Reception: Sunday, Feb. 24, 2–4 p.m., free
Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, Raleigh
The poster promised “The Biggest Show of ’51.” Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, and Sarah Vaughan were the headliners. The poster’s distinctive design presents the acts like bobblehead figures, which did not gain popularity in America until the sixties, about a decade after the creation of the poster. This is but one of many ways that Joe Winters, the man who made the concert happen, was ahead of his time.
But the light-hearted poster conceals the harsh realities of the times. “Colored” patrons were directed to purchase their tickets for the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium concert from Hamlin Drug store, an African-American-owned pharmacy in downtown Raleigh, whereas their white counterparts were directed to Cameron Village. Knowing America’s history of segregation, one would imagine that seating in the venue would also be separated based on race. But this was not the case. Instead, one man’s love of music bridged two communities at a time when mixing races in a celebratory capacity was far from the norm.
Winters was Raleigh’s second African-American police officer. He was also a husband, father, entrepreneur, and marketing guru. By today’s standards, he would be called an influencer. While serving on the Raleigh police force with distinction, he also maintained a successful career as a concert promoter.
“His story immediately captures the imaginations of people,” says Billy Warden, who assembled the exhibit Joe Winters Comes Home at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium with Winters’s children. “His story allows us to see American history in a different way.” The exhibit runs through March following Sunday afternoon’s reception with music and guest speakers.
A police officer by day and concert promoter by night, Winters navigated the Jim Crow era with aplomb, introducing the Triangle to some of the era’s greatest African-American performers and, in the process, bringing rare racial harmony to a segregated space. After his passing in 2005, Winters left behind an archive of concert posters, ticket stubs, photographs, and more, which is the basis of the exhibit.
While studying for a degree in math at St. Augustine’s University, one of Raleigh’s historically African-American colleges, Winters got a taste of booking music. As Winters’s daughter, Chacona Baugh, tells it, Winters worked under David Weaver, a cultural impresario and concert promoter who showed him the ropes of the business. By the early forties, Winters had developed a sharp mind for promotion and, as a result, was able to create a lane for himself. During this time, he worked closely with Negro League Baseball to create booklets on best practices in marketing.
The ability to build and maintain relationships that Winters developed as a concert booker served him well as a police officer, too. As a father, he instilled the same characteristics in his children.
“He taught us that no one is better and no one is lesser than you,” Baugh says. “You treat everyone with respect.”
Winters’s emphasis on respect and equality helps us understand the cultural significance of his concert bookings. Talking to people who remember attending Winters’s concerts at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, Warden found that, for white concertgoers, attending racially mixed shows at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium humanized people of color, whom they more often encountered in service positions.
“Then these shows come to town, and they aren’t being subservient; they are dressed to the nines, and they are having a great time,” Warden says. “[White patrons] could have this experience with a community they didn’t know much about, and that their parents didn’t encourage them to know about.”
This social setting gave African Americans a place to celebrate the aesthetics of their culture, from wardrobe to the dance moves. In researching the exhibit, Warden heard multiple stories of patrons ignoring the segregated seating rules of the auditorium and simply enjoying one another’s company on the dance floor.
“I remember when people didn’t care once the music came on,” Baugh says, recalling how the music was able to transcend racial boundaries. “There would be times when there would be interracial dancing. That was not what was customary, but people didn’t really stop it.”
According to Baugh, Winters was aware of—and, according to his daughter, pleased by—the changing times, with younger people becoming more open and willing to come together. His role as a police officer added an extra level of trust and respect from the community as well as from Raleigh’s official leaders.
Baugh knew that her father was respected and people thought well of him, but as far as she knew as a child, his extraordinary double career was normal. There was the time he took her to see Jackie Wilson in Durham, the time she rode in the car to pick up Ray Charles from the airport, and the time she got to visit Diana Ross in her dressing room.
“It was nothing for him to come home from both jobs and prepare breakfast for the family,” she says, remembering a time Winters stood in their garage asking her what she thought of Aretha Franklin.
“I really didn’t know who she was at the time,” Baugh says. “My father said, ‘Well, she’s really good.’”