Peg Leg Bates and the Peg Leg Bates Country Club

Article excerpt

Peg's Ode(1)

Don't look at me in sympathy

I am glad that I'm this way

For I feel good

And I'm knockin' on wood

As long as I could say

You just watch me peg it

You can tell by the way that I leg it

That I'm Peg Leg Bates, the one legged dancin' man

I mix light fantastics

Up with hard gymnastics

I'm Peg Leg Bates, the one legged dancin' man

You may think that having one leg is tough

But when I do my stuff

One leg is enough

When I start tappin'

Anything may happen

I'm Peg Leg Bates, the one-legged dancin' man

Clayton "Peg Leg" Bates (1907-1998) is a figure of exceptional significance in the area of entertainment, described by Rusty E. Frank, author of Tap: The Greatest Tap Stars and Their Stories, 1900-1955, as not only "King of the One-Legged Dancers," but also as one of the "finest tap dancers that ever lived."(2) Bates' extraordinary routines have earned him a significant place in the history of dance. Noted tap dance historian Sally Sommer has stated that Bates helped change the rhythm of tap dancing from "swing" to "bop."(3) Bates' significance was documented in an hour-long PBS special in 1992. His life story has been featured on the "Today Show," and the "Ebony Jet Showcase." Gregory Hines and other well-known contemporary dancers have testified that Bates acted as a role model for aspiring performing artists. Furthermore, Bates had been honored during his lifetime for his work as a humanitarian on behalf of senior citizens and the disabled, and for his efforts in the arena of race relations. The legislature of Ulster County recognized Bates' services by declaring June 26, 1983 as "Peg Leg Bates Day in Ulster County." The Peg Leg Bates Country Club is also a cultural property of exceptional significance in the area of African American history. Valerie Sudol wrote that, "The Peg Leg Bates Resort was the vacation destination of choice for blacks who may have saved all year to come to the idyllic resort with its picnic grounds, swimming pool, casino, and lake."(4) This essay, based largely on interviews with Bates in 1994, will investigate the life story of Clayton "Peg Leg" Bates and illuminate the origins of the Peg Leg Bates Country Club in Kerhonkson, New York.

Bates' life is the tale of one man's struggle for the traditional republican ideal of equality and it's associated principle of integration in American society. Bates was born in a cabin on October 11, 1907 in Fountain Inn, South Carolina, the child of a sharecropper. When Bates was three, his father deserted his wife and son, and Bates was raised in an extended hardscrabble family that included fourteen first cousins. Emma Bates, Bates' mother, worked as a domestic, cooking and cleaning for twelve hours a day to help support her son. "We were poor," Bates remembered. "You couldn't get any poorer than my mother and me." Yet plantation life immersed Bates in African American cultural traditions that found expression in the music, religion, and dance of poor black folks. These early experiences nurtured his personality and sense of worth in an oppressive society, and remained influential throughout his productive life. The fatherless boy started to hone his dancing skills on street corners at the age of five, an activity that became his passion, to the chagrin of his devoutly Baptist mother. Bates left school after the sixth grade, but he found little enjoyment as a sharecropper on a plantation, planting and harvesting corn, cotton, and vegetables. Indeed, in an interview Bates said, "I hated farming, but black people didn't have much else to do but farm because that is what the white man wanted us to do. We didn't go to school much because the whites didn't want us to learn too much because then we wouldn't stay down on the farm. And if we wanted to survive, we did what we were told."(5)

During World War I, when he was twelve years old, Bates found work in a local cotton mill. …