The Nation’s Largest African American Video Oral History Collection Mobile search icon Mobile close search icon

Search Results

Advanced Biography Search
Mobile navigation icon Close mobile navigation icon

country

Elaine Ellis

Dancer Elaine Ellis (also known as Calamity Jane) was born November 30, 1917 in Panama. She moved to New York with her mother, Flossie Freeman McNeil, and father, Clifford McNeil, at the age of seven. As a young girl, Ellis learned to dance. She was instructed by friends who attended the Henry LeTang School of Dance. After graduating from Jamaica High School, Ellis taught touch typing and eventually became a traveling instructor. Interested in going into business for herself, Ellis owned and operated a dry cleaner and later a cosmetics counter in a local department store. Disenchanted with business ownership, Ellis answered an open call at the Cotton Club for Spanish girls, and although she only knew four Spanish words, was the last chorus girl hired in 1939.

When the Cotton Club closed in 1940, Ellis continued to perform at Café Zanzibar, Club Mimo, the Lenox Lounge, in Atlantic City and at the Apollo Theater. At the Apollo Theater, Ellis performed with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Duke Ellington, Don Redman, and Andy Kirk. A married mother of two, Ellis eventually quit dancing to begin a lucrative twenty-five year bartending career. Ellis tended bars all over Harlem and gained quite a following, winning awards for the most congenial and best bar maid.

In 1986, Ellis was invited by Geraldine Rhodes-Kennedy to join the Silver Belles. Ellis was honored to join a group of former chorus girls including Bertye Lou Wood, Fay Ray, Cleo Hayes, and Marian Coles. The Silver Belles performed at senior centers and regularly, at the Cotton Club. In 1986, the Silver Belles were featured in a documentary about their lives, "Been Rich All My Life" directed and produced by Heather Lyn MacDonald.

Ellis passed away on December 21, 2013, at the age of 96.

Elaine Ellis was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on October 25, 2007.

Accession Number

A2007.304

Sex

Female

Interview Date

10/25/2007

Last Name

Ellis

Maker Category
Occupation
Organizations
Schools

Ps 57 Crescent School

Jamaica High School

Search Occupation Category
First Name

Elaine

Birth City, State, Country

Panama

HM ID

ELL02

Favorite Season

Fall

Favorite Quote

Que Sera, Sera.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Interview Description
Birth Date

11/30/1917

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York

Country

Panama

Favorite Food

Turkey

Death Date

12/21/2013

Short Description

Dancer Elaine Ellis (1917 - 2013 ) was a member of the Silver Belles, a senior dance group of the former Harlem Chorus Girls. Ellis performed with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Duke Ellington, Don Redmond, and Andy Kirk during her career.

Employment

Max Sued School

Cotton Club

Café Zanzibar

Club Mimo

Lenox Lounge

Apollo Theater

Silver Belles

Favorite Color

Tan

Timing Pairs
0,0:4510,100:4838,122:20342,346:20737,352:22001,373:25635,442:35025,555:35595,563:36545,579:37020,585:53094,902:53454,911:68380,1173:82940,1310:83402,1318:86405,1360:86944,1368:87406,1375:87791,1383:89485,1768:101200,1874:127910,2110:134212,2190:134954,2200:148206,2488:151326,2540:153666,2600:154134,2607:154680,2629:164700,2783:180094,2945:182382,2982:186606,3071:190566,3169:216950,3432:221590,3640:222470,3677:230315,3754:236165,3889:236765,3900:239915,3956:245165,4076:245465,4081:270776,4396:271464,4407:272668,4432:278760,4489$0,0:2970,117:22112,326:25578,362:26168,370:38100,509:38580,517:53790,752:62364,797:62756,802:64200,807:64860,819:65700,839:81560,1038:82030,1044:82406,1049:82782,1054:85952,1121:87344,1134:90389,1186:94826,1264:99101,1369:116330,1589:117530,1611:120730,1673:131871,1836:137638,1950:143088,1997:143526,2004:143964,2012:145205,2034:145497,2039:155600,2365:159700,2394:177890,2502
DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Elaine Ellis' interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Elaine Ellis lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Elaine Ellis describes her mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Elaine Ellis describes her father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Elaine Ellis recalls living in Panama as a child

