History radiates from all corners of Ray Gibson’s Caballeros Club on Hilltop.
It seeps from the walls, through the wood paneling and chipped paint.
You can see it in the worn finish on the bar, where the elbows and mixed drinks have taken their toll.
And, for longtime members like club President Gary Mason and Executive Board Chairman Jim Walton, it’s felt as they walk down the stairs, pausing to take in the panoramic view of Mount Rainier before entering the bar and ballroom where members of Tacoma’s black community have come together to socialize for decades.
“When I come down these stairs, many times I flash back on the first time I came. It was a special place,” Walton, Tacoma’s first black city manager and a Caballeros Club member since 1972, told me last week.
Later, Mason, who joined the club the same year as Walton, pointed to two smaller steps, separating the bar from the downstairs ballroom, which was added during a renovation in 1974.
“(Ray Gibson) died over here, coming up the steps,” Mason said. “We’ve had two presidents die here. The second one died up at the first table, fell out his chair.”
“Gone,” Walton interjected.
“Before he hit the ground,” Mason continued.
When I come down these stairs, many times I flash back on the first time I came. It was a special place.
Jim Walton, Tacoma’s first black city manager and a Caballeros Club member since 1972
A private, once black-only club that has its origins in the dawn of Tacoma’s civil rights era, the Caballeros Club remains shrouded in intrigue and a little bit of mystery for a number of Tacomans. It first opened in a home on South 17th Street and Tacoma Avenue in 1957, and later relocated to where it is today, at the end of a quiet residential street where Hilltop meets the slope of the Nalley Valley.
“It’s basically the black community’s country club,” Caballeros member and current mayoral hopeful Victoria Woodards explained when I called to ask about this place that I’d heard about, but — until last week — had never seen inside.
Walton and Mason met me there, seated in the small top floor dining area where catfish and baked chicken are favorites on the menu. The three of us gathered to talk about the present — such as a drive to increase membership, and a host of overdue repairs and upgrades members of the club are raising money to tackle, among them a new roof.
And we came together to speak of the past, about why it’s so important to make sure the Caballeros Club — which was named for original member Ray Gibson shortly after his death — lasts another 60 years.
“The club started out of necessity,” Walton explained, “during a time when most African Americans started to come to this community from military connections primarily. Tacoma and Pierce County — like the rest of the country — was a segregated environment. Even the places you could go, you were not welcome.”
“You couldn’t go down on Sixth Avenue. That was off limits,” Mason added, with a deep, knowing laugh.
“(Tacoma) was segregated. The blacks stayed with the blacks, the whites stayed with the whites.”
But the club wasn’t just a place to socialize, both men told me. For African Americans relocating to Tacoma through the military, it provided a place “that felt like home,” Walton said. A place to “land and get your bearings.”
Mason also noted the role that the Caballeros Club played in helping members network and find work — a service he said the club still provides today.
“Everybody was together, they dressed well, you could socialize, and nobody bothered you. You could communicate with anybody, they’d make you feel welcome,” Mason recalled. “And they’d steer you to the places where you could find employment.”
These days, the Caballeros Club is still members-only, some 134 of them, according to Mason. To join, you must be recommended by two current members, pass a background check, and fork over a nonrefundable application fee and yearly dues of $200.
But the club has evolved with the times. What started as a place for, as Walton put it, “black gentlemen to gather with their wives or significant others,” has grown into a club for all races and genders. Black women were granted membership in 1998 — a debate that, at the time, was a “knock-down, drag-out fight,” according to Walton, but looks misguided in hindsight.
Along the way, the color barrier also fell.
We have a diverse membership,” Mason said. “Men, women, white, black – all of it.
Caballeros Club President Gary Mason
“We have a diverse membership,” Mason said. “Men, women, white, black — all of it.”
“You have to be a part of what is, as opposed to the way it used to be,” Walton said. “And so we’re making that transition to the new world, which is much more diverse.”
That transition into the new world, in a practical sense, necessitates the recruitment of new, younger members, Walton and Mason said.
And as the Caballeros embarks on a critical campaign to not only fix and maintain its building, but also increase its revenue and the amount of services and charity work it can offer to the surrounding community — like the small scholarships it awards to kids from the neighborhood each year, and the annual Christmas party at which donated toys and gifts are available to area parents in need — recruitment is critical.
Will Jenkins, 45, is one of the club’s younger members. He joined three years ago, and he said that many of the things that have drawn folks to the Caballeros since the beginning are what attracted him.
“For me, I look at the community in general. It’s a place where you can come, and there’s friendship, genuine friendship. This is a way we can give back to community and youth,” he said.
“Being able to be a part of history, and be able to give back in some other capacity, is invaluable,” he continued.
“So I love it.”