Soundscapes: Black Revelry and Respectability in Houston’s Historic Eldorado Ballroom 

Race University of Houston

In the heart of the Third Ward, one of the oldest historically black neighborhoods in Houston, Texas, there is a now-defunct building with a modest exterior that belies its history as a cultural hub during the city’s era of segregation laws. The Eldorado Ballroom, opened in 1939, was a popular, upscale venue for Black Houstonians to come and socialize, dance, and listen to live music. By providing a performance space, the venue became a radical source of group intimacy amidst the crisis of Jim Crow-era racial oppression. Through this paper, I investigate how the Eldorado allows current scholars of Black archival histories to map a soundscape of Black Houston. Thus, the city can be thought of as a fluid network for genres of music as well as people. This subject is especially pertinent when considering how essential creating art in times of crisis has been for subjugated communities.

This paper focuses on two central individuals in the early history of the Eldorado Ballroom: founder Anna Dupree and house band leader I.H. Smalley. Dupree’s extreme wealth makes her a unique figure, as her contributions to the Black community are complicated by her proximity to Whiteness and her affinity for respectability politics. Additionally, I have compiled a musical cartography of Black Houston using Smalley’s biographical information, tracking how different genres moved through the city. Ultimately, the scope of this project is both historical and methodological: I present an under-studied example of the complicated task of creating a community amidst racial crisis, while also presenting how the archive can be a tool for mapping out urban soundscapes.