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WICC

NYA, April 30, 1908, 6

In Harlem, cricket was a game almost exclusively played by West Indian immigrants. The game had a prominent place in the West Indian community even before they relocated to Harlem.  One indication of the importance of cricket was that events that sought to bring together West Indians typically gave out prizes to the cricket club with the most members in attendance (1). Cricket’s international character extended beyond its players, with local black teams playing both visiting black teams from the West Indies and white teams from Australia in the 1920s. But the game had limited appeal beyond the West Indian community: the sports editor of the Amsterdam News wrote in 1930, “many right here in our city who look upon the pastime as one without the elements to make one thrill and not deserving of any consideration” (2). As a result, sports served to divide African Americans and West Indians in Harlem, literally sending them to different places on summer weekends.

Cricket grounds

Before New York City’s black community relocated to Harlem, they played cricket at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. In the early years of black Harlem, cricket and baseball shared the same neighborhood venues: Olympic Field and Lenox Oval, both near the river (3).  When those fields were lost to development, cricket returned to Brooklyn and the Bronx, alternate venues further from neighborhood than those for Harlem’s baseball teams. As well as playing in Prospect Park and Van Cortlandt Park, black cricketers used Commercial Field in Brooklyn, and, for one year, Pelham Park in the Bronx. By the late 1920s, cricket grounds in Brooklyn also began to face pressure from development. In the debates about how to use the dwindling space, they lost out to baseball: the area for cricket at Prospect Park shrank so it was only enough for small games not a league, forcing Brooklyn teams to play in Van Cortlandt Park (4).

Unlike baseball, multiple multiple games of cricket occurred at the same time and place. In 1928, New York City featured two 12-team leagues playing at Van Cortlandt Park, one playing 6 games on Saturdays, the other 6 games on Sundays (5). Cricket also drew far smaller crowds than baseball, rarely creating black spaces within the city as baseball games did. The season for playing cricket was shorter than for baseball, from mid-May to mid-September, although by the late 1920s the regular competition was interrupted for games against visiting teams.

Games against visiting teams drew large enough crowds to warrant being played in other venues (6). Innisfail Park in the Bronx was the site of games against the Australian team in 1913 and again in 1932, and a visiting West Indian team in 1928 and 1932 (7). That West Indian team, which played 29 games in New York City, also played at Dyckman Oval and at Starlight Park, a stadium in a Bronx amusement park (8). The West Indian team that visited in 1929 played all 18 of its games in Dyckman Oval; the team that toured in 1930 also played there (9).

WI Team

West Indian Team on Tour, 1928 (AN, August 1, 1928, 10)

Cricket declined in prominence in New York City after the first decade of the 20th century. As early as 1920, the New York Age reported that the inability to find somewhere centrally located to play led West Indian sportsman to give up cricket for other sports (10). Competition from baseball also contributed to cricket’s decline, including by limiting space for the game (11). In 1926, State Senator Higgins argued, “The cricket players are non-citizens. Most of them are West Indians. Some are Englishmen. But in any event they don’t play our national game and they shouldn’t be allowed to use the Parade Grounds. Their wickets and tea tables are in the way of the honest-to-goodness baseball players” (12). Most fundamentally, given the disinterest of African Americans in the game, immigration restrictions that limited the number of West Indians coming to New York City choked off the supply of new players (13).

If on one hand cricket helped maintain divisions between West Indians and African Americans in Harlem, the declining prominence of the game broke down those divisions and helped fuel an expansion in African American sports such as basketball and track and field. Answering  critics who thought cricket did not deserve attention, the sports editor of the Amsterdam News noted in 1930, “The majority of those men who made the sacrifices that later brought basketball to that place where thousands used to jam the casinos in its early days and later helped to lay the foundations for tennis, went from the cricket fields to other spheres of athletic endeavor the principles of the great old English games. Oh yes, field and track athletics also received its full share of inspiration at the hands of former cricketers, to say nothing of that old Scottish game–golf” (14).

Notes

(1) NYA, November 28, 1907, 3.

(2) AN, June 25, 1930, 16.

(3) NYA, May 30, 1925, 6.

(4) AN, July 11, 1928, 6.

(5) AN, July 11, 1928, 6.

(6) AN, March 5, 1930, 12.

(7) NYA, August 14, 1913, 6; AN, July 20, 1932, 9.

(8) AN, September 11, 1929, 14.

(9) AN August 6, 1930, 13.

(10) NYA, May 15, 1920, 7.

(11) AN, January 29, 1930, 12.

(12) AN, April 28, 1926, 7.

(13) AN, July 11, 1928, 6; AN, May 14, 1930, 12.

