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Juneteenth gala will pay tribute to founder of ‘Little Harlem’ nightclub

The ice cream shop came first, followed by the Oriental Billiard Parlor in the early 1920s. But the site, at 496 Michigan Ave., will be remembered forever as the Little Harlem Hotel and Night Club.

During its heyday, in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, the Little Harlem became a mecca in Buffalo’s African-American community, attracting Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan and Bing Crosby.

It was the place to be, on Michigan between Broadway and William Street.

Ann Montgomery ran the club, and now, 38 years after her death, she is being honored at the fundraising gala for the Juneteenth Festival of Buffalo.

The “Harlem Nights: Gimme That Swing 2016,” event will be held from 5 to 11 p.m. Friday in the Statler City Ballroom downtown.

“The major entertainers, the Duke Ellingtons, the Count Basies, the Cab Calloways, they all stayed at the Little Harlem,” said George K. Arthur, the former Buffalo Common Council president. “Because of Ann, it became a major stop on the black entertainment circuit.

“Ann was the person to know.”

The club was believed to be the oldest established black business in the city, according to old newspaper reports.

“In the early days, the Little Harlem became a major showcase for aspiring new stars during an era when it was difficult for them to obtain jobs in their professions elsewhere,” said Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, co-founder of the Uncrowned Queens Institute.

Even some of the nightclub patrons were famous.

Boxing champions Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson showed up, Seals Nevergold noted.

Sammy Davis Jr. was seen there early in his career, as a member of the Will Mastin Trio, along with Sammy Davis Sr., according to Arthur.

The Little Harlem was known for a lot of things: performers, famous guests, hotel, even food.

But above all, it was a hot nightspot, the place to be after the sun went down, a club that Montgomery ran with a strong hand.

“She ran a good place, a clean place,” Arthur said. “It was the place you wanted to go when you dressed up, went out and wanted to be seen. It was a special place to go.”

Arthur remembered Montgomery well and even recalled her daily routine.

“She lived upstairs,” he said. “She came downstairs every day at about 4 o’clock, to look things over and make sure the waitresses and the flower girls and the cigarette girls and the camera lady were in order and dressed accordingly.

“She was tough, but they loved her.”

Carl S. Buckner, a local emcee for community events who once had his own cable TV show, remembered two other oddities about the Little Harlem. It became a magnet for Canadian visitors who flocked to Buffalo for entertainment back then. It also had Chinese food when no other club or restaurant did, and he fondly recalled the shrimp egg foo yung.

Buckner also remembered how people couldn’t wait to get on the dance floor when the featured dancers and performers took a break.

“It was some place you could take your mother without any bother, for dinner and drinks and dancing,” he added.

The story of the Little Harlem also is the story of Montgomery, an entrepreneur who opened three different businesses at that same Michigan Avenue site, near downtown.

“I think at a time when women, especially African-American women, weren’t operating businesses, you had a woman who was an entrepreneur and very involved in the community,” Seals Nevergold said, rattling off the names of various organizations that Montgomery supported.

Leaders like Montgomery were building a community, by starting, supporting and growing various businesses, fraternal groups, churches and community organizations, all to help local people prosper and thrive, Seals Nevergold said.

And based on old newspaper accounts, Seals Nevergold also credited Montgomery with helping young people by giving them jobs or money to complete their educations. Many of those young people went on to become top professionals and community leaders.

Those are some of the reasons why the Juneteenth Festival is using Friday’s gala to remember Montgomery, who died in April 1978.

Arthur knew of one incident, from around 1940, that showed how revered she was in the community.

Back then, people leaving town on vacation would get a send-off at the train station, and that’s what happened when she left for Los Angeles.

“There must have been 50 or 60 ladies who went out there, dressed in fur coats and hats and gloves, to see her off,” he said.

The Little Harlem, including its earlier ice cream and billiard parlor days, served as a local African-American business for some 70 years, until it burned to the ground in a chicken wing grease fire in February 1993.

The ornate nightclub and hotel, with its salmon-colored facade, had been bought four years earlier by former Chief City Judge Wilbur P. Trammell. Watching the flames destroy his dream, Trammell told a Buffalo News reporter why he had purchased it, to breathe new life into the club.

“I thought it belonged to the center-city community,” he said. “I just thought it was the only landmark blacks had, quite frankly,”

Back in the late 1940s, Trammell told The News, he and all the other black students attending the University of Buffalo used to meet every Friday night at the Little Harlem, to drink 10-cent beers.

There were only 10 African-American students there at the time.