Mame Wilson was born an ocean away in Senegal, but she and her husband want to rekindle the legacy of Black entertainment near their new community in South Jersey.
The 7,800 square-foot renovated building has been the location of other bars and restaurants over the years. The liquor license here is one of only three in the state that allow owners to serve alcohol until 5 a.m., as opposed to the customary 2 a.m. closing time, Wilson said.
But the Wilsons hope their 240-seat, two-patio space will be more than just a late-night hangout. They want to channel a legacy of Black nightlife born in the early part of the 20th Century, when, if you wanted to see and be seen, you were here.
“We thought there was no place in South Jersey where grown folks can go and have a good time,” Wilson said. “We decided to fill a void.”
Wilson, who also owns an art gallery in Voorhees, said her husband’s family once operated a string of restaurants and bars in his native Chicago. She said he saw the potential in the building in the 700 block of S. Warwick Road in Hi-Nella, a .2-square-mile town of just over 400 acres near Sterling Regional High School in Somerdale, the next town over.
Hi-Nella, a predominately white borough, is less than 3 miles down Warwick Road from Lawnside, a town founded by free Black people in 1840. Both are about 16 miles from Philadelphia. During the prohibition-era in 1920s America and into the 1970s, Lawnside was a hub for Black nightlife.
“For almost half a century Dreamland and its neighbors — the Cotton Club, Wilcox’s Cafe, the Whippoorwill Club and Loretta’s Hi-Hat — were places where African-Americans could dress up, enjoy fine dining, kick up their heels, and kick back in style,” the Camden County Historical Society said on its website.
The historians said icons like Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn performed in clubs there.
Ida Conaway, 96, who moved to Lawnside in 1959, said she remembers the era.
“I didn’t frequent the clubs,” Conaway said. “They would draw a crowd, but I was going to church. But I didn’t see anything wrong with it. It was a person’s choice.”
Conaway has been active in the community for more than 60 years. She said she had no problem with the Wilsons opening nearby in Hi-Nella, but she does have a problem with the development of a string of warehouses and other light-industrial development in her 1.4 square-mile borough.
“Our name is Lawnside, but the way we’re going there isn’t going to be any lawn left,” Conaway said.
Wilson said her gallery has had fundraisers for the Lawnside Historical Society over the years and now her club seeks to give something different to the community.
“It’s a venue that we brought about for the community,” she said about Wilson’s Restaurant & Live Music Lounge. “It’s a venue for grown folks to go without crossing the bridge, or paying for tolls or parking. We offer a live music experience, food and a DJ when the band is done. It’s upscale and keeps in mind community service.”
Wilson’s Live is open Wednesday and Thursday from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., Friday and Saturday from 6 p.m. to 3:30 a.m., and 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday.
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Bill Duhart may be reached at email@example.com.