The Manhattan Casino on 22nd Street South in St. Petersburg was one of the more famous venues on the Chitlin’ Circuit.
BY DR. NASHID MADYUN, Florida Humanities Executive Director
As we continue our journey as patrons of cultural preservation, equipped with a curiosity that confirms that there is more to it than meets the eye, we encounter the natural trend in the museum world: the road trip.
A road trip with your family or friends can paint a picture like a scene from a classic movie musical. Let’s set the scene for two different takes on, for instance, a musical called “A Saturday Fish Fry!”
At 350 degrees, the peanut oil has to sit just two knuckles deep in the cast iron skillet for the buttermilk-soaked fish to fry quick and right – but the time of day this fish fries tells us a lot more about the setting than meets the eye.
The classic phrase and common radio show tag, “Saturday Morning Fish Fry” targeted the moms cleaning the house, listening to blues, rockabilly, and country hits. The shows played the music this demographic liked while promoting cornmeal, flour, household appliances, and anything else you need for Sunday’s dinner.
However, if the peanut oil was at 350 degrees at night, we now had “the Saturday Night Fish Fry,” and our journey took us to the door of one of the juke joints of the Chitlin’ Circuit.
From the 1920s and well into the 1980s, musicians traveled from New York to St. Louis and down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, playing venues safe from racism and Jim Crowism — scenes in which they were welcomed by fans.
Catfish, cod, dumplings, chitlins, and biscuits were there for those with Sunday School plans during a night of musical scenes on stages graced by Ray Charles, B.B. King, Etta James, Sam Cooke, or Billie Holiday, to name a few.
One of the gentlemen capturing these scenes was Roger Kallins, a German photographer that captured John Coltrane and his quartet while performing in Frankfurt in the early 1960s. He moved to the United States and captured Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and others with the passion and view of a jazz fan.
The Crealde’ School of Art of Winter Park currently has on display 45 of his time stealing images until Jan. 16, 2023. His lens captured more than the sounds leaving instruments; he captured the conversations shared between the artists, the drummers and the singers.
For a different scene, while you are in central Florida, just nine miles away, is the Wells’Built Museum of African American History and Culture, housed in an actual hotel that served Green Book travelers and Chitlin’ Circuit performers. The Wells’Built tells the story of this era with video, memorabilia and crafty storytelling in scenes that immerse you into that world of creative resilience.
If time is on your side, you can get a similar story of the era in the scenes found at The Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center in Gainesville.
These three destinations and the scenes they offer can all be a part of your Saturday day trip. Separately or collectively, the story of resilience and creativity as ingredients to the American Dream was not overlooked in Florida!
When Florida was the least populous state in the Union, it was a leader in creative opportunity and access.
I think it’s time for a road trip!
Dr. Nashid Madyun has served as the executive director of Florida Humanities since May 2021, bringing two decades of experience as a historian, museum professional and educator to the second-largest humanities council in the country.