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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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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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Harlem is also a parade ground. During the warmer months of the year no Sunday passes without several parades.  There are brass bands, marchers in resplendent regalia, and high dignitaries with gorgeous insignia riding in automobiles.  Almost any excuse for parading is sufficient — the funeral of a member of the lodge, the laying of a corner stone, the annual sermon to the order, or just a general desire to “turn out….[G]enerally these parades are lively and add greatly to the movement, colour and gaiety of Harlem” (James Weldon Johnson, Black Manhattan (1930), 168)

Parades also represented moments when blacks claimed the neighborhood’s streets for themselves, displacing the whites who drove the buses, trams, and taxis which traversed Harlem’s streets as well as most of the private cars.  A few parades were major events, beginning outside the neighborhood, where the audiences were largely whites, and drawing huge crowds once they entered Harlem.  Most parades remained within the neighborhood, attracting small groups of curious onlookers.  The frequency with which they occurred was testimony to the strength of the rich fabric of voluntary groups, institutions and organizations that sustained life in Harlem.

“Famous New York Soldiers Return Home:” the 369th Regiment, 1919 (National Archives)

It is a parade that is most commonly invoked to mark the beginning of a new era for black Americans in the aftermath of World War One: the return of the 369th Regiment in 1919.  That parade was one of the few that literally marched through Harlem, starting at 61st Street, and proceeding up 5th Avenue, across 110th Street, and up Lenox Avenue.

The 369th Regiment marches up 7th Avenue on its return to Harlem from its summer camp, 1934 (NY Daily News/Getty Images)

Black soldiers reappeared on the streets annually in the subsequent decade, as the 369th departed for their summer camps by parading from their armory at 143rd Street to the train depot/station at East 125th, and then returned two weeks later.  Generally the regiment paraded on 7th or Lenox Avenues; in 1930, they marched down 5th Avenue, disappointing crowds waiting for them on Lenox.

The Elks Annual Convention Parade, 1927

Processions of lodge members, not marching soldiers are  what Johnson evoked in his description of Harlem’s parades; they were the groups that most frequently took to Harlem’s streets.  The Elks produced the largest parade of the decade, when Harlem hosted their national convention in July 1927.  On that occasion,  25,000 men and women marched in pouring rain, following a route from 60th Street up 5th Avenue, then up Lenox Avenue, before crossing to 7th Avenue to go through the neighborhood (that the Elks did not march up Lenox as the 369th Regiment had in 1919 reflected that 7th had become Harlem’s main street by 1927).  A platoon of mounted police, followed by a car containing James Blondy Brown, grand marshal, and Casper Holstein, honorary chairman of the local entertaining committee, led the parade, followed by the hosts, the Manhattan, Imperial and Monarch Lodges, and twenty-eight bands, including four female bands.

Oddfellows Parade on 7th Avenue (note the masonic aprons worn by the ranks of men) (Untitled photo by James Van Der Zee, 1920s, Minneapolis Institute of Arts [object 32])

July 4th Parade of Monarch Lodge

Fraternal lodges also held smaller parades to mark their anniversaries, marching from their lodges to local churches, participated in parades for the groundbreaking of churches, and to mark holidays such as July 4th; in 1929, Holstein led the Monarch lodge through the neighborhood up Lenox Avenue and down 7th Avenue, before crossing 135th St to St Nicholas Park.

Johnson’s description applied equally well to the parades of another group, Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Although they occurred only once a year, as part of the organization’s convention or anniversary, the UNIA’s parades were Harlem’s most photographed.

