History Lives at Jolly Old Timers Social Club in Detroit

f you want to share in the company of the Jolly Old Timers (JOT)-if you want to hear the stories, embrace the names and faces of its nearly 60-year-old rich history as a celebrated social club, bar and nonprofit with an equally celebrated roster of members including Detroit mayor Coleman A. Young, councilman Clyde Cleveland and Fred Ross (Diana's dad)-just show up.

But you better know how to hold your liquor.

History in the form of its dwindling, tight-knit members is more than alive at the JOT's clubhouse, located at 641 W. Forest Ave. in Midtown Detroit. Over strong drinks and cheap beer, the dozen who remain recall the good ol' days while rebuking the new. They coo over grandchildren, crack lewd jokes and caress the aches and pains of age, while trying to find a cigarette in the same motion.

They are the gatekeepers, the living will and testaments of a bygone social culture seemingly dying in the shadow of Detroit's shiny craft breweries and gastropubs. But not yet dead.

'Come as you are'

Carla Williams, the newest and youngest of the JOT members-if you consider 56 young, she says-first came to the bar about 19 years ago. Right around when she joined the Detroit Police Department.


"I came down there (in my uniform) and they were like, 'Oh, look at you,'" says Williams, a native Detroiter. Her uncle introduced her. "I can't tell you when he joined. He just said, 'I'm cooking at a club, it's a lot of old folks, but you can come down and it's good eating, nice drinks, relax and enjoy yourself.'" At first glance, the unkempt building, with its weathered red bricks, white columns and beat-up wood door, struck her more as a frat house.

"I'm thinking it is going to be like Animal House when I go in, with people throwing beer bottles and doing crazy stuff. And it wasn't like that at all," she says. "I like to go where I can sit and relax and I don't have to watch my back and worry if I step on somebody's toes or on somebody's man. I don't have time for all of that. And we don't have that here."

Williams admits the JOT building doesn't look like much, but it's the majestic charm of the people inside that keeps her coming back.

"Every time I come here, I meet somebody new," she says. "We're a people club. Come as you are. Be who you are, that kind of thing. We don't see Black, White, gender identification or anything. Whatever you are is whatever you are; just come on in. We going to party and have a good time."

'Jolly, older men'

Longtime JOT member Frederick "Fred" Simpson remembers it all. There was cigar smoke and steady helpings of laughter, "always good liquor" and big band jazz on the jukebox. The club served chicken in a basket, and on Friday there was fish. All the floors were be packed, he says. JOT was "the place to be."

According to the club's official records, 51 men gathered in the Holiday Room at the former Gotham Hotel at 111 Orchestra Place at John R Road in 1958 to establish the JOT as a nonprofit committed to helping the community. This group set out to "retain and cement old friendships and create new ones." Their motto: Justice to all (J), Obedience to God (O) and Truth and loyalty to all mankind (T).

"Most of these guys were porters, worked for the hotels, worked for the trains," recalls Simpson, 74, JOT president from 1998 to 2000. None of the founding members are alive today. But he remembers most vividly.

"I knew Ted Pons, Ramon Owen Kimbrough, Harry Clary. Clary was very fair in color, he was almost to be White," he says. The club was never all Black-though majority was, says Simpson. It's what made JOT ahead of its time as a place where color and class did not exist. In fact, it was a founding White member, John Cohagen, he says, who helped navigate the discriminatory housing practices of the time to buy the clubhouse building in 1968.

Although women weren't allowed to join initially, they worked as barmaids who helped keep the operation together.

"We had Dorothy. We had Birdie and Ms. Logan. Gotta mention Ms. Logan, she was a nosy lady," he says. "She would get into everybody's business: 'That's not your wife. Why are you talking to her?'

"They were classy people of the time, middle-class socialites without being a snooty-hooty." Back then, JOT members signed in their guests-and patrons were not allowed unless they knew someone inside. But once you were in, it was like meeting new family, says Simpson. "Just like the name indicated, there were jolly older men," he says, "Very happy, very welcoming."

Simpson, a former chemical company exec and real estate manager, initially found out about about the club through his wife's cousin.

"So naturally, I had to become a member," he says. Currently, the JOT has three chair positions (including president) and five positions on its board. You must be 35 with a completed application signed by two current members to be considered for membership. Dues are $50 per month and include discounted drinks and free space rental.

The early club meetings met the third Sunday of each month and opened with the Lord's Prayer and the official JOT anthem, says Simpson.

"Members would come dressed to the nines. It was like going to church," he says. Meetings were on the ground floor. The third level housed a members-only area with a pool table and fireplace that's since closed due to disrepair.

"You could take drinks up there and you could take your private company up there. And we would just call it that 'the third floor,'" he says with a grin. "And the girls would say, 'What you all do up there?' We would say, 'You don't want to go up there!'"