(14) AN, June 25, 1930, 16.

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Summer did not just lead residents to depart Harlem for day trips and longer summer camps; it also brought visitors to the neighborhood. Some came as individuals to study or see family, friends and the city’s attractions, others as groups for large events.

Evidence of the presence of middle-class tourists in Harlem exists thanks to lists of those staying at the neighborhood’s hotels published in both the New York Age and Amsterdam News. Both papers consistently published guest lists from the Hotel Olga (AN, 1925-33; NYA, 1921-28), and less consistently from the Hotel Dumas (AN, 1925-29; NYA, 1924-26), YWCA (AN 1927-32; NYA, 1927-1932Hotel Press (AN, 1925-28), and Hotel Grampion (AN 1931-32). (The largest hotel in Harlem, the Hotel Theresa on West 125th Street and 7th Avenue accepted only white guests until 1940).

Hotels

Tourists also appear in the newspapers’ social pages, as residents hosted parties in honor of out-of-town guests. Those held in July 1930 included a dinner party at a home on West 134th Street for Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Westheimer, visiting from Georgia, and a bridge party in a St Nicholas Avenue address in honor of four women from Los Angeles (10). Mapping a small sample of visitors from July 1925 and 1930 suggests that the bulk came from the midwest and northeast, with smaller numbers from the upper South and Florida. In 1930 they came from further afield than in 1925, notwithstanding the growing Depression, visiting from the West Indies and as far west as Texas and California.

Palladio 1925 Map

Origins of Visitors to Harlem 1925 (AN, July 8, 1925) [Map created using Palladio]

Palladio 1930 Mapp wide

Origins of Visitors to Harlem 1930 (AN, July 9, 1930) [Map created using Palladio]

Education also brought visitors to Harlem in the 1920s. As the NYA reported, “hundreds of teachers, college students and professional men and women [came] to New York to take summer school work at the universities and colleges.” Summer students filled the accommodation at the YMCA and YWCA, their registrations also reported in the New York Age and Amsterdam News, and became a hub of social activity, the occasion for parties large and small, and a visible presence at Harlem’s church services. July 1930, for example, saw a party at the Agnes Thorpe Art Salon, and a reception in the roof garden of the YWCA that drew 600 people (8). Summer students were a familiar enough feature of Harlem life to feature in its fiction: a story by noted black satirist and author George Schulyer called “Summer School Idyll: What Happens When a Pretty Southern Teacher Arrives in New York to Study?” was serialized in the Amsterdam News in 1935 (9).

In addition to the individuals who made Harlem a destination, summer was “convention season,” the New York Age noted in 1922, “the time for the holding of the annual conventions of the many race organizations…in the larger cities of both the east and West.” Fraternal orders, women’s clubs, university fraternities and sororities, medical and legal organizations, and church federations all gathered in conventions (1). So many delegates travelled to those events that Amsterdam News columnist Edgar Grey bemoaned the funds they contributed to the profits of white-owned railroad and steamship companies and spent on “trappings and other decorations” for no substantial benefits to the race. Those who defended the lodges noted that the “yearly spectacles” of the convention – and the opportunity to vacation that it offered – was a major reason why many members joined these organizations and supported the work they did for the black community (2).

New York (and Harlem) was “the ideal convention city with unmatched transit facilities, halls, and churches, wonder stores, beautiful parks,” as the New York Age noted in 1926, (3). For the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), headquartered in Harlem, a convention in the city was an annual affair for much of the 1920s. Events in 1920, 1921, 1922 and 1924 drew thousands of members from across the US and beyond its borders. Two competing UNIA conventions took place in 1926, after which the New York branch held its own, smaller annual conventions in 1927 and 1928. In 1929, Garvey moved the headquarters of the UNIA to Kingston, Jamaica, and held the convention there. Most other organizations did not have headquarters of the scale of the UNIA at which to regularly gather, and instead rotated the event among cities equipped to host a large gathering, of which New York City was one. Lodge members descended on Harlem in the 1920s: Prince Hall Masons and Odd Fellows in 1920, Knights of Pythias in 1921 and again in 1923, and more than 40,000 Elks, in 1927 (4).  (The other cities that hosted the Elks in 1920s were Boston, Newark, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Richmond, Cleveland, Atlantic City and Detroit (5)). Smaller church conventions also came to Harlem, with groups such as the National Baptist Convention and the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World bringing a few thousand visitors rather than the tens of thousands who attended the fraternal lodge gatherings (6).

