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While most employed adults travelled outside Harlem to work six days a week, children remained in the neighborhood. An Urban League study of 2400 families published in 1927 found that more than half of the mothers were in paid employment. Those women reported a variety of means of providing care for the youngest of their children. Most commonly, they put them in the care of relatives or friends, or their father. A much smaller proportion relied on paid childcare, in private homes or less often in day nurseries.

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Source: New York Urban League, Twenty-Four Hundred Negro Families in Harlem: An Interpretation of the Living Conditions in Harlem (May 1927) (Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL)

 

White and African-American philanthropists established day nurseries to allow poor women with children to work. Harlem had only six day nurseries in the 1920s, run by community and church groups, providing places for approximately 200 children a day. Their locations were not well-distributed, so for most of the neighborhood’s mothers, even if they had been able to secure one of the limited places, getting their children to the nurseries would have involved impractical journeys.

Day Nurseries

Day Nurseries

  • Hope Day Nursery – opened in 1902 by a board composed entirely of black women, relocating from West 35th Street first to 114 West 133rd Street, and in 1914 to a donated building at 33 West 133rd Street. It had a capacity of 35 children in 1921. Supported entirely by donations, the nursery’s major fundraiser was an annual May entertainment at a venue in Harlem.[i]
  • New York Colored Mission — opened in 1917 by white Quakers at 8 West 131st Street, relocating from West 30th Street. The nursery had a capacity of 25 children in 1920. (By January 1935, the nursery had relocated to 5-7 East 130th Street).[ii]
  • St Benedict the Moor Day Nursery – opened in 1923 by the Catholic Church at 27-29 West 132nd Street. Operated by black nuns, supervised by a trained nurse,  the nursery accepted Catholics and non-Catholics, with a capacity of 100 children (In 1928, 80% of the children were non-Catholic). Supported by donations, and the work of a black auxiliary, the nursery also held an annual benefit at a venue outside Harlem.[iii]
  • Harlem Community Center Day Nursery – opened in 1923 by members of the Grace Congregational Church. Originally located in the church building, in 1924 the nursery moved across the street to 309 West 139th Street.  In 1928, renovations increased the capacity of the nursery to 36 children.[iv]
  • Utopia Neighborhood Club – opened in 1926 by a club of 100 black women at 170 West 130th Street. The club included a nursery school with recreation and a study hall for children after school whose mothers do not return from work until evening.(The nursery closed at some point during the 1930s, although the club retained the house, and during WW2 reopened the nursery in partnership with city agencies).[v]
  • Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments Nursery – opened in 1927 as part of an apartment complex funded by J. D. Rockefeller between 149th and 150th Street. The nursery, available to tenants, had a capacity of 12 children. [vi]

Community leaders were well-aware that the need for child care was far greater than these provisions. They expected that black churches would address this need, and there is fragmentary evidence that some may have created additional nurseries. The Abyssinian Baptist Church did open a day nursery, but not until after 1930, when Adam Clayton Powell Jr succeeded his father as leader of the church.[vii]

Day Nurseries & Home Nurseries (January, April, July, October 1925 & 1930) [Source: Classified Advertisements, Amsterdam News]

Day Nurseries & Home Nurseries (January, April, July, October 1925 & 1930) [Source: Classified Advertisements, Amsterdam News]

Women operating nurseries in their homes could be found far more widely distributed through the neighborhood. Leaving children at a private nursery also did not require the rituals of benevolence involved in dealing with the elite women who ran day nurseries, or the agendas for remaking families and returning women to the home of the social workers who began to succeed them in the 1920s. The home-based nurseries varied widely in quality. It was certainly the case that no training was required and in that sense the barriers to entry were lower than the case with beauty work. If those advertising their services in the Amsterdam News identified a qualification, it was that of being a mother. A small number also advertised that they were licensed. New York was one of several large cities whose sanitary code required that day nurseries – defined as “a place where more than three children are received, kept and cared for during the day time” – have a permit issued by the Board of Health and be subject to periodic inspection. The permit required presenting a physician’s certificate attesting to the proprietor’s/nurse’s good health; the inspection examined the sanitation, morality and general appointment of the day nursery.[viii]

The need for a permit clearly did not operate as barrier to women operating nurseries in their homes: in 1927, Amsterdam News columnist Edgar Grey’s investigation of 123 nurseries advertising in local newspapers found only 19, less than 10%, had permits. Grey claimed to have found all the day nurseries he visited, even those with licenses, to be “filthy and unsanitary,” and he offered examples of proprietors passing illnesses on to the children in their charge, and nurseries being used as fronts for the illegal production of liquor and gambling.[ix] His polemic likely exaggerated the state of the homes he saw, but juxtaposing the locations of home nurseries and beauty parlors does indicate that they clustered in areas of tenement housing and prostitution arrests rather than the more upscale and respectable districts that had the greatest concentration of beauty parlors.

