Clemitine Hunter

The Autocrat Club of New Orleans






Story from the Louisiana Weekly New Orleans Newspaper..

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The Autocrat Social and Pleasure Club,

1725 St. Bernard Avenue, New Orleans La


By: Jan Clifford

Posted: Tuesday, October 7, 2008 11:13 am


African-American founding members of the Autocrat Club combined racial activism with cultural vigor to form a social and pleasure club that still thrives today.
The Autocrat Club at 1725 St. Bernard Ave. in New Orleans’ 7th Ward (once called “The Creole Section”) has operated continuously from September 14, 1914; and has published its newsletter, The Autocrat Voice, since 1934.
During its history, the club has not only provided a social haven for its members and guests; it has also been an important venue for jazz musicians, who played at the club’s many dances and balls at least as far back as the 1920s.
In “History of the Autocrat Club,” A.P. Tureaud wrote, “...keep moving orders of police and arrests and humiliation contributed largely to the establishment of chartered clubs in New Orleans.” A “keep moving” order was a police technique used to disallow groups of young men from congregating in public.
The order gave rise to a need for recreational facilities where young men could congregate in private —  and avoid police hassles. Many clubs were founded for this reason, according to Tureaud.
Under protection of a charter, clubs were established to provide a safe place for entertainment and fellowship. These were sometimes referred to as “poker clubs.”Autocrat Club members trace their organization’s history to a man named Simon Bellau, who became the owner of a charter for the Autocrat Club (source unknown) around 1909. Twelve men, including Arthur Boisdore, “got possession” of this charter and started a for-profit establishment. After a short while they disbanded and left the charter with Boisdore, who then kept an establishment at St. Philip Street and N. Claiborne Avenue.
“The activities of the police,” however, made the one-man operation unprofitable, and it closed. Current Autocrat Club members say that “activities of the police” meant harassment.
In 1914, Boisdore, Placide Suane, Lovis Smith, Gabe Pratts, Walter and Wallace Marine and Edward Labuzan sought another clubhouse in New Orleans after gathering during the summer at a place on lake pontchartrain called the Gold Rod Club. At a meeting in Baptiste Jourdain’s home, 10 men put up one  dollar each to rent two rooms on Onzaga Street for $7 a month.
The cornerstone of the current club building places its actual founding on Sept. 14, 1914. Records are sketchy about the move to a third location on Lapeyrouse Street, but indicate that “due to the refusal of the police department to stamp the charter,” that location had to be abandoned. The Autocrat Club then moved into the current St. Bernard location on Nov. 1, 1924.
The white, yellow and red brick building with its brace of 20 windows across the front is a familiar sight to anyone who travels St. Bernard Avenue today. A white marble plaque on the facade states that the building was erected on Aug. 31,1924, though the auditorium that flanks it was added later. That auditorium has become a landmark, serving as a hub for civic and political organizing. In the 1960s, civil rights leaders including A.P. Tureaud, Dutch Morial and Clarence Henry held meetings there.
Many musicians and 7th Ward residents claim that Autocrat Club members discriminated among African-Americans on the basis of skin color, alleging that one could be “no darker than a brown paper bag” for admission. Current members, however, deny that a culture of prejudice existed at the club.
According to spokesman Adelaide Roberts, there was no rule regarding skin color. In fact, Roberts said, “seven or eight of the founding members were jet black.”
