George Dixon III, owner of the Lancer Steakhouse on Carnegie Avenue, discusses the restaurant's history, including under the previous ownership of Fleet Slaughter, and its importance to the African American community. Mr. Dixon discusses the other African American establishments in the Midtown area prior to his ownership, including Corner Tavern, Leo's Casino, and Art's Seafood. Dixon recounts change and continuity in the Lancer's menu, as well as how the Midtown area has changed over the years.
Dixon III, George (interviewee)
Souther, Mark (interviewer)
"George Dixon III Interview, 24 July 2007" (2007). Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Interview 910001.
Mark Souther [00:00:01] Today is July 24, 2007, and I'm at Lancer Steakhouse on Carnegie Avenue with Mr. George Dixon, and I'd like for him to introduce himself in his own words.
George Dixon [00:00:14] Hello, my name is George Dixon. I'm the proprietor of the Lancer Steakhouse, a longtime staple in Cleveland, Ohio.
Mark Souther [00:00:26] I wonder if you could start, Mr. Dixon, by telling me a little bit about the early history of Lancer Steakhouse. How did it start and started it?
George Dixon [00:00:34] Sure, well, the Lancer was... This was actually an old house that was converted into a restaurant called the Hickory Smokehouse in its first presentation. As years passed, about 46 years ago, 48 years ago, a gentleman by the name of Fleet Slaughter, who was actually a waiter at a country club, started the Lancer Steakhouse. His staff consisted of waitstaff from golf clubs, private clubs, from around the city. And he gathered this professional staff to create what was at the time the first black-owned and -operated restaurant in the city. It was a very elegant place to go. The gentleman would wear coats and ties and the women would wear evening attire and Fleet Slaughter was a gentleman's gentleman, respected, and he would be often seen walking through to the dining room greeting his customers. His waitstaff all wore tuxedos and bowties and carried the platters high above their heads, as you would see in some of the old movies. And he gave this first-class service, and the place became renowned for his, the famous service and the food that you would get from this establishment.
Mark Souther [00:02:07] Was he from Cleveland or did he come from somewhere else?
George Dixon [00:02:10] You know, I don't, I don't know that. But I know he spent most of his life, most his adult life in Cleveland. He was married to a lady by the name of Beulah Slaughter who later... And he was married to a woman by the name of Beulah Slaughter, who, after his death tried to continue on in the same vein that Fleet had originated.
Mark Souther [00:02:32] So it started out as Hickory Smokehouse, and how long was it Hickory Smokehouse, would you say, before it became Lancer?
George Dixon [00:02:39] About seven years. Yes.
Mark Souther [00:02:41] So we're talking about 1950-something.
George Dixon [00:02:45] Yes, yes, yes, yes. And it's been... It's had the name of the Lancer for approximately 48, 49 years.
Mark Souther [00:02:52] Okay, so 1959 or 1960?
George Dixon [00:02:55] Yes, yes. It became the Lancer, yes.
Mark Souther [00:03:00] When it, once it, so this was the oldest surviving black restaurant...
George Dixon [00:03:08] In the...
Mark Souther [00:03:08] Or were there others that closed...
George Dixon [00:03:10] Yes. Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. There were others that closed. Some of the names escape me now. But I... The Dearing brothers, they, they had... The Dearings had restaurants over the city. And there are some other famous names of individuals who had restaurants that were well-known in the city. But this one has been the only one from that old first group to kind of survive.
Mark Souther [00:03:37] I understand that this area from about here over several blocks to the south was a really, really commercial district for African Americans in the middle, early to middle years of the 20th century.
George Dixon [00:03:48] Oh, absolutely.
Mark Souther [00:03:51] Were you in this area growing up?
George Dixon [00:03:51] Oh, I was absolutely born a stone's throw from here on 83rd and Cedar, and this area bustled with many businesses. There was the Corner Tavern, which was a infamous, I should say, establishment in the black community. There was Leo's Casino where a lot of world-renowned acts, the O'Jays, and many of those groups from back in those days started over there. The Corner Tavern was owned by Don King. There was Art's Seafood on Cedar Avenue, which is a restaurant that I modeled myself after. And those, the cooks that were from that restaurant came here to work after it closed. This was, you know, up and down Cedar, up and down from 105 to 55th, Cedar, Carnegie, and Euclid was just almost like the downtown for the African American individual in those days.
