REMEMBERING CLEMSON’S HISTORIC LITTLEJOHN GRILL
During the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, if you were black and lived in Clemson,SC, about the only place you could go for food and entertainment was the Littlejohn Grill. Segregation was the law and when it came to social activities the races usually did not mix
“Located halfway between Clemson and Central on SC Highway 93” the Grill provided a “nice, family kind of place and was owned by Horace Littlejohn,” according to City of Clemson archives. Couples frequenting the Grill could eat, dance and listen to the latest music. Over the years many future jazz and blues stars appeared at the club, honing skills that would take them to the top of the music business.
Patrons visiting during its glory days remember the Grill consisted of an upstairs restaurant and a downstairs dance floor and bandstand. That building was demolished in the late 1980’s and in its place stands the Littlejohn Community Center, named in honor of Horace Littlejohn in 1996. The center provides daycare, after-school enrichment and other programs and services for the community. In its time Littlejohn Grill was the social center of African-American activities in Tigertown, says Adraine Jackson-Garner, Littlejohn’s granddaughter. “I remember my family talking about the Grill and all of the good times that were had there,” said Jackson-Garner.
The list of Grill celebrities is long and impressive. Many remember Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, Harry Belafonte, Piano Red, Fats Domino, Louis Armstrong and James Brown appearing on stage. These performers all went on to become big names in the entertainment world, but first polished their acts on the “chitlin’circuit” performing at segregated venues like the Grill.
Music historian Oscar J Jordon III, says that the chitlin’ circuit was an unofficial group of night clubs, honky tonks, juke joints and restaurants, mostly in the south, that were acceptable places for black entertainers to perform during the Jim Crow (segregation) era.
“Chitlins” sometimes spelled “chitterlings” are boiled pig intestines. This popular soul food, served in many establishments during the heyday of the blues, was considered a delicacy, by some. “Chitlin’ circuit” was a name adopted by the people who performed in these clubs and restaurants. “It was one way of saying, we are not eating high on the hog yet, but we are going to make it,” Jordon says.
Barry Potik, an expert on the origins of words and terms in the English language, writes that the phrase “chitlin’ circuit” first appeared in print in 1967 and is usually attributed to the late rhythm and blues artist Lou Rawls.
Famous chitlin’ circuit venues include the Apollo Theater in New York, Royal Peacock in Atlanta and the Victory Grill in Austin, TX. In 1998 the Victory Grill was added to the National Register of Historic Places, Potik says.
Blues man John Lee Hooker never made it to Littlejohn, instead making a living playing the chitlin’ circuit in Mississippi, Louisiana and Memphis, TN. Hooker took his blues sound to San Francisco, became famous, and even owned his own blues club in the Bay Area. He once said, “You couldn’t buy any friends, but you could damn sure make some down payments” humorously referring to the small amounts of money paid to black musicians on the chitlin’ circuit.
Ella Jane Littlejohn Jackson, Horace’s daughter, says that “the cafe”, as it was known when she was a child, was a small building perhaps 50feet by 75 feet. “In back of the cafe was a small hotel where people (performers) could stay overnight. The building, more cabin than hotel, was rustic. Staying overnight was like camping out,” Jackson said.
Jackson remembers that her father tolerated no fighting or rough behavior at his Grill. Many Saturday nights Clemson police chief Wade Campbell was on hand when a large crowd was expected. “Beer was legal, but liquor was not. If you were caught with strong spirits, you went to jail,” Jackson said.
“I remember James Brown performed at the Cafe many Saturday nights early in his career. He must have been 18 or 20 years old at the time. He was very popular and always drew a big crowd. The stage was so close to the audience that you could touch the performers. James seemed to forget the cafe and South Carolina after he became famous. He always talked about Augusta, GA, but he started out in Clemson,” Jackson said.
Brown, born in Barnwell, SC in 1933, was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to serve time at the nearby Alto, GA youth offender facility at the young age of 15. He received leniency due to good behavior and his ability to sing and perform, a common theme among blues performers. After release from prison Brown lived in the Toccoa, GA area performing at juke joints whenever possible. Performing in night clubs helped build the reputation and skills that launched him into superstardom, according to his biography.
Many patrons of Littlejohn Grill remember that Brown was so popular that white Clemson College students would come to the Grill to see him perform. “There wasn’t any problem with the white students coming to the café. They just wanted to see and hear some good dancing and singing,” said Dorothy Jones of Clemson.
One Littlejohn Grill story, told by Savannah Anderson, involves Brown jumping from the upper story balcony to the dance floor below. “People thought he was crazy. He could really dance and put on a show. The crowd loved it. My husband and I really enjoyed James Brown,” Anderson said.
Another Brown story involved Lucy McDowell and her sister who lived in Pendleton at the time. “My sister came home one day and told mama that she was going out with James Brown on Saturday night. Mama gasped and said ‘Oh hell no you ain’t,’” according to McDowell. Brown had a well-deserved reputation as a lady’s man, according to local legend.
Bennie Cunningham Jr., career counselor at Westminster’s West Oak High School, said that he remembers visiting Littlejohn Grill in the early 1970’s. “It was in decline in those days. People remember seeing great entertainment there in the 50’s and 60’s, particularly James Brown. My dad remembers seeing Brown perform at Littlejohn early in his (Brown’s) career,” Cunningham said.
Ray Charles made several visits to Clemson early in his career. One story that is told occurred in the late 1950’s or early 60’s and involved Clemson football coach Frank Howard. Apparently, it was Clemson custom to allow the football players to select a band or musical group to play at a special party hosted for the football players and their dates at the end of the football season. The football team told Howard they wanted a little known musician by the name of Ray Charles to play at the event. Howard told the team to make the arrangements. When Charles arrived in a big bus Howard realized that he was black. “We can’t have a black man play at a Clemson event,” Howard said. The team was heartbroken. “But this is Ray Charles,” the team pleaded. Howard was moved by the team’s insistence and made arrangements to rent a club in Anderson that allowed blacks and whites to mix in a social setting. Charles was able to successfully break the color barrier and was on the road to stardom, appealing to both audiences.
Dorothy Jones of Clemson said Horace Littlejohn also had a small club in the vicinity of the Ramada Inn and CVS Pharmacy at the corner of US 123 and SC 76 highways. “It had a dance floor and you could buy drinks there. I remember Horace had a lot of Little Richard records in the jukebox, but I don’t think Little Richard ever made it to Clemson,” Jones said.
Jones remembers going to Tom Littlejohn’s place in Central. “Tom was Horace’s father. He ran a place that catered to high school kids. We all went to the black high school in Liberty. After school we went to Tom’s place to eat and dance. It was a lot of fun to go there and listen to music,” she said.
Some have suggested that a historical marker should be placed on the site of the former Littlejohn Grill. Matthew Green, president of the board of directors for the Clemson Area African American Museum, said that many times black history is not adequately recorded. “If you look at the history of this area it is hard to find African American historical information,” he said. “It is very important to record as much history as is possible to pass on to future generations,” Green said.