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What is the Chitlin' Circuit?

Cooked chitlins.
The chitlin' circuit included the Fox Theater in Detroit.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 15 October 2014
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During the segregation era in the United States, black entertainers and their fans were not welcome in “whites only” venues. In response, an extensive network of entertainment venues geared to a black audience rose up, and this network came to be known at the “chitlin' circuit.” Many prominent black entertainers worked the chitlin' circuit from the 1800s through the 1960s, and a tradition of predominantly black venues has endured in the United States, even though segregation laws have been struck from the books.

The term “chitlin' circuit” is derived from a popular item which appears on many Southern soul food menus: chitterlings. Chitterlings, also called chitlins, are pig intestines which are meticulously cleaned and then stewed or fried. Chitlins have become closely associated with black culture in the United States, although in fact they are popular among Southern whites as well.

Segregation laws in the United States presented a unique challenge to entertainers. Some black entertainers like Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Aretha Franklin, and Cab Calloway were admired by blacks and whites alike, but they were not allowed to perform in segregated venues. When arranging tours, black entertainers were restricted to the chitlin' circuit, because these venues were the only places safe for black musicians, comedians, and other performers.

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Baltimore is often viewed as the heart of the chitlin' circuit, thanks to its rich tradition in the arts. The chitlin' circuit wound upwards into the Northeast, with many musicians making stops at places like the Cotton Club in New York, and then stretched into the Midwest, encompassing stops like the Fox Theater in Detroit and the Regal Theater in Chicago. Entertainers could also loop into the American South, hitting the Victory Grill in Texas or the Ritz Theater in Florida.

As a general rule, most of the patrons at venues along the chitlin' circuit were black. However, curious white patrons were welcome in some venues, especially venues which focused on jazz, a form of music which often crossed the color line, recognizing talent wherever it was found. When integration laws mandated the dissolution of “whites only” venues, some black performers chose to stick to the chitlin' circuit, where they felt more comfortable, especially in areas with de facto segregation which made performing in traditionally white venues a challenge.

Especially in the field of jazz, some white musicians made bookings under their own names and added talented black musicians to their entourages when those musicians discovered that they couldn't book such venues on their own. This sometimes sparked controversy, although those courageous musicians have since been recognized for their contributions to the civil rights movement.

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