BLACK HISTORY MONTH:A drag ball in Harlem was one of the biggest social events in 1920s New York

Rockland Palace was filled to capacity. The venue at 155th St. and 8th Ave. in Harlem saw nearly 8000 guests that night. It was March 6, 1936, and the Palace was hosting its 68th annual Hamilton Lodge “Odd Fellows” Ball, an event it had hosted since its inception in the 1860s. 

Not since 1929 had the ball seen this much action, and visitors came from as far as Chicago, Atlanta, and Memphis to witness the spectacle. Ed Bonelli and his 20-piece Lido Society Orchestra provided a soundtrack for the festivities, and during intermission, the Smalls Paradise floor show entertained the anxious crowd. This night was set to be the biggest yet, and all the ball’s participants picked out only their most extravagant outfits for the occasion. 

This night would be different, however, because a Black queen took home the top prize for the first time in the nearly 70 years that the balls had been taking place. Sporting a grayish-blonde wig and a white tulle gown designed for the occasion by Dan Hazel, Jean La Marr, won the pageant by popular choice, walking away with a grand prize of 50 dollars. Entertainer Ethel Waters presented La Marr’s award, and Black Harlem basked in the historic occasion, erupting in excitement at the victory of one of their very own. 

That night, the Hamilton Lodge served its original purpose as the black Queens took center stage. 

Hamilton Lodge 710 is the first example of a venue hosting drag parties, events, and masquerades. Billed initially as being of the “Grand United Order of Odd Fellows,” the lodge was a creation of a well-to-do class of African-Americans that sprang up in New York in the mid-19th century. The club’s story begins in 1842, when the Philomathean Institute, an organization of free black men in New York, petitioned for a lodge of Odd Fellows. 

A Fraternal organization with origins in 18th century England, the order of Odd Fellows believed in and advocated for “Odd” Fellowship. This belief championed a non-partisan view of fellowship involving individuals of all races, ethnicities, and sexualities. When their request was denied in New York due to their race, Peter Ogden, a black sailor, went to England to receive formal permission from the board to begin the organization. Of the 22 separate lodges launched under Peter’s leadership, Hamilton Lodge 710 of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows officially opened its doors in February 1844. 

Though law enforcement historically sought to end such masquerades, police officers in Harlem worked to officiate the balls.

Though it’s unclear why the Lodge began hosting drag balls and masquerades, the more progressive stance about members of the Lodge may have attracted individuals to the organization in search of a place where their identities were not explicitly taboo. By the late 1860s, balls were well underway, and newspapers noted the occasions for not only their “bizarre” nature, but their organization and formality. 

In a March 1886 article in the New York Freeman, the writer commended the masquerade as credible and organized. Prof. Green, described as wearing a gaudy Turkish dress, commented on not only the formality of the reception, but its diversity. 

The writer’s allusion that the costumes at that year’s event, eclipsing those at similar white events, points to the presence of other houses and organizations that may have held drag balls in New York in the latter 19th century.  The New York Freeman’s categorization of the ball as the “event of the season” and the generally positive tone of the paper also shed light on why New York was the perfect city for Hamilton Lodge to spread its wings fully. Coming into the 20th century, on the heels of the Great Migration, Lodge 710 was well underway to becoming the place to be as far as Drag Balls were concerned.

The arrival of millions of African-Americans to New York to escape growing persecution in the Jim Crow South spelled prosperity for the Lodge. Its location was perfect as the Harlem Renaissance came underway. The cultural zeitgeist that swept through black Harlem promoted an atmosphere where for the first time, queerness was not forced into the closet but allowed room to breathe, grow and even prosper. 

This culture birthed performers like Gladys Bentley, an openly lesbian blues singer who sang explicitly about sex with other women in a white tux and top hat. The Ubangi Club of Harlem featured a full chorus line of drag queens, and openly gay writer Richard Bruce Nugent wrote and published his book Smoke, Lilies, and Jade, which dealt candidly with bisexuality and interracial romantic desire. 

Beyond the Harlem renaissance, relaxed social mores were a fixture of the 1920s following prohibition-era restrictions. People rebelled openly against society’s long-held notions of sex, sexuality, and race. Hamilton Lodge, described as an “ultra-modern” structure offering a sweeping view of Lower Manhattan, an entrance of tri-colored marble, and two passenger elevators of the “latest” safety devices, became the perfect venue for the change sweeping the nation.

By the mid-1920s, New York papers like the New York Age regularly covered the Lodge’s events. Hamilton Lodge attracted an incredibly diverse crowd of individuals, and in a March 5, 1927, article, it was noted that “Nordic contestants mixed freely with their dark skin brethren.” Asian participants also took part in the festivities. The formality of the balls at Hamilton Lodge is perhaps best noted by the police presence at the events. Though law enforcement historically sought to end such masquerades, police officers in Harlem worked to officiate the balls. They arrested troublemakers and kept angry and boisterous crowds at bay. 

By the mid-30s, a new administration began looking to end the famed ball. Officers, who once helped officiate the balls, began arresting participants and guests on charges of indecency, vagrancy, or female impersonation.

As the 20s drew to a close, thousands of people from all over the United States made a yearly trek to Harlem in March to experience the balls in person. Despite Hamilton’s black origins, most of the ball’s participants were noticeably white by that point. In an era where women like Mae West, Clara Bow, Greta Garbo, and Jean Harlow graced a silver screen out of reach for black women, their likeness permeated the ball’s aesthetic. 

The Afro-American paper noted in April 1932 that Black queens preferred blonde wigs. This Eurocentric ideal of beauty made it so that, though routine participants, black Queens were typically shut out from winning pageants. After a nearly 70-year-long rivalry between Black and white queens for the trophy, Jean La Marr’s win represented a significant victory in the pageant’s history. Described as brown-skinned with almond-shaped eyes, a stunning smile, nifty feet, and very effeminate mannerisms, Jean La Marr took home first prize in 1936, and black Harlem was understandably prideful. 

1936 wasn’t just significant because of La Marr’s win, but because, by the mid-30s, a new administration in New York concerned with vice began looking to end the famed ball. Officers, who once helped officiate the balls, began arresting participants and guests on charges of indecency, vagrancy, or female impersonation. In a country reeling from the effects of the Great Depression, events full of men parading as women became public indecency and had to be put to an end. Following the election of a new district attorney, the Harlem Lodge held its final drag ball in 1937. 

The Hamilton Lodge Ball was a beacon of black creativity, freedom, and expression in post-slavery America. The lodge fostered an atmosphere where Black drag queens could find solace in the company of others like themselves. The Hamilton Lodge of Odd Fellows, a black fraternity built on the idea of an accepting and diverse fraternity, was the perfect vessel for creating solidarity where people of a colorful array of identities and personalities could carve out a reality where they could be themselves unapologetically.