Baptist delegates

Delegates at the 1930 National Baptist Convention (NYA, AN, September 17, 1930, 3)

The large conventions transformed life in the neighborhood. The appearance of Harlem’s major avenues changed, with the streets bedecked with flags, bunting, decorations, and electric lights. Organizations paraded along those streets; the Elks convention in 1927  involved the largest parade of the 1920s, featuring 25,000 men and women (in pouring rain). Visitors filled the pavements, and the hotels and dormitories, as well as many of the furnished rooms, with residents able to register to house delegates. Businesses and venues adjusted their practices to seek their custom. The Elks convention led the Savoy Ballroom to add extra events, and enhance its regular programs, and the Lafayette Theater to produce a special revue and add an additional midnight show on a Monday. In addition, organizers put on bus and boat rides around New York City, a steamer trip to Bear Mountain, a bathing beauty contest at the Manhattan Casino, a grand ball at the 369th Regiment armory (attended by 20,000 people), and a field day of athletic events at Commercial Field in Brooklyn. To cover all the activity, and run all the advertisements targeted at visiting Elks, the weekly Amsterdam News became a daily newspaper for the week of the convention (7).

In traveling between communities, members of political and social organizations, and religious denominations, students, and holiday-makers – together with sports teams and performers — tied black neighborhoods and communities together.  Visualizing these journeys presents black urban space as something more expansive terms than a neighborhood: as a network.

Hotels

Hotel Olga (695 Lenox Ave @ 145th Street)

Hotel Olga Ad

Opened: 1920 (Built c1898; North End Hotel (1898-1912); Dolphin Hotel (1912-1919); building still standing)

Facilities: 40 rooms

Hotel Dumas

NYA, April 23, 1932, 8

 

Hotel Dumas (205 West 135th Street)

Opened: 1922

(Built c1920; Devan Hotel (1920-1922)

Facilities:

40 rooms, baths on each floor, 2nd floor private dining room, ground floor 200 seat public dining room, with orchestra 10pm-1am, 20 staff (NYA, December 2, 1922, 8) (9 staff, 1929)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emma Ransom House – YWCA (175 West 137th Street, next door to YWCA building)

YWCA footprint

Opened: 1927

Facilities: 175 rooms, linked to cafeteria in main YWCA building, laundry, shampoo parlor, two pianos, sitting room on 4th floor, maid and elevator service, lighted roof garden

Hotel Grampion (182 St. Nicholas Ave)

Grampion

Opened: 1900

Whites only until September 1, 1927: “The changing complexion of the neighborhood, which has become completely colored in the last three years, is given as the reason for the change….[A] complete colored staff is being employed, from the manager down” (NYA, August 27, 1927, 1).

Facilities: 54 apartments of 1-3 rooms with private bath in each room, over 7 floors

Hotel Press (19-21 West 135th Street)

Opened: 1907 (Built c1900; The Walker House 1900-1907)

Facilities?

 

Notes

(1) NYA, August 5, 1922, 4.

(2) AN, August 24, 1927, 15.

(3) NYA, August 14, 1926, 1.

(4) For the Prince Hall Masons, see NYA, September 25, 1920, 1; Odd Fellows (NYA, June 12, 1920, 1; NYA September 11, 1920, 1; Knights of Pythias (NYA, September 3, 1921, 1; NYA, September 1, 1923, 1)

(5) Boston (1921) [NYA, August 20, 1921, 5], Newark (1922) [AN, August 5, 1922, 6], Chicago (1923) [AN, August 8, 1923, 8]; Pittsburgh (1924) [AN, August 30, 1924, 2] Richmond (1925) [AN, July 8, 1925, 2]; Cleveland (1926) [AN, March 10, 1926, 12]; Chicago (1928) [AN, August 31, 1927, 3], Atlantic City (1929) [AN, July 10, 1929, 2], Detroit (1930) [AN, August 27, 1930, 4].

(6) AN, September 17, 1930, 1; NYA, August 27, 1930, 7

(7) AN, August 17, 1927, 2; AN, August 17, 1927, 10; AN, August 17, 1927, 11; AN, August 25, 1927, 1; AN, August 26, 6.

(8) AN, July 16, 1930, 10; AN, July 23, 1930, 4; NYA, July 21, 1923, 7.

(9) AN, July 20, 1935, A1.

(10) AN, July 23, 1930, 4; AN, July 15, 1930, 4.

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Cross-posted from drstephenrobertson.com

On March 19, 2016, I participated in the Working Group on Interpreting the History of Race Riots and Racialized Mass Violence in the Context of “Black Lives Matter,” at the National Council on Public History Conference, in Baltimore.

