Hard as might be to believe, but just a decade ago Deep Deuce was a no-man’s land where development seemed to be an odd and unlikely prospect. Of course we know today it’s downtown’s most vibrant mixed neighborhood, home to restaurants, offices, a market and plenty of housing. Penny Owen, once one of The Oklahoman’s best feature writers (she left the paper a few months ago), joined me in trying to capture the area’s past and future with this 1998 front page story:
Sentimental Journey Proposals Revive Deep Deuce Memories Deuce
By Steve Lackmeyer, Penny Owen
Sunday, October 25, 1998
The good times still come easy for James “Doebelly” Brooks.
All the 78-year-old Deep Deuce diehard has to do is close his eyes, raise his face to the ceiling and turn his protruding bottom lip into a smile. The music, he says, flows into his ear, then stops at his heart, long enough to kick in a rhythmic ba-boom, ba-boom. Then his foot starts tapping. Then it all comes back.
Doebelly picked his dance spot from the sounds traveling down NE 2, in the once-flourishing black business district often just called the Deuce.
It just took an earful to know where Don Cherry was blowing his trumpet, where Charlie Christian was jamming or whether Count Basie was in town.
Dancing got Doebelly married once. He stole the show on another night when he urged a not-so-attractive dance partner on the floor.
“There was good times and bad times,” says Doebelly, eyes still shut tight. “The bad times was when I couldn’t get down there.”
Deep Deuce is just a memory now. Only a handful of buildings remain, and they are boarded up and desolate. But at least two competing developers envision a revived Deep Deuce where remaining buildings are restored and a place is created where hundreds of new downtown dwellers can live.
How serious is such interest? Urban Renewal officials have the task over the next few months of deciding who gets to invest at least $15 million to rebuild Deep Deuce. At the same time, some folks fear Deep Deuce will become a commercialized urban playground devoid of its rich past.
“It will come back, but it won’t be the same,” laments Charlie Nicholson, an organizer of Deep Deuce’s annual Charlie Christian Jazz Festival. “Too much of (commercialization) will kill it.”
According to the state Historical Society, Doebelly was the last resident to leave his beloved Deuce, where he propped up a hand-painted sign pointing folks into a chair for a good shoe shine. Doebelly called Deep Deuce home for 65 years before leaving for good in 1995.
Now, he opens his eyes to a cluttered living room several miles away. His shoe shining bench sits on his front porch, next to a Black Chronicle newspaper rack.
He misses the Deuce, where prominent black businessmen, rich in dreams, fought for justice and swapped stories on the sidewalks, in the barber shops and at Ruby’s Grill.
The Deuce was a small, spirited town, though a forced one, where segregation drew the lines where blacks could and could not live.
Doctors, lawyers, dentists and insurance agents mingled at the Slaughter Building at NE 2 and Stiles Avenue. The building’s third floor was an auditorium that featured the likes of Bill “Count” Basie, the Blue Devils, Charlie Christian and Jimmy Rushing.
Strolling the streets regularly was Judge A.B. McDonald, who smoked a fat cigar and carried an old suitcase stuffed with cash.
“He looked something like Howard Hughes, except he was black,” Doebelly said.
Locals would holler, “Hey Judge, whacha got in that case?”
“None o’ yer business,” he’d snap back.
Doebelly recalled how McDonald got the word “Negro” taken off the official ballot. He also used an entire block to grow vegetables along NE 7. Everything and everybody was within walking distance.
Kids, too, hung around NE 2 – especially on Saturdays, when they’d take in a movie at the Aldridge, Oklahoma City’s first black theater. They might take in an ice cream cone as well at the old Bethel Drug Co. – a place straight out of Norman Rockwell, with glossy wooden floors, ice cream chairs and a soda jerk behind the stretched-out counter.
Even if developers succeed in bringing the neighborhood back to Deep Deuce, Doebelly doesn’t expect them to re-create the camaraderie he still can revive in his mind. “If you was sick, they come to see you. If you couldn’t do your house, they’d come and do it for you.”
Preachers sat around the kitchen tables and prayed with folks. Mostly, people just got together.
“If I came over to your house and I got outta line, I got a whuppin’ there,” Doebelly recalled fondly. “If I had my way, I’d go back down on Second Street.”
Why Did Deuce Die?
Not every building in Deep Deuce is boarded up. Good Baptists still attend church at Calvary Baptist Tabernacle on the corner of NE 2 and Walnut. Patients still visit Dr. G.E. Finley at his building across the street.
