“Artists were relegated to the chitlin’ circuit. Working it was a grind. Even its title is depressing, derived from what black people call a hog’s small intestine, the cuisine of relegation. This chitlin’ circuit seemed to be an unpleasant place, located in our nation’s bowels, and better left unexplored.”
VG back then
Cover of Lauderbach’s book
So wrote the author Preston Lauterbach in his 2011 exploration of mid-century and contemporary juke joints in the southern United States. These juke joints, the few still left standing today, are often called “nondescript places.” This might aptly describe the Victory Grill. Located at 1104 East 11th Street in Austin, Texas, its physical description is nothing extraordinary. In fact, some might consider the building ugly. But its four walls offer a remarkably rich cultural history. It tells a story of our nation, and at the heart of this story are a people with perseverance, who found within its walls a site of inspiration and cultural resistance.
The phrase “juke joint” is a colloquial term for a ramshackle club where blacks gathered to drink and dance. As former juke joint performer Sax Kari explains, “In the South there was nothing but farming: tobacco fields, rice fields, sugar cane, cotton fields. [Black people] worked all week, and Saturday night was their night to howl, get drunk and fornicate.” In the United States, these places sprang up after the Civil War. They were never intended to be permanent structures, in part because the performances they housed were often spontaneous.
Blacks would hear of traveling musicians in their area and casually congregate at shacks or crossroads to listen and dance to music. Gradually these performances grew in popularity and over time juke joints evolved into fixed structures. In an era of legalized segregation, the clubs functioned as both an artistic and leisure space for blacks. And in turn, these venues served as a locus of cultural resistance—a chance for blacks to hang out away from the scrutiny of white America. The “Chitlin’ Circuit” was the nickname which described the route performers took to get from one joint to the next. It was “an informal roadmap,” and one that for many blacks was “the only safe way to travel and play their music.”
Photograph of club interior, around 1945. The Victory Grill was a popular hangout for returning black vets of WWII.
In Austin, juke joints sprang up on the East Side in what was known as the “Negro District.” This is where the largest concentration of blacks existed. By 1940, approximately 17% of Austin’s population was black, and all the businesses in roughly a 15-block region catered exclusively to a black clientele  Johnny Holmes was the original owner of the Victory Grill[RB1] . Initially he was a music promoter for black artists, but by 1945 he decided to try his hand as a club owner. On V-E Day he opened his establishment.
Initially The Victory Grill was located in a small “lean-to” shack on 11th Street, but soon Holmes relocated to a larger space right next door. He shared the building with a local dry cleaner. The club quickly attracted a large number of regulars, most prominently young black soldiers returning from the war, and with their patronage, the club became an instant success. Not only was it typically packed, so was the street outside, filled with blacks enjoying the many businesses that lined the street. In the 1950s the Victory Grill was at its zenith, attracting national acts the likes of Ike and Tina Turner, James Brown, Billie Holiday, and Chuck Berry, to name but a few. Playing the “Chitlin’ Circuit” these performers left a lasting legacy and are credited with creating the sounds of post war rock and blues music.
By the 1960s and 1970s, the 11th Street area suffered a slow, steady decline. One by one clubs started to close, and The Victory Grill became a casualty of neglect. The causes were many. Legalized desegregation, suburban flight by affluent blacks, and inner city urban decay contributed to the area’s deterioration. After an interior fire in 1988, the Victory Grill closed.
However, by the following decade, the 11th Street area began a slow comeback. In 1996 the Victory Grill reopened. It is the last original juke joint still standing in East Austin. Its former companion venues are now permanently gone. In 1998 the Victory Grill was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 2006 the City of Austin recognized the site as an historic landmark. Today the club is an active performance space featuring blues and jazz music.
The physical description of the Victory Grill is fairly simple, and indeed, seemingly “nondescript.” It likely represents vernacular architecture—meaning literally no professional assisted in its design. The roof is flat. On three sides, the building is cinderblock. And on two of those cinderblock sides, there are no windows, only mounted window air conditioning units. There is a wood clad portico on the west side of the building. The front facade has a stucco finish and a slate-tiled roof. Three plate glass windows and two doors make up the front façade. These windows are likely not original. The solid wood doors are also likely an updated security precaution added in subsequent decades.
New Building by VG
One of many nearby contemporary additions to the East 11th Street neighborhood that now surrounds the Victory Grill
Importantly, the 1988 fire which gutted the interior did little to no damage to the exterior. Of note, however, in 2007 a new owner, Eva Lindsey, acquired the grill. She had the exterior repainted. Today the northern façade is bright blue. The west and northern façades are painted with murals. The theme in these paintings is clear: Music is an essential part of the black American experience. The front façade is painted gold and mauve. Apparently this color choice was determined by Lindsey’s affection for her alma mater, Huston Tillotson University, a historically black college a few blocks away. The former colors of the building were blue, white, and yellow. The Victory Grill indeed looks as if it has changed little in the past 50 years, but interestingly, the 11th Street block has undergone dramatic gentrification. Does that mean the Victory Grill is threatened by prospects of demolition? The answer appears to be an unequivocal “no.” This ugly cinderblock building is here to stay.