A Struggle for Civil Rights in Rock Island: Nate “King” Cole and the Fort Armstrong Hotel
Original Author: Aaron Graf, ENG 346 FL12

On June 22nd 1950 Nathaniel Adams Coles (March 17, 1919 – February 15, 1965), known internationally as Nat King Cole, arrived in Rock Island in the company of wife Maria, and one of their daughters Carroll. According to the advertisement which ran in the June 23rd edition of the Moline Dispatch, Cole was slated to appear with his trio at what was billed as the “Quad-Cities Leading Entertainment Center”, the Horseshoe Lounge, located at 1601 2nd Avenue in Rock Island.

The ad goes on to indicate that Cole’s Trio would perform from the 23rd until July the 6th. While performing over the 4th of July holiday the Cole family planned to stay at the nearby Fort Armstrong hotel. Incidentally while the Horseshoe Lounge has been replaced the Fort Armstrong is still in operation as retirement community. Research indicates that prior to this appearance Cole and his trio had made several appearances in the Tri-Cities area starting on November 12th 1946 in Davenport, then on September 15th 1947 in Rock Island, and again on September 22nd 1948 in Davenport. According to an advertisement in the November 10th evening edition of the Rock Island Argus which announced that Cole was to appear at the Coliseum Ballroom his King Cole Trio had already sold over 500,000 copies of his hit single “Straighten Up and Fly Right."

In a recent interview local historian, and longtime Jazz aficionado, Don Wooten recalls this particular visit by Cole, but not because of the controversy with the Fort Armstrong, but rather because of a serious change the artist had planned to make in terms of his career.
According to Mr. Wooten, “Cole had a one-week gig at the Horseshoe in 1950.I interviewed him during that stay, at midweek, as I recall.His trio was one of several groups that played the Horseshoe that summer.Other acts were the Mills Brothers, Louis Jordan, Nellie Lutcher, and George Shearing.I also recorded talks with the Mills Brothers and Shearing.What we talked about was his decision to give up the jazz circuit and concentrate on a career as a vocalist.It turned out to be hot news, but I did not recognize it as such.When, a few months later, he told the same thing to a New York critic, it made headlines in Downbeat.He came back to the Quads a few years later, appearing at the Masonic Temple”.

While the story about Coles’ decision to forge a new career path in the entertainment industry failed to make local headlines, subsequent stories in the Dispatch from August and September of that same year indicate that, while Cole and his Trio fulfilled their engagement at the Horseshoe Lounge, Cole was suing the owner and operators of Fort Armstrong in U.S. district Court. The reason for Cole’s $62,000 suit was a direct result of the hotels decision to deny Cole and his party the accommodations, which they had made reservations for in advance of their arrival. The formal charges cite a violation of “the Illinois Civil Rights Act, violation of the English Common Law Innkeepers’ Law and breach of contract”.

Mr. Wooten explains that, “I didn't hear about Cole's contretemps with the Fort Armstrong until later. (I always thought he won that case, or at least received damages).”

While the transcript of the trials testimony could not be located articles from the Moline Dispatch did run highlights from the initial jury trial in Peoria. According to the article in the October 19th 1950 evening edition of the Dispatch cites that, “His [Cole’s] Lawyer said the hotel confirmed Cole’s reservation before the party arrived in Rock Island. But when they asked for accommodations at the hotel desk he said, they were told there were no rooms. The party returned later, but the hotel still denied there were accommodations. As a result, he said, Cole and his party had to spend the 2-week night club engagement in Rock Island living with a Negro family at the edge of town. The lawyer representing the defendants said in his opening statement that the hotel did not refuse accommodations because of race or for any other reason”.

An additional source regarding the suit which appeared in the July 11th 1950 edition of the Washington Afro-American newspaper suggest that at least initially there was some confusion over where Cole had filed his law suit. The Afro-American reported that while the charges are identical to the suit filed in Chicago Illinois District court, according to the Dispatch the initial proceedings took place in the Peoria Illinois District Court. The location of the trial would have considerable significance for its outcome, as a jury trial held in Chicago would have been far more likely to seat black citizens on the jury than a District Court Down State.

According to information located in the October 1st 1953 edition of Jet magazine “Singer Nat (King) Cole’s $62,000 discrimination damage suit against a Rock Island, Ill., hotel which he said refused to give him a room because of his race was dismissed by a Federal judge when neither side appeared in the Peoria, Ill. court for the second trial. The first trial ended in a hung jury, and the case was re-set”.

Works Cited

Associated Press. “Fort Hotel Sued for $62,000 by Negro Musician .” Moline Dispatch 11 July. 1950. Print
“Judge Dismisses Cole’s $62,000 Hotel Bias Suit.” Jet Magazine 1 October 1953. 62. Web. November 19th 2012http://books.google.com/books?id=tkIDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA62&lpg=PA62&dq=U.S.+District+Court,+Nat+Cole,+Fort+Armstrong&source=bl&ots=kDe3woONHB&sig=eoyA5zw3RA5JuRr0vQ1GQHorpQQ&hl=en&sa=X&ei=YCe0UL6WBMmpqwGaxIDQDw&ved=0CHwQ6AEwCQ#v=onepage&q=U.S.%20District%20Court%2C%20Nat%20Cole%2C%20Fort%20Armstrong&f=false
King Cole Trio to Appear at Horseshoe Lounge.Advertisement.Moline Dispatch.1950 June. Print.
Nat “King” Cole Trio to Appear at Coliseum Ballroom.Advertisement.Rock Island Argus.1946November. Print.

United Press.“King Cole to Testify Today Against Rock Island Hotel.” Moline Dispatch 22 September. 1950. Print
Wooten, Don. Personal Interview. 27 November 2012

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