The Mayor of Maxwell Street

The Mayor of Maxwell Street

by Avery Cunningham
The Mayor of Maxwell Street

The Mayor of Maxwell Street

by Avery Cunningham

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Overview

"A debut novel everyone will be talking about," Avery Cunningham's epic love story is "a triumph" and "a tale of intrigue, racial tension, and class warfare, set against the glamorous and gritty backdrop of early 20th century Chicago."

When a rich Black debutante enlists the help of a low-level speakeasy manager to identify the head of an underground crime syndicate, the two are thrust into the dangerous world of Prohibition-era Chicago.


The year is 1921, and America is burning. A fire of vice and virtue rages on every shore, and Chicago is its beating heart.

Nelly Sawyer is the daughter of the “wealthiest Negro in America,” whose affluence catapulted his family to the heights of Black society. After the unexpected death of her only brother, Nelly becomes the premier debutante overnight. But Nelly has aspirations beyond society influence and marriage. For the past year, she has worked undercover as an investigative journalist, sharing the achievements and tribulations of everyday Black people living in the shadow of Jim Crow. Her latest assignment thrusts her into the den of a dangerous vice lord: the so-called Mayor of Maxwell Street.

Born in rural Alabama to a murdered biracial couple, Jay Shorey knows firsthand what it means to be denied a chance at the American dream. When a tragic turn of fate gave Jay a rare path out, he took it without question. He washed up on Chicago’s storied shores and forged his own way to the top of the city’s underworld, running Chicago's swankiest speakeasy, where the rich and famous rub elbows with gangsters and politicians alike.

When Nelly’s and Jay’s paths cross, she recruits him to help expose the Mayor and bring about lasting change in a corrupt city. But Jay also introduces a whole new world to Nelly, one where her horizons can extend beyond the confines of her ivory tower. Trapped between the monolith of Jim Crow, the inflexible world of the Black upper class, and the violence of Prohibition-era Chicago, Jay and Nelly work together and stoke the flames of a love worth fighting for.

Debut author Avery Cunningham’s stunning novel is at once an epic love story, a riveting historical drama, and a brilliant exploration of Black society and perseverance when the ‘20s first began to roar.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781368093002
Publisher: Disney Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/30/2024
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 158,835
Product dimensions: 8.30(w) x 5.60(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Avery Cunningham is a resident of Memphis, Tennessee, and a 2016 graduate of DePaul University’s Master of Arts in Writing & Publishing program. She has over a decade of editorial experience with various literary magazines, small presses, and bestselling authors. Avery grew up surrounded by exceptional African Americans who strove to uplift their communities while also maintaining a tenuous hold on prosperity in a starkly segregated environment. The sensation of being at once within and without is something she has grappled with since childhood and explores thoroughly in her work of historical fiction. When not writing, Avery is adventuring with her Bernese Mountain Dog, Grizzly, and wading waist-deep in research for her next novel. She aspires to tell the stories of complex characters at the fringes of history fighting for their right to exist. The Mayor of Maxwell Street is her debut novel.