Simpson also fondly recalls prominent old timers like mayor Young.

"What did Coleman say," he recalls. "One day, because you know, then, you couldn't park on the other side of the street, and we said, 'Hey! You know you can't park there.' He said, 'Hell, I'm the damn mayor!'"

Fred Ross, who once served as president, was another character. "Esther Gordy was his date that he would bring. Also, he would select one of us and we would go see Diana out at Pine Knob (now DTE Energy Music Theatre)." He adds, "I always say it's a magnet because dusk to dawn, it kept you there. No one fell out. It was just always something going on."

Former JOT president Thelma Benjamin, 72, first visited JOT in 1983. She moved to Detroit in 1961 from West Virginia and officially joined in '98.

"I was a regular patron from 1983," she says. "I loved it, because you walked in a place and you get to know people-and they were all jolly. All the upstairs, downstairs everything was full. There's always not enough parking." She adds, "People knew you. You know like Cheers? That's what it was. It was an old Cheers bar. Before Cheers was Cheers, probably."

Benjamin worked in the state department on Grand Boulevard and used to hit the club and play cards on her lunch break.

"I enjoyed the people and remember old faces. A lot of them are gone now." And with no new members joining, the JOT faces an issue plaguing the remainder of Detroit's historic social clubs.

'Young folks'

At the height of its popularity, the JOT had to cap its membership at 135. Now the club is down to 12-something current JOT president Gwendolyn 'Gwen' Marshall credits to a broader social scene for Black people.

"Remember, back in 1958, we couldn't go everywhere. By (JOT) starting their own place, they eliminated that."

The building was a key to social survival, she says, especially in the wake of 1967 riots. But times changed. "Our younger Blacks don't feel the need for an exclusive club because they don't have the same historical background. Our parents came up through Jim Crow and segregation. They came from farms and land where they weren't allowed to be men. They weren't allowed to be so many things. Now, these young folks can go anywhere … so they think."

Another reason, says Marshall, is a generational fear gap.

"Our young folks aren't bad, but how do you know which ones are and which ones aren't? That's one of the reasons you have to be 35 to get in here. So it eliminates some of the fear for the older people," she says. "Don't have to worry about stepping on somebody alligators and getting shot. And you're more discreet in your actions so you are not bringing drama."

The JOT used to give scholarships to students, provide Christmas baskets, do food drives and offer summer programs. Now, it's cut to the bare minimum of keeping the lights on. "Financially, we can't afford it. But in the past, we have a rich history in community activities," she says.

Originally from Dumas, Arkansas, Marshall moved to the east side of Detroit when she was 13 and started coming to the club after being invited by a couple members in 1997.

"I must have been around 38," she recalls. But what kept her coming back was the sense of pride and ownership she felt. "When you go to the bars these days, there is an owner there but you don't own anything. You go in, get your drink, you pay and you leave. Here you have commitment, you have ownership and you have history."

What's kept JOT going? Marshall credits the age limit-and women, who were finally allowed in 1993 when one Alice Smith threatened to sue the club for discrimination. So the guys handpicked four women (Smith not among them) they thought were fit to join. That included Judith "Judy" Daniels, now 66.

"That got the lawsuit off," she says. "So we came in and did our thing. Was I scared to walk in the first time? Yes, I was. Because, you know, some of them men were really adamant about not having women in the club." Daniels' dad was also a member, and she'd already met most members because JOT election dinners were held at their house.

"Back then, we were so large that the elections were a big thing. Every two years, you would run for president, vice president, whatever, and they'd have these dinners," she says. "So I was already helping my parents, cooking food, feeding and serving at the events that were at my parent's home."

It wasn't until she was 33 that she was invited by her father to visit the club.

"I was having some issue with my children and stuff, depressed, so they called me one time and said, 'Baby, get dressed. We're taking you somewhere.'"

'Grown-Up fun'

Only a few members remain who can get into as much detail as Daniels. "Our oldest member, he must be 90, 91, that's Joseph King. And the other one is William Pageant." Simpson makes four.

Daniels was the first female member elected president-to which her dad said, "Why would you want that thankless job?"-but it changed her life.

"It made me feel grown up, that's number one," says. "It made me feel that I had proved to my parents that they felt I was mature enough and on the right track in life to bring me. Especially my dad."

She adds, "Grown-up fun is the theme here. Being jolly." And it's her fervor for the folks inside that keeps Daniels involved.

"I remember once getting a promotion at my job with the DMC," she recalls. A room of directors asked her, "What do you have a passion about?" The answer came easy: The Jolly Old Timers.

"I had to explain to them what it was about and what my life had been with it. It still is to this very day," she says. "And we old and crumbling, but I don't think we are crumbled yet."

Facebook Comments



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here