Sunnie Wilson Biography
Found Inspiration from Diverse People, Pursued Work in Detroit, Built Up His Businesses
Entertainer, entrepreneur, promoter, political consultant
Known as Detroit's most congenial host, William Nathaniel "Sunnie" Wilson distinguished himself among the city's entertainment, political, and business communities for over six decades. When Wilson purchased the Forest Club on Detroit's legendary Hastings Street in 1941, he became the owner of the largest black-owned nightclub in the country. Wilson's affable manner and ability to deal effectively with the public enabled him to establish friendships with celebrities such as Duke Ellington and B. B. King. Although his business enterprises and public relations work brought him into contact with a long list of famous figures, Wilson maintained special admiration for business partner and close friend Joe Louis—a man he looked upon as a "blood brother." Possessing a rare spirit, Wilson earned a national reputation as an individual committed to the advancement of African Americans through education, the arts, and economic progress.
Found Inspiration from Diverse People
William Nathaniel Wilson was born on October 7, 1908, in Columbia, South Carolina, the son of Nathaniel Wilson, a Pullman car porter, and his wife, a young domestic worker named Rebecca. Wilson spent his earliest years living in a two-story colonial house in Columbia. After his father left the family, Wilson's mother took the children to live with their grandfather, Dr. Butler. An authoritative man whose "jet black" appearance and goatee projected an image of ancient royalty, Dr. Butler earned his living as a "root doctor," selling herbal remedies. "Everybody was afraid of granddaddy—the blacks and the whites," explained Wilson in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). "I just looked at him; I didn't ask any questions. He had my sister and I go out and pick things. We got to know every root and tree."
After his mother left to work for some "white show people" as their maid, Wilson lived with his two aunts, Maggie and Emma. Because of Emma's "aggressiveness," Wilson sought the company of Maggie, whom he soon adopted as his "new mother." In the afternoons following school, Wilson worked as a "court boy," performing various tasks for the lawyers on Washington Street, in an area of Columbia then known as the "Lawyer Range." Through his job on the Lawyer Range, Wilson came to know and work for former Governor Cole L. Blease, South Carolina's infamous exponent of white supremacy. Despite Blease's discriminatory racial outlook, he came to respect young William Wilson for his determination and businesslike manner.
Having been exposed to the dramatic atmosphere of the courtroom, Wilson aspired to someday go to law school. But like most children in South Carolina during the 1920s, he received vocational training. "Boys learned trades; I was a painter," he stated in the CBB interview. Taught by both black and white teachers, he learned African American history from grade school until high school. In the late 1920s, he majored in art and drama at Allen University in Columbia—the state's first all-black institution for higher learning founded by the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1880. Before graduating from Allen, Wilson worked as a chauffeur for the university's Chancellor Bishop W. D. Chappelle—one of the most powerful black religious leaders in South Carolina. Although Chappelle encouraged him to become a preacher, Wilson remained determined to study law. Around 1928, Wilson took a bus to Detroit to look for work. He was unable to find employment, however, and he went back home to Columbia.
Pursued Work in Detroit
Returning to Detroit in the early 1930s, Wilson's interest in law continued, and he enrolled at the University of Detroit. He soon left school, however, to enter show business as a master of ceremonies at the Harlem Cave, located at the corner of Canfield and Brush streets. Interested in acting and singing since his childhood, Wilson worked at the club introducing acts, telling jokes, and dancing to the house band led by trumpeter Bill Johnson, a former member of Detroit's famous McKinney's Cotton Pickers. By observing stage acts and learning steps from experienced showmen like Sunshine Sammy and Kid Williams, Wilson became an able dancer and confident entertainer. Soon he appeared in black-and-tan clubs in Chicago and New York, sharing the company of such musicians as Louis Armstrong and Count Basie.
Back in Detroit, Wilson performed and organized chorus-girl lines at Mac Ivey's Cozy Corner on Hastings Street and the Chocolate Bar on Livingston. In the mid-1930s, he was elected one of the first unofficial mayors of Paradise Valley-the euphemistic name for Detroit's segregated East Side black community. At this time Wilson also established the Detroit Golden Gloves training center in the basement of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Not long afterward, he met young Golden Gloves boxing champion Joe Louis. From their first meeting, Wilson and Louis found they shared many similar interests, including boxing, cowboy movies, horses, and the company of entertainers.
