When you hear the name Roman Vishniac, it likely calls to mind the photographer’s iconic interwar images of Eastern Europe Jewry. Even recent discoveries in the Vishniac archive, reported by Tablet Magazine’s own Alana Newhouse, center entirely around Jewish life.
Imagine our surprise, then, when we discovered Roman Vishniac’s portraits of renowned blues singer and guitarist Josh White, and other legendary entertainers, performing at Café Society, New York’s first integrated nightclub, in Greenwich Village, in 1944. And just in time for the first day of Black History Month.
Café Society owner Barney Josephson, the son of Latvian Jewish immigrants, “wanted a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out in front,” later recalling that “there wasn’t, so far as I knew, a place like it in New York or in the country.” At a time when the famed Kit Kat Club did not allow-African Americans to enter, and even the Cotton Club in Harlem only permitted a few African-American celebrities to quietly occupy discreet seats in the back, Billie Holiday sang in Café Society’s opening show in 1938. In fact, Holiday gave her first public performance of “Strange Fruit” at Café Society, in 1939, with a backdrop of wall murals by some of the Village’s most celebrated (and mostly Jewish) artists.
Four years after Vishniac took these photographs, the legendary café closed its doors, one of many victims of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Thankfully, these pictures remain and are a testament to the pioneering vision of Barney Josephson; the broader, grim reality of segregation; and the inestimable contribution of African-American musicians to American cultural life in the 1940s.
Roman Vishniac’s recently discovered negatives and contact sheets of White and other entertainers at the Café Society are currently being digitized and catalogued by the Roman Vishniac Archive at the International Center of Photography.
Below: Guitarist and blues singer Josh White and unknown performers at Café Society, Greenwich Village, New York, 1944. Rollei Contact Strip. © Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy International Center of Photography
Maya Benton is a curator at the International Center of Photography.