Arrests for Prostitution (red) and Home Nurseries (January, April, July, October 1925)

Arrests for Prostitution (red) and Home Nurseries (January, April, July, October 1925)

Arrests for Prostitution (red) & Home Nurseries (blue) (January, April, July and October 1930)

Arrests for Prostitution (red) & Home Nurseries (blue) (January, April, July and October 1930)

Beauty Parlors (green) and Home Nurseries, 1925 & 1930 (red)

Beauty Parlors (green) and Home Nurseries, 1925 (red)

 

 

NOTES

[i] New York Age, 5 March, 1921, 5; Amsterdam News, January 11, 1933, 4.

[ii] New York Age, September 13, 1917, 8; New York Age, February 9, 1935, 12.

[iii] Amsterdam News, April 25, 1923, 7; New York Age, 24 November, 1928, 2.

[iv] New York Age, 13 December, 1924, 10;  New York Age, 31 March 1928, 5.

[v] New York Age, 13 November 1926, 2; Amsterdam News, January 29, 1944, 6A; Amsterdam News, February 22, 1958, 10.

[vi] Amsterdam News, October 30, 1929, 2; James Ford, Slums and Housing, vol. 2, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1936, 746.

[vii] Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., Upon this Rock, New York: Abyssinian Baptist Church, 194949, 54Writing in Survey Graphic in 1925, George Haynes intimated the existence of more church run nurseries than I could find (Survey Graphic, editorial, 698). Edgar Grey saw “the future of this important work depends largely upon an increased interest in the problem taken by the church”(Amsterdam News, September 7, 1927, 15). Emanuel A.M.E. announced plans to establish a nursery in its basement at 37-41 West 119th St, but there are no reports that it actually opened (New York Age, 22 June 1929, 3).

[viii] Arthur Crosby, New Code of Ordinances of the City of New York, New York: Banks Law Publishing Company, 1922, pp. 408, 457.

[ix] Edgar Grey, “Harlem’s ‘Baby Farms’,” Amsterdam News, September 7, 1927, 15

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Aggregated census data have been important in establishing the character of Harlem as a black neighbourhood.  Census schedules individualize that data, and perhaps more importantly for Digital Harlem, locate individuals at an address, in a specific place. So while I use census schedules to identify and trace individuals, I just as often use them to populate places, as part of an approach that seeks to identify the variety of different places that made up the neighborhood and locate the events and individuals found in 1920s Harlem in the context of those places.

116 West 144th St in 1920

The building I’m going to use as an example in this post is 116 West 144thStreet.

116W144th in Google Earth

It is located in upper Harlem, right on the northern boundary of the black section in 1920.  A six-story apartment building, one of a pair, it still stands today. What drew this place to our attention was a fight that took place on West 144th Street, a few buildings east of number 116, in June 1928. A man visiting the friends exchanged words with a 17 year old boy he believed was behaving inappropriately toward a girl, provoking a confrontation with the boy’s father, who we have given the pseudonym Morgan Thompson, that led him to cut the visitor 5 times with a knife.  When police came to 144th Street that night to arrest Thompson, they found him asleep in his home, an apartment in 116 West 144th Street.

Thompson lived with his wife of seventeen years, Margaret, a domestic servant and their two children, the seventeen-year-old boy, George, and fifteen-year-old Elizabeth.  The family had resided in New York City since 1917, living the whole eleven years at 116 West 144th Street.  As late as 1910, the building and those surrounding it had been entirely occupied by whites.  By 1920, all the residents were black, and would remain so throughout the 1920s and 1930s, as the area occupied by blacks spread further north and west.  Just how many apartments there were in the building is unclear: the 1910 census recorded 29 households (as 118W144th), the 1920 census recorded 32, the 1925 State Census, 31 and the 1930 census only 25.

