Place  /  Retrieval

Jitterbugging with Jim Crow

Ninety years ago, young African Americans in the South took up the Lindy Hop. It was an act of resistance and an assertion of freedom.

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The Lindy Hop scene today is mostly white. The swing “revival” that occurred here — and everywhere — in the late 1990s and early 2000s brought swing back to the mainstream, but it did so in a way that was so decontextualized from its historic past that it was easy even for dancers to never learn about the historic roots of the dance. Many people still assume today that swing dance is a white-people thing. How could they not when Benny Goodman, not Fletcher Henderson, is considered the “King of Swing?”

The history that the contemporary swing dance community liked to tell is one of racial harmony and integration, but that was not true at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, where the dance began, and it was certainly not true in the American South. Jim Crow laws and segregation meant blacks and whites could not legally mix in social spaces, either on the dance floor or on the stage. Racial violence made it dangerous for black swing bands to tour and perform in the South. And many of Georgia’s greatest swing-era musicians left the South, with thousands of others, during the Great Migration. 

Yet the city of Atlanta was a hub for African American entertainment in the South, at a time when African American music was — for the first time — the most popular music in the country. Several important venues here were a part of the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” a collection of performance venues throughout the Southeast and Midwest where it was safe for black musicians to perform during the days of Jim Crow. Atlanta was also unique at the time for its especially high concentration of venues owned and managed by black people. Several of these venues, including the Roof Garden and the Top Hat Club, were concentrated along Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue, which was just then hitting its peak as “the richest negro street in the world.” Looking back, it is hard to imagine that the story of swing in this city wasn’t a part of the story of how Atlanta ultimately became the hub of civil rights activism in the decades that followed.

The first reference I found to the Lindy Hop in the city of Atlanta is from March 1932 in the archives of the Atlanta Daily World. This influential black newspaper was founded just four years prior and was at the time the nation’s only daily newspaper written by and for black Americans. “Sam of Auburn Avenue,” a comedic society column detailing life in the city, was written by I.P. Reynolds Jr. “Himself,” the grandson of the formerly enslaved man after whom the neighborhood of Reynoldstown is named.