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Elaine Ellis remembers moving to New York City

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Elaine Ellis describes her early education

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Elaine Ellis recalls learning to dance

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Elaine Ellis talks about her neighborhoods in Queens and the Bronx, New York

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Elaine Ellis describes her early work experiences

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Elaine Ellis remembers dancing at the Cotton Club in New York City

Tape: 1 Story: 12 - Elaine Ellis talks about her son and husband

Tape: 1 Story: 13 - Elaine Ellis recalls working as a dancer in Atlantic City, New Jersey

Tape: 1 Story: 14 - Elaine Ellis recalls working at the Apollo Theater in New York City

Tape: 1 Story: 15 - Elaine Ellis recalls working as a bartender

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Elaine Ellis remembers her bartending awards

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Elaine Ellis recalls joining the Silver Belles dancing troupe

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Elaine Ellis recalls her experiences as a dancer at clubs in New York City

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Elaine Ellis remembers the Silver Belles documentary

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Elaine Ellis narrates her photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

1$2

DAStory

11$2

DATitle
Elaine Ellis remembers dancing at the Cotton Club in New York City
Elaine Ellis recalls joining the Silver Belles dancing troupe
Transcript
When did you decide to start auditioning for dance performances (simultaneous)?$$(Simultaneous) Oh, when I saw the ad for Spanish girls in the newspapers, in one of the newspapers. I don't know if it was the Amsterdam [New York Amsterdam News] or which one. But there was an ad for colored, for Spanish girls.$$Now, when you were working these other businesses, were you still dancing?$$Whenever I went out, I would show off a little bit.$$What kind of places did you go to?$$Different nightclubs.$$I thought maybe you might mention some of them, maybe some of them that don't exist anymore.$$Any ones, I bet you it wouldn't be existing now.$$Excellent.$$I think one was--I wish I had known you were going to ask me this. I know somebody that would have been able to tell me that.$$Who knows all the clubs?$$Yeah.$$Okay. Well, you know, I'm not going to press you if you don't remember exactly the name. I just wondered if you could think of any.$$I worked at the Lenox Lounge [New York, New York] for a while. And there was another place I worked on 7th Avenue [Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard]. I can't remember the name of it, where you went down the steps. I worked there for quite a while dancing. I remember the man that owned it. His name was Boodlum [ph.].$$Boodlum?$$(Laughter) Yeah.$$So, tell us about answering the advertisement for the Spanish chorus girls. Where was that audition held (simultaneous)?$$(Simultaneous) It was downtown at the Cotton Club [New York, New York].$$Okay.$$And I went down there, and it was a lineup of Spanish, beautiful Spanish women. But they couldn't swing, not then anyhow. The Cotton Club girls were all present. They were all present, and they put us in a line. And the first thing they asked for was the time step, which I knew. And I worked it. And then one of the girls--I saw one of the girls in the line that belonged--that worked there, motioned for me to come in the back, and I did. And they said, "Do you want to work here?" And I said, "Yeah." And they said, "We'll teach you the routines." And they did. I remember all the girls that taught me, too.$$Do you remember any of their names?$$Yes, I do.$$Will you tell us a couple?$$There were two sisters, oh, I remembered them up until now.$$Up until I just asked you.$$McCormack. Dolly McCormack and Pearl McCormack.$$And did they teach you--$$And Dot Dash [Dorothy Dash], she was married to Ed Smalls who owned Small's Paradise [New York, New York].$$Yes.$$She's the one that took me and really taught me the routines.$$And did they teach you the routines there at the Cotton Club?$$Yeah.$$How did that work?$$It worked fine.$$How much time did you spend learning?$$Every afternoon I'd go and work out with them; they took a lot of time with me. They were very kind to me.$$And how long after you started training with them did you start performing with them?$$Not too long afterwards, because I was hired.$$That same day?