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.
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)
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.
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.
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.