Archive for April, 2009

My article, “Harlem Undercover: Vice Investigators, Race, and Prostitution, 1910-1930,” is now available in the May 2009 issue of the Journal of Urban History. The abstract is below:

In 1928, the Committee of Fourteen, New York City’s leading private antivice organization, employed a black teacher to conduct a five-month undercover investigation of Harlem’s nightlife.  It had been ten years since the committee had subjected the neighborhood to such intensive surveillance. Typically explained as the result of racism, that neglect also reflected white investigators’ increasing inability to gather information in Harlem. This article explores the work of investigators and the racial dynamics of undercover investigations to show how those difficulties grew from the congregation of waves of new black migrants in the neighborhood and, as Prohibition drew whites to Harlem, blacks’ retreat into private spaces, buffet flats, for their leisure. It uses the rich snapshot offered by the black investigator’s reports to reveal how, in the 1920s, black prostitutes, rather than being successfully regulated, blended into these new black spaces.

The article does not include maps, but the buffet flats that Claymes investigated, and nightclubs and speakeasies, are among the locations included in the ‘Digital Harlem’ database, so it is possible to generate maps of the spaces that it discusses.

What is a buffet flat?  An apartment that in the evening, and after nightclubs closed, operated as a venue offering alcohol, music, dancing, prostitutes, and, commonly, gambling, and, less often, rooms to which a couple could go. Their location in residential buildings offered a degree of protection from policing, and from whites: most proprietors and patrons of buffet flats were black.  Rent parties have become the best known of the entertainments on offer in 1920s Harlem, but buffet flats were more widespread and more central to black nightlife.  They did not charge admission, as the hosts of rent parties did, nor advertise widely, but they were ongoing concerns that offered privacy that parties did not.

Mapping the buffet flats identified by Raymond Claymes shows that they were spread throughout Harlem:

Buffet Flats, 1928

Adding nightclubs to the map reveals a different geography: those public venues, many of which admitted white as well as black patrons, were clustered below 140th Street and on and to the east of Seventh Avenue.  That area was both the core of Harlem, the area of the original black settlement, and close to New York’s white neighborhoods, and the commercialized leisure of West 125th Street, patronized largely by whites until the end of the 1920s:

Buffet Flats & Nightclubs

Adding speakeasies to the map shows that they were spread throughout the neighborhood, including on Eighth Avenue and above 140th Street.  But above 140th Street, a largely residential district distant from slumming whites, buffet flats predominated:

Buffet Flats,Nightclubs & Speakeasies


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Fuller Long* was a seventeen-year-old African American boy placed on probation in 1928, after having been convicted of having sexual intercourse with his underage girlfriend.  The map shows his life in Harlem.
(* This name is a pseudonym, used at the request of the Municipal Archives)

Fuller Long

To map Fuller Long’s life in Harlem, click on the ‘select person’ menu and click on his name

Together with his parents and two sisters, Long migrated to Harlem from Petersburg, Virginia, in 1923, living for two years at 46 West 132nd St, then in an apartment next door, at 48 West 132nd Street. (The buildings are so close to each other that you need to zoom to the closest level to distinguish them) Such residential stability was true of many families in 1920s Harlem, particularly those with multiple wage-earners (Long’s mother worked as a janitor, and later a housekeeper, and his older sister had a job in a factory; two months after they arrived, Long’s father left the family)

Long stayed in school until the end of ninth grade, when his mother insisted they needed his income to meet expenses and keep his younger sister in school. Schooling kept young blacks in the neighborhood; in the 1920s, Harlem had five public elementary schools and two junior high schools, one for boys, one for girls, a vocational school, and at least two Catholic schools and one private girls school.

Schools copy

Harlem’s Schools

When Long left school, he worked first for ice-man based across the street from his home, and then worked outside the district, downtown and in the Bronx. What a New York Times reporter described on March 24, 1935 was also true of the 1920s: “Every morning sees an exodus of workers filling subways, surface cars and elevated trains and every evening sees them returning to their homes (E11).”  Harlem offered few jobs for blacks, with most of the businesses owned and staffed by whites, so Long was one of many residents who spent their working days outside its boundaries.

