‘History we don’t want to lose’: What you should know about Sarah McKnight and her Gainesville establishments

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Above: Sarah’s Restaurant, located at 732 NW Fifth Ave., is no longer standing.

Before B.B. King made it big, Sarah McKnight once had to drive him to his gig at one of her two nightclubs in Gainesville after his car broke down in her yard.

King, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, James Brown, Brook Benton and Gainesville’s own Bo Diddley – these future music icons all performed at The Cotton Club on Seventh Avenue and/or Sarah’s Restaurant on Fifth Avenue.

Sarah McKnight was born on Nov. 12, 1919 and died on Nov. 20, 1987. (Photo courtesy of Gloria Jean Swoopes, Ph.D, Blade Agency and Seminary Street Productions)

And when the shows were over, McKnight brought them to her house in the Porters neighborhood. It was the 1950s, and local hotels were still not welcoming Black patrons.

Both businesses were stops on the Chitlin’ Circuit, the host of Black-owned businesses where it was safe for Black entertainers to perform during the era of racial segregation.

The acts McKnight, a musician herself, brought to town attracted folks from all backgrounds, including white students from the University of Florida. Like much of Gainesville’s Black history, however, her story has become lost to the passage of time as well as urban development.

McKnight died in 1987 at age 68. The Cotton Club, which later became known as the Blue Note (both names came from well-known nightclubs in New York), is now The Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center. Closed in 1975, Sarah’s Restaurant was razed from Fifth Avenue years ago.

The home where she and her husband Charles raised four children in Porters, the second oldest local Black neighborhood, was demolished in 2020. Vivian Filer, chair of the museum’s board of directors, said it’s shameful that the McKnight house is gone.

“I was just astounded that that was allowed to happen because her house, I think, is monumental,” said Filer, who led the community effort to save the Cotton Club from demolition.

Gainesville recognizes five historic districts: University Heights North, University Heights South, Northeast, Southeast and Pleasant Street, another historically Black neighborhood. More than 1,500 historic structures are protected in these districts, according to the city’s website. Neither McKnight’s home nor Sarah’s Restaurant fell within a historic district.

Gigi Simmons, a former Gainesville city commissioner, also holds McKnight in high regard.

“She was ahead of her years as far as being a business owner,” Simmons said. “You have women of color, like myself, who really took the initiative to want to do better, want to give back to the community because of some of the things that Sarah McKnight did.”

Ruby Williams, 85, grew up within walking distance of McKnight’s house. She was 16 in 1954, near the end of the Cotton Club’s operation. She remembers people clapping and whistling by the round tables flanking its dance floor, and recalls seeing King play his guitar Lucille there.

A retiree from Sunland Training Center, Williams knows she had no business going to the club at such a young age. But how else would she have been mesmerized watching Johnny Ace, whose records she’d heard so many times before, people dancing and whooping all around her.

Arthur Williams Jr. asked her to marry him outside the Cotton Club. After she said yes, the pair went back inside and danced to a live rendition of Ace’s “Saving My Love for You.”

“I stayed longer than I should have stayed that night,” Ruby Williams said.

The building that is now The Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center has many past lives: a Post Exchange at Camp Blanding in Starke, the Perry Theater in Gainesville, the Cotton Club, the Blue Note and a warehouse for the Babcock Furniture Company. (Payton Titus/WUFT News)

Nearly two miles away, jazz and R&B music pulsated from Sarah’s Restaurant through downtown. On Saturday nights, Filer and her teenage friends – “the church girls,” she called them – were barred by their parents from even walking along that side of Fifth Avenue.

The club-restaurant was among several other businesses on that street that sold alcohol. Instead, Filer said, she and her friends drank Coke and ate hot dogs at a joint across the avenue.

Deep dives into The Gainesville Sun’s and The Independent Florida Alligator’s archives reveal seldom mentions of McKnight and virtually no mention of her entrepreneurial endeavors.

As a Black woman, she got an occasional nod in the “Colored News” section of The Sun. These reports detailed her involvement with Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church, how she owed delinquent property taxes and was arrested for selling liquor.

The Alligator printed the name of her restaurant once: In its classifieds section in 1968 as a place for UF students to buy tickets for a James Brown concert that October.

Historically, Black Americans have been misrepresented and underrepresented in the media.

“You’re talking about an African American woman during that time period where some people would not think that was important,” Simmons said of McKnight. “Some people would think that wouldn’t be newsworthy.”

Damian McKnight, McKnight’s grandson, works as a television producer and has his own production company. Now 47 and living in Orlando, he attended elementary and middle schools in Gainesville. Because of his age back then, McKnight said he wasn’t allowed inside his grandmother’s restaurant, even though his father Bobby McKnight played the organ in a band.

The more Damian McKnight heard his father, aunts, uncles and cousins talk about his grandmother over the years, the more he came to believe she was his artistic inspiration.

“She bridged gaps,” McKnight said. “She bridged barriers.”

Charles Steadham and Harold Fethe, now both 77, played at Sarah’s Restaurant while attending UF in the 1960s. Both are white. Steadham lives in Micanopy and owns and runs an entertainment management company in Gainesville. Fethe splits his time between St. Augustine and California and is a jazz guitarist.

The tandem is 20 years into making a documentary called “Sarah’s Place.” The pictures uncovered in their research are among the only Damian McKnight has seen of her.

Much of the preservation of Black history in Gainesville was done by A. Quinn Jones, the first principal of Lincoln High School, the second accredited African American high school in the state, Filer said. He is why people today have heard of groups like the Visionaires, a community organization founded in 1938 by and for African American women in Gainesville.

But “little people that did big things,” like McKnight, may have been overlooked because of the nature of their influence, Filer said. For example, someone with a more socially accepted profession, like a teacher, may have seemed more worthy of preservation than a nightclub owner.

Albert White, 76, used to visit juke joints along Fifth Avenue as a young man. He typically ordered a sandwich and sometimes a bottle of beer, at “Sarah’s Place,” and also brought his future wife to visit it while on winter break from college in North Carolina.

But after working 30 years for Gainesville Regional Utilities, serving as vice president of the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce and president of the Lincoln High School Alumni Association, those few memories are about all White can recall of McKnight’s restaurant.

“It kind of hurts, because that’s history we don’t want to lose,” he said.

Every once in a while, particularly when his adult children come to visit, Albert White will sit down and “just get caught” sifting through his scrapbooks of his life. (Payton Titus/WUFT News)

About Payton Titus

Payton is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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