Long-Term Residents of 116 West 144th Street

A number of the first black residents remained for extended periods of time, as the Thompsons did.  While they moved out in 1929, four households residing there in 1920 were still in the building in 1930, 12 more remained from 1920 to at least 1925, and another five resident in 1925 were still there in 1930.  The census does not tell us anything about the relationships of those residents, but their long-term presence represents at least the raw material for some sort of community.

Address residents moved to or from

Tracking comings and goings from the building offers another perspective on community.  Its not possible to trace where most residents in the building came from, as the 1920s saw so many arrivals from outside the city, but it is possible to use census schedule to trace where many of those who left went to — 1/2 those who I can identify moved within a 7 block radius, close enough not to require the complete rupturing of any ties they had established

West Indian Households in 116 West 144th Street (highlighted in brown)

Identifying the building as occupied by blacks captures only part of its character. It is a picture drawn from one of the census questions.  Moving across the census schedule to the question about birthplace reveals diversity obscured by the focus on race:  ¾ of the building’s residents were West Indians like the Thompsons, whereas West Indians represented only about 20% of the overall population of Harlem. So this building appears to have been one in which West Indians gathered. With one in every five residents hailing from the West Indies, there was ample scope for them to live much of their lives in the company of fellow immigrants. That did not mean they were isolated from the larger African American community, but it certainly helped them retain an identity that created sometimes tense relationships with their black neighbors. West Indians could be distinguished from native-born blacks by their accent and language, and distinctive styles of worship, cuisine, and sartorial display. Color prejudice against dark Caribbeans also divided the two groups, as did the increasing prominence of West Indians as business owners, which stirred economic competition.

Households with Lodgers (highlighted in purple)

Neighborhood of 116W144th (click to enlarge)

Another feature obvious feature of 116 West 144th Street was the presence of lodgers. The building went from having lodgers in almost half of the thirty-two households in 1920, to in over 2/3 in the depression year of 1930. As the black population of Harlem expanded and spread, the area of black residences did not keep pace with the number of newcomers. Rising demand for housing produced skyrocketing rents, encouraging landlords to subdivide apartments, and forcing families into fewer rooms, and into sharing that limited space with lodgers. Higher proportions of black households contained lodgers than did whites living in New York City, with the blocks between Lenox and Seventh Avenues became among the most densely packed residential streets in all of New York City, as crowded as the better known tenements of the Lower East Side.  The abundance of lodgers led to large numbers of cafeterias, cheap restaurants, tearooms, cabaret and movie theatres to cater to them. 116 West 144th Street was well-situated in this regard, located within 2 blocks of the Odeon, Roosevelt and Douglas Theatres, and the Lincoln Recreation Center, with an auditorium and swimming pool, and with the Savoy Ballroom and the Renaissance Ballroom and Theatre two blocks further away, and restaurants and other businesses on Avenues and 145th Street.

Proportion of West Indian Households in 100-164 West 144th Street

116 West 144th Street shared many of these features with the 14 other buildings neighboring it on the block between Lenox and 7th Avenues. In total, 49 of the 322 households remained throughout the 1920s, just over 15% of the total, compared to 12.5% in #116 – although none did so at two addresses. West Indians resided in disproportionate numbers in those 14 buildings, with only 4 having less than double the proportion of West Indians in the population – but none had a larger proportion than number 116.  This block was evidently an area of Harlem in which West Indians gathered. The picture in regard to lodgers is more muddled. Number 116 had a slightly smaller proportion of households with lodgers in 1920 than the average for the street (44% vs 47.5%), and a significantly higher proportion in 1930 (69% vs 51%), with a wide variation among individual buildings in both years (27%-62% in 1920, 23%-81% in 1930).

The recently released 1940 census schedules reveal significant changes at 116 West 144th Street and the neighboring buildings. At #116, none of the households resident in 1920 or 1925 remained in 1940, and only 2 of those resident in 1930 remained in 1940, together with 6 households resident in 1935. As the Depression hit Harlem, many residents (including Morgan Thompson and Perry Brown) faced eviction and changed circumstances that dissolved the residential stability of the 1920s. The proportion of West Indian households at #116 dropped to only 42%, with the proportion including lodgers also dropping to 42%. The rest of the block had also changed significantly by 1940: across all 14 of the other buildings, only 9 households remained through the entire 1930s (3% compared to 15% in 1920-1930).  The West Indian population of the block dropped, from 46% of households to only 30%.  At odds with the change at #116, the proportion of households with lodgers increased, with only 3 of the 14 buildings having lodgers in less than 50% of households.