Prior to the meeting, members of the Working Group contributed short posts on their projects to a group blog; my post can be found here. The post is a very preliminary account of my ongoing work mapping the events of March 19 and 20, 1935, in Harlem. Further research in the records of the Mayor’s Commission and the scrapbooks in Mayor LaGuardia’s Papers, and in La Prensa‘s coverage of the riot (kindly shared with me by Lorrin Thomas) has already turned up additional information that I need to add to this map.

The Working Group site also contains blogs on a range of other fascinating projects on the history of radicalized mass violence in the US.

Below is the slide I used in my lightning talk at the Working Group session in Baltimore

Slide1

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Numbers Arrests, 1925 (Arrests on the street in blue)

Numbers gambling formed part of the rhythm of Harlem’s street life. A map of arrests for playing the numbers in 1925 features almost every corner on Fifth, Lenox, Seventh and Eighth Avenues. Those arrests generally took place in the morning, when players seeking to place bets on their way to work and before before the publication of the daily number at 10 a.m. created a flurry of activity.  By all accounts, making such arrests would not have been difficult: the New York Age reported that runners and collectors followed “a regular schedule each morning, picking up their collections and there is nothing clandestine or hidden in their movements,” as they walked “boldly and openly along, picking up the slips with the money from the players on the streets.” (1)

Few details of what occurred in these cases appear in the legal record, with the clerks in the Magistrate’s Courts generally concerned only with recording the number of slips found in the defendant’s possession, but they occasionally included some mention of the circumstances of the arrest, such as one officer’s statement that the he had watched a man “accept a slip of paper and some money in coins from an unknown man” on the corner of 5th Avenue and 130th Street, and then followed him to 5th Avenue and 129th Street and seen a similar transaction take place. (2)  Other officers observed individuals being approached by a series of people, entering into conversation with them, and then accepting money and slips. Neither police or observers got close enough to hear the conversations between runners and players, but those exchanges constituted a crucial part of playing the numbers.  One exchange that did make it into the record, as part of a statment describing the lead up to an assault, began when a runner called over the superintendent of the building outside which he was collecting bets:

“Fellow ain’t you playing?”

“No, but I had a dream last night.”

“What did you dream.”

“I saw a clock and the hands of the clock, one hand on five and the large hand on eight.”

“Yea. You ought to play five eighteen.”

“I don’t play numbers but give me 18, I’ll play a combination. Five and five is ten and eight is eighteen.”

The superintendent placed a bet of 18 cents, and his number came up, a win that should have been worth $16.50, but the runner said his banker had gone broke and could not pay. (3)

In addition to placing bets, residents discussed numbers on the streets.  “It is a common sight, of mornings, to see two or three individuals, and they are not always of the lower strata, putting their heads together over slips containing presumably the numbers they have played,” according to one observer. (4)  Further evidence of the ubiquity of such discussions can be found in cartoonist E. Simms Campbell‘s widely reproduced 1932 “Nightclub Map of Harlem,” which featured illustrations of street life alongside its better known images of Harlem’s performers and venues.  The map features four different, widely dispersed groups whose involvement in numbers gambling is indicated by the captions, “What’s de numbah?” and “What’s th’ number?”

"A Nighclub Map of Harlem" (1932), E. Simms Campbell

The dispersion and diversity of the four groups capture the ubiquity of numbers in Harlem:

Nightclub Map of Harlem, Detail #1

(#1) A pair of men (perhaps one is a runner?) on the corner of 131st Street and Lenox Avenue, identified as one of the seedier parts of Harlem by the nearby garbage and the illegal marijuana sale taking place just down the street.

Nightclub Map of Harlem, Detail #2

(#2) A woman shopping for dinner (with a chicken in her bag) and a clergyman, alongside a collection of street vendors and street speakers.  These figures are clearly represent respectable Harlem, with the churchman’s involvement a dig at the hypocrisy of many clergy’s opposition to playing the numbers.  Their location amongst street vendors, and the bag indicating that the woman is in the midst of grocery shopping, intertwines numbers gambling with everyday activities.

Nightclub Map of Harlem, Detail #3

(#3) A fashionably dressed woman and man (perhaps a runner) on Seventh Avenue, Harlem’s main street, which is captioned “or heaven,” just uptown from the most famous nightclubs.  This couple are very different in character and location from #1 and #2, indicating the reach of numbers across the strata of Harlem’s places and population;

Nightclub Map of Harlem, Detail #4

(#4) Two officers playing cards in the police station, almost certainly intended to indicate their involvement in, rather than policing of, numbers.  That one officer is white highlights the spread of numbers beyond the black community in the 1930s

SOURCES:

(1) Shane White, Stephen Garton, Stephen Robertson and Graham White, Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars (Harvard University Press, 2010), 67-68

