Black Capitalism, Underground Economies, and the Great Depression

Migratory laborers outside of a “juke joint” during a slack season, Belle Glade, Florida, February 1941 (NYPL)

Throughout much of the twentieth century, Florida’s warm climate and long sunny days managed to attract the nation’s elites. The notion that Florida was heaven on earth fueled an economic boom in the 1920s. Often left out of this narrative are the Black men and women whose labor made all of this possible. In South Florida, this meant that when wealthy whites flocked to spots like Palm Beach to vacation in high-end hotels or to build luxurious mansions, it became necessary to build a counterpoint—a working-class neighborhood where the workers who assisted the city’s elites could live. That led to the development of two black neighborhoods in West Palm Beach: Northwest and Pleasant City.

Travel from West Palm Beach to Palm Beach, or vice versa, required crossing one of three bridges—the Flagler Memorial Bridge, Royal Park Bridge, or Southern Boulevard Bridge. West Palm Beach is nestled against the scenic Intercoastal Waterway, while Palm Beach sits on the ocean. But like many Black communities in Jim Crow America, Northwest and Pleasant City were not exclusively working-class neighborhoods. They became economically diverse communities with a thriving middle and upper class. Well-off African Americans made West Palm Beach a popular destination, and a few entrepreneurial-minded individuals seemed to have just the right amount of ingenuity and good timing to become self-made millionaires. One of those men was James Jerome “Cracker” Johnson.

“Cracker” Johnson, who gained his nickname on account of his blue eyes and resemblance to his white father, had a life that reads like fiction. He had humble beginnings as the son of a Black maid. He allegedly made his fortune by investing his gambling wins and funds from a pawn brokering business into South Florida’s real estate market. His home, located in West Palm Beach’s Northwest neighborhood, served as a base for an extravagant lifestyle in which he was a kingpin and liquor smuggler on the one hand and a philanthropist and community investor on the other. In 1928 Johnson, along with Alonzo “Kill” Jackson and L. Shuler, opened the White Way Boxing Arena in West Palm Beach. The arena could seat up to 1,000 people and was the only one of its kind owned and operated by Black Southerners. Johnson earned so much money in ventures like this that when Florida’s housing market collapsed, he loaned the city of West Palm Beach $50,000 to survive the worst of it.

Nonetheless, Johnson himself did not escape the Great Depression unscathed. In 1936, he faced federal tax liens against his property for the years 1925-1934, totaling over $30,000. But by the 1940s, Johnson had clearly recovered from whatever past financial issues he’d faced. West Palm Beach was now home to around 12,000 African Americans. Despite limited voting rights, they biennially elected three African Americans to supervise the city’s Black elementary and high schools. It was home to thriving churches such as Payne Chapel A.M.E. Church and St. Patrick Episcopal Church. Johnson felt at home in this community and had a reputation for giving money to the church and sending Black youth to college.

West Palm Beach was also the home to many Black-owned businesses. Granted, whites owned some of the property on which Black businesses were located, but possibly nowhere else is it true that only “Negroes operate businesses in the Negro section of the city.” This was the world Johnson thrived in. He owned and operated several businesses in West Palm Beach, including a movie theater, nightclub, and segregated jail. The employees at his nightclub—Florida Bar—were required to wear “dinner jackets, tuxedo trousers, wing-collared dress shirts and bow ties.” A 1942 spread in The Crisis featured photos of the bar’s interior, with retired baseball player Johnnie Reese working as a mixologist. Perhaps images of the entertainers, which included a drag queen named Billie McAllister, were considered too scandalous to publish. Other businesses included the Palm Garden Drug Store, the Economical Drug Store, and Coleman Funeral Home. Other businesses included the Silver Bar & Grillmentioned in the 1947 Negro Motorist Green Book—and several medical practices.

Johnson was murdered outside his bar in 1946 at the age of sixty-eight years. The exact circumstances of Johnson’s murder were unclear, with some people insinuating that it was “ordered.” The “bolita baron” left his wife, Aurilla Jackson, an estate worth $150,000. Despite his death, “Cracker” Johnson’s name continued to resurface throughout the 1950s.

In the 1950s, West Palm Beach continued to attract affluent Black Americans. Jet magazine’s “Society World” section regularly featured West Palm Beach residents’ marriages, divorces, and world travels. Johnson’s daughter, Claudia Johnson Bolen, was part of that social scene and a well-respected schoolteacher. Her social status was undoubtedly connected to her father’s legacy and the fact that she reportedly owned quite a bit of property in the area—likely inherited from her father. Her social status was further cemented through her marriage to Dwight Bolen, one of the first African Americans to join the city’s police force. Unfortunately, her marriage also led to her death—one no less violent than her father’s. In 1954, Dwight Bolen stabbed Claudia Johnson Bolen in their suburban home. He then used his service weapon to kill himself. Claudia left her estate, valued at $124,215 in 1954, to her niece, Claudia Louise Williams. She only left $1,000 to her deceased husband.

In some ways, the bright lives and tragic deaths of “Cracker” and Claudia Johnson symbolize the rise and fall of the community they called home.

The Historic Northwest Neighborhood fell into decline during the twentieth century’s last few decades, but recently it has been the focus of revitalization efforts. Some locals have hoped that “Cracker” Johnson’s legacy could play an important role. In 2002, the city of West Palm Beach funded a $1.3 million loan to two organizations: the White Oak Real Estate Development Corporation and the Northwest Communities Development Partnership, to build affordable homes in the Northwest Community—“Cracker” Johnson’s old stomping grounds—in an effort to spur more home development. In 2004 mother and daughter Serena and Natalie Hopkins purchased Johnson’s home. It needed to be saved and renovated, which the Hopkins duo did. They opened the home to the community and got a grant to fund neighborhood discussions in the living room.

In 2021 the West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) announced plans for future revitalization projects for the Historic Northwest District, such as an inventory of significant people and places, which included Johnson’s Florida Bar. The revitalization aims to maintain the neighborhood’s integrity and honor its past while presenting solutions to ongoing challenges. For instance, Sunset Lounge, the area’s “only place the good top-shelf Black entertainers could perform,” has captured people’s imagination because entertainers like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald performed there. The CRA purchased the building and began renovations, but the cost rose from an expected $10.5 million to 16.4 million, making it difficult to continue funding the project.

Money, power, and race were central to the creation of “Cracker” Johnson’s Northwest neighborhood and the entire city of West Palm Beach. As one resident stated, Palm Beach and West Palm Beach “is a tale of two cities. It has been for its whole existence. They will bulldoze this whole neighborhood and act like we were never here.” There is little doubt that the neighborhood will be revitalized. But one hopes the revitalization will be restorative—that it will not lead to the displacement of the very people whose ancestors created the city’s rich culture.

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Candace Cunningham

Candace Cunningham is an Assistant Professor of History, and specializes in African American History, Women's and Gender Studies, and Public History. She is currently finishing her manuscript on Black teacher activists in the civil rights movement. You can follow her on Twitter @candace_n_c.