Black Cross Nurses, in the 1922 UNIA Parade (Corbis)

What drew the cameras was a combination of spectacle and controversy.  Led by an ornately garbed Garvey — or, after his deportation, by a large photograph of their leader — UNIA parades displayed a combination of military and fraternal elements, including bands and ranks of men and women in the uniforms of the African Legion, Black Cross Nurses, Motor Corps, Juvenile Division and Marching Band, military attire more like that of the 369th Regiment than that worn by members of fraternal orders.  Those UNIA members not in uniform carried placards adorned with slogans such as “Scattered Africa unite” and “The Negro Won the war,” which in expressing the often controversial positions that Garvey took throughout the 1920s gave these processions a political character.  Automobiles, buses and floats also featured in the parades

Marchers in UNIA 1924 Convention (James Van Der Zee, Marcus Garvey Papers, vol V)

When the UNIA took to the streets in the early 1920s, it also typically ventured further south than fraternal organizations, out of black Harlem into blocks populated by whites, to 125th Street on the occasion of its first convention in 1920, and as far south as 110th Street in 1922 and 1924.

UNIA 1922 Convention Parade, with the boundaries of the area dominated by blacks in 1920

When the parade for the 1922 convention crossed into the area occupied by whites, according to a report in the New York World, banners appeared reading, “White man rules America, black man shall rule Africa,” “We want a black civilization,” and “God and Negro Shall Triumph.” (For more, see the post on the UNIA in Harlem)

The final group of parades, those for funerals, were far smaller than those consisting of soldiers or celebrating the anniversaries or activities of organizations.  Funeral processions also followed shorter routes, bearing the coffin from the undertakers to the site of the funeral, and then out of Harlem for burial, usually in Woodlawn cemetery in the Bronx.

As Johnson noted, the typical parade came on the death of a lodge member.  Such parades drew few onlookers, unless that member had attained some degree of celebrity or notoriety, when large crowds could come out, as they did for the funeral of Barron Wilkins, a cabaret owner and sporting identity who was also a member of the Monarch Lodge of the Elks.  The funeral procession that drew by far the largest crowd of any that occurred in Harlem was for one of the neighborhood’s true celebrities, singer Florence Mills, when somewhere over 150,000 packed the streets.

New York Age, June 6, 1924, 1

While the crowds might have differed, funeral parades themselves took essentially the same form. Pallbearers took the lead, as is the photo of Wilkins’ funeral, followed by the hearse and other vehicles.  Bands from lodges also often formed part of the procession, as they did in Mills’ funeral.

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Blocks containing street vendors

On Saturday evenings, as crowds thronged Seventh Avenue in search of entertainment, many residents of Harlem headed to Eighth and Fifth Avenues to patronize street markets.  Street vendors operated throughout the week, but those evenings were a particularly busy time as residents shopped for their Sunday dinners, the main meal on the one day or part day they had off from their jobs.

Eighth Avenue Market, from the 145th St Elevated Train station (Corbis)

The city government determined the location of street markets.  According to a story in the Amsterdam News, it was around 1913 that the city established the first street market in Harlem, on the east side of Lenox Avenue from 138th Street to 142nd Street.  Within a few years, the expanding population of the neighborhood made those blocks too crowded to accommodate street vendors, and the city relocated the market to Eighth Avenue, further uptown, from 139th to 145th Streets.  These blocks, underneath the elevated railroad that ran the length of 8th Avenue, were on the boundary of Harlem, and too noisy and dirty to attract many pedestrians or events such as street speakers and parades.  (Street vendors still operated on Lenox Avenue, around the 135th Street subway station).

Street vendors, Fifth Avenue and 135th Street, 1927 (Corbis) The stovepipe on the right indicates a vendor selling roasted nuts or yams

Soon after another market opened on the west side of Fifth Avenue from 132nd to 135th Streets.  As undesirable as Eight Avenue, these blocks were a “dingy avenue,” bordered on the east by the neighborhood’s least desirable tenement districts.