Three surviving buildings along NE 2 are listed on the National Historic Register. They’re not architecturally significant – but they’re historical, said Dr. Bob Blackburn, deputy director of the historical society.
Blackburn and others say there is more than one culprit responsible for the area’s demise.
“In the 1960s and even into the ’70s, there was still a thriving business district that had the area’s historic character.”
But like most inner cities, the Deuce fell victim to sprawl.
“The young generation, they went car crazy,” Doebelly said. “People stopped walkin’ the streets.”
Then came Urban Renewal.
Urban planners across the country launched a war against blight that called for demolition of old buildings, often without regard for historical significance. Urban Renewal in the 1970s often replaced old ornate structures in need of repair with lots that remain empty today.
The opening of Interstate 235 cured downtown of traffic snarls that resulted from Broadway Extension turning into a three-lane residential corridor south of NW 36. Highway builders, however, removed dozens of homes and businesses that kept Deep Deuce going.
“The life blood was gone, so the heart died,” Blackburn said.
Music and the Deuce
Deep Second was our fond nickname for the block in which Rushing worked and lived, and where most Negro business and entertainment were found, and before he went to cheer a whiter world, his voice evoked a festive spirit of the place.
Indeed, he was the natural essence of its joy. For Jimmy Rushing was not simply a local entertainer, he expressed a value, an attitude about the world for which our lives afforded no other definition.
We had a Negro church and a segregated school, a few lodges and fraternal organizations, and beyond these there was the great, white world. We were pushed off to what seemed to be the least desirable side of the city, and our system of justice was based upon Texas law, yet there was an optimism within the Negro community and a sense of possibility which, despite our awareness of limitation (dramatized so brutally in the Tulsa riot of 1921), transcended all of this; and it was this rock- bottom sense of reality, coupled with our sense of the possibility of rising above it, which sounded in Rushing’s voice….
We were still too young to attend night dances, but yet old enough to gather beneath the corner street lamp on summer evenings, anyone might halt the conversation to exclaim “Listen, they’re raising hell down at Slaughter’s Hall,” and we’d turn our heads westward to hear Jimmy’s voice soar up the hill and down, as pure and as miraculously unhindered by distance and earthbound things as is the body in youthful dreams of flying.
- Ralph Ellison, from “Shadow and Act,” 1964.
Opinions differ as to how NE 2 and the surrounding area became known as Deep Deuce. Some believe the term alludes to the wild times that could be found among the community’s jazz clubs and beer joints.
Blackburn offers a much more mundane explanation.
“If you travel along Second Street, and you go across the tracks, first you go along a little rise where the Calvary Baptist church is, and then you go down,” Blackburn said.
Despite such explanations, many will forever associate Deep Deuce with jazz, rhythm and blues.
Musicians who journeyed to the Deuce included Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, Fats Domino, Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King, James Brown, Ray Charles, Bo Diddley, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Ike and Tina Turner.
Benny Goodman wooed hometown favorite Charlie Christian to New York City several times to perform.
Oklahoma City had its own sound.
While jazz in the eastern states sounded closer to New Orleans-style tunes, Oklahoma City jazz had more of a swing to it, said Nicholson, who collects and sells old records in his store along Classen.
“Individuals would come in and just cook it. Everything walked and talked and moved,” Nicholson said of days long gone. “They were on a magical journey.”
Along came Zelia Breaux, the so-called “godmother of music,” who taught jazz to the likes of Jimmy Rushing and Charlie Christian at Douglass High School.
“She was one of those gifted teachers who could motivate students,” Blackburn said. “She created this culture of music.”
Deuce nightclubs and beer joints vibrated with a creativity and wholesomeness that was a whole lot of fun – but not very lucrative.
Musicians who had any aspirations, or who simply needed to fill their wallets, were forced to leave Oklahoma City behind for their careers, Nicholson said. They headed for bands in other jazz-rich cities – like Memphis and Chicago.
Officials with the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority promise none of the remaining buildings will be destroyed to make room for the new Deuce. Development proposals pitched last week offer different visions for saving what’s left of the area.
Nicholson wonders if the original spirit of Deep Deuce jazz and the district’s character can survive such commercialization.
“How’re you gonna let ‘em vent if you got ‘em all stiffed up, charging $3 a head?” he wondered. To really bring jazz back will mean bringing the black people back into the district and all the emotion.
“You can’t go back and do what was done,” Nicholson said. “But if the jazz is good, people will come.”