I was at a wedding party for my friends Keith and Kim at the Potrero Neighborhood Center, known as The NABE, last weekend in San Francisco. I spotted a guy in a Red Wings jacket who turned out to be Albert Johnson, a NABE employee who was born at Hurley Hospital and went to Clark Elementary (left) in Flint. His parents, Jerry and Jimmie, still live on Providence Street.
We ended up talking about The Golden Leaf, one of Michigan's legendary black clubs. It’s still in business at 1522 Harrison Street, just across the school yard from Clark Elementary. It’s a membership-only club, just as it was when it opened in 1921.
“My dad liked to play cards there,” Albert remembered, before our conversation turned to how glad we both were that Matt Millen is finally out as the Lions GM.
The Golden Leaf is a well-known Flint landmark in my family. One of my mom’s best friends from the old days in Flint is Adrienne (Wilson) Oliver, who is the mother of Notre Dame assistant coach Jappy Oliver (left). Although it wasn’t unheard of for a black girl and white girl to be such close friends at that time in Flint, it was rare. And it was even rarer for a white girl to visit The Golden Leaf. But Ardrienne took my mom, Pat (McFarlane) Young, on several occasions.
“We never looked at Pat as being white or black. Pat was just Pat,” Adrienne told me during a recent conversation. “She was with me and she was my friend, so nobody thought anything of her going to the Golden Leaf.”
Except, perhaps, the girls' parents. Sometimes a little subterfuge was needed.
“We did some of the craziest things,” Adrienne remembers. “Pat would say she was spending the night at my house, then we’d tell my parents we were both going to spend that night at another girl's house, then we’d sneak out.”
Adrienne and my mom both remember Central High, where they graduated in 1948, as having good racial relations. Blacks and whites interacted and formed friendships.
“I remember there being more economic prejudice than racial prejudice at Central,” my mom says. “Students seem to divide over their neighborhoods and how much money their parents had.”
Ardienne adds: “At Central, everybody was wonderful, but there was a lot of prejudice hidden in Flint. Nobody came right out and said it, but it was there.”
And there was prejudice built in to the structure of Flint life. When performers like Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole or Lionel Hampton came to the I.M.A., whites went to a separate early performance, while blacks were only allowed at a second midnight to 4 a.m. show.
“That was terrible,” Adrienne says. “It’s sick to even think about, especially when most of the performers were black.”
The Golden Leaf was a popular destination before the midnight dances at the I.M.A. “You know, it’s just a hole in the wall, but we thought it was the greatest joint in the world,” Adrienne remembers.
Today, the look of the Golden Leaf is relatively unchanged. It’s owned and managed by Lottie Reid, who told me on the phone that it’s still the same long, narrow brick building with a dirt basement, a bar, and several tables, much like it was when Adrienne and my mom went there, not to mention more famous visitors like Sammy Davis, Jr., Dinah Washington, and Malcolm X. The age of the members ranges from 21 to around 80.
But the neighborhood has changed, starting with the massive I-69 — I-475 interchange that obliterated much of the community that once surrounded The Golden Leaf . And like many Flint schools, Clark Elementary is boarded up.
“There’s really nothing around us now,” Lottie Reid said. “There’s nothing but us on this block.”