As was the case with Harlem’s stores, whites operated most street businesses – although photographers tended to pick out those operated by blacks.  Street vending did require less capital than operating a store: in 1930, the city charged $1 for a license and $1 a week for use of the street, while rental of a cart, from a business operating on 142nd Street, cost an additional $2 a week. An Amsterdam News journalist hopefully described the black vendors as the fruit or produce barons of tomorrow.  One of Harlem’s most famous identities did achieve wealth selling on the street,  but not by competing directly with whites in selling what most street vendors did. Lillian Harris, better known as Pig Foot Mary, sold pig’s feet and other southern hot food such as corn, fried chicken and chitlins, from a converted baby carriage stationed at Lenox and 135th Street, eventually making enough money to buy an apartment building on Seventh Avenue, and retire to California.

Street Vendor, Fifth Avenue, 1927 (Corbis)

Most vendors sold vegetables, and apples, bananas and grapefruit, but no other fruit. A few sold regional delicacies – sugar cane and pomegranates for southerners, and dried fish and cassavas for West Indians — or hot food such as roasted peanuts and roasted yams.  Only whites sold goods other than food, more expensive items such as clothing, china, and kitchen utensils, although there was a black selling socks on Eighth Avenue in 1930.

Residents chose to shop at the street markets because they believed them cheaper than stores. Harlem’s newspapers sometimes criticized street vendors, joining in attacks on them as sources of disorder out of place in a modern city common in the early twentieth century.  L Baynard Whitney, in the Amsterdam News in May 1928, rejected the idea that residents saved money by buying from vendors, and criticized the quality of the produce sold on the street.  Labeling the markets “gutter markets,” he reported that on one wet Saturday night, “Decaying lettuce, spinach and cabbage leaves carpeted the sidewalks, while the gutters were choked with black mud, foul water and refuse.” Street vendors also had a reputation for cheating that threatened any savings shoppers might make.  Whitney found one vendor hiding two small sweet potatoes in the bottom of his scales to add half a pound of weight; others added weight by keeping their arms or hands on the scales when weighing goods.   Such conditions and complaints did not discourage custom, and street vendors remained a feature of Harlem into the 1940s, even as Mayor La Guardia closed street markets throughout the city.  By 1946 only ten of the sixty markets that existed in 1934 remained, but two of those markets were in Harlem.

Lenox Avenue Pushcart, 1940, Carl Van Vechten (Beinecke Library, Yale University)

“Harlem Pushcart Markets Provide Colorful Spectacle and Give Small Tradesmen Chance,” Amsterdam News (November 5, 1930): II, 2

L Baynard Whitney, “Harlem’s Food Sold Amid Filth from Street Carts,” Amsterdam News (May 23, 1928): 1, 2

Ella Mae Harper, “How Harlem Housewives Are Cheated Of Hundreds of Pounds of Vegetables and Meats Every Week by Shortweight Scales,” New York Age (August 14, 1926): 9

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Beauty parlors (Search Place, Location type=”Beauty parlor”)

Beauty parlors were the most prevalent form of black business in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s.  When George Edmund Haynes, the black sociologist and founder of the Urban League, surveyed the neighborhood’s businesses in 1921 he found 103 hairdressers, compared to 63 tailors, pressers and cleaners and 51 barbers.  Simm’s Blue Book, a directory of black businesses and professionals published in 1923, listed 161 beauty salons, more than any other enterprise.  Combining that list with the businesses that advertised in Harlem’s newspapers, the map shows the location of 199 beauty parlors that operated in the 1920s. So many existed because it took relatively little capital to open a beauty parlor, particularly if you operated out of your home, as most women in Harlem did.  Of the 103 hairdressers identified by Haynes in 1921, 46 operated out of stores and 57 from their homes. Beauty parlors also proliferated because the trade provided an alternative to domestic service, an occupation based in Harlem rather than in the homes of whites, which even if it still involved sweating and scrubbing was, in the words of an operator overheard by Federal Writers’ Project interviewer Vivian Morris in a salon in 1939,”cleaner and you don’t have no white folks goin’ around behind you trying to find a spec of dirt.”

