Archive for June, 2010

Shane White was interviewed by Margaret Throsby on ABC Classic FM here in Sydney this morning, talking about the history of New York City, Harlem and the numbers.  The interview is available as a podcast on the Classic FM site.

Shane was also interviewed by Alan Saunders on the By Design show on ABC Radio National, talking about Harlem and Digital Harlem. A podcast of that interview is available.


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(Search People="First Name=Roger" + "Surname+Walker")

Roger Walker* was a nineteen-year old native of North Carolina and restaurant worker placed on probation after being convicted of trying to burgle a drug store in 1930, when he was unemployed and without money for food (*This name is a pseudonym, used at the request of the Municipal Archives).

The map of Walker’s life during the four years he spent on probation reveals an experience quite unlike that of Morgan Thompson* and Fuller Long*, two other men whose lives feature in our article “This Harlem Life” who have been the subject of blog posts. In the first place, Walker changed residence far more often than they did, living at fourteen different addresses in four years.  He did not set up his own household, but rented furnished rooms in apartments.

Lodgers such as Walker were a ubiquitous and growing population in 1920s Harlem, present in perhaps half of all households by 1930 (including that of Morgan Thompson).  Many were related to their landlords; Walker lived for his first two years in Harlem with an aunt and uncle who resided on West 153rd Street.  When they returned to the South, he retained some ties to family by sharing a room with a cousin, with whom he entered into an agreement that in the event that one was out of work, the other would pay the entire rent.  After 19 months of living together the two men quarreled, and from then on he shared rooms with unnamed friends — with his cousin occasionally helping with rent and bills — until he married.  Even then, Walker was not able to set up his own household; he and his wife lived with her married sister and husband. His mobility in the interim sometimes reflected an inability to pay rent, but on other occasions simply the unstable nature of relationships with roommates and landlords and his life in general. Observers, particularly white social reformers, worried that lodgers threatened the stability and morality of the families with who they lived; Walker, however, appeared to have little to do with his landlords.  He spent most of his leisure time outside his residences.

Aaron Siskind - Harlem Document (1940/41) (George Eastman House Still Photograph Archive)

Certainly, furnished rooms did not offer attractive places to do anything other than sleep, usually being equipped with no more than beds, a stove for heating, a chair, lamp, and perhaps a bureau.  For lodgers, the streets and businesses of the neighborhood functioned as part of their home: restaurants and chop suey joints were their dining rooms; speakeasies, pool halls and movie theaters their parlors and sitting rooms.  Walker preferred to spent his time at the movies, attending four or five shows a week, a fairly typical activity for Americans in these years, even as the Depression hit.

The map of Walker’s life is also strikingly different from those of Thompson and Long because employment did not take him outside Harlem, as it did in the case of the other two men, and almost all residents of the neighborhood.  Rather than laboring, Walker worked as a kitchen hand, counterman or soda dispenser in restaurants and drug stores (with soda fountains), which were found in abundance the length of Lenox and Seventh Avenues.  He often worked 12 or 13 hours a day in these positions, and even overtime beyond those hours; in other cases he worked the night shift. While he worked in Harlem, Walker,  like Thompson and Long, would still likely have been employed by whites, who controlled almost all the businesses in Harlem.

Harlem Soda Fountain (no date) (Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS)

Service work was not by nature as itinerant as was the laboring work done by Thompson, but Walker changed jobs repeatedly, holding nine different positions during his four years on probation. He lost some of those positions due to cutbacks resulting from the Depression, but more often he quit or was fired as a result of disputes about unpaid or inadequate wages and taking days off.  In October 1933, Walker’s fortunes took a turn for the better, and he secured one of the best jobs available in his line of work, as a waiter in a Pullman dining car traveling between New York City and Chicago.

A more detailed account of Roger Walker’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.

