Elegantly dressed in one of his 50 tailored suits, signature fedora and sunglasses, Samuel J. Hargress Jr. welcomed patrons of Paris Blues every day with a smile and handshake. A highlight of the Harlem jazz and blues club, his entrance often upstaged the variety of professional musicians who performed there every night of the week.
Hargress, 85, died Friday of an undisclosed illness.
Born April 9, 1936 in Demopolis (Greek meaning “the People’s City”), Ala., he was the son of Samuel J. and Katie Hargress Sr. His father owned a successful bar with a juke box, commonly called a “juke joint,” and he planned to do the same one day.
He opened Paris Blues in 1969 in honor of the Harlem Hellfighters, the 369th Infantry Regiment in which his grandfather had served. Formed from the National Guard’s 15th Regiment in New York, they were called Hellfighters by their German opponents during World War I. The regiment had more casualties and spent more time––six months––in frontline trenches than any American unit.
Following the war, France awarded 170 members of the unit the Croix de Guerre as all of Paris cheered them. He experienced the hospitality of the French when he served as an Army MP in France in 1959. “Black soldiers who served in France were treated so much better there than at home. I named Paris Blues to honor the city, the soldiers and the music I grew up listening to and love,” Hargress once told this writer.
When he returned to the United States following his service in Europe, segregation and racism remained unchanged in Alabama.
On March 3, 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the funeral of Jimmie Lee Jackson in Marion, Ala., the hometown of his wife Coretta. The 26-year-old activist had been fatally shot by a state trooper during a peaceful demonstration.
In protest of Jackson’s killing, on March 7, Hargress, then aged 28, joined 600 other marchers as they were led by Dr. King in what would be the first of three attempts to march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery. As the marchers crossed the county line at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state troopers brutally attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas in what would be known as Bloody Sunday.
“The civil rights leaders who were at the front of the march were badly beaten. Mrs. (Amelia) Boynton was beaten unconscious and a picture of her lying there on the bridge went worldwide. I was marching near the back and was not injured. It was something I will never forget,” Hargress had recently told this writer.
Because of his generosity and love of his community, Paris Blues, located on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard at 121st Street, became a center of activity.
Among the countless events he supported were political and numerous other fundraising campaigns. Hargress served free food daily, including dinners for the homeless on Thanksgiving.
“He always made the club available for free so I could collect coat, book and toy drives to donate to children,” said community organizer Robert Jackson. “He always gave back to his community.”