It’s Thursday at the Acorn Restaurant in Harlem, and the room hums with friendly chatter as a group of women lunches on grilled pimento cheese, chicken salad and BLT sandwiches.
The mood changes, however, as soon as the cards are dealt.
The chatter is replaced with murmured phrases of “One no trump,” “We booked” and “You’re the dummy” – which does not refer to one’s intelligence.
The Harlem Bridge Club has begun another session.
It’s a scene that has been repeated every other Thursday for the past five years at the group’s regular meeting at the restaurant in Red Oak Manor.
The card game has been going on much, much longer. Decades. Almost a hundred years. It’s longer than any of the current members recall, anyway.
“One of my earliest memories is of my parents playing with the group in the 1920s when I was about 3 years old,” said Jack Hatcher, 92, a substitute player, whose father, E.O. Hatcher, was a former mayor of Harlem. The family operated Hatcher Brothers Dry Goods, which was in business for 99 years.
Hatcher’s wife, Minnette, 91, started playing with the club 36 years ago when they returned to Harlem to live in the Hatcher family home place.
“Back then, the women played cards in the afternoon and the men came later for dinner,” Jack Hatcher said.
The average age of the current group is about 85 with half being over 90.
Sue Widdon, who occasionally plays with the group, will be 108 on Dec. 14.
“I hope to be able to play all the time.” says Widdon. “It’s a very interesting game and it’s a very educational game.”
Cynthia Willis Lanford, 72, who has lived in Harlem since the fifth grade, is the youngest of the club’s eight regular members.
“For me it’s as much about the fellowship with this group of ladies because we’re so diverse and I just love them all,” Lanford said.
She said most of the ladies learned to play by following along with the bridge column, which used to be a daily feature in the newspaper.
Over the decades, the club has served as a mirror of Harlem history with several former mayors and local businessmen and their wives participating. The 1973 membership list included Madeline Culpepper, the mother of Harlem’s current mayor, Bobby Culpepper, Another early member of the club was Culpepper’s wife’s grandfather, Glenn Phillips, who was also a mayor of Harlem and later a state senator and state representative.
Marjorie Mann Luckey, 95, has been a member of the club since the 1940s when she moved to Harlem with her husband, Marion, after World War II. Marion W. Luckey Sr. and Francis W. Tracy were the co-owners of Tracy-Luckey Pecans which still operates in Harlem today. Tracy and his wife Jane were also members of the club.
Marjorie Luckey still has a copy of the membership list from 1973 which, in addition to listing the members, states the by-laws of the club in four short sentences:
1) Meets first and third Thursday of each month.
2) Members shall call hostess by Thursday, if possible, when they are unable to attend regular club date.
3) Dues shall be six dollars per couple for Christmas party.
4) Each person shall bring a gift to party to be exchanged.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Harlem was considered a resort town, boasting of three hotels and seven boarding houses, but the bridge club was just for the locals.
“New players weren’t added to the group unless someone died or moved away,” said Hatcher. He also recalls playing so much bridge in the dorm at Teacher’s College (now Georgia Southern University) that he almost flunked out.
“We had a game going all the time,” Hatcher recalls, “If someone got up to go to class, someone else took their place.”
Originally, the club included couples and members took turns hosting the club at their homes. Today, it is mainly a woman’s club because most of the husbands have died.
The club membership has waxed and waned over the years, but is has been down to eight regular players – two tables – for several years.
“We’ll be down to one table if we don’t find somebody,” Lanford said.
If the club is to survive past the century mark, it is going to need new people, like Janet Luckey Short, a substitute player in her early 60s and the daughter of member Marjorie Luckey.
Short, who returned to Harlem a couple of years ago to care for her mother, inherited a passion for the game from her mother.
“I have found a bridge club everywhere that I have lived since college,” she said.
Short is confident that the group will find new players to keep the game going for years to come.
“There are several (players) in town that haven’t been asked to be in this (club) that play in different groups,” said Short. “I really do think that we need to have a bridge class for the community.”
Those who do take up the game, no matter what age, seem to stick with it.
“It’s an addictive thing,” Hatcher said. “The more you play, the more you want to.”