The same members point out that the Autocrat could be booked for events by members and non-members. Admission to those events was at the discretion of the client, they say, suggesting that the Autocrat’s reputation may stem from the policies of one or more organizations that rented the hall over time.
As citizens gained enough financial security to care for themselves, social clubs became more prevalent than benevolent societies, which provided funds for funerals and medical assistance. Social clubs helped members establish connections and conferred status on the families of their leaders. Athletic competitions, soirees, dress balls and second-line parades enlivened their communities.
According to its constitution, the Autocrat Club exists to “promote social intercourse, harmony, enjoyment, refinement of manners, and the moral, mental and material welfare of its members.” The club even has a library with a large collection of African-American materials.
In addition to civic and social activities, the Autocrat Club continuously hosted professional jazz musicians who played for balls and dances. One such musician was the great trumpet player Hypolite Charles, whose Maple Leaf Band was named after composer Scott Joplin’s hit “Maple Leaf Rag.” Charles had a contract with the Autocrat Club during the 1920s.
Jobs paid $3.50 per night for each musician, and according to recorded interviews with band member Eddie Dawson, “the band made lots of money.” The band also played the New Orleans Country Club, San Jacinto Hall, and most of the Creole balls.
The Maple Leaf Band included Camilla Todd playing piano, with Sonny Henry on trombone, Emile Bigard on violin, Joe Welch on drums, Lorenzo Tio, Jr., on sax and clarinet, and Albert Glenny on bass. Eddie Dawson also played tenor banjo and bass. Prior to 1910, bass players commonly played with a bow. It was around that time when Dawson became the first musician noted for plucking the strings.
An equally respected band that played the Autocrat Club was led by cornetist Chris Kelly. In 1925 Kelly originated the “plunger” style of muting. He played mostly blues and drags, using a toilet plunger and a round mute. Later, as his style caught on, other musicians used glasses, derby hats, coconut shells, and toilet plungers instead of store-bought mutes.
Kelly’s band hardly ever read music, but had steady work at lawn parties, picnics, and halls such as the Economy, Perseverance and the Autocrat Club. Two of their feature numbers were “Careless Love” and “If You See Corrine Tell Her To Hurry Home” (later known as “Corrina Corrina”).
Chris Kelly’s Band was made up of Ike Robinson on trombone, Eddie “Face-O” Woods on drums, Emile Barnes on clarinet, Lawrence Marrero on banjo, and Eddie Marrero on bass. Some said that Kelly’s was the best playing of anyone’s, even compared with Louis Armstrong. According to Kelly’s bass player Eddie Marrero, the Autocrat Club was “classy.”
“Kid Avery” Howard, who played the Autocrat club in the 1950s, admired Kelly’s trumpet playing. Other musicians who performed at the Autocrat Club during its ninety-year existence include Frank Lewis, clarinet; “Wooden Joe” Nicholas, flute clarinet and piccolo; and George Fleming, trumpet. Fleming was known for “I Cover the Waterfront” and “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking.”
A 1979 newsletter announcing the Autocrat Club’s 1980 Carnival Ball with the theme “Jazz Roots” gives an idea of the breadth of talent that played here. The newsletter lists Louis Cottrell, Paul Barbarin, Sidney Desvignes and Lester Santiago among the “Autocrat Jazz” musicians. That same newsletter featured the Clyde “Golden Trumpet” Kerr Band that played in 1946. Kerr employed “Fats” Pichon, Robert Clark, Herbert Leary, Joe Robichaux, Oscar “Papa” Celestin, and Captain John Handy.
The club on St Bernard Avenue has echoed with the sounds of some of New Orleans’ most talented and enduring players. The building is one of several that fostered the development of jazz simply by hosting social events for their members - and calling on the best of the city’s plentiful musical talent to make their parties swing.◊






