US Red Cross 'Dr Carver Service Club'
Laidlaw’s Building/Jazz Club for black US troops
- Brisbane City
100 Grey St, South Brisbane 4101
Due to its popular Jazz Club, the best-known American Red Cross ('Amcross') facility with Brisbane residents was the 'Dr. Carver Service Club' in the 'Laidlaw’s Building' on Grey Street, South Brisbane opposite the Melbourne Street railway station. Due to a colour bar ban placed by the local US military authorities, Black American service personnel (nicknamed GIs as in General Infantry) were not permitted to cross the Brisbane River and access the varied entertainment venues in the City centre. This ban, while not a formal Army regulation, was still stringently enforced by the all-white US military police. One of three American Red Cross facilities built for Black GIs in Queensland, the 'Dr. Carver Service Club' was both the largest and offered the best facilities from 1943-45.
The Club was named after the famous US botanist Dr. George Washington Carver who had died (age 79) on 7 January 1943. It was run co-jointly by the American Red Cross and the Protestant Alliance Friendly Society. The Director was an Australian, Harry L. Hawkins, an US-ordained Methodist minister who had served in the Middle East campaigns with the Australian Comforts Fund (ACF) and the Young Men Christian Association (YMCA). American George Newton and US boxing champion Alston James ('Big Al') Hoosman were Hawkins’ assistants. Initially the Blue Moon Skating Rink was the suggested site for the Club but the owner complained that its exclusive use for Black GIs would only restrict his business that entertained more than 2,000 skaters per week.
The US Army practiced segregation with Black Americans placed in a specific 'coloured' units commanded by white officers. In Brisbane, the Black GIs served in support units such as engineer or transport companies. By the end of 1942, there were 8,025 Black GIs serving across Australia and New Guinea. They comprised 8% of General MacArthur’s US forces. This represented a mere 15% of the total of Black American soldiers based outside the USA at this time. The banning of Black GIs from crossing the river caused the need for an American Red Cross services club in the commercial heart of South Brisbane. Brisbane residents were notified of an impending Services Club for Black American service personnel via an article appearing in The Courier Mail on 17 April 1942.
The 'Dr. Carver Service Club' officially opened on Wednesday 5 May, four month’s after the death of its namesake. The Club offered similar services as 'Terrica House' across the river but for the exclusive use of 'coloured' GIs. The ground floor of 'Laidlaw’s Building' was converted into a hat & coat checkroom, two large lounges furnished with plush, leather chairs, a recreation room (with billiards tables etc), a soda fountain, a snack bar and a reading & writing room with attached library plus a kitchen and dining room that offered a US menu in its 150-seat capacity dining room. The second floor was converted into a dormitory with hot & cold running showers plus the Jazz Club. The club had a specially built dance floor, a band stage with amplifiers and a balcony equipped with cane chairs and painted tables. The 'Big Band Sound', as popularised by Glenn Miller, was also popular and this venue offered entertainment by bands such as the US 5th Air Force Orchestra at it dances. Dances were held twice per week plus there were two movie nights each week.
The US Army authorities in Brisbane expected that local Aboriginal women would volunteer to work (e.g. staff the uniform sewing and mending service on offer) in the Club or provide dance partners for the Black GIs. Black American social workers Geraldine Russell and Rosa Maria Spears advertised for and interviewed for a small paid staff (e.g. a clerk typist) and a larger pool of volunteers. The Club employed 20 women, including six Aboriginal staff, while another 200 women became volunteer staff. Many of the Australian women volunteers were drawn from the YMCA, other social workers or schoolteachers.
While the US Army prohibited 'coloured' troops from entering the white’s entertainment establishments on Brisbane’s north side, they also prevented white servicemen from entering the 'Dr. Carver Service Club' except upon a formal invitation. Australian servicemen were sometimes invited to attend the Club. The US military regulations could not restrict Brisbane civilian men and women from going to the Club. It was popular with Australians due to its excellent Jazz Club and for its reputation for serving the best steak and eggs meal in Brisbane. Geraldine Russell, also a classical pianist sometimes played for the troops.
The Black Americans based in Brisbane impressed the locals with their large, well-built physiques. Most of troops came from Northern US states and were educated, smartly dressed and as well mannered as their white American counterparts. Their manner derived from being volunteers rather than draftees. Many of them had trade skills such as linesman or heavy equipment operators that impressed the civilian population. Australian women, other than the recognised staff, who visited the Club, were considered to be immoral by the US Army authorities in Brisbane. Ironically the Grey Street site had been chosen as it was hoped that the Club would draw Black GIs away from South Brisbane’s many brothels. The official racist view of the type of white women who would socialise with Black GIs was turned on its head, when US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the 'Dr. Carver Service Club' on the evening of Monday 13 September 1943. This was part of her official itinerary for her inspection tour of the US military sites in Brisbane.
Another prominent visitor to the Club was Kansas Bishop John Andrew Gregg who was the head of the African Methodist Church in the USA. Gregg had arrived as a representative of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to undertake a fact-finding tour of facilities for Black GIs in Australia. He was in Brisbane circa 20 July 1943. In early 1945, the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) Walter White conducted a similar inspection in Brisbane.
Sylvester Reeder, a Black American, succeeded Hawkins as Director. 'The Dr. Carver Service Club' closed its South Brisbane premises in January 1945, when it transferred to Manila in the Philippines. After the war, one Laidlaw’s Building tenant J.V. Giles sought compensation from the Commonwealth due to financial loss incurred by the American Red Cross requisition of that property. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 ending segregation in the US forces.
- Jonathan (Jack) Ford, Marching to the Trains - the Chermside Army Camp Remembered, (Brisbane: Jack Ford, 2005).
- John Hammond Moore, Over-Sexed, Over-Paid & Over Here—Americans in Australia 1941–1945, (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1981).
- E. Daniel Potts & Annette Potts, Yanks Down Under 1941–45—the American Impact on Australia, (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1985).
- Doctor Carver Club, 100 Grey Street, South Brisbane
- National Archives file, Series B985, Item 1050375.