(2) Ibid, 135

(3) Ibid, 88; and DA File 181888 (1930)

(4) Ibid, 67

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Hubert Julian, in the uniform he often wore around Harlem, May 2, 1924 (New York Daily News / Getty Images)

Hubert Julian, by his own account, arrived in Harlem in 1921.  Born in Trinidad in 1897, he had migrated to Canada in 1914, where he claimed to have learned to pilot an aeroplane and served as a Lieutenant in the Canadian Air Force, and came from there to New York City.  His first appearance above Harlem occurred during the 1922 UNIA Convention, when he flew over the parade in a plane decorated with UNIA slogans.  That flight led to his appointment as head of the organization’s new Aeronautical Department.[1]

Julian first gained celebrity by jumping from planes rather than piloting them.  He made his first parachute jump before an audience of Harlemites the day after the UNIA convention ended, at an airshow for the 15th Regiment at Curtiss Field on Long Island headlined by black pilot Bessie Coleman’s first flight in the United States. Several more jumps followed in the next year, at Curtiss Field and at airshows in Hasbrouk Heights, New Jersey (where he played “I’m Running Wild” on the saxophone during one jump).[2]  However, it was when Julian parachuted into Harlem itself that he garnered headlines.

Julian's first jump in Harlem, April 29, 1923 (Search Event Type="Parachute Jump"; From/To Date="1923-04-29")

On April 29, 1923, a black pilot, Edison McVey, flew Julian from an airfield in Hasbrouck Heights to Harlem, where the plane circled City College, at 139th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, dropping two powder noise bombs to attract residents’ attention – although a failed attempt two weeks earlier and advertising in the neighborhood and around the vacant lot on 140th Street near Seventh Avenue where he intended to land ensured that many had already been watching the skies. Then Julian leaped from the plane in a vivid red suit; the wind carried him away from his target to the roof of a tenement at 301 West 140th Street.  A large crowd followed him, packing tightly enough into the street to damage several surrounding stores, and then carried Julian to the UNIA’s Liberty Hall – but not before a police officer charged him with disorderly conduct.  Addressing the crowd, he spoke about aviation, promoted a parachute he had designed, and urged them to support A. I. Hart, a black-owned department store under threat from white competition. [3] On November 5, 1923, Julian was again flown to Harlem from Hasbrouck Heights, NJ, this time by a white pilot, to make a jump to advertise a UNIA meeting. He intended to land in St Nicholas Park, but wind carried him instead to the police station on West 123rd Street, as a huge crowd followed. He ended up hanging from his rigging between the station and the next building, until two officers pulled him into the second floor.[4]

Julian's Flight, July 4, 1924 (Search Event="Plane Flight")

In  1924, Julian shifted his focus from parachuting to flying, announcing a planned flight from NYC to Liberia and back. In April he lectured and performed parachute jumps in Boston, Baltimore and Norfolk to raise funds for a Boeing seaplane. Those efforts brought attention as well as money, and in May the Pittsburgh Courier reported that Boulin’s Detective Agency had found Julian lacked any qualifications as a pilot, and could not possibly make the flight. Julian answered his critics in June by bringing the plane he was purchasing to Harlem and putting it on display in a lot on 139th Street. He was scheduled to depart at 1 pm on July 4, from the Harlem River at 139th Street, but the several thousand people who gathered there were kept waiting for hours, while West Indian supporters and UNIA members collected enough money from the crowd to make the final payment on the plane. Once Julian did take off, the flight lasted only a few minutes, until one of the seaplane’s pontoons fell off, sending it crashing into Flushing Bay. This ignominious failure made Julian a joke in the white press, which in turn contributed to increased criticism of him in the black press.[5]

Julian himself remained undaunted, and through the remainder of the 1920s his efforts to raise funds for equally ambitious flights kept him a public figure in Harlem. He joined the soapbox speakers who lined Harlem’s avenues: in 1925, while selling donated safety razors at the corner of 140th Street and Seventh Avenue, he got into a fight with Herbert Boulin, the private detective who had exposed his lack of a pilot’s license, and later worked for Julian’s wife when she sought a divorce. In 1926, police seized Julian’s car after he attached a sign soliciting contributions to the cost of a plane for a flight to Liberia to it and left the vehicle parked overnight, apparently in response to police banning him from soliciting on the street. Julian claimed those backing the flight included a West Indian subsidiary of Standard Oil, boxer Tiger Flowers, and Elks Lodges, but it never took place. In 1928 Julian set up a headquarters for the Hubert Julian Aeroplane Fund at 2196 7th Avenue, seeking funds for a plane to make a round trip flight to Paris. This flight had the backing of State Senator Spencer Feld, but the response proved disappointing, and Feld abandoned the effort after 6 months.[6]