What I hope this example demonstrates is how census schedules individualize data about locations as well as their residents, allowing the focus to be narrowed from enumeration districts of several blocks to individual buildings.  As much as we think of the census as a source of information about individuals, it is also a picture of the places that made up the United States in the past.

This post is based on my presentation to “The 1940 Census as Digital Data,” a roundtable discussion organized by the Digital Innovation Lab at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill on April 10, 2012.

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Our article “Harlem in Black and White: Mapping Race and Place in the 1920s,” has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Urban History.  It should appear at the end of 2012.  The abstract reads:

In the 1920s, as Harlem emerged as the largest black city in the world, a significant white presence remained in the neighborhood.  Whites not only frequented nightlife, they owned and operated the vast majority of Harlem’s businesses, policed its streets, staffed its schools and hospital, drove its public transport and most of the vehicles travelling its streets, delivered goods, collected rent and insurance payments, and patronized sporting events. Scholars have only made briefly mention of this presence and its impact on everyday life, portraying race relations as harmonious and inconsequential in a neighborhood represented as a segregated refuge from whites.  Drawing on black newspapers and legal records, and using the Digital Harlem site to map and visualize that evidence of the white presence, reveals a very different picture, of interracial encounters that often led to conflict, and of Harlem as a place of contestation, negotiation, resistance, and accommodation.

The map below captures part of the white presence in Harlem, locating the institutions staffed by whites, some of the posts patrolled by police, and the routes traveled by the buses and streetcars driven by whites.  The streets serviced by public transport also featured the neighborhood’s businesses, most staffed as well as owned by whites.  Other maps relating to the white presence in Harlem are already on the blog, in posts on traffic accidents, street vendors, and ice dealers.

Whites in Harlem (Bus routes, Streetcar Routes and Police Patrols appear in the list of Event Types)

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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.

Source: 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+"Basebal 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.”

Source: 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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Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was headquartered in Harlem from 1918 to 1927.  The organization generally appears in accounts of Harlem on parade, on the occasion of its conventions.  However, the UNIA occupied more than the streets. Its headquarters was on West 135th Street, as were the offices of a number of the organizations it established.  Liberty Hall, the site of weekly meetings and the annual convention, was on West 138th Street, while a range of UNIA owned and operated businesses occupied buildings in the heart of Harlem.

UNIA Offices and Businesses, 1918-1927 (search Places, Location Name=UNIA)

Liberty Hall, 1922 (Marcus Garvey & UNIA Papers)

Garvey purchased Liberty Hall in 1919.  The single level hall with low ceilings had previously been home to the Metropolitan Baptist Tabernacle. From 1922 the hall bordered the grand new home of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, meaning that the UNIA met adjacent to the largest African American church in New York City, one of the bastions of the Harlem establishment with which Garvey was frequently at odds. Although the UNIA’s home had a far less impressive exterior than the church, once festooned with flags and banners, and filled with up to 6000 people, including many in the uniforms of the UNIA’s soldiers, nurses and officials, the hall became the heart of Garvey’s vision for blacks in the US and around the world.

Detail from Bromley map (1925) The 1930 map on Digital Harlem shows one of the apartment buildings later constructed on the site by Casper Holstein

On Sunday evenings, Liberty Hall hosted the weekly meeting of the UNIA.  James Weldon Johnson, in a widely quoted account, offered a critical take on what occurred in the building, noting that “Meetings at Liberty Hall were conducted with an elaborate liturgyThe moment for the entry of the Provisional President into the auditorium was solemn; a hushed and expectant silence on the throng, the African Legion and Black Nurses flanking the long aisle coming to attention, the band and audience joining in the hymn: “Long Live Our President:” and Garvey, surrounded by his guard of honor from the Legion, marching majestically through the double line and mounting the rostrum; it was impressive if for no other reason than the way in which it impressed the throng (Black Manhattan, 255).”

Source: Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers

A typical Sunday evening meeting did resemble religious services, opening with prayers and the UNIA anthem, musical programs featuring the Liberty Choir and the Black Star Line Band, and a range of speakers, and included fundraising collections.  For a time, Liberty Hall also hosted religious services on Sunday mornings. The  UNIA almost lost the hall in early 1927, having been forced to mortgage it, until numbers king Casper Holstein stepped in.  However, he sold it at the end of the year, and by 1930 apartments occupied part of the site (shown on the map in Digital Harlem).

