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A struggle to stay social

Historic club avoids revocation of liquor license.

The Star Social Club's vice president, William Washington, at the West Chester club. ( ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer )
The Star Social Club's vice president, William Washington, at the West Chester club. ( ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer )Read more

When Betty Ann Garnett was young, she and her friends were not allowed in the local YMCA, so the Star Social Club was one of their community hangouts. Her father, who was a member, would sit her in a booth and buy her a soda and potato chips.

As a young woman, Garnett danced to the jazz of famous and local musicians at the West Chester club. Over the decades, its lineup was impressive: Count Basie. Fats Waller. Duke Ellington. B.B. King.

"It was a jumpin' place, the Star," Garnett, 84, said.

Called the oldest still-active black social club in the United States, the Star was founded by a handful of working-class men in one of their homes in 1896. They wanted a place for black people who were barred from other clubs and bars.

It remains among the oldest social and civic clubs in Pennsylvania.

Last month, the club narrowly avoided disaster when a judge overturned a state order to revoke its liquor license because of violations. The Star depends on liquor sales to keep the lights on, its leadership said.

The club accepted a $3,000 fine and will lose its liquor license for 90 days, starting Friday.

"Our main focus going forward is not getting violations and trying to keep our heads above water," said William Washington, the club's 37-year-old vice president.

State regulators aren't the only reason for concern.

Through the years, social clubs have become less popular, and the Star faces competition from the restaurants and bars that popped up in West Chester during its rebirth as a nightlife destination.

The Star, which has occupied a two-story stone building on East Market Street near West Chester's downtown for more than 60 years, has about 200 members. Of those, only a few dozen are active. Most are in their 80s and 90s. Those in their 50s and 60s are the young ones. For members, the bar stays open until 3:30 a.m.

The number of club licenses in the state has dropped from more than 4,180 in 1971 to 2,928 last year, according to the Liquor Control Board.

"It's rare that the Star Social Club, even though it's had all these problems, has lasted this long," said Catherine Quillman, coauthor of Walking the East End: The Historic African-American Community of West Chester, Pa.

The historic black business community has been disappearing as new development moves in, she said.

Inside the club, the booths that patrons such as Garnett once filled are now gone, replaced with folding chairs spread throughout the first floor open space. But the Star still has its original large oval bar in the center. Musicians perform on a stage about 10 feet wide.

The club hosts tournaments at its two pool tables and community gatherings and wedding receptions upstairs in a newly renovated space.

Washington said he wants to start karaoke nights as part of a plan to attract younger members and boost membership that includes building relationships with historically black colleges.

The Star's framed charter hangs on a wall in the vestibule. On the opposite wall sits a display case with black-and-white photographs of members through the years and proclamations from county and borough officials.

The club generally relies on its legacy for its membership.

William Wesley, 55, has been a member since 1981.

"My parents went here. My grandparents went here," he said. "I'm keeping up the tradition."

He said he gives credit to the club's current leadership for trying to keep the place alive.

Under its former leaders, the club was cited in 2012 for selling alcohol to nonmembers, refilling a liquor bottle, and not following protocol for adding members. The Liquor Control Board recommended revocation of the club's liquor license.

Washington and the club's president, Craig Milbourne, appealed to the Court of Common Pleas, which eased the penalty.

Washington said the Star will honor its legacy going forward. It will stay open during its license suspension and remain a place for the community to gather.

"It's like a punch to the gut," he said, "but you keep on going. It's not a knockout blow."