Mark Souther [00:04:55] When did it start to lose a lot of these businesses?
George Dixon [00:04:59] Well...
Mark Souther [00:04:59] Did it happen at the same time as integration?
George Dixon [00:05:01] Well, you know, as the minority population ventured out to the suburbs and, you know, became more cosmopolitan, became more mobile, you know, just the natural exodus that's happened in most urban areas, you know, over the last 30 years. Okay? Well, the concentration, you know, those, the haves kind of left the city and the have nots were kind of left here and therefore, you could see the decay and the degeneration that's happened in the city. And this is not unique of Cleveland. This has just happened, unfortunately, all over the country. Now there seems to be an exodus back with the central cities becoming more important with gasoline prices going sky high, people looking to less, to make shorter trips to and from work, to and from the center city. You know, now these—they call 'em urban pioneers—are moving back to the city, but folks like myself never left. Okay?
Mark Souther [00:06:11] I read somewhere that Lancer's at least used to and maybe still does have a lot of items on the menu that we cater to people in the South? [cross talk] To what extent was that true, because a lot of African Americans came up from Alabama and other southern states?
George Dixon [00:06:28] This was, you know, it's a misnomer nowadays that it's called the Lancer Steakhouse. It actually... I actually... We actually serve more seafood than we do steaks, although we still serve a large variety and we serve a lot of steaks, but we specialize in southern fried seafood, southern fried catfish, southern fried red snapper, those sort of items. And this has been a recipe that was... Again, it was... I'll have to give credit to Art's Seafood over on Cedar Avenue. This was a recipe that was originated over there. And we sort of brought it over when it closed and his cooks came over here, we sort of brought that recipe over here, and it served us well, along with the steaks. And again, the clientele has changed, so you have to change. We become more diversified, the menu's become more diversified, and we offer a lot of different things, the pastas, the, you know, different health, [phone rings] more healthier venue with the salads and that sort of thing. And of course, the steaks just, you know, we have a wide variety of I guess we'd be more categorized as American cuisine. Okay. And that's been pretty successful for us nowadays. But we don't forget those items that that made us famous.
Mark Souther [00:07:41] Yeah. Did you... How have you seen the clientele change over the years? In what ways?
George Dixon [00:07:48] Well, I will... You know, I've changed, and sometimes I have to catch myself, and then I say to myself, Well, my clientele seems to be getting a little younger, but I think I'm just getting a little older and so [laughs] that I have to stop and catch myself. But we were always a place where the black professional or the person that was on top of his game would come. In other words, we would have... This was a melting pot. We would have the judges, the doctors, the black lawyers. They would all come here, but we would also have the black street folks that were, you know, the upper crust of that enterprise that would also come here and and populate the, and be a part of my clientele. So we were always a melting pot for that. And that continues today although, I mean, I would be the first to say that the area has changed. Yeah. So it's caused my customer base to kind of change. And, you know, the area has a reputation, I should say, or when people think about the area they think of it being maybe a crime-ridden area. And we're fighting that every day to let people know when they come here they're safe and this is a great place to come and have a good time and to enjoy yourself, that the whole Midtown corridor is a great place to come and have a have a good time.
Mark Souther [00:09:23] What... Can you describe what used to be in sight distance of the restaurant?
George Dixon [00:09:28] Sure. When I took over this, when I took over this corner, when I took over this business some 21 years ago, if you look across the street, that entire building was vacant. If you look to my right, where, it used to be Hospeco [Hospital Specialty Co.] and is now a produce distributor, it was vacant. If you look to the left, that is now a lighting company, that was vacant. So when I came to the corner, I was basically the only show in town. And there was a... To my immediate right was another tavern. Okay? And that's since closed and been torn down. But that was it. That was it. And I would like to... I'd like to think that, you know, the rebirth of this business and the fact that this business flourished caused a lot of the other businesses around here to come and to also be prosperous.
