Herbert Asbury, in recounting the fame of the dive known as the Black and Tan (Chapter IX, Section 2), made the same mistake he had made with George H. “Snatchem” Leese: he overlooked the dynamics between the criminals, the local politicians, and the sporting society of lower New York. The proprietor of the Black and Tan was a man named Francis A. “Frank” Stevenson (1847-1906), whom Asbury (mimicking his sources) incorrectly spelled as “Frank Stephenson.” Copying his sources, Asbury portrayed Stevenson as physically akin to a vampire:
…a tall slim man with a curiously bloodless face. Contemporary writers marked his resemblance to a corpse; his face was almost as white as snow and his cheeks were sunken, while his eyebrows and hair were black as ink. His eyes were deep set. and very keen and piercing. It was his custom to sit bolt upright in a high chair in the center of his resort, and remain there for hours without displaying any other sign of life than the baleful glitter of his eyes.
Frank Stevenson was a boxing referee, prize money backer, and fight manager in the 1880s and 1890s, just the sport transitioned from open-ended bare-knuckle bloodfests to gloved, limited-round fights. He was in the ring with legendary fighters during their greatest bouts, including John L. Sullivan, Jim Corbett, Jake Kilrain, Bob Fitzsimmons, and Jack Dempsey. Stevenson also backed black fighters, even though it was an era in which John L. Sullivan prevented any black fighters from challenging his heavyweight title.
Though well-known and respected as a honest man within the sporting community, Stevenson was demonized by the press, moral authorities, and (some) police officers, due to his several dives and dance halls, the most notorious of which was the Black and Tan located at 153 Bleecker Street. The enmity toward Stevenson was not just due to the fact that his dives catered to sins and vice (licentious dancing, prostitution, drinking) — what seemed to draw especial outrage toward Stevenson was that his establishments allowed a free mix of races: black, whites, and shades in between.
Stevenson’s critics paraded their racism. George Walling, the NYPD Superintendent prior to the heydey of Stevenson and his dives, wrote:
It is the resort of black men as well as white, but the girls are all white! This mixture of races is all the more revolting ; and the scenes which go on here in this underground dive are as bad as imagination can picture them. The main room is only about thirty feet square and is low-ceiled. There are tables around the sides of the room, and the space in the centre is reserved for dancing. At one end is the bar, kept by four bar-tenders, behind each of whom hangs a murderous-looking club to which the patrons of the dive are not strangers. One will see fifteen or twenty women in the room, and as many burly, brutal negroes. There are only traces of beauty in the women’s faces. Whatever sign of woman-hood that might have been there once is gone now.
The Black and Tan appears to have originated as a “policy shop,” i.e. an illegal lottery operation that catered to the African-Americans, who were starting to return to New York City in numbers after draft riots of the 1860s had driven many out. The area around Bleecker Street was called by some (not approvingly) “Little Africa.” Around 1881, Stevenson quietly added the basement dance hall, and his dive quickly earned a reputation as a lively resort. The Black and Tan flourished about six years, and endured at least one police raid. By the late 1880s, Stevenson had opened a different establishment, The Slide, a few doors down Bleecker Street. He later arranged for it to be run by his brother, Tom Stevenson.
The Slide gained renown as one of the few establishments where homosexuals could meet without harassment.
A police crackdown in 1892 spelled the end for many Bleecker Street dives, including those of the Stevenson brothers. Tom was sent to prison for a year for running a disorderly house, but Frank’s involvement was carefully arranged through middlemen, so he escaped punishment. He later opened another resort a few blocks distant, but it never eclipsed the notoriety of the Black and Tan. Meanwhile, Stevenson made a great deal of money from his sports gambling.
He died in 1906 at the age of 59 from complications of an automobile accident, leaving a wife and four adult children. Interestingly, his short obituary in the New York Times did not mention his dives, nor did it allude to his large role in the sporting world. Instead, it mentioned that he was a member of Tammany Hall and a friend of Richard Croker. This nugget of information explains a great deal–“Boss Croker” was the head of the political machine that had huge influence in New York City during the late 1880s and early 1890s. It was with Croker’s blessing that the vice dens of lower Manhattan thrived.