Archive for the ‘Individual’ Category

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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Detail - Search People, First Name="Annie" + Surname="Dillard"

Annie Dillard*, an 18 year old native of St Kitts in the British West Indies, was admitted to the New York State Reformatory for Women in July 1924. (*This name is a pseudonym, as required by the New York State Archives). A judge committed her as a Wayward Minor, at the request of her sister, Rose. Dillard had arrived in Harlem in October 1918, likely after the death of her mother, to live with Rose and her husband at 121 West 137th Street.  Her arrival, in the company of an older sister, completed the family’s relocation to the city; one brother already lived with Rose, and the other and another married sister, Glennis, lived elsewhere in the city. Annie was raised by Rose, who was just seven years her senior, and by her account, that upbringing included the strict supervision characteristic of West Indian families concerned with respectability, including regular attendance at church, and the company of her sisters or family friends when she went to movies and dances.  Dillard attended PS 119, completing 8th grade, and then took dressmaking classes in the night school at PS 89 and a job as a domestic servant on West 102nd Street.

Domestic Servants waiting for work, Bronx, 1938 (Detail from Robert McNeil, Make a Wish (1938), Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Domestic service represented the main occupation open to African American women in New York City, in part because white women increasingly shunned it in favor of factory and sales jobs, an alternative largely closed to black women.  Dillard continued to live with her sister, rather than her employer, Mrs Watt,  notwithstanding employers’ preference for live-in staff.  She was not alone in doing only day work; many black domestic servants were married and had families, making them unwilling to live in.  Housework generally took black women to different parts of the city than those to which men traveled for laboring jobs: Dillard ventured from Harlem to the Upper West Side and midtown, whereas laborers like Morgan Thompson went to Lower Manhattan, the East Side, and the outer boroughs.  In private homes, domestic servants usually performed a multitude of tasks, such as laundry, ironing, cooking, cleaning and serving. The hours were long, the status low and the supervision tight. Many black women complained that the work was too hard for the wages they received, and frequently changed jobs in search of higher wages, or pursued alternatives like work in beauty parlors.

Annie’s jobs between 1924 and 1927 highlight that housework took forms other than service in private homes.  She worked as a chambermaid in the McAlpin Hotel in midtown and in a boarding house on West 75th Street.  Both jobs offered shorter hours than work in private homes: 9 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. at the hotel and part-time at the boardinghouse.  Dillard also worked at Park West Hospital on West 76th Street, probably cleaning.  In addition, she had a job in a laundry on Cherry Street in Lower Manhattan.  A commercial steam laundry was mechanized and organized like a factory, and a job there is more properly thought of as industrial work, but the tasks nonetheless bore some resemblance to those done in homes and hotels.

It was not workplace conditions that caused Dillard to go through this variety of jobs, but rather her home life. At 17 years of age, she became pregnant.  The man with who she had been having sexual intercourse had promised to marry her if that happened, and admitted to her sister Rose that he was responsible for Annie’s condition, but he later disappeared.  With no possibility of preserving the family’s reputation, Rose turned her over to the court.  Four months after Dillard gave birth to a daughter, she was paroled into the care of her other married sister, Glennis, a household that lived initially at 8 West 137th Street, and later relocated to the Bronx. But after four months, and a brief stay at the home of an aunt, at 2142 5th Avenue, Annie wrote to the Reformatory that she was “an outcast because she has bought disgrace upon her family,” and needed to return and get help finding work where she could have her baby with her.

After three months away, Dillard returned to Harlem, this time to again live with her sister Rose, who was about to give birth to another child and had agreed to look after Annie’s daughter so she could work.  But even a visit from parole officers after Rose appealed for their help in stopping Annie from staying out at night and seeing men only enabled the sisters to live together for three months, at which point Annie and her child reappeared again at the Reformatory.  Two parole placements as a domestic servant in upstate New York proved no more successful in allowing Annie to work and be a mother, and eight months later she returned again to Rose’s home in Harlem, which was now on St Nicholas Avenue.  She and her sister continued to clash over Annie staying out at night, but the household held together at least for the remaining eleven months of Dillard’s parole.

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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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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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(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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A West Indian, born in 1888, who arrived in Harlem in 1917, Morgan Thompson* was convicted of assault in 1928 after he lost his temper and stabbed a man who had confronted his seventeen year old son  on West 144th Street.

(* This name is a pseudonym, used at the request of the Municipal Archives)

The most striking feature of Thompson’s life revealed by mapping it is the distance from Harlem that he traveled to work. He was employed as a laborer by construction contractors. Between 1928 and 1933, the years he spent on probation, he labored on fifteen different constructions sites, in downtown Manhattan and on the Upper East Side, and in the outer boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.  Only once did he work in Harlem, on the new YMCA on 135th Street. (Note: some of the addresses outside Harlem are approximate locations)

Laboring was by nature itinerant work, but employment in the other occupations open to blacks was also unstable and required them to travel beyond Harlem, producing the crowds photographed pouring out of the 135th Street subway station in rush hour, in this image from the Survey Graphic Harlem Number.

Laboring, like many of the jobs open to black men, was also dangerous. The previous September Thompson had suffered a workplace injury, for which he received compensation. Within a month of returning to work after his arrest, Thompson injured his ankle so badly that it would be three months before he could put sufficient weight on it to work.  And then, after only a month back at work, Morgan suffered a smashed finger.

