Archive for August, 2010

Search People, First Name="Frank" + Surname="Hamilton"

Frank Hamilton*, a twenty-three-year-old born in Memphis, Tennessee, raised in Arkansas, and educated at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, was placed on probation in 1928 after stealing three suits from the midtown clothing store where he worked as a porter. (*This name is a pseudonym, used at the request of the Municipal Archives) He had resorted to theft in an effort to support an expensive lifestyle.  Hamilton rented what his probation officer described as a “luxuriously outfitted” apartment, with walls adorned with photographs of beautiful women, in a “high class apartment building with every modern convenience,” where he entertained young men and women from “good circles,” dressed stylishly.  Rather than helping pay for this lifestyle, the theft made it even less sustainable: Hamilton was required to pay $500 in restitution, which meant that even though he found a new job as Pullman porter, he had less to live on.  Nonetheless, in September 1929, he married Alice, a woman he had met in Atlanta before coming to New York, and set up a home for them in a ‘high class building’ at 582 St Nicholas Avenue.

(The trolley icons linked to 582 St Nicholas Ave indicate the stores to which Hamilton was in debt)

Hamilton had bought the radio and furnishings for his new home on installment plans, putting himself almost $1000 in debt, a sum equal to almost six months wages for a Pullman porter — a fact his new wife discovered only after he was arrested in November 1929 for failing to make restitution payments. That debt was owed to white-owned businesses, including two large stores on West 125th Street, the major retail district on the southern edge of Harlem still dominated by whites.  Hamilton was not satisfied with devoting all his income to clearing those debts, instead looking to Harlem’s underground economy to get ahead.  He gambled fifty cents a day playing numbers, insisting that the odds of winning were too good to refrain (actually one in a thousand), and talked of buying an interest in a speakeasy or running a dice game, working briefly in two nightclubs.

Pawn Brokers (Search Place, Location type="Pawnbroker")

Hamilton also used Harlem’s pawnshops to go even further in debt.  In July 1931, he showed his probation officer $200 of tickets for pawned clothing and jewelery. Such a collection horrified the officer, who could only attribute it to a need to pay gambling debts.

Pawnbroker's sign, Lenox Avenue (Detail from "A Harlem street scene in the 1920s" © New York Daily News)

However, Harlem residents, like other working-class Americans, did not pawn goods only out of desperation, as the officer imagined, but as a survival strategy, a means of obtaining cash to tide them over to pay day, or to pay rent or other bills that had become due, circumstances that recurred in the economic rhythm of the lives of individuals only able to obtain intermittent work.  Banks did not accept personal property as collateral, and rarely made loans to blacks; in fact, few, and in some periods, none, operated in Harlem. But at least sixteen pawnshops did, owned by Jews, providing modest access to white capital.

Barber Shops (Search Place, Location type="Barber Shop")

Large Barber Shop In Harlem c. 1929, © Bettmann/CORBIS

Hamilton’s refusal to pursue a respectable, middle class life led to fights with his wife; once he lost his job in June 1930, the relationship quickly fell apart.  Alice left to live with relatives in Long Island, and he moved into a furnished room, incurring further debt to put his furniture into storage.  The forwarding address Hamilton left, for many weeks the only means his probation officer had of trying to locate him, was a barber shop on 7th Avenue. Centers of sociability, barber shops fostered a male world less concerned with respectability than the fraternal orders and churches frequented by other, older Harlem residents like Perry Brown, while still providing similar services, like help finding work. Even as Hamilton immersed himself in that world, and relocated frequently, his wife’ eviction, unemployment and illness led her to re-establish a home with him four times in the twenty-two months after they separated, until a particularly violent fight led her to leave permanently.

To support herself, Alice became a domestic servant, giving up an ambition, nurtured by two years of study at a junior college, to be a social worker.  For Hamilton, by contrast, a middle-class life remained within reach.  At end of his probation, he had a permanent position as a porter for Russell Sage Foundation, was using their library to prepare to finish high school and contemplating studying sociology, and had joined the YMCA and St James Presbyterian Church — and still owed several hundred dollars to two furniture stores, $288.33 in restitution,  $70 to the storage company, and $87 for a radio he had long since sold.

