Archive for July, 2010

Select a Person – Perry Brown

Perry Brown* was a forty-five-year-old born in Pennsylvania, who was placed on probation after stealing coats from the building of which he was superintendent in 1930.  (*This name is a pseudonym, used at the request of the Municipal Archives).That crime came in response to his wife Pauline’s long illness, and was a marked departure from Brown’s respectable life in Harlem.  He had lived in the neighborhood for fourteen years, at the same address, a four room apartment, #17, in 142 West 143rd Street.  During that time, Brown had gradually found more stable unskilled work, beginning with several positions as an elevator operator, and a stint laboring in the Brooklyn Naval Yard, before securing the job as a building superintendent in downtown Manhattan, which he held for five years before his arrest.

B.P.O.E Monarch Lodge, 1931 (James Van Der Zee)

Brown took pride in his standing in the community, reflected in his membership of several social organizations, including the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, through which he claimed an extensive network of friends. The Elks were Harlem’s largest fraternal order, attracting professionals and working-class men who shared Brown’s aspirations to respectability and leadership. A secular organization, the Elks emphasized educational programs and community service, and offered insurance benefits, help finding jobs and housing, and entertainment, such as organized boat rides and parties.  Fraternal orders also regularly paraded through the neighborhood, offering opportunities for the “janitor, bricklayer, waiter, street sweeper and counterman” who made up the members to display and perform their respectability — and for more avowedly ‘modern’ blacks, such as the journalist George Shuyler, to satirize their appearance:  “How proudly they prance down the streets in their tin helmets and breastplates, multi-colored capes, patent leather boots, prodigious swords, purple pantaloons and dyed ostrich feathers.” (New York Amsterdam News, October 26, 1927, 12)

Fraternal Lodges (Search Place=”Fraternal Lodge”)

Brown attended weekly meetings of his lodge. Depending on which of the five Elks lodges in Harlem he belonged to, he would have had access to a clubroom with bars, halls, offices, and orchestras and bands.  The Manhattan Lodge had clubrooms, a hall and offices on 139th Street, catering to about 2000 members.  Two blocks south, Monarch Lodge, in which numbers banker Casper Holstein played a leading role, had its rooms on 137th Street.  Imperial Lodge had a large dance hall as part of its purpose-built rooms on 129th Street, and over 1500 members.  The Henry Lincoln Johnson Lodge, with rooms on 145th Street and a mainly West Indian membership, and the Neptune Lodge, with rooms on Lenox Avenue near 121st Street in the 1930s, lacked grand halls and large memberships, but like their fellows, sponsored large bands.

160-164 West 129th Street (Building is still standing)

Although fraternal orders were secular organizations, Lodge members were also frequently church members. Brown, although he had been raised a Baptist, attended a variety of other Harlem churches, to avoid, as he told one of his probation officers, “becoming tired of listening to one preacher all the time.”  Among the congregations he visited was the Catholic Church of which his wife, Pauline was a member, St Charles Borromeo.

Perry Brown’s residences

When the Depression hit Brown, the Elks helped him, as they did many of their members. After his conviction, Brown could only find employment as a freight elevator operator, heavier work for lower wages. He and Pauline also relocated several times, first to an apartment where the housework was easier, then to a larger apartment where they could take in a lodger.  After Brown lost his job, without working children to contribute to the household, as Morgan Thompson had, the couple soon had their electricity cut off and were surviving on food from friends and Perry’s lodge brothers while the rent remained unpaid.  Facing eviction, they moved again, a sequence that repeated itself twice more before Brown was discharged from probation at the end of 1933.

As his economic situation deteriorated, and facing the burden of paying restitution for the goods he had stolen, Brown was forced to give up many of the organizations to which he had belonged. He remained an Elk, paying his dues in installments and attending meetings once a week, until the end of 1931.  By September 1932, “somewhat discouraged” and “without proper clothing,” he had also stopped attending religious services. His probation officer urged him to become involved in the YMCA, and obtained a free membership for him.  However, Brown took time to adjust to “the atmosphere” of the organization, which would have been very different from that of the secular Elks, and had not taken up any “definite activities” at the time his probation ended.  As he retreated from his social relationships, his family relationships came to the fore, and Brown chose to make a weekly visit to the movies with his wife.

A more detailed account of Perry Brown’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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Catholic Churches (Search "Place=Church" + Keyword=Catholic)

Catholic churches were spread throughout Harlem, reflecting an organization that assigned each parish a particular part of the neighborhood. Unlike other religious denominations, the Catholic Church did not leave Harlem as blacks occupied the neighborhood. Catholic parishes retained white members into the 1930s, and even as blacks slowly came to dominate congregations, white clergy still presided.  The Church also operated schools in Harlem, and in the 1920s added a day nursery for preschool children and an additional primary school, both operated by black nuns.

In 1929, Lester Walton estimated that 5000 blacks attended Harlem’s Catholic churches.  The earliest were migrants from Maryland; the largest number were immigrants from the West Indies, Puerto Rico and Cuba. Walton identified St Mark’s on West 138th Street as the “largest Negro Catholic Church in New York,” with a membership of 1000.  In 1912, the Holy Ghost Fathers had taken charge of the parish, and within 4 years had converted 400 blacks. At St Charles Borromeo on West 141st Street whites remained a majority of the congregation until the mid-1920s, but by 1929, blacks made up 90% of members.  In Harlem’s other parishes, blacks were still a minority: at St Aloysius on West 132nd Street they made up about half the congregation; at the Church of the Resurrection on 151st Street blacks constituted about 40% of members; and only a few could be found at the two churches on the boundaries of the black neighborhood, St Thomas on West 118th Street and All Saints at East 129th Street and Madison Avenue.

Catholic Schools and Day Nurseries (Search Place="School_Catholic")

Catholic churches undertook one activity that the neighborhood’s Protestant institutions did not: they operated schools.  In 1929, the school next to St Mark’s housed 500 students, taught by seven nuns from the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and three lay teachers.  Of the 330 students at St Charles Borromeo, all but 15-20 were black, taught by 8 Sisters.  Those teachers were white, as were most of those in the public schools.  Not so those at St Mary’s Primary School, set up in 1930 by the Franciscan Handmaidens, an order of black nuns, in the basement of their convent on East 131st Street (they also operated a day nursery on West 132nd Street).

St Mary's Primary School (Cecilia Moore, "Keeping Harlem Catholic," American Catholic Studies 114, 3 (2003): 14)

The school soon outgrew that location and in the mid-1930s relocated to St Aloysius, first to the rectory, and later to a purpose built structure, dedicated in 1941.

Notwithstanding the work of the Franciscan Handmaidens, the Catholic Church in 1920s Harlem needs to be seen as one of the institutions in which white control persisted long after blacks residents filled the neighborhood


Cecilia Moore, “Keeping Harlem Catholic: African-American Catholics and Harlem, 1920-1960,” American Catholic Studies, 114, 3 (2003): 3-21.

Lester Walton, “Catholic Church Makes Strides in Harlem,” The World, September 29, 1929, 6E

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