Upon Louis's invitation, Wilson joined him in the ownership of the Brown Bomber Chicken Shack in 1937. Though the venture only lasted about five years, Wilson and Louis remained close friends and inseparable business partners. Wilson's respect for Louis was reciprocated by the boxing great, who always referred to his friend as Mr. Wilson. "Joe never called me Sunnie in his life," recalled Wilson in his memoir Toast of the Town. "He wouldn't let his fighters curse in front of me. They always called me 'the Reverend.'"
Built Up His Businesses
In 1941 Wilson purchased the Forest Club, an immense nightclub and recreation center on the corner of Hastings and Forest. Larger than Madison Square Garden, the Forest Club contained a 107-foot bar, a banquet hall, a roller skating rink, and a bowling alley. In the ten years that he owned the club, Wilson featured the bands of Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Woody Herman. The Forest Club served as both a popular entertainment spot and a community center that held union meetings, etiquette courses, and Christmas parties for economically disadvantaged black children. During the Detroit riot that erupted on Hastings Street in June of 1943, Wilson distributed food to neighborhood residents from the Forest Club's storeroom.
Two years after acquiring the Forest Club, Wilson bought the Mark Twain Hotel. In an era of segregation, the 50-room hotel offered lodgings to black celebrities and entertainers. Among those who stayed at the hotel were Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, T-Bone Walker, and B. B. King. Always willing to help out entertainers, Wilson often loaned money or provided rooms for musicians. In the hotel's lounge, celebrities and listeners gathered to hear pianists such as Ellington, Nat King Cole, and Gene Ammons per-form impromptu sessions into the late night hours.
In January of 1951 Wilson sold the Forest Club to a new business operation. The local black newspaper the Michigan Chronicle described how Sunnie Wilson, "the diminutive popular showman" held a big farewell party for the showbar that "brought history to Hastings and Forest." Throughout the 1950s, Wilson promoted boxing matches and live stage shows. His partnership with Joe Louis took him on business trips throughout North America and the Caribbean. Throughout the fifties and sixties Wilson booked shows featuring acts such as B. B. King and comedian Jackie Gleason, both of whom established close friendships with the famous Detroit entrepreneur.
Remained in the Spotlight
Over the next two decades Wilson worked as a political consultant. Beginning in 1972 he helped organize a number of successful mayoral campaigns of longtime friend Coleman A. Young. An active member of the Detroit community, Wilson has never faded from public life. In 1987 he received the Spirit of Detroit Award, and in March of 1992 the Detroit Urban League honored him as a "Distinguished Warrior." Currently he is working on publishing his autobiography, Toast of the Town: The Life and Times of Sunnie Wilson, an informative memoir of a man who will long be remembered for his entrepreneurial ventures, philanthropic outlook, and colorful character.
In a 1993 radio interview, Motown singing star Marv Johnson described Wilson as a "great gentleman of our town," honoring the elder Detroiter as a prime motivator in the development of the city's musical and entertainment scene. Wilson retained his vibrant spirit and a deep moral belief in the advancement of racial equality into his last years, speaking out in hopes of encouraging others. In a 1993 Detroit Free Press article Wilson stated that if African Americans are to overcome oppression, they must "be let in the mainstream, the stream that will take us through the hearts of all people as one people, not black or white." This forthright belief enabled Wilson to befriend many of the most powerful figures of the twentieth century and to extend a message of racial harmony which, as he confided to CBB, is requisite in "our march toward human progress." Wilson died in Detroit on March 14, 1999, of cancer at the age of 90.
Barrow, Joe Louis, Jr., Joe Louis: 50 Years an American Hero, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1988.
Dance, Helen Oakley, Stormy Monday: The T-Bone Walker Story, Louisiana State Press, 1987.
Wilson, Sunnie, with John Cohassey, Toast of the Town: The Life and Times of Sunnie Wilson, Wayne State University Press, 1998.
Detroit Free Press, August 23, 1987, p. 3; June 20, 1993, p. 5.
Michigan Chronicle, January 20, 1951, p. 20; March 31, 1999, p. A6; June 23, 1999, p. A7.
Contemporary Black Biography interviewed Sunnie Wilson at his home in Detroit, Michigan, on October 1, 1993; November 15, 1993; and December 2, 1993. Additional information for this profile was obtained from a radio interview with Marv Johnson, broadcast on WJR-Radio, Detroit, Michigan, May 22, 1993, and John Cohassey's master's thesis, Down on Hastings Street: The Study of Social and Cultural Changes in a Detroit Community, 1941–1955, Wayne State University, 1993.
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