A more detailed account of Frank Hamilton’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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Boys Watching Icemen Make Delivery, 1936 (© Lucien Aigner/CORBIS)

Ice dealers were prominent among the white deliverymen, salesmen and bill collectors who ventured into the residential blocks occupied by blacks. In an era before widespread electrification, Harlem’s residents and businesses relied on ice to store food as well as to cool drinks. For much of the 1920s, Italians enjoyed what the New York Age called “a practical monopoly in serving ice to the homes of Harlem.”

Ice Dealers (Search=Location Type="Ice Dealer")

They typically operated out of cellars, usually located near intersections, buying ice from wholesalers, who carted it from the Colonial Ice and Coal Company, on Eighth Avenue and 151st Street, and delivered it to residents and businesses in the surrounding blocks.  Unlike almost all other white businessmen, at least some icemen also lived in Harlem. *Vito Passantino, an Italian ice dealer on probation between 1930 and 1935, for example, lived in a furnished room on West 132nd Street, and later with another black family, to whom he had sold ice for several years, at 21 Maccombs Place. (* This is a pseudonym as required by Municipal Archives)

Man Delivering Ice Block, 1936 (© Lucien Aigner/CORBIS)

A business that required relatively little skill and capital, the ice trade was within reach of some of the blacks who came to Harlem in the 1920s. Italian icemen secured their trade against black competition through agreements with janitors and superintendents for exclusive access to a building’s residents. However, the biggest obstacle reported by blacks seeking a share of the ice trade was “the average Harlem Negro.” “Time and time again,” L. Baynard Whitney wrote in the Amsterdam News, “they have been told by colored people, ‘I don’t want no nigger iceman!’.”  The ice trade was the subject of a widely reported joke about the unwillingness of blacks to patronize businesses owned by members of their own race.  As recounted by Lawrence Levine, the joke concerned a black ice dealer in a small southern community who had both black and white customers:

When a white competitor came into town, one Negro lady immediately began to buy from him.  “Now why did you stop buying from John?” her white neighbor asked, “he was so courteous and nice, and we did business with him a long time.” “Well I tell you truth Miz George, I tell you just why I changed,” the black woman replied, “that white man’s ice is just colder than that nigger’s ice.”

(Black Culture, Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (NY, 1977), 330)

Despite such attitudes, by 1928, between twenty and forty black dealers did sell ice in Harlem. *Vito Passantino’s experiences suggest that some of those gains had been achieved by force.  When he opened a cellar on West 148th Street, a black dealer across the street threatened him if he did not close. Subsequently the sign in front of his cellar was stolen, and in subsequent months, his cart broken and advertising board taken, and he also lost a number of customers. Within a few months *Passantino abandoned the business.

By 1931, the number of blacks dealing in ice grew to 120, and they sold more tonnage than any single white company.  In July of that year, two Italian companies, fighting over who would control the Harlem trade, now the richest in the city thanks to the spread of electrification in other neighborhoods, began selling ice at half the usual cost.  As black retailers saw their business evaporate, some responded with violence: one, having carried 75 pounds up five flights of stairs only to find a white dealer had taken his customer, returned to the street and assaulted the man with an ice stick.

J Raymond Jones, president of the Afro Ice Dealers Association, making an ice delivery (New York Amsterdman News, August 5, 1931, 3)

A new organization also appeared, the Afro Ice Dealers Association, initially consisting of 25 trucks and 50 cellar dealers.  Unable to negotiate a new agreement with their supplier, the Association threw itself into the price war, undercutting the white companies.  With the support of the Harlem Housewives League and the National Negro Business League, they took to the streets in trucks displaying placards adorned with the Association’s name, and slogans such as ‘Give Us A Break,” and “We Will Stick It Out Though We Starve,” and went house to house.  Harlem’s residents gave them their business, even when the Italian companies countered by staffing their trucks with black workers, and within ten days a truce had been negotiated, returning prices to their original levels. Just how many blacks returned their custom to white dealers once the discounted prices ended is not clear, but *Vito Passantino was able to find work with Italian ice dealers doing business in Harlem as late as 1935.


“Harlem’s Colored Ice Dealers Are Making Determined Fight For Share of Business Among Their Own People,” New York Age, July 21, 1928, 1.

L. Baynard Whitney, “Negro Icemen Receive Cold Shoulder From Harlem Housewives,” New York Amsterdam News, May 30, 1928, 8.

“Icemen Organize to Avert Bankruptcy,” New York Amsterdam News, August 5, 1931, 3.

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