The Royal Esquire Club is a private African American men's club in Seattle. It was founded in 1947 by five young men since there was no welcoming venue in the city where black men could socialize. Rooms were available for civic and social clubs to meet. The Fir State Golf Club and the LaClique Club were two groups that met there on a regular basis. During the civil rights era, some leaders in the movement could be seen there plotting strategies. There were fish fries, chitlin struts, and Creole gumbo fundraising dinners. Over some 60 years the club has sought ways to contribute positively to the community in a collegial environment. Today the Royal Esquire Club is located at 5016 Rainier Avenue S in Columbia City.
The founders were Doyle Barner, Frederick Bowmar, William Childress, Freddie Ray, and Joe West. In 1948 they held their first general assembly and elected officers: Leonard DuPree, president; Herb Jackson, secretary; Doyle Barner, vice-president; Troy Bowles, secretary; and Philip Burton (1915-1995). The initial by-laws were drafted by John Prim (1898-1961), a prominent attorney, who in 1954 became the first African American judge in Seattle. He submitted them to the Secretary of State and the club was charted by the State of Washington on April 5, 1948.
In its more than 60 years of existence, the club has moved three times. According to Lincoln Grazette (b. 1926), its oldest member and the first black corrections officer in the state, it started out in a building at 4th Avenue and Yesler Way. One of its members, Frederick Bowmar, had a bail bond office in the building. Later on the club moved to 12th Avenue and Jackson Street, and finally to a house that they purchased at 1254 S Washington Street in 1952. For 33 years members and friends gathered at this two-story frame building to attend dinners, dances, and parties and to sip cocktails and smoke in a congenial, relaxed, and happy atmosphere. Members had their own keys and had the privilege of bringing guests.
There were annual black and white balls where the men dressed in tuxes and tails and the women wore formal gowns. They were held in large hotels downtown and in the Trianon Ballroom. These balls continued, although sporadically, in later years.
Consistent with the club's goal of contributing to the community, other groups and organizations were recipients of its help. The men served as waiters for the Mary Mahoney Nurses Club and for the Rhinestone Club fund raising lunches. Shirley Gilford, a member of the nurses’ club, remembers how professional they were as they served the tables in their crisp white jackets. These meals were served at Mt. Zion Baptist Church and at the East Cherry YWCA.
In May 1964 the club hosted a buffet dinner for more than 50 women in honor of club mothers in the seven women’s clubs: Rhinestones, Stella Puella, Qualilmates, Just a Mere, La Femmes Charmonte, Mary Mahoney Nurses, and Vogue clubs.
A Trip to Olympia
In its beginning, The Royal Esquire Club had no liquor license even though numerous attempts were made to obtain one. The members knew for a certainty that the refusal was due to racism. For more than 10 years, liquor was procured and brought in through the back door. Selling drinks was the best way they could raise money. There were police raids and some members were put in jail.
Then one day (in the early 1960s), the club decided that the only way to get the attention of Olympia was to go there and demonstrate. After a big breakfast, a caravan of members drove to Olympia and demonstrated on the steps of the capitol asking for a meeting with the governor. Governor Albert Rosellini (b. 1910) contacted the head of the Liquor Control Board, who came immediately from Centralia. He and the officers of the club sat down to a lunch at his expense and talked over the situation. Upon returning to Seattle they found liquor license applications on their door and posted around the neighborhood. Shortly thereafter a class H liquor license was granted.
Later Years in Rainier Valley
In 1985 the Seattle School District bought all of the property between Yesler and Washington and 12th and 14th avenues in order to build a new Bailey Gatzert Elementary School. The Royal Esquire Club was located right in the middle of the property and its sale to the School District made it necessary to look around for a new home. The club was purchased for $165,000 and the transaction closed on August 30, 1985.
