Boots, Sarah and Eileen don’t look like prostitutes. But that’s who Jean, the 88-year-old woman who has kept their photos for the last eight decades, said they were. Admittedly, my idea of Depression Era sex workers comes from films made prior to the 1934 Hollywood production code, not long before these photos were taken by Jean’s family.
The young women, one fair-haired and two brunettes, are dressed demurely. Boots is wearing a necktie blouse; Eileen, a polka-dot top over sheer organza; and Sarah, a dark, novelty-pattern dress (that a costumer friend suspects has been altered to seem more up-to-date. But, more on Sarah later). Unlike tight-sweatered Joan Blondell in the climax of Busby Berkley’s “Gold Diggers of 1933,” (1933) or the negligee-clad, bottle-blondes enjoying hooch and chocolate cake in William Wellman’s “Wild Boys of the Road,” (1933) these ladies aren’t dressed to advertise their profession. They could be Woolworth’s sales clerks or Jefferson Standard stenographers having $0.05 lunches at Hamburger Square.
The hardships of the Great Depression
But Boots, Sarah and Eileen weren’t sales clerks or stenographers. They lived in and worked out of the Piedmont Hotel at Elm and Edwards Place (now West McGee), on the floors presently occupied by Longshank’s and the Green Burro. There, they plied their trade in partnership with Jean’s grandfather, Luther “Broadus” Coleman, who ran the hotel and charged much more for a room with a young woman in it than one with just a bed, dresser and radiator.
“They look like nice girls because they were,” said Jean, who thinks she was 7 or 8 years old when the photos were taken.
Boots, Eileen and Sarah were even sometimes guests in Jean’s mother’s home in Winston-Salem. She believes her whole family knew how the three women earned their living in the 24-room, two-floor hotel leased and managed by her grandfather, but it was not something spoken of until Jean was older. Jean believes that the three nice, young women Boots, Eileen and Sarah took up their profession due to the hardships of the Great Depression.
“It was the Depression and people did what they had to do,” Jean said. “Mama tried taking in washing like our African-American neighbors did, but that was such hard work back then when you did everything by hand and warmed the iron in the fireplace. Other family members sold fruit on the street.”
That economic catastrophe is generally thought of as ending in 1939. Two years later, Pearl Harbor would bring a boom in (temporary) economic opportunities for American women.
But 1941 also saw the creation of the Greensboro Overseas Replacement Depot, which trained United States Army Air Force recruits from all over the nation. Before the war’s end, it would deploy over 150,000 airmen to combat theaters around the world. Greensboro had become very much a military town and would remain that into the 1950s.
The Piedmont’s demise and beyond
In 1940, Greensboro police raided the Piedmont and charged Jean’s grandfather with maintaining “a disorderly house.” Nowadays, that denotes a residence deemed a public nuisance or community annoyance, but prior to World War II, it was used interchangeably with “bawdy house” (in the antebellum South, it was specifically one that “crossed the color line,” but that usage was rare by the first World War). The manager and his female “tenants” weren’t the only ones who profited from the hotel’s extra services.
“There was a porter named Slim, who’d meet men downstairs or at the bus station across the street and take them up to see the girls,” Jean said. “I guess Slim was a…what do you call it?”
“A pimp,” said her nephew David Gwynn, whom I used to work with at Kinko’s but is now a librarian and digital projects coordinator for University of North Carolina Greensboro Libraries.
Gwynn is the one who introduced me to his aunt (whose name, by the way, is not Jean). Jean doesn’t want me to use her real name (but Gwynn said he was “not proud” and was fine using his name), but she doesn’t mind my identifying her grandfather. She describes Coleman as a “notorious carouser” and a vexation to her more straight-laced grandmother Mary, who married him in Durham in 1907 and divorced him in Greensboro in 1940. The Greensboro Daily News Notice of Separation from July 24 of that year gives Mary Coleman’s address as 308 West Gaston Street and Broadus Coleman’s as the Piedmont Hotel (she had given him the heave-ho before he first appeared in court on July 27).
Besides the word “disorderly,” the charges described the hotel as “a house of assignation.” Complaints were also filed against the property owner, one W. J. Barker of Randolph County, and his agent C. P. Carmichael, but only Coleman would be convicted. On Sept. 8, 1940, Coleman was given a suspended sentence, court costs and a $25 fine by 12th District Judge H. Hoyle Sink, on the condition of three years good behavior. Seemingly out of the bordello business after that, Coleman died in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1950, having moved there from Greensboro the year before.
On Sept. 27, 1941, the Greensboro Daily News reported that the GPD “staged a timed raid on 11 small hotels last night on the eve of the arrival in the city of 17,000 soldiers” and “arrested five women and three men on morals charges.” All five of those arrests were at the former Piedmont–by then the Astor. The war years would bring regular coordinated raids on the city’s smaller hotels and each time, the majority of the busts would be at the Astor and its successor the MacArthur. In all but one case, the charges were some variant of “occupying a room for immoral purposes,” suggesting that some may have been purely sexual liaisons rather than commercial transactions. The exception was on Feb. 25, 1943, when Earl Sellars, identified on the report as both a “Negro” and “Astor Hotel Porter,” was arrested on the charge of aiding and abetting prostitution and jailed in default of a $500 bond. While there’s no way of knowing if Sellars was “Slim,” the pimp Jean remembers from the previous decade, it’s worth noting that his sentence was much harsher than the suspended one her grandfather received three years before (I suspect this had less to do with any particular crackdown on vice than with the men’s respective races).
