R Place on Park
A neighborhood Black bar
By Jonathan Gramling
Since they opened in 2008, the road hasn’t been easy as Annie Weatherby-Flowers
and Rick Flowers have tried to establish R Place on Park as Madison’s only African
American-owned bar that caters to a primarily African American clientele. Their difficulties
were highlighted by publicity they received when a gun was fired in back of their club and
reports of groups of young people hanging outside the club with drugs passing hands.
“When we were reading the blogs and the information in the paper, it was so far from
the truth,” Weatherby-Flowers said. “The perception that we are a troubled bar is not at all
true. We had fewer police calls to our bar in the first two years than any bar in the city.
That’s not talked about. We did not have groups of kids hanging out at bar time. Cell
phones are the tool of the young folks. So right at bar time, they would call people. That’s
what happened with that incident. They called someone at bar time. There was no one
hanging out. We actually had six security people plus JBM Security coming by in the car.
We had a rule about ‘No tennis shoes, no hats.’ We put all of those things into place. The
perception that we had lots of people hanging out is inaccurate. We would have gotten
tickets. We haven’t gotten any kind of ticket from the police. If you look, there hasn’t been
anyone who has been issued a loitering ticket. All of our patrons have wrist bands.
Anyone who doesn’t would be considered a loiterer. We worked with the police to ensure
that we don’t have that problem. We actually had more security in our bar than bars three times our size at one time.”
When they first opened up, R Place was designed to cater to a middle class African American clientele. But as establishments that
attracted young people of color like the Majestic closed or changed their venues, many of the young people began to come to R Place
because it was the only African American bar in town and it had great music.
“At one point, there was a bar in Beaver Dam and they had other places for hip hop,” Flowers said. “Then those places closed down and
then all of the kids swarmed over to here. That’s how things go. So now those other places have opened up and now the kids are going there.
We really didn’t change our program. It was just in the strength of numbers. A lot more kids began to come and what do you do? Do you play
your music and we can play Marvin Gaye all night long or whatever and they come here and bob their heads and sing to Sam Cooke and say
‘My momma used to sing that song.’ ‘My grandma sang that song.’ And they’ll have a beer and they behave. They followed our rules and
behaved. What do you do? In Wisconsin, if you are 21 years old, you are old enough to come in. The clientele had changed just because there
weren’t any other places to go. People were looking at my little bar.”
Since the summer, other bars catering to young people have opened up and so the young crowd has stopped coming to R Place.
“Unfortunately we have a big demand and a small supply of bars,” Flowers said about bars serving an African American clientele. “Right
now, the young people find bars that are playing music they like. They may go there. I wish those bars all the luck in the world because my
business plan depends upon them keeping those kids. It’s weird, but that is the way it works. The moment they close, I will be inundated
again with a bunch of kids until there are some stable bars that cater to a young population. Based on numbers, there should probably be 40-
50 bars that are catering to people of color. There are some brave entrepreneurs who are catering to the young people. But as soon as it hits
the fan, then they will close and they will play country music and then there we will be again. That’s why there is that perception that we
changed our clientele again. It’s not that it changed. It was just that there were no other places for the kids to go.”
The Flowers are trying to get a solid middle class clientele in R Place but are feeling a little frustrated. “A lot of people, particularly 40
plus, have never been to R Place,” Weatherby-Flowers said. “It’s kind of like the internalized oppression in their lives because ‘If you’re
Black, get back.’ Somehow if a bar is on the south side, then it’s less than desirable. But we feature live music. We have some national acts.
We have folks who come just to have a good time. We have a wonderful array of DJs. We have some regulars who have stuck in here with
us from day one.”
Flowers reflected that he could change the bar by hiring a White staff, serve cheap tap beer and play Country Western music and make a
lot of money. But that isn’t why he got into the bar business. “If I said I’ll get a White bar manager and White waitresses and bartenders — I’m
a business person — and we changed the music, the next thing you know, it would be full up,” Flowers said. “And they would be hating me.
‘He sold out.’ Well the people who complain never showed up.”
“We want people to realize that R Place on Park is still the place where we come together, where people throw birthday parties, where
people have baby showers, where people have anniversary parties,” Weatherby-Flowers emphasized. “The Alphas had a celebration for
Pastor Alex Gee here because he had received his doctorate. We had the Alphas here with barbeque tenderloin. It was really good food.
Yvonne Spencer was doing Happy Hour with food on Wednesdays and Thursdays. My mother said ‘If you want to change something, you fill it
with what you want to see.’ So if we want a Black bar, then it behooves the folks to come and support a Black bar. If people come out in
force, then it would be great.”
It remains to be seen that ‘If you build it, they shall come’ applies to R Place on Park and the neighborhood Black bar they would like to
Annie Weatherby-Flowers (l) and Rick Flowers are
trying to make R Place on Park a neighborhood bar
that caters to middle class Black Madison.