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Archive for October, 2009

SSHA09I’ll be giving a presentation on Digital Harlem — “Mapping Everyday Life: Digital Harlem, 1915-1930” — in Long Beach, California, on November 13, 2009, as part of the Social Science History Association Conference.

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Divorce raids were a staple of the Amsterdam News throughout the 1920s, and featured a cross section of respectable Harlem, from physicians, dentists, attorneys, insurance agents, musicians and bandleaders, to clergymen, prominent lodge members, churchgoers, and individuals simply identified as “well-known Harlemites,” caught throughout the neighborhood in bed with people other than their spouses.  Private detectives, most notably the West Indian Herbert Boulin, led the raiding parties, which consisted of the aggrieved spouses and several friends and relatives, brought along as witnesses who could provide testimony of the adultery they witnessed.  Many of the couples involved were already separated; what was at issue was alimony, which one party either wished to obtain or avoid paying.

Divorce Raids (Search Event type = Divorce Raids)

Divorce Raids (Search Event type = Divorce Raids)

The raids take place at addresses scattered throughout the neighborhood, but concentrated in the areas of better housing, particularly on the western boundary of Harlem.  This pattern is made more obvious if prostitution arrests are overlaid on the map: there are no raids in the slum district west of Lenox Avenue in which prostitution arrests are concentrated.  If that juxtaposition, on the one hand, highlights a class based distinction in the sexual geography of Harlem, on the other hand it shows that illicit sexuality was not limited to one part of the neighborhood, but instead took different forms in different places.

Divorce Raids & Prostitution arrests, 1925 & 1930

Divorce Raids & Prostitution arrests, 1925 & 1930

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Prostitutes were among the blacks who migrated from the San Juan Hill neighborhood to Harlem.  As early as 1919, according to reformer Willoughby Waterman, they had relocated from West Side Ave between  34th and 56th Streets to the area of 7th Avenue from 132nd to 143rd Streets.  The number of black prostitutes arrested by police was out of proportion with their presence in the population, according to figures we found in the bulletins of the Committee of Fourteen, the private white anti-prostitution organization: the proportion of blacks fluctuated between 20% and 40% of the women arrested through the 1920s.  One reason why so many were arrested was that most black women were among the poorest and cheapest prostitutes and solicited on the streets, making them easily detected by police.

Black prostitutes less often took men back to rooms than did their white counterparts, resorting instead to hallways, taxicabs and other ‘semi-public’ spaces.  When they did take men into residences, it was most often not to their homes, but to rooms that could be rented briefly as a place to entertain a ‘friend.’  Of the 78 prostitutes who solicited the Committee of Fourteen’s black investigator in 1928, and offered to take him to a room, only 16 (20%) offered to take him to their homes. Black prostitutes’ practice of not taking men to rooms led police to conduct fewer jump raids — in which officers who saw a woman solicit a man in the street followed the couple when they went to a room, and then burst in on them — in Harlem than in white neighbourhoods.

Information on the addresses at which arrests were made can be found in a card file index kept by the Committee of Fourteen.  We collected information for January, April, July and October 1925 & 1930.

Prostitution Arrests, 1925 (Search Events="Prostitution Arrests" + 01-01-1925 - 12-31-1925)

The addresses where police did make arrests were clustered between 127th Street and 135th Street, off the avenues that ran north-south through Harlem, with the densest grouping in the poor quality tenements east of Lenox Avenue.  This was the area that writer Wallace Thurman described as Harlem’s “slum district,” with Lenox Avenue in this area “dirty and noisy.” Few arrests took place in addresses in the blocks of better standard housing north of 135th Street and west of Lenox Avenue.

Prostitution Arrests, 1930 (Search Events="Prostitution Arrests" + 01-01-1930 - 12-31-1930)

The greater spread of arrests in 1930 is largely a consequence of the spreading boundaries of black settlement in Harlem: arrests appear on 8th Avenue and further uptown and in greater numbers near 125th Street as blacks move to these area.

Prostitution Arrests, 1925 and 1930

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Our article “This Harlem Life: Black Families and Everyday Life in the 1920s and 1930s” has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Social History.  (It appeared in the Fall 2010 issue).JSH cover

The article uses the Probation Department files to reconstruct the lives of five men “to highlight what the black metropolis offered those outside the elite, to show how ordinary blacks negotiated the challenges, and drew on institutions and organizations, to establish and sustain new lives.  We offer the kind of individualized perspective on everyday life that other scholars have provided for high culture, but which does not exist for Harlem, even in early twentieth century sociological studies of black life.”   Relationships with spouses, children, siblings and cousins sustained individuals faced with the social reality of living in overcrowded, deteriorating, disease infested housing, subject to the racism of white police, politicians and employers; so too did friendships made in nightclubs, speakeasies, dances and movie theatres, and membership of churches, fraternal organizations, social clubs, and sports clubs and teams.

There are blog posts about each of the five men we discuss —  Fuller Long*Morgan Thompson*, Perry Brown*, Frank Hamilton* & Roger Walker*.

*These names are pseudonyms, as required by Municipal Archives

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