Detroit’s Gotham Hotel, located at 111 Orchestra Place at John R, is one of the city’s most legendary sites of Black history. Between the 1920s and 1960s, the hotel was a popular destination for Black tastemakers who were not allowed to stay at other hotels in Detroit during the Jim Crow era.
The Gotham Hotel welcomed iconic Black civil rights leaders, musicians, athletes, and entertainers, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Jackie Robinson, Langston Hughes, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sammy Davis, Jr.
When it was built in 1924, the Gotham — which was Hotel Martinique at the time — operated as a high-end hotel for wealthy white visitors to the Motor City.
But as more Black folks started moving to Detroit for its good-paying factory jobs, the city needed more hotels to lodge the workers since they were not allowed to stay in hotels that were whites-only at the time. Detroit didn’t just need more hotels to cater to Black patrons. It needed more upscale ones, with only a handful of hotels catering to Black clientele by the 1940s — some of them hardly deserved to be called hotels, resembling little more than rundown boarding houses.
The Black residents of Detroit deserved a better standard of hospitality, and the Gotham Hotel was born. Situated in the Black Bottom neighborhood, a bustling hub of African American culture and commerce during the mid-20th century, the Gotham became an essential landmark in Detroit’s Black history.
In 1943, Louis Hertz sold the nine-story hotel to John White, Walter Norwood, and Irving Roane, local Black entrepreneurs, for $250,000. The group of investors had high hopes of turning the hotel into an oasis for the Black elite, with the Detroit Chronicle remarking that the deal gave “Detroit the finest hotel in the country owned and operated by colored.”
The hotel’s luxurious vibe and amenities, including elegant rooms, a grand ballroom, a popular restaurant, a rooftop garden, and its location in the heart of the city, became a testament that Black Detroiters were making progress.
The Gotham soon became a spectacle in its own right, with people flocking to the hotel for a chance to get a glimpse of their idols. The hotel also had innovative amenities that had not been accessible to the Black population before, like each room having an attached bath and sightseeing tours. It was deemed one of the “Nation’s Finest Hotels,” which garnered White a “Hotel Men of the Year” award in 1955.
But as things started looking up for Black Detroit residents, the Gotham Hotel’s fate took a turn for the worse. As the Civil Rights Movement gained traction, Black people were allowed in white establishments. This caused the Gotham to lose business to other iconic Detroit hotels that were now welcoming Black patrons. Unable to compete in a newly integrated hotel market, the Gotham closed its doors in 1962.
But behind the shuttered doors and boarded-up windows, business at the Gotham wasn’t completely dead.
It turns out that the Gotham was also operating as “the fortress of the numbers racket in Detroit.” The hotel was raided in November of 1962 by hundreds of federal agents, the Detroit Police Department, IRS, and Michigan State Police after authorities discovered that Gotham owner John White had ties to Mafia bosses Anthony Giacalone and Pete Licavoli.
The investigation discovered that each floor of the Gotham had its own numbers office, and the hotel’s switchboard operator pulled double-duty alerting people upstairs anytime police approached the hotel. When police were nearby, an alarm system went off on every floor of the Gotham — even the penthouse.
41 people, including White, were arrested in the raid that found:
- 160,000 bet slips
- $60K in cash (equal to more than $470,000 today)
- 33 adding machines
- Marked playing cards
- Loaded dice
The Detroit Free Press uncovered that the Gotham’s underground operations netted them more than $21 million per year (more than $166 million today), making it the largest gambling raid in Detroit’s history at the time.
White died while awaiting trial for his crimes.
Soon after the Mafia operation was busted, the Gotham came crumbling down via wrecking ball to create room for urban renewal projects, like the Elmwood Housing Project and Lafayette Park. Today, the site is home to the Detroit School of Arts.
But, the hotel’s legacy as a symbol of Black achievement and resilience in the face of segregation lives on.
Gotham Hotel (1943-1963) John J. White & Irving Roane (Black Owned)
111 Orchestra (Place) / 3640 John R Street, (checking)