Hubert Julian, arriving in NYC in November 1930, having left Ethiopia after crashing the Emperior's plane. His stylish dress was a trademark, and regularly drew comment from reporters (Corbis)

Although Julian never made a flight across the Atlantic, he achieved enough celebrity to make that journey by sea in 1930, after being invited by the new Emperor of Ethiopia to take part in his coronation ceremony. He impressed his host with a parachute jump that landed at his feet, and was rewarded with a position in the Ethiopian Airforce; the Emperor’s mood changed four months later when Julian crashed a plane gifted to him by Selfridge’s department store during a pre-coronation rehearsal. Julian left Ethiopia soon after, arriving back in Harlem in November, but insisted he had not been banished, successfully suing the Hearst publication the New York American for stating he had been “thrown out.”[7]

In 1931, Julian obtained a pilot’s license and embarked on the air show circuit, barnstorming around the country, appearing, for example, as part of a group of black aviators, the Five Blackbirds, in Los Angelos in December 1931.  Harlem remained his base, and through the 1930s he continued to fly above events in the neighborhood, such as A’ Leila Walker’s funeral procession in 1931, and a parade by Father Divine’s followers in 1934.  His aerial exploits appear to have ended by the 1940s; in later decades it would be Julian’s activities as an arms dealer that brought him media attention.  At some point in these years he joined many other black New Yorkers in relocating outside Harlem; when he died in 1983, Julian was living in the Bronx.

[1] The Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers, vol 4, ed. Robert Hill (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 1059-60.

[2] “Julian ‘Runs Wild’ 3500 Feet in Air,” Amsterdam News 13 June 1923, s.2, 1

[3] “Aviator Thrills Harlem By Descent To Roof of House,” New York Age 5 May 1923, 1; “Julian Jumps From Plane 3000 Feet Up,” Amsterdam News 2 May 1923, 1; “Harlem Sees Devil Drop From The Sky,” New York Times 30 April 1923, 3.

[4] “Negro in Parachute Hits Police Station,” New York Times 6 November 1923, 7.

[5] “Negro Flyer, Off for 4 Continents, Lands in Hospital,”  New York World, 5 July 1924, 1

[6] New York Age, August 7, 1926, 1; Chicago Defender, July 7, 1928, 10

[7] David Shaftel, “The Black Eagle of Harlem: The truth behind the tall tales of Hubert Fauntleroy Julian”, Air & Space Magazine, January 01, 2009; New York Age December 30, 1933, 1.

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Lincoln Giants, outside Olympic Field, 1912

In 1911, Harlem gained its own black professional baseball team, the Lincoln Giants. The white brothers, Edward and Jess McMahon, established the team, obtaining a lease on Olympic Field, at 136th Street and 5th Avenue, where the team played home games on Sundays, the only day off for most black workers. Initially managed by Sol White, a well-known former player, the team included five of the best black players in the nation, recruited away from teams in Chicago and Philadelphia. This formidable combination propelled the Lincoln Giants to a dominant record in their first three years.  Many of those wins came against teams of whites, including teams, or all-star teams, from the segregated major leagues.  Those interracial contests drew the largest crowds, including significant numbers of whites; in fact, on several occasions, as many as 10,000 fans packed into Olympic Field, spilling onto the playing area. Whites also attended games between black teams, often making up as many as a third of the spectators. Despite the absence of segregated seating, there are no reports of friction in the mixed crowds; most of the conflict at games centered on the umpires, who were almost invariably white, even in games involving black teams.

New York Age, June 21, 1924, 6

In 1914, the McMahons’ financial difficulties forced them to sell the Lincoln Giants and the rights to Olympic Field to two other white men, James Keenan and Charles Harvey.  Many of the players, however, remained contracted to the McMahons, who for three years operated another team, the Lincoln Stars, based at the Lenox Oval, on 145th Street. When that team folded, the McMahons abandoned baseball, but not Harlem: in the 1920s they took control of the Commonwealth Casino, on East 135th Street, where they staged boxing, including interracial bouts, and, from 1922-24, operated a black professional basketball team, the Commonwealth Big  5.

While the Lincoln Giants had regained their position as Harlem’s team, they played in the neighborhood for only three more years. In 1919, developers transformed Olympic Field into a parking garage, forcing Keenan and Harvey to relocate home games to the Catholic Protectory Oval, at East Tremont Avenue and Unionport Road in the Bronx, taking with them the grandstand and bleachers from their former home.  Surrounded by the gothic structures of the orphanage, and shaded by trees, the field was beautiful but very small. To get there, fans from Harlem had to take a long journey by subway to 177th Street and and then take a street car. The Lincoln Giants would play there until 1930.