Mark Souther [00:10:30] I want to clarify, just to be sure that I have this right. Was the business that was started here before you took it over, was it in this location or was it different location?
George Dixon [00:10:40] No, it was here, Right here. It's been here. It's been here ofr all those years.
Mark Souther [00:10:45] So it out-survived a lot of the other businesses around here but then it ended up, it stayed and then these other places left and then slowly repopulated...
George Dixon [00:10:54] Absolutely. Absolutely. There's this [inaudible]. [recording pauses and resumes]
Mark Souther [00:10:57] Okay, we're resuming the interview with George Dixon. Well, you were saying that this... Well, let me back up... Well, let me go to something else. I understand now the context. There's also the Lancer Motel that's around this. Can you tell me about that?
George Dixon [00:11:24] Okay. I don't own the last motel, but at one time, it was a single entity with Fleet Slaughter being the owner of both properties. And they worked in conjunction. This was actually the room service for the Lancer Hotel. But as years passed, after Fleet passed away, they were sold off to a different individual. So another gentleman now owns the hotel. The hotel... The day I bought the Lancer restaurant, the Lancer Hotel caught fire, and it used to be a four-story hotel, and now it's only a three-story hotel. They had to take the... They took the whole top level off of it and put a roof on it. And now the building that you see now is the remnants of the fire.
Mark Souther [00:12:13] Was the Lancer Motel one that only served African Americans at one time?
George Dixon [00:12:18] No, no, no, no. It was a... It was integrated because, I mean, again, because of the area. See this area when it opened up as the Hickory Smokehouse, it was, it had a large non-black population. And as it changed, so changed the face of the business in the area. So the hotel again, just like the restaurant, it changed. Yeah.
Mark Souther [00:12:40] What about Fleet Slaughter then. When did he pass away?
George Dixon [00:12:43] And I'm sorry I can't, I can't answer that question. But just based on the ownership chain, it's been about 30 years. Okay.
Mark Souther [00:12:52] So someone else had his business then before you took it over for several years?
George Dixon [00:12:55] Several.. For several.... His son operated it for a while. His son operated it for, I want to say seven years, and then an individual, a well-known Cleveland attorney by the name of John Carson, owned and operated it for about seven years. And I have operated it now 21 years. So I've been the the longest operator of all, including Fleet, of all, yeah.
Mark Souther [00:13:20] I understand also that the Lancer's got a reputation, as you mentioned, a lot of people who are at the top of their game came here. Did that include people from out of town a lot?
George Dixon [00:13:31] Oh, absolutely, absolutely, absolutely. You know, heavyweight championship, heavyweight champions, music, musical stars, politicians, all types of people, civic leaders. We've had Vice President of the United States. Just from every walk of life that have come here in the past, and it's had a reputation, especially in politics, if you wanted to get the ear or be seen in the minority community, this would be the place that you would go and this the place that you would come. So.
Mark Souther [00:14:13] How has the menu changed over the years? You mentioned that you've stayed with a lot of the sort of the staples of southern fried fish and that sort of thing.
George Dixon [00:14:21] It hasn't changed...
Mark Souther [00:14:22] How has it changed?
George Dixon [00:14:23] Hasn't changed much, actually. Like I said, I stayed with that staple, keeping it intact, but just adding some things on, you know, pasta dishes, you know, different salads, different, you know, adjusting the fat and that sort of thing on cooking oils and whatever, just to make some of the staple dishes more health-conscious. You know, bringing in chefs from different establishments in the city to to bring on new ideas, fresh ideas, you know, because people are changing. They don't want... People want to eat a lot... They want the same thing, but they also want to try different stuff. And they want to be, you know, they want to be surprised. And we try to do that. And we try to do that.
Mark Souther [00:15:10] And I wanted to ask you, what did you do before you took over the business? Where were you and what did you do?