Beauty Shop in Harlem, 1935 © Bettmann/CORBIS

While most beauty salons were in homes, they were nonetheless a prominent presence along the streets occupied by the neighborhood’s businesses, particularly 7th Avenue (the photo on the left is of 2131 7th Avenue, near 125th St). Helen Bullitt Lowry, writing in the New York Times on August 21, 1921, associated beauty parlors with the more middle-class style of Seventh Avenue: On Lenox Avenue, “the proleteriat heart of the Black belt”,  “the language is frank and from the shoulder. “Straightening combs fifteen cents.”  But on Seventh Avenue, “the beauty parlors on the first floor hint more mysteriously. “Hair culture. The Poro System.  Satisfaction guaranteed.” Groups of heads leaning out of any apartment house stone-cased windows demonstrate what it means to be permanently unkinked.” The map above, which draws on Simm’s Blue Book and later sources, shows only eight beauty parlors on Lenox Avenue, compared with 32 on 7th Avenue. By the 1930s, as the Depression brought an expansion in the beauty trade, which was perceived as “depression-proof,” 7th Avenue became dominated by beauty salons.  In 1939, Vivian Morris, described a more elaborate geography that encompassed a cross-section of Harlem’s population: on the avenues between 135th and 110th Streets were beauty parlors that catered to the “average Harlemite,” particularly women employed as domestic servants; on 7th avenue between 135th and 138th Streets were the “Theatrical” parlors, which catered to men and women; while further north on 7th were the “elite” parlors whose clients came from the better residences of Sugar Hill, often by car; and finally, “hometown” shops filled the cross streets, bringing together operators and clients that hailed from the same parts of the South.

Madam C J Walker’s Townhouse, 108-110 West 136th Street (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL)

By far Harlem’s most elaborate beauty parlor was the Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Shoppe, at 110 West 136th Street, in the elaborate townhouse built by Walker in 1914, and occupied in the 1920s by her daughter A’Lelia, until it became the home of a government Health Centre in 1930.  The building also housed a beauty school teaching the Walker System.  At least five other beauty schools operated in Harlem, the largest being the Poro School, at 1997 7th Avenue, and the Apex School, on the corner of 7th Avenue and 135th Street, both of which taught nationally marketed systems that competed with the Walker system for dominance in Harlem and elsewhere in black America.  In October 1927, for example, the Pittsburgh Courier‘s Harlem reporter claimed that Sarah Spencer-Washington, president of Apex Hair Company, had initiated a “Beauty War” by opening a string of new beauty parlors on 7th Avenue.

Interior of Beauty Parlor (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL)

Much more than hairstyling took place in beauty parlors.  They also served as centers of community life, places, as a writer in the Afro American put it in October 1926, where “one may learn the latest Harlem news, listen to the choicest bits of scandal, hear the private life of one’s neighbor’s discussed, and collect opinions of all and sundry on the events of the day.” Perhaps more unexpectedly, they were also “marts of exchange for everything salable from lingerie to tickets for dances, church socials or what have you.”  Not all that business was legal, even in elite beauty parlors. While Vivian Morris was in “a swanky shop,” listening to customers discuss the international situation and the latest bestseller, a man entered, and went to the back of the shop, from where he sold “hot stuff,” stolen lingerie with ten dollar tags for three dollars.

“A numbers headquarters at 351 Lenox Avenue in Harlem” (1938) © New York Daily News

At a “hometown” shop the illegal trade Morris witnessed was playing the numbers, with a runner arriving to collect bets from operators and customers.  As more numbers betting moved to stores during the struggles between black and white bankers for control of the racket in Harlem, beauty parlors became centers for gambling.  The New York Daily News in 1938 identified the Ritzy Beauty Salon at 351 Lenox Avenue, an Apex parlor based on the signs displayed in the window, as a numbers ‘headquarters.’

Harlem’s beauty parlors also contributed to life in the neighborhood in less direct ways.  The career of A Philip Randolph, the socialist and founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was supported by his wife Lucille Green Randolph, one of the first graduates of the Walker Beauty School in Harlem, who operated an exclusive beauty parlor on 135th Street from 1913 to 1927.

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