While times were hard in the Depression, the tobacco culture spawned a notable social event, an all-night dance known as the “June Germans” and held in a large tobacco warehouse in Rocky Mount, “German,” was a popular form of social dancing. The event traced back to 1870, when Rocky Mount hosted a “Grand Celebration Ball,” an extravagant dance with friends attending from neighboring counties. It was so successful that it became an annual tradition.
In 1880 the Carolina Cotillion Club of Rocky Mount held a dance in one of the downtown tobacco warehouses, a celebration of the all-important tobacco crop. Not long after, the dance moved to June where it quickly became the highlight of eastern North Carolina’s social calendar. “June Germans” became the official name in 1903.
By the 1930s, Life, The Saturday Evening Post, and the New York Times covered the event. This black-tie affair attracted partygoers from a hundred-mile radius. The Raleigh News & Observer declared it “The first social event of the tobacco country… It proves, undoubtedly, that there are four thousand men with tuxedos and tails in the cash-crop tenant farmer land.”
The gala changed little from its early days. Invited guests, first from across North Carolina and eventually from all the east coast, descended on the small town to dance to the music of some of the most popular bands of the day. Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Count Basie, and Rocky Mount’s own Kay Kyser would begin playing after midnight and continue until six o’clock in the morning. Perhaps ten thousand dancers attended, and five thousand spectators paid just to observe the festivities.
In the segregated South, the June Germans was a high-society affair for the white community, the men in tuxedos and the women in fancy ball gowns. Once, Smithfield North Carolina native Ava Gardner, about the hottest actress in Hollywood, showed up as a visitor’s date. She could have been dining and dancing anywhere in the world, but she spent the evening in Rocky Mount.
But the June Germans was even more important because the African American community also embraced it. Starting in 1917, they held their own June German on the Monday night following the white-sponsored Friday event, and it grew to be even larger than its namesake. It had the same appeal to big-name musicians. Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billy Eckstein all made appearances. When Count Basie headlined, the event drew an astounding 24,000-plus dancers and spectators.
Gaddis, Elijah. “The June Germans” University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2013. Accessed July 5, 2020. https://www.ncpedia.org/june-germans
Yeargin, Billy. North Carolina Tobacco: A History. Charleston, SC. History Press, 2008.