$$Yeah. And I remember the first time I danced I was in the lineup. All the old Cotton Club girls, they knew I was just starting with them. And they'd holler, "Smile, smile." And I won't even tell you what else they would call me. And they said, "You got to smile. And turn." They were telling me the steps while I was performing. And while we were performing, all the showgirls--you know, they had ponies and they had showgirls. The showgirls were the tall statuesque beautiful women. They would be parading while we were dancing. The ones who danced were called ponies. And that's what I was, because I'm short. But all the girls were so beautiful--tall and statuesque. They would pose, walk, and perform. That's all they did, they didn't dance at all. I'll never forget that.$$And when you were performing at the Cotton Club, what street was it on?$$It was downtown, I think on 40-something Street [48th Street] and Broadway.$$Because now we're at the Cotton Club, but we're on 12th Avenue I think and 125th Street--$$Right, right.$$--just to make the distinction.$$Right, it was a big difference.$$And what kind of bands--do you remember any of the bands?$$Andy Kirk for one, and Don Redman. Cab [Cab Calloway] didn't work--I never worked with Cab there. But I remember Andy Kirk and Don Redman.$$What was your schedule like?$$Well, I, I, I had a son [William Monroe (ph.)], so I couldn't, I didn't hang out. I used to just go to work, and after work I'd take a cab home because I knew he'd be up waiting for me.$When Geri [HistoryMaker Geraldine Rhodes Kennedy] started the group [Silver Belles], you know I wanted to be in it. Because they--she had all the great dancers, people that I really always used to look up to as far as their ability. So I was so proud to be invited. And I danced as much for her, with her group, than I did before, because we made all the big spots.$$Which ones?$$We worked Atlantic City [New Jersey] on the boardwalk with the Sister Sledge, and we were the only black female group ever to work on that boardwalk at that time. So we got a lot of, we were well-known; we became well-known. And we did a lot of benefits. When I say benefits, we used to work at a lot of senior citizen centers to try to keep the people, the elderly people, interested in doing something. Geri said that people were just sitting around waiting to die, and if they saw that we had so much fun dancing and doing things, they might wake up and do something to keep themselves, you know, motivated. That's how we got started.$$And do you think that that happened?$$Oh, it certainly did. It certainly did. I didn't know that I would become one of the ones waiting to die. At the time that we joined, none of us even thought about it. We were having so much fun just being with each other. But I think we did a lot of good, because a lot of people said, "If they're that old and they're up there dancing, we can do it too, you know." And I heard a couple of groups got started after seeing us.$$Really?$$Uh-huh.$$Perhaps at one of the senior centers?$$Yeah.$$That's excellent. So you would agree with Geri that dancing prolongs a person's life?$$Yes.$$Activity of any kind, but I just am focused on dancing.$$Well, it was fun because dancing is fun. If you like it, it's fun, and you show it. And if you show them all the energy that you have, then they'll want to do something, too. At least they'll give up sitting around waiting, thinking they can't do anything.$$Why do you think that people reach a certain age and think that they can't do anything?$$Because there's nothing out there for elderly people to do. There's nothing. Now they're opening up a lot of rehab places, but at one time there was no place for them to go. You can't, you can't hang out. There's no--where are you going to go? You need money for anything that you do. And after they retire, they don't have that kind of money. So, consequently, they just sit around and wait 'til they're taken. That's about all--

John Matthews

Community activist and union organizer John Alderman Matthews, Sr. was born on March 3, 1910 in the Panama Canal Zone to Theresa and Christopher Sylvester Matthews, a homemaker and a school teacher from Jamaica. One of seven siblings, Matthews grew up and attended high school in Kingston, Jamaica. After high school, Matthews moved to New York City, where over the years, he studied at New York University, the New School of Social Research, City Colleges of New York, and Bronx Community College.

Matthews began working in the field of civil rights in 1935 when he and four other workers formed the first picket line against the Transport Workers Union. At the same time, he became a founding member of the Harlem Labor Union, forcing the union to accept African American as bus drivers. In 1943, Matthews attended military school in New Jersey and served in the 92nd United States Infantry Division in Europe.