Jean’s memories of the “call girls” who lived at the Piedmont date from the 1930s. I’ve been unable to find any records of vice raids there before 1940, but this doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. On Nov. 23, 1936, the Greensboro Daily News reported one Pedro Miller of Albemarle robbed of $175 while he slept in his room. An unidentified man and woman, who spent $38 to charter a cab to Gaffney, South Carolina (but jumped out of it near Wadesboro), were sought in connection with the case. But there were no busts for prostitution.
Vice at the Piedmont didn’t end with Judge Hoyle’s ordering it padlocked on July 27, 1940. Despite that order, there’s some question of how long the lockdown lasted, or if the doors were actually locked at all as on Aug. 19, the Greensboro Record reported the padlocking “delayed pending outcome of the case” against Coleman. That outcome came on Sept. 8, when Coleman received his suspended sentence and fine. He doesn’t seem to have been associated with the hotel after that, but if was ever actually shut down, it re-opened as the Astor in 1942 and then the MacArthur from 1943 until the early 1960s, when it closed for good. Edwards Place became West McGee Street and the upper floors of 106 W. McGee remained untenanted by anyone except pigeons (and ghosts, so I have heard) for almost 40 years.
Inside the legendary bordello
The Hamburger Square Bordello, or also known as The Elm Street Brothel, has been a Greensboro urban legend for decades, but like the more recent Tate Street Biker Invasion or the Snake versus Giovanni Shootout, was I could never get a source to talk about on the record. Until now. I first heard it in the 1980s from bartender Creighton Abrams at the old Rhinoceros Club on Greene Street, and his co-worker who joked (or maybe not) of wanting to revive it. When the hotel’s old location was renovated a decade later, I heard the legend again from Creighton’s brother Tom, who is memorialized on the M’Coul’s mural.
As the years went by, the tale became more redolent of a 19th century New Orleans’ bordello, the kind with red velvet curtains and nude marble statues in a parlor where Johns reclined in plush armchairs and listened to the music of a rinky-dink piano before being ushered up to the women’s rooms. In contrast to this ornate fantasy, Jean recalls it as scarcely having a real lobby, just a landing on the second floor. Like most early 20th century brothels, it would have looked like what it pretended to be, a small budget hotel (albeit, one with a gorgeous Italianate roof, as seen in the 1941 photo) near the train and bus stations, with the bulk of its square footage given over to rooms rather than communal space.
That’s what Gwynn saw in 1980 when he was given permission from the property’s then-owner to enter it and take photos of the rooms once managed by his great-grandfather. It’s also what Simon Ritchy discovered when he purchased the building from Bruce Taylor in 1993.
Ritchy said there wasn’t much left when he took possession: Two floors, both consisting of a hall lined with six rooms on either side, each room with its own radiator and a communal bathroom with a clawfoot bathtub on each hall.
In an eccentric touch, the inner rooms had fake windows painted on their walls.
“We tore down those walls, got rid of everything, made a single room of each floor,” Ritchy said.
The tubs from the bathrooms became planters in his daughter Simonne McClinton’s pub, M’Coul’s. Both Ritchy and McClinton said they’ve heard the hotel was still being used as a brothel up until it closed (that’s not all McClinton has heard, but let’s save that tidbit for a spooky coda).
The bordello’s past and present
In the early 1970s, Ritchy said he was told an interesting story by a Greensboro cop. The officer claimed to have first seen Hamburger Square as a soldier in 1952.
Not only did he tell Ritchy that Jim’s Lunch, the corner joint beneath the hotel, had been “the most notorious bar on the East Coast,” but he said that when he inquired about hotel rates, he was told, “$20 a night with, $4 without.” When he asked “with or without what?”, the only response was a curt “If you don’t know, ain’t gonna tell you.”
So how much did a room with Boots, Eileen or Sarah cost twenty years before that? You’d have to ask them. One may still be around.
Let’s close with McClinton, and a story to cool the summer heat by reminding us it must eventually give way to autumn’s chill. M’Coul’s hadn’t been open long when McClinton told me, she started noticing odd things late at night: laughter from the upstairs ladies’ room– but nobody in it and the sensation of someone brushing by her on the stairs– but nobody there. Stuff like that. So, she consulted a medium.
When I told McClinton that I had three photographs of women who’d allegedly worked at the bordello in the mid-1930s, she had an immediate question.
“Was one of them named Sarah?” McClinton asked.
I asked her how she knew.
“The medium told me that some of the girls from the bordello had come back, and one of them was named that,” McClinton said.
Unlike McClinton, I’m a skeptic. But next time I’m getting a fried cod sandwich or having a last-call Guinness on a rainy Sunday night when M’Coul’s is almost empty, maybe I’ll step into the upstairs landing, connecting it with Longshank’s and the Green Burro, whisper Sarah’s name, and see if someone I can’t see will softly answer.