The Royal Esquire Club
Backstory and Context
Words to describe America in the 1940s would be turmoil, hope, patriotism, desperation, and racism; it is safe to say, it was a harsher reality than our glamorized version. Seattle was far from an outlier, and due to the intense racism, it cultivated an unwelcoming environment for any Black American no matter the location. Specifically, for Black youths, it was especially hard to find comfortable environments to socialize, have fun, and meet like-minded people in, as there was not a place dedicated to that in Seattle. Until five young Black men: Doyle Barner, Frederick Bowmar, William Childress, Freddie Ray, and Joe West founded the Royal Esquire Club in 1947.
Originally located on 4th Avenue and Yesler Way, the founding five purchased a house at 1254 south Washington street in 1952. There, members and friends of the club would enjoy a friendly environment full of dancing, martini sipping, and cigar smoke lingering from past nights. It was the relaxed yet lively atmosphere that allowed for lifelong connections to be made through the dinners, parties, galas, and community events. Annually, the Royal Esquire Club would host Black and White balls where men would dress in tuxes and women wore formal gowns. Members of the club could bring friends along to these events. It is important to include there was not a restriction placed on the occupation the member held, as it ranged from lawyers and doctors to working-class men.
Consistent with the club’s current views, prospective members had to be committed to the advancement of their community and would have to devote volunteer hours to show their commitment. Often, members would serve as waiters for the Rhinestone Club and Mary Mahoney Nurses Club, raising lunches. These lunches were served at the East Cherry YWCA and Mt. Zion Baptist Church.
Due to the racism of the ’50s and early ’60s, their numerous attempts to acquire a liquor license were denied. In the first ten years of the Royal Esquire Club, liquor was procured and snuck in through the back door and sold to members or friends of members. Selling alcohol was the most profitable and efficient way to make money. However, because this practice was illegal, police raids occurred, and some members were arrested. The club members, tired of this cycle, decided the only way to get a liquor license was to get the attention of Olympia itself. Packed in a caravan, a few members drove to the front steps of the capital, asking for Governor Albert Rosellini. He contacted the head of the liquor board, who immediately came from Centralia. He and the club members discussed the situation at his expense. After returning, they found applications posted on their door and throughout the neighborhood, and they were shortly approved later.
In 1985 the Seattle School district bought property to build the new Bailey Gatzert Elementary School, placed in the center, was the Royal Esquire Club. Sold for $165,000, the club moved to its current location in the heart of Columbia city for $140,000. Though the building was in shambles and had its fair share of rats and crows’ nests, the members remodeled the building. It is now outfitted with booths, flat-screen T.Vs, a bar, a pool table, and the famous Royal room, its available for rental of any kind. Walking throughout the building (with a drink in hand), you will see the memorabilia of members and the history of the club. Unfortunately, in 2008, the U.S was struck by the great recession, and many businesses, including the Royal Esquire Club, never fully recovered. It did not help the current members of the Esquire club, along with the board of directors, presented Black elitist habits that prevented a lot of new (younger) members from joining and contributing the legacy.
Depending on whom you talk to, the Royal Esquire Club has different meanings to everyone. To some, it is an elitist Black club. To others, it is a social club, and to some, it is home. However, there is a consensus the Royal Esquire Club is a marker in Seattle for Black history. Its creation inspired many and is a great memory for Seattle’s older generations.
Henry, Mary T. “Royal Esquire Club, The (Seattle).” Royal Esquire Club, The (Seattle), 14 Aug. 2010, www.historylink.org/File/9522.
Rietmulder, Michael. “At Historic Royal Esquire Club, Members Add New Energy amid a Changing Seattle.” The Seattle Times, The Seattle Times Company, 17 June 2019, www.seattletimes.com/entertainment/music/members-of-seattles-storied-royal-esquire-club-arent-letting-it-fade-into-history/.
Gee, Shannon. “Community Stories.” The Royal Esquire Club, January 28, 2007. http://www.seattlechannel.org/CommunityStories?videoid=x26615.