Black L.A. 1947: Kiwanis Refuse to Give Lottery Winner a New Cadillac Because He’s Black

July 31, 1947, L.A. Sentinel

This is a story that involves a $1 lottery ticket, a new Cadillac and an incredible amount of stupidity by members of an ostensibly charitable organization who were determined to uphold racist attitudes. And it really happened.

The story, as told by the Associated Negro Press, begins with Harvey Jones, a black Navy veteran who was a tenant farmer near Ahoskie, N.C. Jones paid $1 (current value $11.72) for a ticket in a lottery held by the Ahoskie Kiwanis Club with the first prize of a new Cadillac, worth about $3,200 (current value $37,000.)

On June 19, 1947, the Ahoskie Kiwanis staged a dance featuring the band of Carmen Cavallaro. During the evening, band singer Leslie Long was blindfolded and drew the winning ticket.

Oops. Make that the supposedly winning ticket.

The local Kiwanis members went into a huddle and asked Long to draw again, saying that “a Negro had won the car and that ‘we can’t afford to let him have it.’ ” Long said the decision wasn’t fair and refused to draw again. Cavallaro drew a second ticket, explaining that since he was touring the South he couldn’t afford bad publicity, ensuring exactly that outcome.

This time, a white dentist, Dr. Charles Townes of Waverly, Va. was the winner. Townes explained that he had a 1946 Chevrolet wouldn’t dare drive a new Cadillac to the office, so that he could only use it as a Sunday driver. But Townes refused to give up the car to Jones.

The Ahoskie Kiwanis might have stopped at this point, but they were not through being stupid. They announced that there had been a mistake because tickets were only supposed to be sold to white people. And so two Kiwanis members and Sheriff Charles Parker visited Jones at 1:30 a.m. to inform him that he wouldn’t get the car, but that they would refund $1 for his ticket. There was no camera present to record Jones’ reaction to a visit from the sheriff at 1:30 a.m., but we can imagine.

As word of this situation spread, Sen. Carl Hatch (D-N.M.), a Kiwanis member, contacted Dr. Charles W. Armstrong, head of Kiwanis International and said, essentially: “Dude. Seriously?”

Arthur Hammerstein, a Broadway producer and honorary Kiwanis member, contacted the West Palm Beach Chapter and threatened to resign unless Jones got his Cadillac.

As head of the Kiwanis, Armstrong announced that the Ahoskie Chapter had made “a very serious mistake” and said that Jones would get a Cadillac after all.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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