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BLACK HISTORY MONTH: Miami's Ball & Chain

Standing proud in Little Havana since 1935, black lives have always mattered at this popular nightclub, bar, and lounge.

words: Sydney Wingfield

photos courtesy of Ball & Chain

Framed posters of the famous entertainers who performed at Ball & Chain decades ago still adorn its walls.

Smack dab in the center of Little Havana, along the main thoroughfare now known as Calle Ocho, stands an establishment with a history as colorful and fascinating as the vibrant Miami neighborhood itself. And ever since its humble beginnings, back in a time when as far as most of the South was concerned, black lives didn't matter, to Ball & Chain, they very much did.

Ball & Chain nightclub, bar, and lounge opened in 1935 on what was then Tamiami Trail, nicknamed "The Trail" by those whose carriages and motorcars brought produce to downtown Miami for sale and shipment. Originally dubbed "Ball & Chain Saloon," its purchase by Teamsters Union organizer... and felon... Ray Miller, along with entrepreneur Henry Schechtman (who too had a tendency to operate outside the law) made the local hotspot's name ironically fitting.

Although the precise moment when Ball & Chain began to feature black entertainers is unclear, African Americans were already making their mark by the late 1940s/early 1950s on Miami Beach and in nightclubs along Biscayne Boulevard… among them, the great Josephine Baker, upon whom the welcoming attitude towards performers of color – in contrast to the segregation pervading the deep South – was not lost.

Billie Holiday, Count Basie, and (reportedly) Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, and Louis Armstrong were among the famous black performers who appeared at Ball & Chain back in the day. As the story goes, Billie Holiday was also a frequent guest of the Schechtman household.

To this day, the live music performances at Ball & Chain continue to electrify crowds.

Ball & Chain’s rich history is told through the decor, art, and traditions you’ll see at the Ball & Chain today. Much of the original structure has been preserved, including the hardwood floors, tall wood beams and paneling; these design elements have “witnessed” epic performances and jam sessions through the years. Promotional posters bearing the likenesses of the legendary entertainers who graced its stage still hang on Ball & Chain’s bright green walls. And though the leather banquettes, round pedestal tables, and herringbone floors have been refurbished, they still reference that magical era when it all began.

Combined with an ongoing lineup of lively performances and an authentic food and cocktails menu bursting with Cuban flavor, Ball & Chain transports patrons back to a time when enigmatic live jazz raised the roof, and evokes the proud memory that Ball & Chain - boldly defying the racial prejudices that marked its heyday - has always opened its doors to all.

Miami Mule, one of many festive libations on Ball & Chain's cocktail menu.

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