Two of America’s best-known black entertainers - Sammy Davis Jr. and Louis Armstrong - had well-publicized hotel dust-ups in Spokane.
In the autobiography “Yes I Can,” Sammy Davis Jr. wrote about his fruitless search for a hotel room in Spokane early in his career (apparently mid-to-late 1940s). Davis was appearing in town as part of the Will Mastin Trio. In the book, Davis writes that when the trio pulled into town, they couldn’t find a single place to stay:
“Will asked, ‘You mean there’s nothing in the whole city of Spokane?’
” ‘There ain’t that many colored rooming houses to start with.’
” ‘What about a hotel?’
” ‘Ain’t a single colored hotel around.’ “
“I’ll get us a room (said Davis). In the whitest goddamned hotel in town.”
So Davis sauntered into a hotel (he doesn’t identify it by name) and asks for three rooms. He is told that the place is “swamped” and that there are no rooms.
Here’s how he describes what happened next, beginning with the words of a bellboy:
” ‘… Nervy nigger wanted a room. Some crust.’ A bellboy was telling the story to the doorman and he didn’t care a bit that I heard him. ‘Go on,’ he said. ‘Get outta here. Go back where you belong.’
“The face wasn’t grinning or leering or mocking, it just looked at me with the kind of contempt you have for something that you dispose of with a DDT spray gun.
“All of the strength in the world was in my body as I hurtled toward that face and hit it.”
The bellboy apparently hit back. The next thing Davis remembered, he said, “I was sitting on the ground. … After all my big talk, all I could think was that my nose was broken and I had to keep the blood from staining my shirt.”
Davis and his partners ended up sleeping on tarps on the floor of their dressing room.
That incident never made the Spokane news, probably because Davis was not yet a star.
But Louis Armstrong was already a beloved international icon when an incident occurred at the Davenport Hotel in 1950.
He and his band were booked to play the Armory on March 4, but when they arrived at the Davenport the day before, a desk clerk told them they had no rooms. Armstrong’s people said they had made advance reservations, but the Davenport manager said no reservations were on the books and no rooms were vacant.
In any case, Armstrong “left in a huff,” according to The Spokesman-Review.
The Davenport manager said he tried to get him rooms at another hotel, but Armstrong headed for the railroad station.
“Armed with what he felt was righteous wrath, he boarded a train for Seattle,” said The Spokesman-Review.
Jazz fans were in a frenzy; the next day’s big concert was in jeopardy. The promoters called Armstrong in Seattle and begged him to come back. Reservations were made at the Spokane Hotel, and Armstrong relented. He flew back the next day.
“Three shining new cars donated by the Utter Motor company met him at the airport,” reported The Spokesman-Review. “A caravan of Washington State Patrol wagons and police cars screeched a siren escort into town for him. A line of photographers flashed their cameras when he strode into the Spokane lobby.”
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MEMO: See related story under the headline: Breaking down the barriers