Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Detroit's Griot of Griswold Street--Larry Mongo--on The Blue Vein Society

In a hidden pocket--a couple of blocks up and over from Grand Circus Park in downtown Detroit--Cafe D'Mongo's Speakeasy is tucked within a very short block. Owner Larry Mongo bought the business in 1985 from the Greek Seros family. At one time, the building contained an old-fashioned soda shop.

There is a low counter top and stationary stools bolted to the floor and four booths across from them. Behind the booths is a wall separating an area with upholstered chairs and a few small tables facing a grand piano where the Speakeasy's house band Carl and Company--led by Carl, the Human Jukebox--performs after 8:00 PM on Friday and Saturday nights. The bar is open from 5:00 PM until closing.

There is no better way to describe D'Mongo's Speakeasy than an authentic Detroit dive. The interior decoration looks like a museum of Detroit memorabilia. Its walls are loaded with photos that harken to Detroit's underworld past, mixed with vintage photos of the Mongo family from the 1920's onward. Many celebrities have made the pilgrimage to D'Mongo's--Quentin Tarantino for one and Ryan Gosling for another.

Larry Mongo and Quentin Tarantino

In early October, Larry invited my researcher Ryan M. Place and I to attend a taping at Cafe D'Mongo's Speakeasy for a program called Ten Best Bars In America for Esquire magazine. The joint was packed with the new face of Detroit--a mixture of young, upwardly mobile Detroiters. 


The Mongo family has had a long and fabled history in Detroit since the first four Mongo men left South Carolina in 1906 to avoid the long arm of the law. During prohibition, the Mongo family had to pay off the Purple Gang, so they could safely operate a chain of fish stores in the Detroit area--which the gang used to launder their bootlegging and brothel profits. This relationship gave that generation of Mongos a certain level of protection, power, and respect on the street.

In more recent Detroit history, Larry and his younger brother Adolph have been political advisers to black mayors from Coleman Young--Detroit's first black mayor--to Kwame Kilpatrick. When things went terribly wrong in the Kilpatrick administration, the Mongo's wisely stepped aside.

One afternoon, I was able to meet and talk with Larry Mongo about the issue of race which has dominated Detroit politics for the last fifty years. Being an Ofay--derisive black term for a white person--I wasn't aware of something which social scientists have labeled pigmentocracy. Within the American black population at the turn of the twentieth-century until the 1960s, wealth and status were regulated by shade of skin color.

"There was an interracial caste system in the black community where dark skinned blacks were looked down upon by lighter skinned blacks as being genetically inferior," Larry Mongo explained. "There was something called The Blue Vein Society where a person had to show his or her forearm to look for a dark blue vein to determine if the person was mixed race or not.

"Inner racism was worse at times than outer racism. We classified ourselves by shade of color or how much African blood you had. You might be described as an octoroon--a person of one-eighth African blood--or a mulatto--bi-racial or somewhere in between."

President Johnson and Martin Luther King at signing of the 1964 Civil Rights bill.

I asked Larry Mongo about the impact of the 1964 Civil Rights Act on Detroit's black community. "After the Civil Rights Act--passed by Lyndon Johnson's administration--everything changed in the black community and neighborhoods," Larry explained.

"Don't get me wrong, things weren't perfect back then, but everyone knew their place and the color lines were clearly drawn. Cross them and you did so at your own risk. That was in the heyday of the Jim Crow--separate but equal--laws.

"All manner of black businesses catered to black neighborhoods and things usually went okay. Everyone was getting by. When the Jim Crow laws were repealed and the Civil Rights Act was passed into law, more affluent blacks could spent their money in white establishments like hotels and restaurants which had been off limits before.

Patterns of segregation--previously enforced by red-lining and real estate covenants--became illegal and drew middle-class blacks out of the ghettos into outlying areas. This migration drew valuable resources away from the black neighborhoods.

"Many black businesses were mom-and-pop operations in neighborhoods that could no longer support them. These
neighborhoods went into further decline struggling to survive. Then in the sweltering heat of July 23rd, 1967--all hell broke loose on 12th Street--Detroit started to burn. 

"When (Antoine) Cadillac came here in 1701, it took 250 years to build up Detroit. This city has rotted from the inside out. Detroit needs a new economy--then business growth will begin to feed everything else. The city will survive only by creating wealth and decent jobs to help our residents pull themselves out of poverty and despair. More of our young people need to go to school rather than jail. They need to go to the library instead of the street corner. Now that will be a real revolution."


After my afternoon visit with Larry Mongo, I decided to Google the Blue Vein Society to learn more about it. From there, my research led me to several other culturally historic facts about the black community in the first half of the twentieth-century.

The phrase Blue Vein Society originated at the end of the nineteenth-century, according to American author Charles W. Chesnutt in 1898. "This is a group which limited its membership to blue veins--light-skinned black people white enough to show blue veins on their forearms.

"At the turn of the century, there were many American cities with Blue Vein Societies representing the miniscule black upper and upper-middle classes. The negro Blue Vein Society mimicked the white patrician Blue Blood Societies. Their primary purpose was to sponsor balls and galas as meeting places for eligible blue veined youth."

The Creoles in Louisiana formed almost a separate class of black American because they tended to be better educated with lighter skin--the children of more generations of co-mingling with European whites--especially the French and Spanish.

Another phenomenon of black cultural pigmentocracy--a carry over from the nineteenth century--was the paper bag test which originated in New Orleans. A brown paper bag would be attached to the entrance of a party or event--for instance--and anyone darker than the paper bag was denied admittance. This test was said to have been used in many churches, fraternities, and nightclubs.

Michael Eric Dyson
American author Michael Eric Dyson wrote, "The brown paper bag test is a metaphor for how the black cultural elite literally established a caste (system) along color lines within the black community. This is one of the ways blacks with European ancestry attempted to isolate and distinguish themselves from those who are mostly African."

My research also revealed some other labels still used within the black community. A redbone describes light coppery or caramel colored skin with red overtones in the hair, sometimes with freckles and sometimes not. A yellowbone--also called high yellow--is slang for light-skinned black females who could often pass as a white person. This was the world before the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In an attempt to secure a better life in segregated America, many light-skinned, mixed-race blacks crossed the color line as reborn descendants of European ancestry and never looked back.

The history of mankind is rife with examples of one group--who perceives itself as superior--foisting itself upon another group--who is perceived as inferior. This oppression takes many forms but always ends up the same way--with someone being discriminated against.