Houston's Lost History: Louis Dickerson, Godfather of the Fifth Ward
The Fifth Ward has a turbulent past. For decades it has been synonymous with crime and violence, earning it the monikers Little Pearl Harbor and the Bloody Fifth. At one point during its darkest times during the 70's and 80's there were more murders per capita committed at the corner of Lyons and Jensen than anywhere else in the entire United States. But the Fifth Ward wasn't always a crime plagued neighborhood that was ignored or feared by the outside world. For a long time the neighborhood was known as the Black Downtown, with numerous high end stores, top notch eateries and a sprawling entertainment complex. Sitting on top of it was a man by the name of Louis Wilton Dickerson.
Dickerson was born around 1904 in Thibodeaux, Louisiana. A mixed race Creole with a thick Cajun accent, he was not an imposing man. His skin tone was light enough to pass as white, and his accent was such that many people thought his name was Dixon. He came to Houston without a dime in his pocket in 1930, but he did bring with him a love of fine cigars and a business sense that would soon establish him as one of Houston's power players.
In 1936 Dickerson started his first business venture by founding Club Matinee at 3300 Lyons. It was a blues club in a city already filled with night clubs and musical venues. What separated Matinee from the rest was Dickerson knew how to pick his talent. He scored a coup shortly after opening by landing the legendary Cab Calloway for an exclusive show. Calloway was already famous in New York, having replaced Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club. Dickerson was able to score the nation's biggest blues act for a club that had just opened its doors. His ability to draw in nationwide talent into Club Matinee quickly gave the club the nickname of 'The Cotton Club of the South.'
Club Matinee thrived through the Great Depression, World War 2 and the Civil Rights Movement. Despite segregation the club enjoyed unparalleled popularity, outlasting fabled Houston night clubs like the Bronze Peacock or the original El Dorado Ballroom. The list of entertainers that Dickerson brought in read like a Who's Who. A young Ray Charles got one of his first major gigs there, James Brown, Quincy Jones, Louie Armstrong, Sam Cook, Little Richard, B. B. King and many more played at the Matinee. The stars kept coming and Dickerson kept getting richer. Radio station KCOH, 1230AM, tied their fortune to him and began broadcasting live from the club every day in the 50's.
Dickerson didn't ignore the local talent either, anyone with talent was sought out by Dickerson, and many of Houston's best blues musicians got their start at the Matinee. Jewel Brown, Grady Gaines, Pluma Davis, and Ervin Charles got their start, just to name a small few. Matinee was actually a club and a restaurant, the club was known as the Anchor Room and there the Matinee had music going every single day. When large acts came into town Dickerson would take the separating wall down and pack the building. The local talent knew they made it when he opened up the whole club to them. Dickerson partnered with record producer Don Robey of Duke Peacock Records to share and promote local musical talent. Dickerson would send promising amateurs to Robey to get recorded while Robey sent newly signed artists to Dickerson to have them play at the Club Matinee. It was an arrangement that made them both quite a bit of money.
Dickerson's interest didn't stop at music however. He created Crystal Enterprises Incorporated to combine his holdings as his power grew. He built the Crystal Hotel right new to the Club Matinee for musicians to stay at. Crystal White Taxi became the largest taxi company in Houston, surpassing even Yellow Cab. He bought a mechanic shop to service the taxis and a supermarket down the street. By the time the 50's arrived Dickerson owned a large portion of businesses in the 5th Ward, and a good number in the 3rd Ward as well. Dickerson employed hundreds of 5th Ward residents in his business empire, making him the largest employer in the neighborhood.
The Crystal Hotel was famous for its always open restaurant, and the opulence inside. It was by far the most successful black owned hotel in Houston, drawing in musicians to stay there when they went through Houston, even if they weren't playing the Matinee. Ike and Tina Turner were seen there, as well as Marvin Gaye and even Elvis. Dickerson hired down and out youth to work for him, letting them stay at the Crystal until they got back on their feet. Those that worked for him still speak of him in reverential terms, their memory and their loyalty to him untarnished.
He was known as a private man, he was always in the background and let others be his public face. But when it came to helping out his community he had no equal. His charity events were the stuff society pages dreamed off because how much effort he put into them. Guests were brought the the Matinee and Crystal Hotel in his personal fleet of taxis. His amateur night in the Anchor Room propelled more than one local musician to stardom. During the Civil Rights Movement he allowed many of the local organizers to use the Matinee as a staging area for events and voter drives. Dickerson did stay in the background through out all the events, he was satisfied being the most important man in the Fifth Ward, he did not flaunt his position.
Dickerson also had investments off the books as well. The pool hall directly behind the Matinee and Crystal Hotel didn't officially exist, but it was the worst kept secret in the whole Ward. Dickerson ran two different gambling venues, at the pool hall and another in a building further away from his complex on Lyons. For the benefit of the Houston power players, he also had a high stakes poker game going on in the Crystal Hotel. While strictly illegal, he didn't have much interference since the Chief of Police was one of his regular customers at his poker game. Police were instructed that if they saw the chief's car in front the Crystal Hotel, to just keep on driving. Dickerson had a large investment in the 5th Ward, and he employed several men to keep undesirables out of the 5th Ward. He tried to keep prostitution indoors and defended his business interests fiercely. As far as the police were concerned, as long as he kept his muscle out of the public eye they didn't care.
At the height of segregation where blacks were separated and ignored, Dickerson was making the front page of the society papers. Though a quiet man that liked to stay behind the scenes, his charity events were known to be sprawling affairs, where he got to show off his wealth. He was the easily the richest black man in the city during the 1950's, though you would not know it by looking at him. At the height of his empire he owned or was invested in the majority of businesses in the 5th Ward. He was worth millions and was one of the city's most influential power brokers.
Dickerson's decline began when Highway 59 was built in 1956, splitting the Fifth Ward in half. Traffic could now bypass the Ward entirely, cutting off a good portion of the business that came with it. Smaller businesses began to wither and die because of the highway, Dickerson managed to hold on as best he could. The Fifth Ward began to slide into the crime plagued neighborhood that it was famous for in the 1960's, Dickerson's hold began to slip as the economy turned south. He began selling off or shuttering his businesses. The last to go was the Club Matinee in 1973, Dickerson died in 1976, still wealthy but largely forgotten by the city in general.
Dickerson's legacy still lingers though; the Houston Blues Museum is being built where the Matinee used to be. TSU students painted a mural to honor him called Ghosts of the Matinee. Across the street the Deluxe Theatre has been restored, and there has been a revival of the blues music he made his fortune on. His name is still spoken by the men and women that worked for him and knew him, all of them laudatory in their retelling of his life. The Fifth Ward is being rebuilt again from its dark times back to its pinnacle where one penniless Creole became one of the richest men in Houston. Louis Wilton Dickerson's legacy is being restored.