After returning from the war, Matthews went to work as a salesman, but continued his community activism. He founded a bartenders’ and restaurant workers’ union that broke open employment barriers in Harlem and the rest of New York City in the mid-1950s. In 1963, he worked as a campaign secretary to U.S. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. In the mid-1960s, Matthews spearheaded efforts that ended discriminatory hiring or membership practices by Bond Clothing Stores, Bronx State Hospital, Park Sheraton Hotel, Borden’s, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. This work culminated in Matthews, who had earlier become the first Vice President of the New York Chapter of the NAACP, being named chairman of the NAACP Labor and Industry Department in 1967.

Throughout the late 1960s, Matthews continued his political activism, founding the Kennedy Democratic Club. He was recognized for his accomplishments in Newsweek magazine in 1995. Throughout his life, Matthews continued to organize communities under tenants and youth organizations.

Matthews was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on December 17, 2006.

Matthews passed away on March 28, 2013.

Accession Number

A2006.176

Sex

Male

Interview Date

12/17/2006

Last Name

Matthews

Maker Category
Schools

Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing & Visual Arts

First Name

John

Birth City, State, Country

Panama

HM ID

MAT05

Favorite Season

Hunting Season

Favorite Vacation Destination

Jamaica, Bermuda, Panama

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Interview Description
Birth Date

3/7/1910

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York

Country

Panama

Favorite Food

Lobster, Clams, Oysters

Death Date

3/28/2013

Short Description

Salesman and community activist John Matthews (1910 - 2013 ) was the co-coordinator of the first picket line against the Transport Workers Union and became a founding member of the Harlem Labor Union. Matthews also founded a restaurant workers’ union that broke open employment barriers in Harlem, New York, and was named chairman of the NAACP Labor and Industry department.

Employment

Local 2

Favorite Color

Aquamarine

Timing Pairs
0,0:1816,30:3132,49:38163,421:43956,488:50559,610:70239,995:104560,1373$0,0:385,14:770,20:2541,52:3080,60:3388,65:3696,70:4235,78:6545,144:6930,150:8701,184:17313,282:17685,289:18057,294:32876,475:45840,615:46506,650:54360,759:69348,926:72090,931:75398,960:75992,970:77642,1016:81668,1093:83450,1121:83714,1126:88590,1147
DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of John Matthews' interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - John Matthews lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - John Matthews describes his parents

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - John Matthews describes his parents' move to the Panama Canal Zone

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - John Matthews describes his childhood in Kingston, Jamaica

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - John Matthews describes his grandparents

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - John Matthews describes his childhood in Cuba

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - John Matthews recalls his high school education in Jamaica and New York City

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - John Matthews describes the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - John Matthews recalls attending night school in New York City

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - John Matthews describes New York City's Harlem neighborhood

Tape: 1 Story: 12 - John Matthews describes his life in New York City's Harlem neighborhood

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - John Matthews describes his occupations in New York City

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - John Matthews recalls how he became involved in labor organizing

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - John Matthews remembers picketing the Transport Workers Union of America

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - John Matthews recalls Joe Louis' boxing matches in New York City

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - John Matthews remembers demonstrating with the Harlem Labor Union

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - John Matthews remembers serving in the segregated U.S. Army

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - John Matthews explains his decision to attend military school

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - John Matthews recalls being among the first black liquor salesmen in New York City

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - John Matthews recalls his work with the Liquor Salesmen's Union Local 2

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - John Matthews talks about marrying a white woman

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - John Matthews recalls the African American clientele of Frank's Restaurant

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - John Matthews recalls his initiatives against employment discrimination

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - John Matthews explains his organizing methods

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - John Matthews recalls Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.'s role in picket organizing

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - John Matthews remembers forming the Robert F. Kennedy Democratic Club

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - John Matthews recalls working on Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.'s campaign

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - John Matthews recalls the American Federation of Labor's discrimination against black workers

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - John Matthews describes his NAACP involvement