Long’s time in Harlem was thus spent at home and in leisure, at locations such as the Abyssinian Baptist Church (occasionally), venues where he played sport (gymnasiums where he played basketball (often) and a recreation centre where he swam), dance halls, and at the home of his girlfriend.  Most were within 10 blocks of his home.

Fuller Long_Harlem

Fuller Long’s life in Harlem

It was sports that provided community ties that gave order and stability to Long’s life, and helped keep him from the ‘waywardness’ that reformers expected of the child of a single mother.

Basketball, Long’s particular passion, had a central place in 1920s Harlem.  The neighborhood was home to the Rens, the preeminent black professional team in the 1920s (for which White unsuccessfully tried out in November 1930), and to teams fielded by a variety of different athletic clubs, such as the St Christopher Club (based at St Philip’s Episcopal Church) and the Alpha Physical Culture Club.  Black fraternities regularly played in Harlem, and by the end of the 1920s, an inter-church league was in operation.  Harlem’s schools began competing in the Public School Athletic League in 1910, and by the 1920s repeatedly won championships in basketball. PS 89, where Long played, were city champions from 1928 to 1937, when they lost to PS 139, Harlem’s junior high school.  Girls and women’s teams also competed, included teams of nurses from Harlem Hospital.

The main venue for basketball was the Renaissance Ballroom (2359 7th Ave), but games were also played at the Alhambra Ballroom (2110 7th Ave), the Palace Garden Casino (2395 7th Ave) and the Manhattan Casino, 258 West 155th St, at the YMCA, and in the gymnasiums of Harlem’s churches and schools.


Basketball Games in Harlem (Search Events)

A more detailed account of Fuller Long’s life in Harlem can be found in our article, “This Harlem Life: Black Families and Everyday Life in the 1920s and 1930s,” which appears in the Fall 2010 issue of the Journal of Social History.

(* This name is a pseudonym, used at the request of the Municipal Archives)

(** This name is a pseudonym, as required by the NY State Archives)

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Churches in Harlem (Search Places, Location Type=”Church”)

Churches were the most prominent black places and institutions in Harlem. They made a powerful impression on visitors to the neighborhood, such as the (white?) journalist who wrote in The Independent in 1921 that “In the main, [Harlem] is impressive. Especially the churches.” This map shows 52 black church buildings located in the neighborhood. They were home to a variety of Christian denominations: Baptist; African Methodist Episcopal; Protestant Episcopal; Presbyterian; Congregationalist; Catholic; 7th Day Adventist; African Orthodox, Holiness; and Apostolic.

A number were elaborate, grand complexes, which coupled houses of worship that seated over a thousand, with community houses, incorporating gymnasiums, reading rooms, recreation rooms and offices. The buildings reflect the broad role Harlem’s churches played in community life: they organized athletic clubs (particularly basketball teams), classes ranging from vocational training to art, choirs and musical groups, and social clubs.  It was such activities that James Weldon Johnson had in mind when he wrote in Black Manhattan (1930) that a Harlem church is “much more besides a place of worship.  It is a social center, it is a club, it is an arena or the exercise of one’s capabilities and powers, a world in which one may achieve self-realization and preferment (165).”

Fourteen of the largest churches were purchased by black congregations moving uptown from white congregations (Christian and Jewish), whose members had left Harlem. These included:

Metropolitan Baptist Church

West 128th St and 7th Ave (NYPL Digital Gallery)


409 West 141st St (NYPL Digital Gallery)


201 Lenox Ave

201 Lenox Ave (NYPL Digital Gallery)


The other congregations that had taken over church buildings in Harlem by 1930 were: Mother Zion AME Church (136th St); Grace Congregational Church (139th St); Emanuel AME Church (119th St); Salem Methodist Church (129th St); St John AME Church (128th St); Mt Calvary United Methodist Church (Edgecombe Ave); Little Mount Zion AME Church (140th St); Transfiguration Lutheran Church (126th St); Williams Institutional CME Church (130th St), St Martins Episcopal Church (Lenox Ave) and Ephesesus 7th-Day Adventist Church (Lenox Ave).

Not all the church buildings in Harlem passed into the hands of black churches. The Catholic Church retained its presence in Harlem, preaching to congregations increasingly made up of blacks.

Nine other relocating black congregations built their own grand churches, including St Philip’s Protestant Episcopal Church on West 134th Street (the wealthiest church in Harlem), the Abyssinian Baptist Church on West 138th St, which seated 3000, and St Mark’s Methodist Church, with seating for 2000.

