While most employed adults travelled outside Harlem to work six days a week, children remained in the neighborhood. An Urban League study of 2400 families published in 1927 found that more than half of the mothers were in paid employment. Those women reported a variety of means of providing care for the youngest of their children. Most commonly, they put them in the care of relatives or friends, or their father. A much smaller proportion relied on paid childcare, in private homes or less often in day nurseries.


Source: New York Urban League, Twenty-Four Hundred Negro Families in Harlem: An Interpretation of the Living Conditions in Harlem (May 1927) (Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL)


White and African-American philanthropists established day nurseries to allow poor women with children to work. Harlem had only six day nurseries in the 1920s, run by community and church groups, providing places for approximately 200 children a day. Their locations were not well-distributed, so for most of the neighborhood’s mothers, even if they had been able to secure one of the limited places, getting their children to the nurseries would have involved impractical journeys.

Day Nurseries

Day Nurseries

  • Hope Day Nursery – opened in 1902 by a board composed entirely of black women, relocating from West 35th Street first to 114 West 133rd Street, and in 1914 to a donated building at 33 West 133rd Street. It had a capacity of 35 children in 1921. Supported entirely by donations, the nursery’s major fundraiser was an annual May entertainment at a venue in Harlem.[i]
  • New York Colored Mission — opened in 1917 by white Quakers at 8 West 131st Street, relocating from West 30th Street. The nursery had a capacity of 25 children in 1920. (By January 1935, the nursery had relocated to 5-7 East 130th Street).[ii]
  • St Benedict the Moor Day Nursery – opened in 1923 by the Catholic Church at 27-29 West 132nd Street. Operated by black nuns, supervised by a trained nurse,  the nursery accepted Catholics and non-Catholics, with a capacity of 100 children (In 1928, 80% of the children were non-Catholic). Supported by donations, and the work of a black auxiliary, the nursery also held an annual benefit at a venue outside Harlem.[iii]
  • Harlem Community Center Day Nursery – opened in 1923 by members of the Grace Congregational Church. Originally located in the church building, in 1924 the nursery moved across the street to 309 West 139th Street.  In 1928, renovations increased the capacity of the nursery to 36 children.[iv]
  • Utopia Neighborhood Club – opened in 1926 by a club of 100 black women at 170 West 130th Street. The club included a nursery school with recreation and a study hall for children after school whose mothers do not return from work until evening.(The nursery closed at some point during the 1930s, although the club retained the house, and during WW2 reopened the nursery in partnership with city agencies).[v]
  • Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments Nursery – opened in 1927 as part of an apartment complex funded by J. D. Rockefeller between 149th and 150th Street. The nursery, available to tenants, had a capacity of 12 children. [vi]

Community leaders were well-aware that the need for child care was far greater than these provisions. They expected that black churches would address this need, and there is fragmentary evidence that some may have created additional nurseries. The Abyssinian Baptist Church did open a day nursery, but not until after 1930, when Adam Clayton Powell Jr succeeded his father as leader of the church.[vii]

Day Nurseries & Home Nurseries (January, April, July, October 1925 & 1930) [Source: Classified Advertisements, Amsterdam News]

Day Nurseries & Home Nurseries (January, April, July, October 1925 & 1930) [Source: Classified Advertisements, Amsterdam News]

Women operating nurseries in their homes could be found far more widely distributed through the neighborhood. Leaving children at a private nursery also did not require the rituals of benevolence involved in dealing with the elite women who ran day nurseries, or the agendas for remaking families and returning women to the home of the social workers who began to succeed them in the 1920s. The home-based nurseries varied widely in quality. It was certainly the case that no training was required and in that sense the barriers to entry were lower than the case with beauty work. If those advertising their services in the Amsterdam News identified a qualification, it was that of being a mother. A small number also advertised that they were licensed. New York was one of several large cities whose sanitary code required that day nurseries – defined as “a place where more than three children are received, kept and cared for during the day time” – have a permit issued by the Board of Health and be subject to periodic inspection. The permit required presenting a physician’s certificate attesting to the proprietor’s/nurse’s good health; the inspection examined the sanitation, morality and general appointment of the day nursery.[viii]

The need for a permit clearly did not operate as barrier to women operating nurseries in their homes: in 1927, Amsterdam News columnist Edgar Grey’s investigation of 123 nurseries advertising in local newspapers found only 19, less than 10%, had permits. Grey claimed to have found all the day nurseries he visited, even those with licenses, to be “filthy and unsanitary,” and he offered examples of proprietors passing illnesses on to the children in their charge, and nurseries being used as fronts for the illegal production of liquor and gambling.[ix] His polemic likely exaggerated the state of the homes he saw, but juxtaposing the locations of home nurseries and beauty parlors does indicate that they clustered in areas of tenement housing and prostitution arrests rather than the more upscale and respectable districts that had the greatest concentration of beauty parlors.

