For nearly 40 years, Washington DC’s social clubs, often unnoticed and unheralded by the local press, have given the African-American community social events, community support, and an affirming sense of identity. Though many of the clubs have had a gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered focus, most were not exclusive in either gender or orientation.
In times of legal segregation, carding, and unwelcoming clubs around town, and in the wake of the city’s loss of its entertainment district along U Street, 14th Street, and Georgia in 1968, social club events created a real option for meeting people like yourself and having fun. Like the well-known house parties of DC, and particularly party-prone apartment complexes like the Wingate on MLK Blvd SE, the social clubs offered structured, predictable, scheduled events.
Clubs also supported other institutions in the community. One of the earliest clubs, The Group of Washington, took Children’s Hospital as its particular charity focus. The exhibit features an invitation to its 1970 Fashion Finale fundraiser for the hospital. Clubs supported each other as well, and many people were members of more than one. When the Clubhouse on Upshur St NW faced financial difficulties in the late 80s, the Best of Washington, the Associates, and other clubs cooperated on fundraisers to keep the club going. In 1982, the clubs formed Working Organizations of Washington (WOW).
Though largely private membership only clubs, the social clubs also have had an enduring impact on the city’s social life and community life. The Metropolitan Capitolites (the MCs), another early club, made a major contribution to DC’s weekend scene when it created the Zodiac Den in the basement of 221 Riggs Rd NE in 1973. The MCs had had a regular house party at 4011 14th St NW, which moved into the basement of Ben’s Hideaway (a biker bar) in 1969 and became the Zodiac Den, one of the few African-American-owned social spaces in the community. Zodiac eventually moved upstairs (replacing the biker bar) and became the Third World.
Aundrea Scott (one of the owners, with John Eddy and Morrell Chasten) recalled years later “We needed more space so we found this little honky-tonk country and western club at Riggs Road and South Dakota Avenue. We moved into the basement apartment and operated off the owner's liquor license." As the Third World, this offshoot of the social clubs became very popular. So popular that in 1975, the owners took over a large building at 1296 Upshur and called it, appropriately, The Clubhouse. For 15 years, the Clubhouse was one of the major foci of African-American GLBT social life, famed for its annual Memorial Day weekend Children’s Hour parties, and for its ‘punch’.
Social clubs also responded to needs within the community, especially as HIV and AIDS made their appearance in Washington DC. Many social clubs raised funds for early AIDS support organizations, such as Inner City AIDS Network (ICAN). Club membership was a powerful networking opportunity, and many of the relationships established through social clubs led on to other organizations such as Best Friends, Impact, and similar organizations. Dr Ron Simmons recalls that the genesis for Us Helping Us came from the realization in the mid-80s that the Clubhouse had lost so many members to HIV and AIDS that a support organization was clearly needed.
Clubs we know about: If you know of a club we’ve missed, let us know· Best of Washington
· Black Diamonds
· Family Inc.
· Five Plus Five
· Gent’s Elegance
· Metropolitan Capitolites
· Pinochle Club
· Simplicity Attractions
· The Associates
· The Bachelors Twelve
· The Brownies
· The Group