Baseball Fields in & Around Harlem (Search Place, Location Type = “Baseball Field”)

Other stadiums bordering Harlem also provided venues for baseball games involving black teams.  The Lincoln Giants played several games at American League Park, at Broadway and 167th Street, better known as Hilltop Park, the first home of the New York Yankees. For a season in 1920, the Bacharach Giants, an Atlantic City based team owned by Harlem nightclub owners John Conors and Barron Wilkins, played at Dyckman Oval, at 204th Street in Washington Heights, and at the major league stadium, Ebbets Field, in Brooklyn.  That year the New York Age relentlessly promoted the black-owned team as Harlem’s own, at the expense of the Lincoln Giants.  Despite fans’ apparently enthusiastic response, the Bacharachs returned to their home in Atlantic City after 1920. Dyckman Oval was also one of the homes of the Cuban Stars, the team of Cuban and Latin American players managed by numbers banker Alex Pompez.  However, Pompez lacked control of the venue (until 1935), so the team competed for dates with other white and black baseball teams, football games and boxing bouts, and had to also play ‘home games’ in the Bronx, Manhattan, and even in New Jersey.  Black teams also occasionally played at Ebbets Field, and at Yankee Stadium, the major league stadium close by Harlem in the Bronx.

Dyckman Oval, 1937 (as renovated by Alex Pompez in 1935)

If watching baseball in the 1920s meant leaving black dominated Harlem, the journey of crowds of several thousand to these stadiums, and their occupation of places otherwise associated with whites, was a quite different experience than leaving Harlem in small groups to go to work.  Crowds of fans claimed, albeit it temporarily, spaces within the city for blacks.  Reporting the start of the Bacharach Giants’ 1920 season, Ted Hooks, the sports editor of the New York Age, described a parade of automobiles following the team bus from Harlem to Dyckman Oval, with many returning for several loads, filling the streets around the stadium with vehicles driven by blacks. Black crowds likewise took ownership of the space of the stadiums.  Reporting the first the Lincoln Giants-Bacharach Giants game at Ebbets Field in July 1920, Hooks wrote, “Colored autos, colored sight-seeing cars, colored players, colored band, and, above all, colored umpires.  All the foregoing proved that they knew their business…” Inside the stadium, the press treated the games as social events as much as sporting contests: the Age gave several columns of its coverage to descriptions of the field, the team uniforms, the jazz band, the spectators and the noise they made, concluding, “The game proved the colored fans the equal in deportment of any race that has ever graced Ebbetts Field.”

Amsterdam News, July 2, 1930, 7

In 1923, the Lincoln Giants joined the new Eastern Colored League, a black baseball league.  Crowds at the Protectory Oval hit record levels as in excess of 10,000 people regularly turned out for league games.  However, disputes among the team owners bedeviled the league, which eventually folded in 1929.  The Lincoln Giants played one more season, in 1930, dominating opponents in a way the team had not since its early years.  In July, they played in the first game between black teams at Yankee Stadium, a benefit for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters that drew a crowd of around 20,000.  After several more games at that iconic venue, the team finished the season there with a championship series against the season’s other dominant black team, the Homestead Grays.  The Lincoln Giants lost 6 games to 4, and staging the event brought considerable financial losses for the team’s owners.  Soon after, they also lost access to the Protectory Oval, and the team folded.

Jim Goldfarb, “Harlem’s Team: The New York Lincoln Giants,” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 26, 2 (2002).

Ted Hooks, “Bacharach Giants Lose on Opening Day.” New York Age, May 8, 1920, 7

Ted Hooks, “Cyclone Williams vs Cannonball Dick,” New York Age, May 15, 1920, 6

Ted Hooks, “Bacharachs and Lincolns Clash at Ebbets’ Field,” New York Age, July 17, 1920, 1, 6.

“Homestead Grays Win Title As Champions of the East in 10 Games With Lincolns,” New York Age, October 4, 1930, 6

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Basketball Venues (Search Event, Event Type=”Basketball Game (M)” and “Basketball Game (F)”

Sports loomed large among the entertainments patronized by Harlem’s residents in the 1920s.   Basketball occupied the most prominent place. Romeo Dougherty, sportswriter for the Amsterdam News, argued that, “Here in Greater New York and New Jersey basketball has meant more to us than baseball for the latter sport among colored people has been so closely allied to the saloon and underground dives…[whereas basketball] is fostered by religious and other institutions working for the uplift of our people (Crusader, Jan., 1921, cited in Kuska, p. 90).”

