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Sonny Walker, pioneering Black tavern owner, dies at 97

Kim Jackson greeted Sonny Walker in 2018 at his bar. He was one of the first black tavern owners in the city.John Tlumacki

For years after he retired in his late 80s from the Roxbury tavern that bore his name, Sonny Walker kept stopping by to keep company with his regulars in the ways that barkeeps do.

Listening to their stories and regaling patrons with a few of his own, he offered advice, guided them through troubled times, and steered them toward a better path in life.

“He loved to be with the people,” said his son, Gerry, who ran Sonny Walker’s on Warren Street with his sister, Andrea, during the tavern’s last years, until the family sold it in 2018. “Even if he wasn’t working he liked to come in and shake people’s hands.”

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During a working life that stretched from shining shoes as a boy to being a pioneering Black tavern owner in Boston, Mr. Walker became a legend that spread far beyond Roxbury.

He was 97 when he died last Monday in the VA Medical Center in West Roxbury. Mr. Walker had lived in Randolph since 1985, where for years he walked 3 miles to a bus stop to catch a ride to his tavern.

In 2018, when the family was preparing to sell Sonny Walker’s, Gerry called the tavern the “Black Cheers” — Roxbury’s version of the bar made famous on TV.

Nearly everybody knew the names of Mr. Walker’s most famous friends, some of whom dated back to his pre-bar days as a barber, when his clientele included players from Boston’s sports royalty.

“He cut the hair of a lot of local stars: George Scott, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, Bill Russell, Satch Sanders,” said Gerry, who lives in Randolph.

But whether Mr. Walker was wielding scissors or shot glasses, his regulars mattered most. And he kept everyone in line.

Mr. Walker “would never allow people to swear in front of women when they came into the bar,” said Andrea, who lives in Dorchester.

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“When a woman would walk in, he would say, ‘You all be cool. A lady is here,’ " recalled Terry Washington of Roxbury, a longtime friend and patron. “He would give them the utmost respect. Any cussing that was going on would quiet down.”

Patrons would step into the tavern and see Mr. Walker “holding court,” said former state senator Dianne Wilkerson. “You behaved when you were around him. Things were calm.”

Women felt comfortable going to Sonny Walker’s alone, she said. “He ran an A1 classy business where no one was afraid or concerned to be there.”

For many customers, the biggest draw of Sonny Walker’s was Sonny Walker.

“He was a patrons’ bartender. He knew how to work a crowd,” said Sonny Lovelace, a longtime friend who now lives in Falmouth. “Sonny always had a smile on his face, always had something good to say.”

If Mr. Walker sensed that an argument might escalate, Lovelace said, he would take an angry patron aside.

“He’d say, ‘Come here, man, come down to the other end of the bar. Let’s talk,’ " Lovelace recalled. “He’d say, ‘Here, have a drink. A fight’s not worth it.’ He knew how to talk to people civilly, without using a curse word. He was a charmer and he was a great bar owner.”

At Sonny Walker’s, Gerry said, “everybody felt at home. Everybody felt comfortable.”

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The younger of two siblings, Arthur Henry Walker was born in Cambridge on March 30, 1925, and grew up in the South End, raised by his mother.

Adelaide Gwendolyn Walker “was a cleaning woman,” Andrea said. “She cleaned stores and office buildings downtown. She would scrub floors on her hands and knees.”

Known as Sonny as far back as anyone remembers, Mr. Walker began working to help support his family, Andrea said. “He started working at the age of 10, when he was able to get a permit to sell newspapers and shine shoes.”

In 10th grade he left high school and went to Maine to learn to be a welder, sending money home to his mother and sister.

Then he joined the Army, was stationed overseas, and subsequently traveled widely in the Merchant Marine.

Returning to Boston, he worked a series of jobs, including as a bellhop, before he began cutting hair with Charles Canada, first in the South End and then in Grove Hall.

The two became partners and decided in 1969 to buy a bar, the M&M Tavern, from one of their customers.

Men were growing their hair out into Afros, which required fewer trips to the barbershop. A bar seemed like a safer bet on future income.

“We were like, here we go,” Mr. Walker told the Globe in 2018, when he and his children were selling the tavern.

Mr. Walker was surrounded by his friends and family as they reviewed old photos of himself and his tavern through the years. John Tlumacki

Running their first bar, Charles Canada and Sonny Walker helped break Boston’s color line as Black tavern owners. They bought a second establishment in 1980, and renamed that Warren Street bar the C&S Tavern. Years later it became Sonny Walker’s.

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By 1985, they had purchased a block in Grove Hall, which they developed for businesses.

In all his ventures, Mr. Walker “was the type to mentor the young people who came through, especially if he knew them,” Gerry said.

“He was always a gentleman, my father,” Andrea said. “He always tipped his hat. And he was always very patient. He didn’t yell, he didn’t scream, he didn’t lose his cool.”

Mr. Walker also never drove. When the family lived in Mattapan, he’d walk to work in Grove Hall. After the family moved to Randolph in the mid-1980s, Mr. Walker caught a bus to Roxbury, walking to and from the bus stop, Gerry said.

In the late 1940s, Mr. Walker met Roberta Estelle Debnam, a New England Telephone and Telegraph Co. operator who was so dedicated to her job that she hitched rides on snowplows to get to work during the Blizzard of 1978, according to her Globe obituary.

The two of them “lived around the corner from each other. And my father had an eye for my mother,” Gerry said.

One March day in 1947, Mr. Walker asked her for a date. She said she was busy that weekend because it was her birthday.

“And he said, ‘Well, it’s my birthday, too.’ They found out they had the same birthday,” Gerry said.

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“He went home and told his mother, ‘I’m going to marry her,’ " Andrea said, and he did, in 1950.

Mrs. Walker died in 2009. Charles Canada died nearly 30 years ago.

During most of Mr. Walker’s final years, he was able to stay in Randolph because “Linda Randall, his visiting nurse, was an angel,” Andrea said.

As his health declined, he went to the VA hospital for additional care. “The nursing people there were fantastic,” she said.

In addition to his daughter and son, Mr. Walker leaves two grandchildren.

A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Monday in the Forsyth Chapel in Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain.

Everywhere Mr. Walker spent time, especially in his tavern, he was “always so dapper,” Wilkerson said.

“He loved clothes. He was that guy who haunted Filene’s Basement and would find something and hide it until it was marked down,” Andrea said.

“Everything he wore was customized,” Gerry recalled. “He was a real fashionista.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.