by Richard G. Carter
“Love laughs at a king, kings don’t mean a thing, on the street of dreams…” –Victor Young and Sam Lewis
On a recent night at the corner of 125th St. and Lenox Ave. in Upper Manhattan — as I took-in the sights and sounds of the center of the universe for Black people in America — a funny thing happened. I found myself looking back in time, thinking of Walnut St. where I grew up.
There I was, in the heart of Harlem, sidewalks dripping people, streets choked with cars and taxis and buses, the Apollo Theater marquee lit-up and the “A” train beckoning. Yet, my mind’s eye saw Walnut Street in Milwaukee. And what a vision it was.
Granted, Walnut in my hometown never quite approached 125th in Harlem, but Walnut was Black Milwaukee. It was our street of dreams. It was the set. It was the scene. It was our Harlem. And I remember it like it was yesterday. Good memories have a way of sticking together like the pages in a book, which is why I remember Walnut Street from the late 1940s to the early ‘60s. Me and my running buddies called a short, four-block stretch — from N. 6th to N. 10th Sts. — “the set” and “the scene.” Old-timers gave it a “mayor” and called it “Bronzeville.”
No, this wasn’t New York’s 125th St., or Fifth Ave., or 42nd St., or Times Square, but it was really something — day or not. Especially at night. And it was all ours.
Upbeat Walnut Street, a half-block from my childhood home, started near the southwest corner of 6th with Deacon Jones’ Chicken Shack, whose name even now makes my mouth water. People came from all over town — white folks, too — to get their lips around that succulent, tender stuff.
Moving on toward 7th, there was Larry’s Frozen Custard, home of the Orange Blossom, an out-of-this-world ice cream concoction. Although offering many eating delights, Larry’s mainly served as a place where teenagers and young adults listened to rhythm and blues on the jukebox and sought nonbinding, close relationships. And as someone observed, a boy would have to be a monk to strike out.
For us, the sidewalk outside Larry’s was perhaps the spot to hang out on the set. Just about anybody was liable to show up. For example, I recall the night the great “Brown Bomber” himself, Joe Louis, was explaining how he’d demolished all those clowns in the ring. And the time a youthful Chess Records vocal group called the Five Notes sang a cappella for hours and you swore you were hearing the storied Moonglows.
Back in those days, most taverns, or “joints” on and around Walnut sponsored softball teams in Sunday morning leagues, which was something of a miracle in itself because Saturday nights on the scene were fast and furious. Of course, this meant each joint was the setting of some serious post-game partying.
One of the set’s landmark joints was the 700 Tap, at 7th and Walnut. The 700 meant different things to different people, married and single. But for those who thrived on booze-oriented mingling, its multi-level ambience couldn’t be topped on any night. And neither could Sunday noon gatherings of its star softball team and their hangers-on.
Hard by the 700 Tap was the storied Regal Theater — our Apollo — which we called “The Flick.” A small, unassuming movie house, it was the most noteworthy indoor gathering place in Milwaukee’s vibrant Black community of the ‘50s. Youngsters and adults alike piled-in to swoon for Lena Horne or tap their feet to Cab Calloway soundies.
The Regal interspersed its entertainment with Saturday night amateur shows and enticed us on week nights with a 25-cents admission for a movie-and-half after 9:30. Sundays were given over to triple-feature cowboy shoot-em-ups, and everyone seemed to get totally caught up in the goings-on up on the screen. It truly was a trip.
Our little Walnut, like big Harlem, wasn’t confined to a place or activity. But this short stretch of real estate buzzed with energy — from the Rose Room, Mr. Brown’s Colonial Barbershop, O’Bee’s Funeral Home, Art’s Shine Parlor, V&V Supermarket and the Bop Shop, to the Savoy Lounge, 711 Tap, Clara’s Restaurant, Manny Mauldin Jr.’s Harlem Records, the Booker T. Washington YMCA, Roosevelt Junior High School and the Milwaukee Globe newspaper, run by my late father, Sanford Carter.
Like most special places, Walnut featured colorful characters. Among them were blind old A.C., who regaled patrons at Mr. Brown’s with tales of his close ties with Jack Johnson, the fabled heavyweight champion of yore. And there was Dan Travis, called the “Bee Man” because for years he happily hawked a Black newspaper, The Chicago Bee.
Day or night, indoors or out, the Walnut Street of my youth was the best place in town for Black folks of all ages to be — and to be seen. It was something special. Those who lived it wouldn’t trade the experience, and those who are still around fondly remember it.
No, my Walnut of yesterday was not my Harlem of today, but yes, it was “much good,” as we used to say. And very well worth remembering. Indeed, I’ll never forget it. Milwaukee native Richard G. Carter is a freelance columnist.