St Christopher Club emblem (Hoopedia.com)

The first teams had been formed by athletic clubs, with the most prominent the St. Christopher Club (based at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, whose parish house included the best gymnasium available to any club) and the Alpha Physical Culture Club, which had club rooms first on 134th Street and then at 126 West 131st Street. The early members came from among the small black middle class, with West Indians prominent among them, and the clubs also operated as social organizations, organizing dances and other events (often for fundraising), and displayed a fraternal character evident in clothing decorated with club emblems and organized cheering at games. Almost from their inception the clubs also organized women’s teams — the New York Girls at the Alpha Physical Culture Club, the Nomads at the St Christopher Club.  Games between women’s teams took place in Harlem throughout the 1920s.

Harlem’s first major basketball venue, Manhattan Casino (renamed Rockland Palace c.1928) (Source: Father Divine and International Peace Mission Movement)

Only small crowds could fit in the church gymnasiums, so beginning around 1910. as games gained popularity — particularly those featuring black teams from other cities or white teams — they took place at the Manhattan Casino, 280 West 155th Street, well to the north of the boundaries of early black Harlem, but easily accessible by subway.  The crowds featured many respectable men, with newspaper reports drawing attention to the presence of Elks and Post Office clerks. Basketball also continued to be played in gymnasiums connected to St Philip’s Episcopal Church, Mother Zion A.M.E. Church, Abyssinian Baptist Church, St. Mark’s Methodist Church, St Mark’s Catholic Church, in the YMCA, P.S. 136, and at the 15th Regiment Armory.  Harlem’s schools began competing in the Public School Athletic League in 1910, and by the 1920s repeatedly won championships in basketball. P.S. 89,  were city  champions from 1928 to 1937, when they lost to P.S. 139, Harlem’s junior high school. The Monarch and Imperial Lodges of the Elks, the 369th/15th Regiment, and various fraternities also had teams that played in Harlem, and by the end of the 1920s, an inter-church league operated in the neighborhood.

New York Renaissance Big 5, 1925 (James VanDerZee)

All this interest in basketball generated the opportunity for professional teams, which developed as attractions to help fill Harlem’s dance halls.  First came the Commonwealth Big 5, put together in 1922 by the white McMahon brothers to play at their venue, the Commonwealth Casino, primarily a boxing venue. The McMahons’ connections allowed them to open Harlem to mixed-race professional games, including against the Original Celtics, the dominant white team of the era. When sufficient crowds failed to come, the Commonwealth Big 5 folded after two seasons, leaving the spotlight to the New York Renaissance, or Rens, a black-run team named for the new venue in which they played, the Renaissance Ballroom, on Seventh Avenue in the very heart of the black neighborhood. In the 1920s, the Rens played one home game a week in Harlem throughout the season, and often as many as five or six games a week on the road, rather than the 10-15 games a year the amateur clubs had scheduled. The team’s first opponents, on November 2, 1923, were a white team; interracial games became a feature of the Rens’ schedule, not only drawing good crowds that included whites, but offering the team the opportunity to claim to be the best in the nation. On December 20, 1925, the Rens recorded their first victory over the white world champions, the Original Celtics.

Interior of the Manhattan Casino, 1911 (http://www.blackfives.com/)

A Saturday or Sunday evening at the basketball included not only a game, but also the dance that followed, featuring good orchestral music, songs, and dance contests. The ballroom could hold about 1500 people, or 3000 standing-room-only, but was less than an ideal venue, shorter (100 feet by 89 feet), darker and with a lower ceiling than the Commonwealth Casino, where the dance floor measured 176 feet by 40 feet (nearly twice as long as a current NBA court).  The crowd sat at three tiers of tables around the court, and in cheaper seats in the upper gallery (the realm of the ‘Gallery Gods,’ famous for their catcalls during games).

Renaissance Casino and Ballroom, 1927 (Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images)

Games were also periodically played at the Alhambra Ballroom and the Palace Garden Casino, but, thanks to increased charges, only rarely in the late 1920s at the Manhattan Casino  (which was renamed the Rockland Palace in 1928).  The Renaissance Ballroom continued to host basketball into the 1930s, although the Rens spent most of their time on the road.  It was in Chicago, on March 20, 1939, that Harlem’s basketball team defeated a white team to win the first ever professional basketball tournament, officially becoming world champions.

Additional Sources:

  • Bob Kuska, Hot Potato: How Washington and New York Gave Birth to Black Basketball and Changed America’s Game Forever (University of Virginia Press, 2004)
  • James Gardner, “The Negro in Sports,” WPA Writers’ Program, Negroes of New York, Roll 5 (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL)

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