Tape: 3 Story: 11 - John Matthews reflects upon his civil rights accomplishments

Tape: 3 Story: 12 - John Matthews talks about the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - John Matthews remembers attending the March on Washington

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - John Matthews recalls the 156th Street Tenants and Friends Block Association

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - John Matthews recalls serving on the Francis Delafield Hospital Community Board

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - John Matthews talks about New York City's NAACP chapter

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - John Matthews reflects upon his achievements as a civil rights organizer

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - John Matthews talks about the Concerned Citizens Block Association

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - John Matthews describes New York City's 161st Street

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - John Matthews talks about stereotypes of African Americans

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - John Matthews describes his relationship with David N. Dinkins

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - John Matthews recalls advancements in civil rights during his lifetime

Tape: 4 Story: 11 - John Matthews describes his involvement in Prince Hall Masonry

Tape: 4 Story: 12 - John Matthews reflects upon his volunteerism

Tape: 4 Story: 13 - John Matthews recalls meeting Malcolm X and Fidel Castro

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - John Matthews talks about the New York City Fire Department and his current volunteer work

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - John Matthews describes the boating community of Freeport, New York

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - John Matthews describes how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - John Matthews reflects upon his life

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - John Matthews recalls famous members of New York City's Harlem community

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - John Matthews describes New York City's African American political leaders

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - John Matthews describes his hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - John Matthews talks about his contact with the mafia

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - John Matthews describes his love of music

Tape: 5 Story: 10 - John Matthews recalls his campaign for district leader in New York City

Tape: 5 Story: 11 - John Matthews recalls his awards and recognitions

Tape: 5 Story: 12 - John Matthews remembers Charles B. Rangel

Tape: 5 Story: 13 - John Matthews recalls playing alto saxophone in a local band

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - John Matthews recalls his presidency of the Bottle and Cork Club

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - John Matthews remembers Evelyn Cunningham

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - John Matthews reflects upon his life and the importance of history

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - John Matthews narrates his photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

3$3

DAStory

9$11

DATitle
John Matthews recalls the American Federation of Labor's discrimination against black workers
John Matthews reflects upon his civil rights accomplishments
Transcript
Now why did you decide to, to open the League of Construction Workers?$$The league? Because as I tell you before, trying to--not transfer--the unions had A Local, B Local. B Local was the fabrication shop where all the black people could work in there. But in the other high rise buildings and all that, black people couldn't work. And the A Local black people wasn't in the A Local. And the union was member of the American Federation of Labor. And that was a discriminatory union also, right. So this is where it's all starting. And then the Congress of Industrial Organizations which was founded by John L. Lewis, and then later on the CIO merged with the AF of L CIO [American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)]. But the Congress of Industrial Organizations started from discrimination in the AF of L, see.$$Now what did you do? And, and you fought them as well. The AF of L.$$Yeah I fought the AF of L, I had to. Well like Michael Quill and them, they belongs to a union, which was all black. And they was affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. So have to break a lot of barriers, man, lot of barriers. It take time to sit down to remember like if you were to get me when I was sixty, would I remember all that (laughter) (simultaneous).$$(Simultaneous) You're doing a great job, you're doing a great job.$Well when you think about like the '60s [1960s] and working with Adam Clayton Powell [Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.] and the Kennedys, and of all of those things you've done, which are you most proud of?$$Well what can I tell you, I'm proud of all of them, man. I'm proud of everything that I have done. As I said to you before, probably the reason why I lived to be ninety-seven, I am wide open with everybody. I don't have no enemies that I know of. To say you don't have a enemy, you're gonna have enemy, I don't care what you do in life. But I am an open person. I like everybody, I don't care who the guy is, could be a junkie. 'Cause I never know when the junkie can help me cross the street. The same one that I don't like is the one gonna help me, right. So I have an open mind. And my life with the human race, I don't care whether you're white or you're black. To me everybody's the same. You was made by the same creator just like he put all different types of plant in the woods, different birds, different animals. And all of 'em seem together except the human being. We make discrimination against each other. So that's it.