208 W 134th St (NYPL Digital Gallery)

208 W 134th St (NYPL Digital Gallery)

208 W 134th St (NYPL Digital Gallery)

136-142 West 138th St (NYPL Digital Gallery)

136-142 West 138th St (NYPL Digital Gallery)

136-142 West 138th St (NYPL Digital Gallery)

St Marks Methodist Church, 49 Edgecombe Ave (NYPL GigitalGallery)

St Mark’s Methodist Church, 49 Edgecombe Ave (NYPL Digital Gallery)

St Mark's Methodist Church, 49 Edgecombe Ave (NYPL Digital Gallery)

The other churches built by blacks were: Mother Zion AME Church (137th St); St James Presbyterian Church (137th St); Salem United Methodist (133rd); Rush Memorial (138th St); the Metropolitan Baptist Tabernacle (138th St); and Shiloh Baptist (7th Ave). Smaller churches converted residences or theatres, such as Metropolitan AME Church (134th St) and Union Baptist Church (145th St).

Mother Zion AME Church pursued both strategies, first taking over a church on West 136th St, and then building its own, more elaborate building behind that structure, facing West 137th Street, with a community house and gymnasium.

153 West 136th St

153 West 136th St (NYPL Digital Gallery)


140 West 137th Street

Mother Zion AME Church, 140 West 137th Street (NYPL Digital Gallery)


As the example of Mother Zion suggests, setting up in Harlem was often not the final move a congregation made. It was common to relocate within the neighborhood, seeking more space as membership grew. Thus while on first glance the map suggests Harlem’s churches were spread throughout the neighborhood, by the late 1920s, most of the major houses of worship were located on or near 7th Avenue, or further west. That was where the churches built by white congregations were located. Only below 125th Street, where the black population did not predominate until 1930, were there major church buildings on Lenox Avenue and further east.

The location of Harlem’s church buildings had an impact on the spaces around them.  As Theophilus Lewis noted in his column in The Amsterdam News on January 22, 1930, “As most of the churches, and the biggest ones, are either on [7th] Avenue or only a few steps away, the thoroughfare is also the main artery of the town’s religious life (9).”  The concentration of structures concentrated Harlem’s churchgoers, giving the street a religious character – at least on Sunday mornings.  As Lewis went on to note, twelve hours earlier, on Saturday evenings, 7th Avenue was a “hub of amusement,” filled with “throngs out for hours of joy” in the very forms of leisure  that many Harlem clergy denounced as the greatest obstacles to religious practice.

Church buildings were not the only locations in which Harlemites worshiped. Missing from this map are the churches that operated in storefronts and residences, which far outnumbered those housed in church buildings. Writing in Opportunity magazine in 1926, Ira Reid reported finding 140 churches in 150 blocks in Harlem; two thirds were located in former storefronts, on the first floor of private dwellings, or in the back room of a flat (274). A portion of those churches were what James Weldon Johnson, in his Black Manhattan, described as “ephemeral and nomadic,…here today and gone somewhere else or gone entirely tomorrow (163-4).”  Reid experienced that turnover: returning six weeks after he made his list, seven of the churches could no longer be found (275). Both this transience, and the location of these churches within structures designed for other purposes, meant that they had less of an impact on the streetscape of Harlem than the church buildings that appear on this map.  Rather than marking out distinct spaces within the neighborhood,  storefront churches contributed to the fluidity of commercial spaces: a store could be not only a place of commerce; it could also be a place of worship, or a front for the sale of illegal liquor — a speakeasy — or for the numbers racket.

See also: “Catholics in 1920s Harlem


“Churches,” Box 2, Reel 2, Writers Program Collection (WPA) (Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture)

David Dunlap, From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship (New York, 2004)

Cynthia Hickman, Harlem Churches at the End of the Twentieth Century (New York, 2001).

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The map of Numbers arrests is currently one of the Featured Maps on the Digital Harlem site; simply click on the image in the right hand column of the site to see the map. The pop-up box that opens contains an abbreviated version of the information contained in this post.

In the 1920s, Numbers gambling was a black-owned and black-run business—one of very few in Harlem—that turned over tens of millions of dollars every year, as roughly one in two of the district’s residents bet with some regularity. It was also illegal, and undercover police officers, including some black officers, regularly arrested those operating or playing the game.