Shortly thereafter the Royal Esquires bought a pool/bingo hall at 5016 Rainier Avenue S in Columbia City for about $140,000. The building, in addition to being in very poor condition housed pigeon nests and rats. A major clean-up and remodeling was done to the building, which occupies one half of the block. The exterior was painted beige and maroon, to the consternation of the Columbia City’s Landmarks Board.
The interior of the windowless building is dim and as one member has said “you don’t come here to read a newspaper” (Eskenazi). Shades of wine, mauve and orange dominate the color scheme. There are four major rooms with the largest having a dance floor and a seating capacity of 130. It is here where dancers and partiers enjoy First Fridays, the biggest event of the month. With booths, TV screens, juke box, pool table, and bar, the Maple Room hosts Happy Hours. Available for rental is the Royal Room where weddings, meetings, and receptions are held. Fred’s Lounge is named in honor of a deceased member, Fred Jeffries, and is the place to relax in soft overstuffed chairs and sofa. A large poster of Eddie Cotton, deceased member and light heavy-weight boxer, covers one wall of the room.
Catering is offered for lunch and dinner with such items on the menu as catfish, chicken, peach cobbler, and sweet potato pie.
Membership Over Time
Through the years, club membership was a mixture of professional and working class men. There have been judges, lawyers, physicians, school principals, longshoremen, businessmen, and Boeing workers and mechanics getting together in a place where they could be among friends. There are two kinds of memberships, regular and associate. For regular membership there is a 90-day probationary period during which the applicant has a number of duties including two to three volunteer hours a week; door security staffing; and participating in scheduled club cleanup work sessions. The dress code at the club for members and guests calls for casual evening wear, no T shirts, sagging pants, do rags, jogging attire, tennis shoes, soiled clothes, or work clothes.
When the club was chartered in 1948 there were 27 members. Ten years ago the regular membership totaled 134. Today (2010) there are some 60 members and more than 4,000 associate members reflecting a 50 percent drop in regular membership due to age and the failure to attract younger members.
In 1992 a woman’s auxiliary was formed made up mostly of members’ wives, widows, and companions. In the few years they were organized, they provided financial support to the Medina Children Service and Teenage Pregnancy Program through fundraisers.
Honorary club member, retired Judge Charles V. Johnson, commented 10 years ago:
“I wouldn’t expect the generation after my generation to do the same things we did. Social opportunities for them are all over the place. Seattle changed. The city opened up. Jobs opened up. And a few of the white social clubs opened up to blacks. The young generation can congregate in places where we didn’t feel welcome but they do” (Eskenazi).
A Community Resource
The 501(C)(7) club has sponsored benefits to raise money for strife-torn Somalia. Through the years it has offered scholarships to high school students. The club was offering $15,000 a year to more than 10 high school students but because of the economic downturn only one was awarded (to a senior at Garfield High School) in 2010. One of its scholarships was named for Woody Woodhouse (1937-1998) a local jazz drummer and singer. The club is the original sponsor of the baseball league that grew into a youth athletics organization in the Central Area.
The Royal Esquires have opened their doors to worthwhile community events. For example in 1994 the Black Dollar Days Task Force used the main room of the Club for a session on computer technology. Mayor Norm Rice spoke at the clubhouse in 1992 to promote an economic renaissance for small firms, and Governor Mike Lowry was the keynote speaker at an event there for the African American Business Owners in 1995.
On November 4, 2008, the Club opened its doors to the public and it was filled with enthusiastic people watching the returns on election night when Barack Obama was announced the winner and the new president.
A Vision for the Future
Despite the drop in membership and the economic downturn, President Marvin Vanderhost is optimistic. He has visions of an increased membership through recruitment of current members’ younger relatives and their friends. He even envisions knocking out some walls for windows to let in more light, changing the color scheme of the interior and installing wi/fi throughout the building.
The future of this historic African American private club lies in the hands of the board of directors and the administrative officers. Members to come should enjoy the rich heritage of the club’s past and the fruits of long lasting friendships on which it was based.