In 1929, a young African-American artist named Elmer Simms Campbell arrived in New York to pursue his dream of becoming an illustrator. Armed with a degree from the Chicago Art Institute, he nevertheless faced a string of rejections because of his race. But a far more generous welcome awaited him uptown in Harlem.
It was there that he became a friend of Cab Calloway’s, the famed bandleader of the Cotton Club; the two men became drinking buddies and regulars at the many speakeasies and jazz clubs that drew thousands of revelers to northern Manhattan during Prohibition.
In 1932, Mr. Campbell drew an energetic road map of Harlem’s hot spots for Manhattanmagazine, a portrait that directly conveys the limited reach of Prohibition on the eve of repeal. In fact, a closer look at the map captures the many complex and unintended consequences of the 18th Amendment.
The emergence of American jazz itself owed much to the twin forces of migration and discrimination: More than a million African-Americans left the rural South in the 1910s, and the segregation they encountered in other parts of New York drove many to settle in Harlem.
That racial prejudice extended to the clubs in the neighborhood. Duke Ellington may have been welcome as a performer at the Cotton Club, but certainly not as a patron; most of the nightclubs Mr. Campbell identified were owned by, and catered to, whites. But there were important exceptions, such as the Savoy Ballroom, home of the Lindy Hop and one of the few racially integrated nightclubs in the area. Small’s Paradise, which Mr. Campbell described as home to “café au lait girls and dancing waiters,” was owned and patronized by blacks.
Fueling all of this creativity and energy was alcohol. Though Prohibition had been in effect for 10 years by the time Mr. Campbell arrived in New York, notoriously selective enforcement of the law made Harlem a nightly destination not just for African-Americans but also for middle-class whites in search of booze and urban thrills. And while Prohibition laws decimated the local saloon, they also inadvertently led to the emergence of large clubs with well-connected owners, who could reliably fend off raids by the vice squad. Mr. Campbell wryly makes note of this corruption at the upper right corner of his map, where officers placidly play cards in “the nice new police station” while mayhem reigns outside.