How did Numbers work? See the “Learn More about Numbers” pages

Most of the 553 arrests on this map are from 1925, the one year in our sample when Numbers was prosecuted as a felony, and as a result, appears in the DA’s files.

Overview of Numbers Arrests

Overview of Numbers Arrests

A wide view reveals a significant number of arrests downtown, in the San Juan Hill neighborhood, the centre of New York’s black community before blacks took up residence in Harlem. This map is a stark reminder that even after Harlem opened up for African Americans, large numbers of blacks remained living in San Juan Hill and would continue to do so until they were displaced by the post-war building of the Lincoln Center, a fact that is seldom considered in accounts of twentieth-century black life in New York.

If you zoom the map in on Harlem, it is clear numbers was played everywhere in the district.

Numbers arrests in central Harlem

Numbers arrests in central Harlem

The racket was not concentrated in any particular area, indeed evidence of numbers was present and obvious on virtually every street and avenue in Harlem. Many numbers runners operated in stores, particularly cigar and stationary stores, and hence there are concentrations of arrests along Lenox and 7th Avenues, and West 135th Street between Fifth and Lenox Avenues, Harlem’s retail strips. Other arrests, more typically of blacks, took place on the streets: many runners stationed themselves on the city’s streets and avenues, particularly in the morning, as Harlemites travelled to work, accepting business from passing pedestrian traffic.

Turning on the lines linking arrest locations to the residences of those arrested highlights that almost all those in the racket lived in Harlem. (Residences are indicated by the building icon)

Arrests linked to residence of the offender

Arrests linked to residence of the offender

With all 533 arrests on a single map, it is impossible to make out that relationship in central Harlem: to make it clear, this map includes only arrests from January 1925:

Arrests from January 1925 linked to offender's residence

Arrests from January 1925 linked to offender's residence

Those arrested were runners and collectors and a few unlucky players. Numbers “runners” collected bets from individual gamblers. They passed the day’s bets and takings on to their “banker.” Runners worked on commission, skimming off twenty percent from their total receipts before they passed them on.  As well, if one of a runner’s client’s bets hit, the individual gambler was obligated to pay the runner ten percent of her or his winnings. Only very rarely did the police net a banker, some of whom were so successful they became the Kings and Queens of Harlem. Those arrested were an ethnic mélange, a collection of mostly recent migrants from Europe, the Caribbean or the American South trying to get ahead in the big city.

In 1925, when these arrests took place, the courts prosecuted those involved in numbers for the offense of playing policy, an old law that targeted betting on the results of a lottery.  That that law did not fit was obvious to many magistrates, who had been dismissing the numbers cases that came before them.  Those who were indicted appeared to juries guilty of nothing worthy of punishment, leading to acquittals, and to prosecutors recommending pleas bargains in which defendants who pled guilty paid only a $25 fine.

The Clearing House numbers game existed for almost exactly a decade. It began in 1920 or 1921 and ended when the Clearing House stopped publishing the statistical information on which the game depended.  Bankers came up with alternative ways of generating a daily number, using figures from the NY Stock Exchange and the parimutuel totals paid out on horse races at race meetings at various tracks throughout the country, and the racket continued to expand.  By the early 1930s, white gangsters, searching for alternative sources of income as Prohibition came to an end, moved to take over numbers from black bankers.  They never entirely succeeded, and day-to-day operations in Harlem largely remained in black hands, but a good proportion of the revenue did end up in the coffers of the white mob.  After July 1, 1926, policy was reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor. Just what sentence a conviction carried depended upon how many slips an individual had in their possession: a handful brought only a suspended sentence, whereas 30 or 40 resulted in 90 days hard labor.  But that happened only when the arresting officer was not paid to turn a blind eye, and there is abundant evidence that many officers did just that.

Our book, Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars, was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.

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Preliminary Launch

We now have the Digital Harlem site at a stage where we are ready to take it live in order to seek some feedback prior to publicizing its existence.  We have not yet entered all the data we had planned to before making the site widely available, but we have — we think — fixed all the technical issues.  I guess that makes this the beta version of the site.

A link to the site now appears on the ‘Digital Harlem – the site’ page. A series of posts related to the current feature maps will follow.

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