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Shane White, Stephen Garton and I spoke about Digital Harlem and our book Playing the Numbers at the Sydney Humanities Salon on June 10, 2010.  This is an informal event involving roughly 40 minutes of presentation and then 20 minutes of Q&A, which is available as a podcast.  In our case, Stephen did a brief reading from the book, a passage from the introduction that explores Harlem, I retraced the route covered in that passage using historical photographs and Digital Harlem, and Shane talked about numbers gambling

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Another review of our book, Playing the Numbers, has appeared, in the July/August issue of The Atlantic, available online – and accompanied by this great illustration

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Hospitals in Harlem (Search Place, "Location type=Hospitals")

Harlem in the 1920s was not well served by hospitals.  One public hospital was located in the neighborhood, but continued to be dominated by whites throughout the decade. Blacks did operate four small private hospitals, but they charged fees beyond the resources of most blacks and were not well-supported by those who could afford them.

The public institution, Harlem Hospital, stood on the block between 136th and 137th Streets, on the east side of Lenox Avenue, one block north of its current location.  It opened on April 13, 1907, providing 150 beds, facilities that were proving inadequate as early as 1911.  An additional wing and a Nurses Home were added in 1915, increasing the capacity to 390 beds. Although by 1926 the hospital was again overcrowded, further expansion was not undertaken until the 1930s.  (The building on the block between 135th and 136th Streets did not open until 1969).

Despite its location near the heart of Harlem, the hospital remained essentially a white space. It had no black staff until some nurses were hired in 1917, no black physicians until Louis T. Wright was appointed in the Out-Patient Department in 1919, and no black doctors able to visit patients or conduct surgery until 1925.  By 1930, there were still only 25 black physicians on the in-patient, out-patient and intern staff, with whites in all the leadership positions.  The majority of the nurses were blacks, including graduates of the training school opened in the hospital in 1923, but  whites still formed the leadership of the nursing staff.  Even the majority of the non-medical staff were white.

Harlem Hospital, 1926 (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL)

Perhaps most strikingly, as late as 1929 whites also made up a third of the patients, coming from the southern end of the hospital’s district, which reached from the East River to St Nicholas Avenue and from 145th Street down to 110th Street.

Edgecombe Sanitarium (NY Amsterdam News, September 30, 1925)

There were several small black-run private hospitals in Harlem.  The Booker T. Washington Sanitarium opened on 7th Avenue between 138th and 139th Streets in 1920, offering inpatient treatment for those with tuberculosis. In 1925 it was merged with the Edgecombe Sanitarium, when a group of black physicians purchased Brunor’s Sanitarium, located on the corner of 137th Street and Edgecombe Avenue. That hospital had 15 beds, and 3 nurses, and admitted 255 patients in 1929.  Also in 1925, Dr Wiley Wilson expanded his offices on the corner of 138th Street and 7th Avenue into the Wiley Wilson Sanitarium, with 8 beds and 3 nurses in attendance.  In 1929 Wilson’s hospital admitted 220 patients, 80% for surgery.

Dr Conrad Vincent undertook an even more ambitious expansion of his practice, opening the Vincent Sanitarium at 2348 Seventh Avenue in March 1929 (less than half a block from Wilson’s Sanitarium).

Advertisement from the New York Age, July 6, 1930

The remodeled five story building housed 50 beds, an operating theater, dental clinic, pharmacy and x-ray laboratory. Illness forced Vincent to sell his hospital to a group of black investors in February 1930.

The new owners operated it as the International Hospital, with noted Harlem Renaissance author and physician Rudolph Fisher as superintendent.  Although the institution treated 350 patients in its first 8 months, 1/4 of who were white, it went bankrupt in October 1931.  The hospital then passed into the hands of whites.  An editorial in the New York Amsterdam News blamed divisions among Harlem’s black physicians, which caused many to fail to send patients to the hospital.  The paper’s own medical columnist, Dr Lucien Brown, disagreed, blaming instead the limited number of residents with funds for private care, and the preference for white institutions of those with money to spend, a choice based on what he termed exaggerated accounts of deaths in black-run hospitals.


Arthur Davidson, “A History of Harlem Hospital,” Journal of the National Medical Association 56, 5 (September 1957): 373-380

Lester Walton, “Harlem Hospital Has Mixed Staff,” The World (April 27, 1930): 6E

Glenn Carrington, “Community Institutions of Harlem Shoulder Ponderous Tasks in Mending Bodies of the Sick,” NY Amsterdam News (November 12, 1930): 13

Lucien Brown, “International Hospital,” NY Amsterdam News (November 11, 1931): 11

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