William T. Washington, 77, manager of Sphinx Club

July 01, 2006|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

William T. Washington, who managed the famed Sphinx Club on Pennsylvania Avenue for nearly 40 years, died of renal failure Monday at his West Baltimore home. He was 77.

Mr. Washington, who was called "Wash," "Sweet Pea" or "Willie Wash" by legions of his friends, was born in Baltimore and raised on Arlington Avenue on the west side.

He was a 1948 graduate of Douglass High School. After serving as a postal worker for eight years, he became manager in 1956 of the Sphinx Club in the 2100 block of Pennsylvania Ave.

The Sphinx, which replaced the Club Manhattan, was established by Charles P. Tilghman. The private club, which opened its doors in 1946, quickly became a home away from home for African-American judges, politicians, entertainers, physicians and community leaders.

"The Sphinx Club was the place to go if you considered yourself a part of the black elite, because there was no place else to go," Mr. Tilghman said in a 1978 interview.

James E. "Biddy" Wood, a former music promoter and longtime friend of Mr. Washington's, said yesterday, "There's a lot of stress managing a club because you're dealing with all kinds of people and their problems.

"He had to listen to a lot of problems but he did a fine job. One thing about Wash, there was no middle ground, and he didn't mind speaking his mind. The Sphinx Club, no longer in existence, has lost another jolly good fellow," Mr. Wood said.

Daughter Nicole D. Cromwell of Parkville recalled going to the club to visit her father.

"I could only go in the daytime -- never at night -- and he'd let me sit at the bar on a stool while I sipped a glass of orange juice," Mrs. Cromwell said yesterday.

"He liked people, and they came from all walks of life. It didn't matter to him. I'd go in there and I'd see him talking to Redd Foxx or Slappy White. And he absolutely loved Mr. Tilghman," she said.

Mr. Washington's workday began at 10 a.m. when he opened the club and could extend, at times, into the wee hours.

Well-dressed, he like to sip a vodka and orange juice while making sure that everything was operating smoothly.

"Sphinx members still jokingly recall that Wash `danced on every set,' meaning he rarely said no to the offer of a drink," Mr. Wood said.

"We had the time of our lives there," said Beta H. Dotson, who worked at the club for more than 30 years as a barmaid.

"He was my boss, and he was wonderful. Everyone loved him. He was a good sport, funny and A-OK. He was good when it came to handling people and never had any problems. It was a job meant for him because he did it so well," she said.

Randy Tilghman, a son of the club's founder, said: "He was a very dependable person and always on the spot. He'd never take a day off, and if he did, he came to the club. My father depended on him for so many things."

After the club closed in 1993, Mr. Washington continued working and took a job as an usher at the old Civic Center. Since 1999, he had been a parking attendant at the Landmark Parking Garage in the 300 block of E. Lombard St.

Mr. Washington enjoyed collecting old photographs of the Sphinx Club and books on African-American history. He liked shopping regularly at the Lexington Market where his purchases always included roasted peanuts and containers of Asian food.

At Mr. Washington's request, no services will be held.

Also surviving is another daughter, Sandra Nelson of Baltimore; a stepson, Billy Riddick of Honolulu; a brother, Tyrone Washington of Houston; a sister, Freda Smith of Baltimore; two grandsons; and three great-grandchildren. His marriages to the former Connie Washington and Peggy James ended in divorce.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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