Written by Priscilla Coleman Gardner
James Cecil Toomer was the oldest living, but second born child of Henry and Bertha Toomer. He made his arrival into this world on November 30, 1908 in Jacksonville, Florida. The family eventually expanded to include 15 other children. When he was about 8 years old the Toomer family relocated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Although he proved to be a very intelligent man with a strong head for business, his life did not allow much time for any formal training; thus his school years ended while he was in the 7th grade.
At the age of 17 in 1925 or 1926 he married Mellenese Gates. To support his new family he began working construction on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. As his family grew he left this job and took a position as a chipper with the Camden Shipyard. One of the ships he worked on during his tenure was the battleship USS New Jersey. He remained with the shipyard until he was able to retire.
When he was about 29 years old, he relocated his family to East Berlin, New Jersey. During his leisure time he enjoyed singing in the church choir. As a member of a quartet he would go singing door to door in the neighborhood. This group was made of close friends that included Willie Woods, George Sykes, Steven Sykes and Cecil Sykes. Likewise, he took an active part in local politics, taking the time to go out into his community and encouraging people to register to vote. Election Day, he was back making sure they made it to the polls to cast their votes. His interest in politics led to his relationship with Cecil B. Moore. Mr. Moore was extremely involved in politics in Philadelphia and his many accomplishments led to a street in the city being renamed in his honor.
With all of this talk about work, politics and family; you would almost believe he was all work and very little play. To those who did not know him well, his tough expression and quiet demeanor would confirm this illusion. But James was not all about work and no play. As a young person his love for boxing led him to the ring where he sharpened his skills. He even had the opportunity to face Jersey Joe Wilcox. Wilcox (who went on to become a renowned professional fighter) had been a friend since they were co-workers at the shipyard. His second passion was baseball, when not playing it; he was watching and talking about the game.
As formerly stated, he was an intelligent man who had a head for numbers and a strong desire to have his own business. His talent for numbers was not overlooked by the local business owners in the community. Despite the fact he lacked any formal training in the field he became the accountant for many of them. By this time he had already retired from the shipyard and was now planning to open his own nightclub. With the help of his family and friends, he was able to build a large nightclub with attached living quarters. He included the living quarters for his family to reside in the event his business endeavor should fail. During a time when black families found themselves living as second class citizens; James had the respect of white society and the honor of being one of the very few black men who actually owned his business outright. Naming his club after a popular song known as ‘Tippin In’, he booked such acts as: Ike and Tina Turner, Dinah Washington, Little Richard, Patti LaBelle and Mary Wells, just to name a few. As a child I can recall hearing the pulsating music fill the early night air as I ran and played with other neighborhood kids. Its sound seemed to mingle in with the laughter, screams and chatter of our childish games---being heard and not heard, offering mystery yet comfort at the same time.
Word of this local nightspot spread far and wide. Just how popular it had became was made evident when a young civil rights leader by the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stopped in for a visit. Because he had heard of this thriving black owned business he wanted to visit and meet with its owner. During a scheduled trip to Atlantic City his party took a detour and stopped by Tippin Inn. During a time when black men were called boys and made to enter places through the rear, James Toomer seemed to live a life that was untouched by such realities. This got the interest of Dr. King who was impressed with what he saw and heard during his visit.
I often believed my grandfather’s intelligence was ahead of its time. I recall a time back in 1966 when I was only 13 years old; he told me that there will come a day when you would be able to tell the price of an item by the barcodes on the side. Of course, at that time I had no idea what a barcode was or what he was talking about, but I politely listened. Those same words have echoed in my mind many years later when that exact prediction came true. Being an avid reader he was astutely aware of not only what was happening locally, but worldwide.
My fondest memory of my grandfather will always be of that young child dressed in her Sunday best, leaving Sunday school and heading straight for her granddad’s nightclub. He would be sitting at the bar reading one of his many news-papers. With a slow glance he would give me a loving smile and begin some small talk that meant the world to me. With a slow smooth graceful move, his hand would slip into his front pants pocket and out would pop a dime or a nickel. "Thank-you, Granddaddy!" I would chirp in my childlike innocence. His sound advice of: "If you have a dime, spend a nickel—save a nickel," was forgotten at the candy store moments later where every penny was happily spent. James Toomer left this world on a rainy day in 1975. It was the 27th of September. He left behind a legacy of pride and determination that still burns strong in his children and grandchildren today. His children included Erline, Bertha, James, Lucille (also known as Doretha), Eleanor, Gladys, Henry, Althea, Lilly Mae, Helen, Anna, Agnes, Robert, Rosalie, Gilbert and Thelma (also known as Candy). Of his sixteen children three died as infants.