Arrests for Prostitution (red) and Home Nurseries (January, April, July, October 1925)

Arrests for Prostitution (red) and Home Nurseries (January, April, July, October 1925)

Arrests for Prostitution (red) & Home Nurseries (blue) (January, April, July and October 1930)

Arrests for Prostitution (red) & Home Nurseries (blue) (January, April, July and October 1930)

Beauty Parlors (green) and Home Nurseries, 1925 & 1930 (red)

Beauty Parlors (green) and Home Nurseries, 1925 (red)




[i] New York Age, 5 March, 1921, 5; Amsterdam News, January 11, 1933, 4.

[ii] New York Age, September 13, 1917, 8; New York Age, February 9, 1935, 12.

[iii] Amsterdam News, April 25, 1923, 7; New York Age, 24 November, 1928, 2.

[iv] New York Age, 13 December, 1924, 10;  New York Age, 31 March 1928, 5.

[v] New York Age, 13 November 1926, 2; Amsterdam News, January 29, 1944, 6A; Amsterdam News, February 22, 1958, 10.

[vi] Amsterdam News, October 30, 1929, 2; James Ford, Slums and Housing, vol. 2, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1936, 746.

[vii] Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., Upon this Rock, New York: Abyssinian Baptist Church, 194949, 54Writing in Survey Graphic in 1925, George Haynes intimated the existence of more church run nurseries than I could find (Survey Graphic, editorial, 698). Edgar Grey saw “the future of this important work depends largely upon an increased interest in the problem taken by the church”(Amsterdam News, September 7, 1927, 15). Emanuel A.M.E. announced plans to establish a nursery in its basement at 37-41 West 119th St, but there are no reports that it actually opened (New York Age, 22 June 1929, 3).

[viii] Arthur Crosby, New Code of Ordinances of the City of New York, New York: Banks Law Publishing Company, 1922, pp. 408, 457.

[ix] Edgar Grey, “Harlem’s ‘Baby Farms’,” Amsterdam News, September 7, 1927, 15

Cross-posted from drstephenrobertson.com

On March 19, 2016, I participated in the Working Group on Interpreting the History of Race Riots and Racialized Mass Violence in the Context of “Black Lives Matter,” at the National Council on Public History Conference, in Baltimore.

Prior to the meeting, members of the Working Group contributed short posts on their projects to a group blog; my post can be found here. The post is a very preliminary account of my ongoing work mapping the events of March 19 and 20, 1935, in Harlem. Further research in the records of the Mayor’s Commission and the scrapbooks in Mayor LaGuardia’s Papers, and in La Prensa‘s coverage of the riot (kindly shared with me by Lorrin Thomas) has already turned up additional information that I need to add to this map.

The Working Group site also contains blogs on a range of other fascinating projects on the history of radicalized mass violence in the US.

Below is the slide I used in my lightning talk at the Working Group session in Baltimore


AHR-286x300The February 2016 issue of the American Historical Review includes an extended review of Digital Harlem — “Harlem Crime, Soapbox Speeches, and Beauty Parlors: Digital Historical Context and the Challenge of Preserving Source Integrity,” by Joshua Sternfeld, and my response, “Digital Mapping as a Research Tool: Digital Harlem: Everyday Life, 1915–1930.” 

The AHR provides authors with a free-access link to their publication, so clinking on the links takes you to the two articles regardless of whether you or your institution subscribes to the journal.

This exchange appears alongside another, on Vincent Brown‘s Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761, a very different kind of digital history mapping project than Digital Harlem, that works well as a companion piece to highlight a range of what is possible with web mapping tools.

For more on the exchange, see the post on drstephenrobertson.com

F1.mediumMatthew Vaz, a lecturer in the History Department at the City College of New York, City University of New York reviews Playing the Numbers in a review essay titled “Gambling, Legitimacy, and the Limits of Community” that appears in the Journal of Urban History 41, 6 (2015): 1152-1159

Open_Access_logo_PLoS_white.svg_-210x328For Open Access Week this year, I’ve finally found time to deposit copies of my articles in the institutional repository at George Mason University. Those copies are post-prints — the final version I submitted to the journal, not the published version. They are available online, for download, free to everyone.

Included are four articles on 1920s Harlem related to Digital Harlem:

Bryn-Mawr-conference-300x48On May 21, I am presenting a paper entitled “Putting Women on the Map: Gender and Everyday Life in 1920s Harlem” at the Women’s History in the Digital World Conference at Bryn Mawr College


This paper focuses on Digital Harlem, an award winning web-based geospatial digital history project on everyday life in the 1920s, to explore how visualizing evidence can provide a way of making meaning of the often fragmentary sources available to historians of women.