George Dixon [00:15:15] I ran a grocery store. Well, after I graduated, after I graduated from college, I was a manager with Sears and Roebuck Company. And my father and my brother were in the grocery business. And they passed away, and my mother was going to sell off the business. And I told her, don't do that. I'm going to take it over. And she said, No, you're not. You're enjoying too much being a big shot, going to work every day wearing a shirt and tie. And I said, no, no, I think it's important and I want to take over the family business. So I quit my job at Sears and took over the grocery store. And then by chance, I came in here one day and met the owner and he said the place was for sale. And I never thought of myself being in this business. And I purchased it, and the rest is history. I've been here ever since. I've been here ever since. Yeah.
Mark Souther [00:16:11] Who did the cooking in the early days when you started?
George Dixon [00:16:15] My first cook was a guy by the name of George. He liked to be called George Goldstein. He was a chef from a local country club. And he started bringing the food back in. Okay? And he was a classically trained chef and, you know, he knew all the things, the sauces and all this and all that, and was a great cook. Personality, he was quite a character, but that wasn't what the place needed. All right? And then a guy by the name of John Smedley, who was a chef, the cook over at the old Art's Seafood that I've mentioned before, walked into my place and he said, You see this empty dining room? I can fill it for you every day. And I looked at him and smiled. He said, Just give me the chance. And I gave him the chance, and we formed a friendship and a partnership that he, you know, and he kept his word. He did. He filled the dining room, you know, bringing his style of cooking and the style of cooking that we still have now. He trained my head chef that I have now. And he was a... It was a blessing that I met him again and that he came over here.
Mark Souther [00:17:36] How did you... Let me change the subject a little bit. How did you get involved with MidTown Cleveland Inc., and when?
George Dixon [00:17:41] Well, actually a couple of years ago. I've been on the board and but I have not been active. I'm I'm on the board now and I have a... And I told the membership that, and I told the staff that I will now I want to be a member and I want to be more involved in what's happening. I have a great love for this area and I think that this corridor can really be something special. And I know that the folks down at the Midtown corridor have worked hard and have worked diligently toward that aim, toward making this just a really a destination point. And I want to be a part of that. I grew up in this area. You know, I lived here most of my life and I just, I want this I want this area to flourish. And, you know, everybody wants to go downtown and they say, oh, George, you need to open up something in the Warehouse District, you need to go in the Flats, you need to do this and that. I think I'm in the right place. I think I'm at the right time. And I think that my future as far as this business is here and and I want to see that come to fruition. I do.
Mark Souther [00:18:48] I imagine you have a lot of people who've come here for more years than maybe, for long before you owned the place yourself...
George Dixon [00:18:55] Yes. Yes.
Mark Souther [00:18:59] Who really are, you know, tied to this place.
George Dixon [00:18:59] Yes. I had a... She just retired. I actually had a barmaid—to call her a barmaid is a shortcoming, a manager—a friend who worked here who had been... She was here all the 21 years I've been here, and she was one of the first... She was the first employee hired. Her name was Elsie Parker, and she had been here forever. And she can... She's the person, if you want to know the history, she actually should be sitting here. She knows all about this place. She knows about the owner. She knows about the ups, the downs. She's been through it all here and... But my customers, I have customers even to this day that we'e here and they've been coming here forever, and they come in and they talk about Fleet Slaughter, they talk about the old times. And when this happened here and when that happened here, and they just truly love the place and, you know, the things that's happened. They're getting older now. They're getting older now. So I'm glad that they've been able to share some stuff with me and I try to retain it. And, you know, every now and then they'll even bring me in some old pictures of the place and the people that were here and that sort of thing. So, yeah, this this the history here is so rich. It's really so rich. And it's been a top part of this area for so long. An important part.
Mark Souther [00:20:14] Are there some other important businesses in this area that could be reached out to. The owners...
George Dixon [00:20:20] Yes. Yes.