Read an Excerpt

A sharp snap of brilliant color caught Nelly Sawyer’s eye. 
It was a man, or rather, a boy on the cusp of manhood. No older than twenty-four surely, but he wore that youth like an imperial cape, heavy with authority. He stood toward the back: close enough to the door to make a quick exit but immersed enough in the throng to look as though he belonged. It being the repast after a funeral, everyone wore their finest black ensembles, making for a somber, if fashionable, scene. But he was wearing blue. Not even a deep, royal, respectable blue. Rather, his was the blue of an endless September sky. A blue that ushered in thoughts of freshly churned ice cream and tall grass beneath your feet. The color of a Kentucky summer. 
It took Nelly’s breath away, the audaciousness of it. On anyone else, the outfit would be an instant failure, but on him, the look was uniquely appropriate. As though the rest of the world were the ones out of style, while he was the epitome of it. 
Nelly leaned in close to her cousin and whispered, “Sam, who is that?” 
Samuel Green politely disentangled himself from a conversation with a fellow Howard man and followed the line of Nelly’s sight. 
“Not the faintest,” he said after a moment’s observation. “But then again, more than half of the guests here are strangers to me. This is your brother’s funeral, for Christ’s sake. Where are our cousins? Where are my parents, our grandmother? Everyone loved Elder. Wild horses wouldn’t keep any of our family away unless they were explicitly told to stay away.” 
Nelly nodded along, but her eyes remained on the boy in blue. His skin reminded her of fresh buttermilk: pale, creamy, and unmarred. In that, he was no different from a majority of the guests. Nelly had never seen so many fair-skinned Colored folk gathered together in one place, all glowing with the warmth of a gilded sun. It made the deep russet shade she, her parents, and Sam all shared feel somehow pedestrian in comparison.
Sam’s words drifted in and out of her periphery until she distinctly heard him say, “. . . I was shocked myself to receive an invitation.” 
“Invitation? To a funeral?”
“Yes!” he said. “Delivered not by a postman, but by a private courier, mind you. Now, it did arrive at my DC address, not my parents’ home in Louisville, so read into that what you will. Came on embossed paper, too. British card stock.” 
Nelly exhaled and felt the air grow hot and agitated around her. This whole affair was morphing into a horrendous spectacle. 
All of Chicago society turned out not to honor her brother’s short and frivolous life, but to gawk at it. The horde of parishioners at Quinn Chapel AME that very morning had been more interested in gossiping about the premier guests than listening to the bishop’s boilerplate eulogy. Throughout the ceremony, the chapel was filled with their cicada-like whispers. Exclamations over everything from the ornate black-orchid arrangements, to the ushers in full regalia, to the mass choir summoned directly and with all haste from a basilica in Italy. Nelly’s brother was just a prop, even to their own parents. Another piece of priceless art to analyze and judge for value. 
Now the dense, undulating crowd had migrated to their house in Hyde Park. It was one of the largest and newest in the area, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright himself, as Nelly’s father insisted on telling every person who shuffled through their front door―even the caterers. 
“What other Colored man could book a builder like that?” She heard his voice resound throughout the house, looming over them like a swarm. “And in cash!” 
Nelly closed her eyes to contain the ache growing in the very bones of her skull. For years, she’d managed to remain properly invisible behind the monolith of her family’s wealth. Her brother had been the star attraction and soaked up that limelight gratefully. Now, without his shadow, the glare of it all left her blinded. 
“Howard registration is still open,” Samuel said, only speaking where she could hear. “We could leave right now, drive all night, and be in the capital by sunrise.”
“We can’t leave,” Nelly said as she shook her head. Her wig, an itchy pompadour that she had a constant urge to scratch, shifted.
He said, “Of course, we can! Besides, look at this lot. No one will notice.” 
“Please, everyone would notice. Don’t you feel their eyes?” 
Nelly allowed her own to travel over and around them. She and Sam sat at the very end of a dining table the length of a ballroom. It had been imported from a Portuguese villa that once belonged to some princess, and it sat at least thirty comfortably. The glances of the guests who ate and drank at that table were fleeting, but there all the same. Waiting for the scene that would justify their presence, justify the time it took to air out their mourning veils.
And there, again―flickering away like a goldfish in murky water―was the young man. He stood straight-backed, talking amiably with Dr. Daniel Hale Williams. He was closer now than he was before, and Nelly could see him in his fullness. He carried an ivory-pommeled walking cane, and when he spoke, he tapped it against the ground for emphasis. He laughed with his whole face in a way so artfully arranged that Nelly was reminded of an aristocratic portrait. The kind of beautiful visages that were planned over months, down to the final paint stroke. 
For a brief, insane instant, Nelly thought that perhaps he was a vision. Or a spirit. He dressed in a way that demanded attention, but only Nelly seemed to notice him. She considered her surroundings. An angel come to escort Elder to heaven, maybe? Or a demon bound for the other place. Knowing her brother, it could go either way.
Then he looked at her. 
Polite society dictated that if you catch someone staring, you glance away and give them a chance to correct themselves. This man did not glance away. He stared directly back at Nelly with just as much fascination and intense interest. And not only did he look at her, he looked through her. Everything practiced and presumed fell away, leaving her bare. It was like standing in sunlight after a winter’s worth of darkness. He was certainly no spirit. In fact, he might have been the only real person in the room. 
A rustling sound like raven wings caused Nelly to blink and refocus. Next to her stood a woman a few years her senior, as tall as the day was long. Made even taller by her pinstriped suit. She wore her glossy black hair slicked back in a masculine style that complimented her buttery, red-tinted skin. Nelly took her in all in one gulp.
“You must be her,” the woman said, jutting her broad shoulders forward on each syllable, as though conducting a symphony with nothing but handless, armless gesticulations. 
“That depends on who you’re looking for,” Nelly replied with a small smile. One of the hundreds she’d given so far that day. 
