“It was a toilet, plush-lined.” Lena Horne and Harlem’s Cotton Club.

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On Popcast: What does it mean to “act like a Negro?” Lena Horne speaks about being a black performer in the early 20th century.

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When Lena Horne first hit the stage, it was in the middle of the “Harlem Rennaisance” of the 1920 and 1930s. Langston Hughes wrote of this time:

It was the period when the Negro was in vogue…White people began to come to Harlem in droves. For several years they packed the expensive Cotton Club on Lenox Avenue. But I was never there, because the Cotton Club was a Jim Crow club for gangsters and monied whites. They were not cordial to Negro patronage, unless you were a celebrity like Bojangles. So Harlem Negroes did not like the Cotton Club and never appreciated its Jim Crow policy in the very heart of their dark community. Nor did ordinary Negroes like the growing influx of whites toward Harlem after sundown, flooding the little cabarets and bars where formerly only colored people laughed and sang, and where now the strangers were given the best ringside tables to sit and stare at the Negro customers–like amusing animals in a zoo.

—From The Big Sea by Langston Hughes (New York: Hill and Wang, 1940)

At the Cotton Club, Harlem’s premier nightclub of the 1920s and 30s, 16-year-old Lena Horne performed as a chorus girl alongside legends like Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington. The only catch? The audience was whites-only.

In Popcast, hear Horne talk with mixed emotions about her time at the Cotton Club with clips from a 1966 recording from the Pacifica Radio Archives. Produced by Emma Hammond.