Mark Souther [00:20:23] Especially longtime black-owned businesses, other than restaurants... [inaudible]
George Dixon [00:20:33] Now that's a good question. But there's a gentleman over there who has a plating company, Gene, and his last name escapes me right now. And he's been there. He was there when I moved here, when I took over, so I know he's been there at least 20, 20, 20-plus years. Okay? He knows about it. He's the one... He sold this... The front building—his building was actually in back of that—he sold his front building to a gentleman by the name of Paul Wills, who unfortunately, we just buried him on Friday. He passed away. He was a character. He was a former head of the service units for the city. He was head of all the trash, garbage men, all the service people for the city in the union, and he was a very powerful man in the city, quite frankly. And he just passed away. And there's others that I really can't think of, but like I said earlier, most of those businesses that I mentioned, like the Corner Tavern, like Leo's Casino, those places that were very historic, they're going away now. Okay? But a lot of the churches have been around. Reverend Marvin McMickle, right up the street there, he's been there for some 59 years, okay? and he's seen some things happen here.
Mark Souther [00:21:46] Which church is that?
George Dixon [00:21:47] That's Antioch, Antioch. And then we have Saint James right there. There's some very influential—all churches are influential, important—but some very high profile churches in this corridor. Okay. Uh, and then the rest, that's all that I could think of now. The rest escapes me.
Mark Souther [00:22:07] When did Leo's close?
George Dixon [00:22:09] Ooh, you're asking me these dates and I'm so terrible at dates. Uhhh, wow. Leo's closed—I was here—I would say it's been about 18 years ago. Yeah, about 18 years ago, in its final state that it was in. I think it was called something else toward the end. No, it wasn't, it was always Leo's. It closed about 18 years ago, 20 years ago. About 20.
Mark Souther [00:22:31] Speaking of Leo's, are there any memories you have?
George Dixon [00:22:33] Well, you know what? I was too young, quite frankly, to even, you know, go in there in its heyday. But just when I would walk in here and see the place and how small it was, but I would hear the stories that these guys would tell me about the artists that would come there and the, you know, the jam sessions they would have and the people and whatever. It was just amazing to me. And I would look and say to myself, Geez, all this happened in this small place. And that was the thing that struck me about it, and that it was right here, you know, right here on Euclid Avenue. Uh, again, this area, I'm so happy that the Midtown corridor that the RTA is putting in this BRT and hopefully... Well, I know that that's going to cause a great redevelopment of Euclid Avenue in this area because it deserves... It's deserving. It's really deserving.
Mark Souther [00:23:28] What future plans do you have?
[00:23:30] Well... My immediate plan is to put a patio. This, on this corner here, I want to put an outside dining venue to, you know, with the new smoking ban in the city of Cleveland, well in the state, that's become very important. We, you know, we still have smokers that want to come here and they want to patronize the restaurant. So I have to make it convenient for them. So if you know, this is not something that's a brainstorm. All over the city, people are opening patios or whatever. So I want to open a patio to give some al fresco dining, as they say. Hopefully that's gonna enhance the business itself. I'm going to enlarge my dining room, my dining room area back here, and, you know, just continue to do changes, upkeep, facial changes, just to make people feel comfortable and to try to attract more people to the place, to the establishment. Yeah.
Mark Souther [00:24:29] Is there anything else that you wanted to add before we conclude today?
George Dixon [00:24:33] No, no, not really. I just, you know, I'm honored, I'm humbled that you would come and want to talk to me. Sometimes, I know it's not really to me, though, I know it's you want to talk to the Lancer, and I tend to forget how important this restaurant has been in the history of African Americans in this city. And I always, when I first took over, one of my older customers was he was afraid that I was going to make it turn it into a a hotspot or whatever he called it. And I said, you know, I want to keep it the way it is. I understand the tradition of the Lancer. And he said that I should understand that I'm not the owner of the Lancer, I'm just a caretaker of the Lancer, and that I have a responsibility to keep it going because of its importance in the city. And I've always remembered that. And I try to keep that in mind when I make decisions concerning the Lancer Steakhouse.
Mark Souther [00:25:37] Great. Thank you very much.
George Dixon [00:25:38] All right. Thank you very much. I hope I... [recording ends]
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