History of the Autocrat Club

The year was 1909, and for Colored men standing on a street corner in New Orleans this meant possible harassment from the police. These were the circumstances that brought twelve Colored men together to talk of an alternative to standing on these corners. They wanted a place to entertain themselves in peace.

Simon Belleu, a member of the group acquired a charter for a poker club, and this charter provided protection for him and his friends, where they could congregate and play poker or other games, safe from the harassment of the police. However, this group did not last very long. One gentlemen, Arthur Boisdore, from that group decided to continue that style of entertainment. He secured the charter from Simon Belleu to continue the club under the name, The Autocrat Club.

This first group of men operated on St. Phillip and Claiborne Streets. This Autocrat Club was a closed corporation, and the profits from their operations were divided between them. Their operation lasted a short time. Later, in the summer of 1914, another group of Colored men came together to recreate and play card games. Among this group were: Arthur Boisdore, Placide Suane, Louis Smith, Gabe Pratts, Walter and Wallace Marine and Edward Labuzan.

Arthur Boisdore served briefly as its first president, and Edward Labuzan followed during the first year. The members enjoyed each other's company so much that they began discussing plans for a permanent, safe haven, to entertain themselves without interferences from the police.

On September 14, 1914, the membership voted to operate under the charter of the Autocrat Club. Ten men put up one dollar each; they elected officers to run the club, and they rented a two room house on Onzaga Street for $7.00 per month from which to operate.

The Autocrat members realized a need to make the games profitable, so that they could provide the club with operating funds. During the next few months, the young Autocrat members were faced with discrimination from Whites who didn't want the club as neighbors. The club also had a location on Lapeyrouse Street, but due to the refusal of the police department to 'stamp' the charter, the location had to be abandoned.

The club then moved to a vacant house on St. Bernard Avenue near North Claiborne Avenue where the club began to take shape.

This present site of the Autocrat Club (1725 St. Bernard Avenue) was acquired on November 1, 1924. Membership grew quickly, making it necessary for the club to meet twice a month just to consider new members. Soon the members had to look at the club as a business.

The president appointed a committee to determine ways and means of maintaining its operation. A committee was formed to draft the new constitution and by-laws. The members adopted this new constitution and by laws and a new name, "The Autocrat Social & Pleasure Club." According to its constitution the club is to "promote social intercourse, harmony, enjoyment, refinement of manners, and the moral, mental and material welfare of its members." The membership worked to enhance its community through its cultural and intellectual enrichment of its membership.

During these formative years the club struggled to develop its own philosophy and ideology as a group. They established a library complete with a variety of intellectual reading materials, and a large collection of "Negro History" materials. They engaged in social and sporting activities, and a symphony orchestra for the benefit of its membership.

Their membership included a cross section of men from the metropolitan New Orleans area, from various occupations, and backgrounds. Membership was opened to those 18 years of age or over, earning a living and not having committed any offense, dishonorable to the character of a man.

The Autocrat Club has been a major sponsor of athletic competitions in the club and in outside leagues. These activities included: baseball, basketball, tennis, pool, and golf. In 1934, a newsletter, "The Autocrat Voice," was created to inform their membership of what their club and its membership were doing.

Subsequent additions to the property have made it a place of over 120 feet front and stands today as a monument to the effort of those pioneers who foresaw the need for such an institution.The Autocrat's auditorium has been more than a landmark in the seventh ward; it has served this community as a hub for civic and political issues, and civil rights meetings during the 1960s, as well as a site for social entertainment and cultural growth.

The first president of the Autocrat Club was Arthur Boisdore.

Other presidents have in turn been: E.J. Labuzan, Louis Joubert, Nelson Jean, Albert Lecesne, Peter Reine, Wallace J. Marine, in whose administration the first new structure was completed; A. M. Trudeau, who inaugurated a most vigorous club program for membership; A. P. Tureaud, who started the newsletter “The Autocrat Voice”; A. F. Laneuville, J. Edwin Wilkins, August H. Metoyer, Sr., Leo Gauthier, Thomas Sears, George J. McKenna, Jr., under whose administration the first major remodeling was done; Arthur Chapital, Jr., Irvin Fleming, Beverly Saulny, who started the last major remodeling; Gabriel Vicknair, Edward Jones, who finished the remodeling; Earl Cheri, Peter W. Clark, George Dugue', Jr., Louis Roussel, George Robertson, Frederick S. Dobard, and. the present president Carlos Fernandez.

On its rolls are many outstanding citizens in the trades, business, civic, political and professional life of the community and leaders in every walk of life.They are too numerous to mention by name.




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