Digital mapping offers a means of visualizing historical sources that highlights the spatial dimensions of the past, and can offer a different perspective on particular places. It is not just that mapped sources are seen in their geographical context. Location provides a basis for integrating material from a wide range of disparate sources, and incorporating and organizing material that historians typically treat as ephemera, or pass over it as too sparse or fragmentary to support an analysis. Layers of different data, and hence large quantities of data, can be combined on a single map, providing an image of the complexity of the past. Examining those maps can reveal spatial relationships that prompt questions and facilitate comparisons that a researcher might otherwise not have considered.

Digital Harlem employs digital mapping to explore everyday life in the 1920s. It incorporates material from almost three thousand felony cases files from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, and hundreds of pages of black newspapers, which were mined for every event or place for which an address was given. Men dominate those sources, but they also contain a rich range of fragmentary material on women. Women are less often accused of crimes, and thus the focus of legal records, than men, but they are present as witnesses and victims of crime. If you look beyond the major news stories and editorial pages, women appear far more often in black newspapers than in legal records: in reports of church and fraternal orders, on social pages, sports pages, and in advertisements.

Mapping these sources goes someway towards makes it possible to see the gendered nature of waged work, business, home life, leisure, and criminal activity and victimization, to juxtapose the experiences of men and women to highlight the distinctive aspects of women’s lives in Harlem.

Sawyer-300x138On April 24, 2015, I’m presenting a paper entitled “What Was Life Like in 1920s Harlem?” at the Sawyer Seminar on The Ghetto: Concept, Conditions, and Connections in Transnational Historical Perspective, from the 11th Century to the Present, hosted by the Center for African American Urban Studies and the Economy, at Carnegie Mellon University.

Look out for new blog posts using content from this talk, on topics ranging from childcare in Harlem, to the YMCA and YWCA, to social clubs, and summer camps!


Gilbert Osofsky’s classic study of the early years of African American settlement in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood bears the subtitle, “The Making of a Ghetto.” It offers an unrelentingly negative picture of overcrowded residences that fostered disease, juvenile delinquency and family dissolution, poverty resulting from limited employment opportunities and low wages, and violence and vice encouraged by police neglect. Osofsky views Harlem from a distance, in terms of aggregates and patterns: the average number of lodgers in a household; rates of disease; lists of occupations. By contrast, a subsequent and still growing generation of scholarship focused on the Harlem Renaissance offers portraits of the lives of a small group of writers and intellectuals and the cabarets and parties they frequented. These studies offer rich accounts of Harlem’s high culture, but offer little sense of the lived experience of the mass of residents, or of aspects of the neighborhood, such as streetlife, religion, and sports, that loomed large in their lives.

This paper will use the award-winning web site Digital Harlem to explore the lived experience of the population of Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s. I will focus in particular on the extent to which residents lives confined to the ghetto, and within its bounds, tracing the rhythms of everyday life on different times of the day, week and year, and examine how those experiences are reshaped the Depression. The map-based interface of Digital Harlem enables a multi-scalar spatial analysis, one which zooms from a citywide perspective into the neighborhood and down to the individual places, to see the relationship between places, and to trace movement through the city.

The sources for this project include more than four thousand cases from the files of the District Attorney and Probation Department, and hundreds of pages of black newspapers, supplemented with a range of other published and archival material, including the records of the anti-prostitution organization the Committee of Fourteen, the Bedford Hills prison for women, the WPA Writers’ Program, and census schedules. Working with a geospatial database makes it possible to include and organize material from these sources that historians typically pass over it as too sparse or fragmentary to support an analysis: material from newspapers such society columns, sports reports, news from churches and fraternal organizations, and advertisements; and every offense, not just a particular crime or group of crimes, from the legal records, and information on victims and witnesses as well as offenders, on the nature of the crime’s location, and on the circumstances in which it occurred, which ranged from card games to shopping trips.

With my collaborators Shane White and Stephen Garton, I have been analyzing interwar Harlem for almost a decade, producing, in addition to Digital Harlem, a book, four articles, three book chapters and thirty-seven presentations on life in the neighborhood. That scholarship focuses on particular aspects of everyday life – numbers gambling, interactions with whites, privacy, family life, and confidence tricks. This paper will weave those threads together with topics such as work, public transport, shopping, sports, parades and fraternal lodges, to highlight the movement of residents within and beyond Harlem, and to reconsider the relationship between residence and daily life in understanding lived experience in the ghetto.