by Cleo E. Brown
"A remarkable story and re-discovery of 40’s & 50’s superstar. Peg Leg Bates!!"
Peg-Leg Bates was born Clayton Bates on October 11th, 1907 in Fountain Inn, South Carolina. His parents Emma and Rufus Stewart Bates were sharecroppers. According to Clayton, sharecropping ("farming") "was a hard job in which one worked from can to can't." Clayton hated farming but loved dancing. At the age of five, he performed his first dance in a barbershop before an all-White audience which threw pennies and nickels to him. Technically what he did was tap dancing, at the time it was called "buck dancing". Clayton danced in his bare feet and made rhythms to dance to with his hands. His mother, who did not approve of dancing, once charged into town, grabbed her dancing son's hand and said, "You will not make a monkey out of my son! Go make a monkey of your own children."
When Clayton was twelve years old, he began working in town at a factory to escape the cotton fields. On his third day at work the electrical power and lights went out and he accidentally stepped onto a piece of equipment called an auger which chewed his leg up. Being African-American in the rural south in 1923, he was not permitted to go to a hospital. His leg was amputated the next day on his mother's kitchen table. His mother felt that this was a condemnation of her from God for permitting her son to work in a factory. In looking back over his life, however, Peg-Leg Bates came to see the accident as a blessing in disguise because of all of the opportunities afforded him as a one-legged dancer. Right after the accident, for many months, Clayton lost faith in God and in himself and began to think he would never dance again.
Eventually, his Uncle Witt made him a wooden leg and Clayton taught himself how to tap dance using the makeshift leg from which he took his nickname.
By the age of fifteen, Clayton was once again proficient enough at dancing to enter amateur talent shows and other dance competitions. From these competitions, he networked his way into professional dancing and worked the International Circuit until 1940.
By the age of twenty, Bates was dancing on Broadway. For many performances in Washington D.C., he was forced to perform in blackface so that no one would know that he was a Negro. Despite his success as a performer, after the shows, he would eat elsewhere because of the extreme segregation which existed throughout the United States. Eventually, however, he became so successful as a dancer that he was able to stop performing in blackface and eat wherever he wanted to.
According to Bates, he became more sophisticated while working as an entertainer in Harlem. He improved in his dance and his dress and took to wearing peg-legs to match his suits. He became such a skilled dancer that in the early 40's at The Paradise Club in Atlantic City, New Jersey he executed a "Jet Plane" finale in which he leaped and stayed five feet up in the air and then made a series of somersaults across the stage. His peg-leg once punctured a hole in the wooden floor causing him to be stuck for half an hour. Peg-Leg not only played in Washington D.C., The Cotton Club in Harlem, In 1951, Bates bought a country club for African-Americans which he owned and operated until 1987. Located in the Catskills Mountains in Kerhonkson, New York, many celebrated African-Americans performed there during the era of racial segregation. Among them were Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sidney Poitier and Mel Tormé. "Don't look at me in sympathy for I am glad I am this way" he said, "I feel good knocking on wood...for I am Peg-Leg Bates the one-legged dancing man.
With the success of the Civil Rights Movement, there was no longer a need for an exclusively African-American resort. Compounding this was the death of Bate's wife, Alice, in 1987. Shortly after this he gave up his resort-hotel business and was cared for by his daughter Melody. It was while he was in the small town of Fountain Inn, South Carolina to receive an award at a fundraiser that Bates collapsed on his way back from church. He was ninety-one years old when he died on December 8th, 1998. Today, in tribute, there are street signs and monuments which bear the name Peg-Leg Bates in New York and South Carolina.