In Harlem, in 1928 Thompson lived with his wife of seventeen years, Margaret, a domestic servant three years his junior who also hailed from the West Indies, and two children, George, and fifteen-year-old Elizabeth. The same four bedroom apartment at 116 West 144th Street had been their home for all eleven years they had resided in New York City.  Part of the attraction would have been that West Indians  made up three quarters of those who lived in the building.  Thompson also sought out fellow immigrants in his leisure time, joining the Victoria Society, a West Indian social club with rooms on West 137th Street, and occasionally attending an Episcopal Church on 140th Street, whose members would have been overwhelmingly West Indian.

In April 1929, the family were evicted from their apartment, unable to pay their rent due to the injuries that kept Thompson from working.  In relocating, Thompson refused to consider cheaper apartments, which he considered uninhabitable, and chose instead a six room apartment on West 143rd Street, close to their old home and community.  The family rented the extra rooms, with several individuals and a married couple occupying them in the ensuing years.  Taking in lodgers was a common strategy to help pay the rent; one third of the other tenants in the building also had lodgers in 1930.  The Thompsons also relied on the wages of the two children; George had a position in a dress factory, and later as a scarf maker, and his sister Elizabeth was employed in a hat factory.  Any surplus money they had George deposited in an account at the Empire State Bank on 125th Street. When the children too lost their jobs as the Depression worsened, Morgan was able to obtain work through relief agencies, allowing the family to remain in their new home at least until 1933, when his probation ended.

A more detailed account of Morgan Thompson’s life in Harlem can be found in our article, “This Harlem Life: Black Families and Everyday Life in the 1920s and 1930s,” which will appear in the Fall 2010 issue of the Journal of Social History.

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Fuller Long* was a seventeen-year-old African American boy placed on probation in 1928, after having been convicted of having sexual intercourse with his underage girlfriend.  The map shows his life in Harlem.
(* This name is a pseudonym, used at the request of the Municipal Archives)

Fuller Long

To map Fuller Long’s life in Harlem, click on the ‘select person’ menu and click on his name

Together with his parents and two sisters, Long migrated to Harlem from Petersburg, Virginia, in 1923, living for two years at 46 West 132nd St, then in an apartment next door, at 48 West 132nd Street. (The buildings are so close to each other that you need to zoom to the closest level to distinguish them) Such residential stability was true of many families in 1920s Harlem, particularly those with multiple wage-earners (Long’s mother worked as a janitor, and later a housekeeper, and his older sister had a job in a factory; two months after they arrived, Long’s father left the family)

Long stayed in school until the end of ninth grade, when his mother insisted they needed his income to meet expenses and keep his younger sister in school. Schooling kept young blacks in the neighborhood; in the 1920s, Harlem had five public elementary schools and two junior high schools, one for boys, one for girls, a vocational school, and at least two Catholic schools and one private girls school.

Schools copy

Harlem’s Schools

When Long left school, he worked first for ice-man based across the street from his home, and then worked outside the district, downtown and in the Bronx. What a New York Times reporter described on March 24, 1935 was also true of the 1920s: “Every morning sees an exodus of workers filling subways, surface cars and elevated trains and every evening sees them returning to their homes (E11).”  Harlem offered few jobs for blacks, with most of the businesses owned and staffed by whites, so Long was one of many residents who spent their working days outside its boundaries.

Long’s time in Harlem was thus spent at home and in leisure, at locations such as the Abyssinian Baptist Church (occasionally), venues where he played sport (gymnasiums where he played basketball (often) and a recreation centre where he swam), dance halls, and at the home of his girlfriend.  Most were within 10 blocks of his home.

Fuller Long_Harlem

Fuller Long’s life in Harlem

It was sports that provided community ties that gave order and stability to Long’s life, and helped keep him from the ‘waywardness’ that reformers expected of the child of a single mother.

Basketball, Long’s particular passion, had a central place in 1920s Harlem.  The neighborhood was home to the Rens, the preeminent black professional team in the 1920s (for which White unsuccessfully tried out in November 1930), and to teams fielded by a variety of different athletic clubs, such as the St Christopher Club (based at St Philip’s Episcopal Church) and the Alpha Physical Culture Club.  Black fraternities regularly played in Harlem, and by the end of the 1920s, an inter-church league was in operation.  Harlem’s schools began competing in the Public School Athletic League in 1910, and by the 1920s repeatedly won championships in basketball. PS 89, where Long played, were city champions from 1928 to 1937, when they lost to PS 139, Harlem’s junior high school.  Girls and women’s teams also competed, included teams of nurses from Harlem Hospital.

The main venue for basketball was the Renaissance Ballroom (2359 7th Ave), but games were also played at the Alhambra Ballroom (2110 7th Ave), the Palace Garden Casino (2395 7th Ave) and the Manhattan Casino, 258 West 155th St, at the YMCA, and in the gymnasiums of Harlem’s churches and schools.


Basketball Games in Harlem (Search Events)

A more detailed account of Fuller Long’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.

(* This name is a pseudonym, used at the request of the Municipal Archives)

(** This name is a pseudonym, as required by the NY State Archives)

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