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Hamilton Lodge Ball is Scene of Splendor Rockland Palace is Rendezvous for the Frail and Freakish Gang

A brief article about the famous Hamilton Lodge Ball, an interracial drag (“masquerade”) ball created in 1869 by African Americans in Harlem that grew in popularity as a spectacle for the general public during the 1920s.

New York Age
JD Doyle Archives

Hamilton Lodge Ball is Scene of Splendor. Clipping. 1930., Queer Music Heritage, JD Doyle Archives

This article, from a black community newspaper with national circulation, describes an interracial drag ball (what was called “masquerade”) in New York City called the Hamilton Lodge Ball. The center of African American culture in the 1920s, Harlem hosted leading writers, artists, intellectuals, and performers, in what is now called the Harlem Renaissance. Part of that time and place featured a flourishing of black nightlife, and this article provides a window into one aspect of the era’s socializing, self-expression, and subculture. Does this African American newspaper describe the drag ball in positive ways, negative ways, or both? Why do you think that is? What are two examples of how race was part of what made this story newsworthy at the time? What are some ways that people participated? How does this story conform to your expectations about the “Roaring Twenties,” the “Jazz Age,” or the “Harlem Renaissance”? How does it go against your expectations? Be sure to read and analyze this source in conjunction with the literacy activity that helps make sense of slang used in the article.

This black community newspaper article describes an interracial drag ball (what was called “masquerade”) in New York City called the Hamilton Lodge Ball. The Harlem neighborhood in Manhattan, called by many the “center of the Negro world,” by the end of the 1910s was home to major black institutions, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the United Negro Improvement Association, and the African Methodist Episcopalian Church. Many of the black professionals, religious and political leaders, and newspapers embraced a politics of striving, social and economic uplift, and respectability. Other Harlemites viewed freedom in other terms, including expressing themselves in ways that would otherwise face sanction from police, Jim Crow segregation and racism, and the more moralizing members of their own community. This article describes one of those alternative kinds of socializing, self-expression, and subculture beyond respectability politics. Like blues music, such parties were spaces for diverse gender and sexual expressions in semi-public places. As such, drag balls were both nascent formations of a burgeoning twentieth-century urban LGBT subculture and a spectacle of modern cosmopolitan life for tourists. This article simultaneously celebrates the vibrant interracial, multigendered scene and expresses a superior bemusement about it. Encourage students to learn more about how Harlem was both a site for flourishing black and LGBT subcultures and a place where white people engaged in what historian Chad Heap calls “slumming,” or visiting the commercialized amusements, nightclubs, speakeasies, and apartment parties to seek out what they perceived as a “wild” time.* In the process, while white people undoubtedly exoticized black people and culture, they also experienced unprecedented forms of consensual interracial intimacy and socializing, paving the way for a more diverse future society. 

* Chad Heap, Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlight, 1885 – 1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

Rockland Palace Is Rendezvous For the Frail and Freakish Gang

“This is my first time to attend this affair.”

When friends and acquaintances met Friday evening, February 14, at the annual masquerade ball of Hamilton Lodge, No. 710, Inc., Grand Order of Oddfellows, staged this year at Rocklanld [sic] Palace, 155th street and Eighth avenue, the foregoing statement was usually made by at least of the sightseers. So often was it heard that it became a standing joke.

Whether it was one’s first of [sic] twelfth time to have been present at Hamilton Lodge’s widely-advertised and long established spectacular event, the opinion was voiced by all that it was the most extraordinary masquerade of its kind ever witnessed in New York. It is doubtful if a similar show could be pulled off anywhere in the United States.

Rockland was packed to suffocation with particpants [sic] and spectators. Hundreds of white couples looking for a thrill elbowed, pushed and shoved with colored onlookers and got an eyeful.

It was difficult to distinguish sexes. Scores of males of pronounced effeminate traits gracefully disported themselves in beautiful evening gowns. They might have been mistaken anywhere for fascinating shebas.

Many Types Present.

Some more [sic] wigs. Others resembled the mesmerizing maiden of bobed [sic] hair type. Not a few looked like delicate, painted dolls.

While “girls” appeared to be in the majority. It is reported a number came from as far distant as Chicago. Many of the costumes worn were gorgeous, while in several instances the masqueraders walked and danced about displaying shapely limbs, wearing just enough to be within the law.

There were also females rigged up in masculine attire. They too, were often mistaken for real sheiks.

On the ballroom floor it was difficult to tell who was who.