Black History Month Profile: The Austin Chitlin’ Circuit

The network of Black-owned venues gave artists a chance to make a living doing what they loved to do amid racial segregation.

By Miles Bloxson, KUTXFebruary 27, 2024 10:00 am, , , , ,

From KUTX:

The Chitlin’ Circuit was a network of venues found throughout the south and midwest that welcomed African American performers from the 1930s to the 1960s.

During this later part of the Jim Crow era, African Americans were relegated to the status of second-class citizens and therefore barred from white establishments. The network of venues owned by primarily Black business owners were referred to as “jukes” or “juke joints.” These were places that Black musicians and entertainers could perform at and make a living doing what they loved to do in the era of racial segregation.

Tony Von

This informal road map was, to many Black musicians, the only safe way to travel and play their music, and the only way they could find hotels, restaurants, and audiences that were welcoming.

Austin found its way on this map largely due to a man by the name of Tony Von. Von was one of the only Black radio hosts during the ’50s and ’60s and broadcasted from KTAE in Taylor, Texas. He hosted one of the only blues shows in Central Texas at the time called the “Tony Von Show: Live in Living Color.”

To find the Chitlin’ Circuit in Austin, folks could walk up and down 11th street, also referred to as “The Cuts,” and find juke joints like the Victory Grill, Chicken Shack and Showbar, which Von owned before it became Charlie’s Playhouse. These were all staples of the Austin Blues scene.

Through his connections and influence, Tony Von created strong long-lasting bonds with eastside venues, local and national touring acts. Von was able to get major acts to come to Austin by playing their songs on the radio and supplying acts with a band – which was almost always local artists.

Integration ironically would be the downfall of the Chitlin’ Circuit in Austin and throughout the country. The Circuit’s touring acts could now play at white establishments and the juke joints couldn’t compete when it came to pay.

Outside Austin’s Historic Victory Grill

Charlie’s Playhouse closed in 1972 and was later torn down. The Victory Grill is the last remaining business in Austin that was part of the Chitlin’ Circuit and one of a few still standing in the United States. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, archived by the Texas Historical Commission.

The Chitlin’ Circuit in Austin may be gone, but the memory of the legendary performances on 11th street while dancing and enjoying music at juke joints in East Austin will live on forever.

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