UNIA Headquarters, 54-56 West 135th Street (Marcus Garvey & UNIA Papers)

The UNIA headquarters, and the offices of the Black Star Line, was located first at 36 West 135th Street, in the Crescent Theater building, and from 1919, at 54-56 West 135th Street, next door to the Lincoln Theater, locations at the very heart of black Harlem. Although white journalist and NAACP officer Herbert Seligman described them as “dingy old dwelling houses…converted to new uses,” the offices clearly appeared as much more to black residents. When Captain Hugh Malzac visited, outside was “a line more than 100 yards long waiting to enter.  There were jobseekers and supplicants, stock-owners-to-be and a few hero worshippers who simply wanted to tell Mr Garvey how proud they were of him for what he was doing for the race.” “To walk into these offices,” white journalist and NAACP officer Herbert Seligman wrote in 1921, “was to enter a fantastic realm in which cash sales of shares and the imminence of destiny strangely commingle.” Garvey’s office was on the third floor.  By 1921, the UNIA needed extra office space, and expanded next door to 52 West 135th Street.  It retained offices there until January 1926, when the building was sold to pay back taxes; 54-56 West 135th Street was also sold in November 1926.

Advertisement from the Negro World (Marcus Garvey & UNIA Papers)

The UNIA established the African Communities’ League in 1918 and the Negro Factories Corporation in 1920 as the business side of the organization, to show that blacks could compete with whites and makes them self-reliant. In Harlem, the Corporation opened the Universal Steam Laundry, with 50 employees, and the Universal Tailoring and Dress Making Department, both at 62 West 142nd Street, producing UNIA uniforms and fashionable clothing, which was displayed in fashion shows at Liberty Hall. The Corporation also operated three grocery stores, two restaurants, one in Liberty Hall, and a printing plant. The printing plant gave the UNIA an address on Seventh Avenue, the most prestigious of Harlem’s avenues, which was on its way to becoming the black neighborhood’s main street, and a location that Garvey used to advantage as the site of a reviewing platform for the 1924 parade (see below). The other enterprises were located on the less prestigious Lenox Avenue and on 135th Street east of Lenox Avenue, with laundry in an industrial area. These enterprises employed over 200 people, but by the end of 1922, most had gone out of business.

Source: Marcus Garvey & UNIA Papers

At the 1922 UNIA convention, Garvey also announced the creation of the Phyllis Wheatley Hotel, to house delegates, and the Booker T. Washington University, at 3-13 West 136th Street . The university offered training in civil service, agriculture and commerce for UNIA officers. Exactly how long it operated is unclear.

The UNIA’s presence on the streets, however, survived even as its ownership of structures crumbled.  The grandest parades took place while Garvey was in the US, on the occasions of the conventions in 1920, 1921, 1922 and 1924 (Garvey, in prison awaiting bail having being charged with mail fraud and fearing divisions within the organization, canceled the 1923 convention and parade.).

Reviewing platform, in front of UNIA Printing and Publishing House, 2305 7th Avenue, 1922 (Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers)

On these occasions, uniformed members of the African Legion, Black Cross Nurses and dignitaries and placard bearing members paraded up and down Seventh and Lenox Avenues as far south as Central Park, putting on a spectacle for black residents and their neighbors in the blocks further south (for details, see the post on Parades; there is only sufficient evidence to map the routes of the 1920, 1922 and 1924 parades).

Even in Garvey’s absence, UNIA members continued to parade each August for the remainder of the 1920s, bearing portraits of their deported leader. Several thousand marched on each occasion, according to press reports, but they did not venture outside black Harlem, as in earlier years, to confront white New Yorkers.  The 1930 parade ventured the furthest south, to 120th Street, but by then that area was almost entirely populated by blacks.

UNIA Parade 1930

The reduced reach and challenge of the parades paralleled the lost offices and businesses.  Although still a part of the neighborhood’s life, after 1924 the UNIA did not have the presence it had in the early years of the 1920s.

Lerone Bennett Jr., “Marcus Garvey’s Day of Triumph.” Ebony (November 1976)

Herbert Seligman, “Negro Conquest,” World Magazine (4 December 1921)

For a good overview of the UNIA, see David Van Leeuwen, “Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association,” (National Humanities Center)

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