dressed appropriately. Decent clothes for downstairs, a jacket for upstairs. Swearing was not tolerated.

White or black, rich or otherwise, if someone acted up, Starks refunded his money and said he was welcome when he was worthy.

Next week: Times change
The main dance floor at The Sunset was often elbow-to-elbow as up to 1,000 people, both white and black, came to the club where musical greats like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles played. Patrons needed to be dressed well and be on their best behavior to be welcome at the West Palm Beach club. Swearing or other bad conduct would bring a refund and an ejection from Dennis Starks, who owned The Sunset during its heyday. (Photo courtesy of Thelma Starks)

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Posted in Black Palm Beach Blog and Eliot Kleinberg February 26, 2009 at 10:17 am.


Cracker Johnson: King Of Black W. Palm

In honor of Black History Month, we’ll revisit three people or places who’ve made historical contributions. From a Feb. 11, 2004, column:

Cracker Johnson was the king of black West Palm Beach.

James J. Johnson, born in 1876 or 1877, was a son of a mixed marriage. He earned his nickname because he could pass as white. He came to West Palm Beach in 1900 and started spending money.

He bought a building on Banyan Street — a rooming house upstairs, pool tables downstairs.

Climbing onto the real estate boom, he built the Dixie Theater on Rosemary Street, along with homes and rental operations, and bought more property statewide.

He opened the “Florida Bar” and a club for “colored gentlemen.”

Many who couldn’t borrow from white-owned banks borrowed from him.

He made pals with white business leaders and lawmen, at the same time reportedly smuggling liquor during Prohibition and running the bolita numbers game.

Johnson, who couldn’t read or write except to sign his name, reportedly raked in up to $10,000 a week by the 1940s.

Local newspapers mostly ignored blacks unless they were arrested or murdered, and so it was with Cracker.
On July 2, 1946, he saw a friend being attacked behind his bar. He rushed to help and was mortally wounded in a gunfight. One of the attackers, who were brothers, was killed; the other was later captured. The death prompted a brief news story.

Cracker Johnson’s funeral was standing-room-only. Hundreds of people, both black and white, came to bury a king.

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Posted in Black Palm Beach Blog and Eliot Kleinberg February 12, 2009 at 10:18 am.

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Cemetery Integrated 40 Years Ago

Readers: At times, we stray from the Q&A format to mark an anniversary. This one comes, appropriately, during Black History Month. Forty years ago, on Feb. 7, 1966, the city of West Palm Beach voted to integrate Woodlawn Cemetery. Behind the push: William M. Holland, the same man who had forced Palm Beach County Schools to integrate.
When the city had taken ownership of the graveyard in 1916, a provision restricted use to whites. The commission voted in 1962 to uphold the language. In January 1966, four blacks deposited $625 for five plots. They included Holland and Louise Buie of the local chapter of the NAACP.
At the February 1966 meeting, City Attorney John H. Evans told the commission the provision would be struck down in court. The vote was 4-1 in favor of integrating the cemetery. Commissioner David H. Brady voted no. According to the minutes, Brady said he sympathized with Holland, but “when the city had sold contracts and deeds to people who might object to this change, he could not consciously go against something that the city had done in good faith.”
Minnie Gass, one of the four blacks who had put down deposits on plots, thanked the commission, saying, “I merely wanted a decent place to be buried.” Gass would never use the plot; she later moved to the Detroit area, where she died in 1987, according to her son Ulyd. He said the plot remains empty. Holland died in 2002, Buie in 2003. City Attorney Evans died in 1988. Brady, who would serve as mayor in 1968 and 1969, still lives in the area. Now 82, he said in a December interview that he has four plots in the cemetery for his own family.

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Posted in Black Palm Beach Blog and Eliot Kleinberg February 8, 2006 at 10:53 am.

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Stebbins Led Fight For Black Teachers

To mark Black History Month, our February columns will profile local black personalities who’ve made historical contributions in Palm Beach County.

Charles Stebbins Jr. was the Rosa Parks of Palm Beach County’s black teachers. He never benefited from the battle for which he agreed to be the poster boy; the day it ended in victory, he was waiting tables in New York.
But a federal judge’s decision that the county’s black teachers must be paid the same as whites set a stunning precedent in 1941. And it was a step toward the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that outlawed school segregation.

White teachers with five years of experience had received a $25 raise in 1941 to $140 a month – about $1,400 a month in 1990s dollars. Furious black counterparts, who got no raise, founded the Palm Beach County Teachers Association, and about 85 percent of the county’s 115 black teachers joined.

The next step was a federal lawsuit. The group needed a name to put atop it. One person stepped forward: veteran educator Charles H. Stebbins Jr.

The Arcadia native taught social studies at West Palm Beach’s black Industrial High School until he was terminated. A school board official offered him $500 and his job back if he’d drop the case. He declined. He was then blackballed throughout the state as a troublemaker. Also, the black union reneged on a promise to pay him a year’s salary if he was fired.

Stebbins moved to New York, then served in the Navy, where he filed two discrimination suits. He worked 32 years for the Federal Home Loan Bank Board in Washington, where he sued again. The suits, for promotions, failed. His fights eventually opened doors for black people behind him. He never returned to education, and died in 1991.

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Posted in Black Palm Beach Blog and Eliot Kleinberg February 25, 2004 at 2:55 pm.

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