“Why the Penelope Sawyer, of course! I have inquired all over this fabulous house in search of you, but not a soul was aware that you even existed. When I mentioned ‘Elder’s sister,’ I swear half of the people here took me for a liar.” 
“Elder himself would’ve taken you for a liar,” said Sam, who seamlessly plugged himself into the conversation. “Family obligations spoiled the fun, apparently.” 
“Well, our beloved certainly did enjoy his fun.” She spoke of Elder like one who’d known him for years, known the family for years. She suddenly clutched the long strand of baroque pearls about her swan-like neck with all of the drama and insincerity of a silent-picture actress. 
“But where are my manners? Here I am, laying siege to your peace on your darkest day. You must think me awful rude, but when has that ever stopped anybody?” 
Somewhere within that jumble of pitched and enunciated words, she stretched out her hand with the force of a bayonet pointed directly at Nelly’s neck. 
“I’m Sequoia McArthur,” she said, “and I am sure the pleasure is entirely mine.” 
Nelly glanced at Sam, who appeared faintly amused, then took Sequoia’s hand in turn. 
“A pleasure, as you said.” Nelly squinted and saw something in Sequoia’s confidence and excess of personality that she recognized. “Should I take you to be Bishop McArthur’s daughter?” 
With a flourish, Sequoia said, “The one and only. Well, not only, only. There must be a dozen or so others ambling about all over the South Side. Never could keep track of them all myself.” 
And with that, Sequoia shooed an older man out of his seat across the table from Nelly and folded her lean body into the chair like a paper fan. 
“Your father gave a beautiful eulogy,” Nelly said. “Right, Sam?” 
“Oh yes, very . . . poignant.” Sam rolled the word around in his mouth along with the expensive wine that flowed that day like the fabled milk and honey.
“He exclusively does eulogies these days,” Sequoia said. “Much better pay than the Sunday-to-Sunday fare. He had three other gigs lined up but turned them all down when the ‘wealthiest Negro in America’ offered him everything but the crown jewels.” 
“That article was not entirely accurate,” Nelly said. “My father isn’t the wealthiest—”
“Perhaps not.” Sequoia easily overtook Nelly’s attempt at small talk. “But when a fighter is offered a prize title on a technicality, they don’t turn it down, now do they? Speaking of titles, your mother certainly does curate a marvelous party. So many kinds of people, so many layers. Like a chocolate Dutch cake. Or caramel, rather.” 
From anyone else, Nelly would have taken that remark as a sharp cut. However, to Sequoia, it was nothing more than the way she saw the world. No insult. Just her own particular brand of truth. 
“Did you know my brother?” Nelly asked.
Sequoia’s eyes―gold-flecked and smoky like Theda Bara’s―softened. 
“I’m sorry to say I did not. At least, not in any meaningful way. Everyone knew of Elder Sawyer. His reputation, the staggering fortune he was to inherit. His uncanny ability to turn everything from a lecture to a public execution into a good time. But the man kept to himself more often than not. Honestly, I wish more of his type had that level of commitment to mystique.”
Something in that broke Nelly's heart. As a child, her brother wanted nothing more than to be everyone’s best friend. Now, he was laid to rest surrounded by people as removed as visitors at a museum, observing everything through thick and tinted glass. 
“But we’ve all talked enough about poor Elder,” Sequoia said, once again as jaunty as cocktails and Charlestons. “I keep a detailed mental catalog of all the people worth knowing in this city―in this country, I’m justly proud to say―and your absence from that list is giving me all manner of vapors. It will not be abided. Seriously, I cannot believe in good Christian faith that we have not met before. Perhaps in Oak Bluffs, last summer?” 
Nelly gave another tight-lipped smile and shook her head. 
“I’ve never visited the coast. Although on full-moon nights, the bluegrass does remind me of a type of sea.” 
“That is a charming sentiment,” Sequoia said without a pinch of sarcasm. “Lake Michigan is no Atlantic Ocean, but we’ll go yachting anyway. Where do you vacation? I am envisioning somewhere old-world and expensive. The colors of Morocco must make your complexion glow.” 
Sam had the audacity to chuckle, and Nelly cut him off with a sharp elbow to the side. 
“My family doesn’t vacation,” she said. 
“You mean at all?” Sequoia asked. “Is that not a terrible waste?” 
“Daddy believes in spending money on things that earn, not things that depreciate.” 
“Your father has clearly never passed a winter in the Maldives. Come on now, I’m starting to grow frustrated. Where have you been, exactly?” 
Nelly could see that frustration in the impatient bounce of Sequoia’s knee.
“Derbies, mostly,” Nelly said. “The summers are busy with the races, and then we breed studs in the fall—”
“You’re kidding.” Sequoia’s expression was one of abject disgust. “The derbies I can understand. Wonderful chance to socialize. But breeding?” 
“Wealth doesn’t always come with pomp, Ms. McArthur,” Sam said in that low, academic voice he used whenever he launched into some debate. 
“Of course not,” Sequoia said, “but even you must acknowledge that it’s a tad odd. Hiding the only Negro woman with an inheritance worthy of Midas in the middle of nowhere is not only peculiar, it’s insufferable. Otherwise, honestly, what’s the point of having so much money?” 
“Maybe the money isn’t the point,” Nelly said, and immediately knew it was the wrong thing to say. Sequoia practically licked her lips at the exposed combativeness. Like a practiced hunter, she honed in on the wound and resolved to make Nelly bleed.
“Oh, but it is. The money’s the only reason folk will remember us come Judgment Day. Ask anyone here about Elder, and they’ll cry over his clothes and his parties, his excellent taste. That’s what they’ll mourn. The experience of his existence. But friends? Relationships? Those seemed to be the one thing his money couldn’t buy. In comparison, fast cars that are prone to slipping on wet roads are a dime a dozen.”
Nelly only realized she was standing when she heard the loud scrape of chair legs against polished maple floors. Conversation hushed as if on cue, and all eyes turned with ready eagerness. Nelly could see the questions in them, the judgments, the jealousies. These, who were meant to be the pillars of her community. She began to walk through them, rudely forcing her way at times. No one made a path. Instead, they purposefully gathered about her, closed her in. A chic young woman with feathers in her hair bent close to her companion. Nelly could not hear all of what she whispered in a vicious tone, but she caught the truth of it. “. . . not our kind of people.”

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