In 1960, with Jim Crow’s shadow still looming large over America, the first Playboy Club opened in Chicago with a clear stance on segregation: Performers and patrons, black or white, would be welcomed through the venue’s main entrance. This was in stark contrast to having to enter through the kitchen, which was the common treatment for artists of colour at the time.
Within a year of its opening, the Chicago Playboy Club had more than 50,000 members. At its peak, the chain boasted more than 30 multilevel clubs, resorts and casinos around the world, from San Francisco to Osaka to London to Ocho Rios, making Playboy the largest employer in the entertainment business for 20 years.
A few years later, when Playboy heard that their franchises in Miami and New Orleans were turning away African American patrons, they bought back the clubs’ licenses. By demanding a fully integrated environment, they made the Playboy Clubs not only bastions of pleasure and sophistication but models of tolerance and inclusivity.
Before she became known as the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, then 18, got her start performing professionally at the Chicago Playboy Club. This first performance in front of a white audience at the height of the civil rights movement signalled the start of decades of breaking down racial barriers.