Posts Tagged ‘1920s Harlem’


NYA, April 30, 1908, 6

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

Cricket grounds

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

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

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

WI Team

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

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

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


(1) NYA, November 28, 1907, 3.

(2) AN, June 25, 1930, 16.

(3) NYA, May 30, 1925, 6.

(4) AN, July 11, 1928, 6.

(5) AN, July 11, 1928, 6.

(6) AN, March 5, 1930, 12.

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

(8) AN, September 11, 1929, 14.

(9) AN August 6, 1930, 13.

(10) NYA, May 15, 1920, 7.

(11) AN, January 29, 1930, 12.

(12) AN, April 28, 1926, 7.

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

(14) AN, June 25, 1930, 16.


Read Full Post »

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

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


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

Palladio 1925 Map

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

Palladio 1930 Mapp wide

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

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

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

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

Baptist delegates

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

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

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


Hotel Olga (695 Lenox Ave @ 145th Street)

Hotel Olga Ad

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

Facilities: 40 rooms

Hotel Dumas

NYA, April 23, 1932, 8


Hotel Dumas (205 West 135th Street)

Opened: 1922

(Built c1920; Devan Hotel (1920-1922)


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














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

YWCA footprint

Opened: 1927

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

Hotel Grampion (182 St. Nicholas Ave)


Opened: 1900

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

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

Hotel Press (19-21 West 135th Street)

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




(1) NYA, August 5, 1922, 4.

(2) AN, August 24, 1927, 15.

(3) NYA, August 14, 1926, 1.

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

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

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

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

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

(9) AN, July 20, 1935, A1.

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

Read Full Post »

In summer, day trips to destinations near Harlem became part of residents’ leisure. Social clubs gave up their weekly gatherings for the season in favor of trips outside the neighborhood, and, particularly by late 1920s, to the beach.  Beginning in the early 1920s, Rockaway in Long Island became Harlem’s beach resort. Individuals travelled by train and bus, and church groups, Sunday schools, and social clubs chartered buses, typically on Thursdays, Sundays and holidays (1).

Rockaway Beach

By 1928, as visitors from New Jersey and Westchester county joined those from Harlem, blacks dominated the crowds bathing and playing games, displacing the white groups who had previously vacationed at Rockaway. A 1929 story claimed that on one Sunday in July “no less than 50,000 colored people occupied a section of this beach one and one half miles long.”  In the process they claimed a black place amidst a landscape in which the New York Age saw “the various racial groups in New York…segregating themselves at separate beaches—the Jewish and Italian-Americans are the largest patrons of Coney Island, with the Irish and native American stock predominating at Brighton Beach, …the Germans have the beaches at Throgg’s Neck and City Island in the Bronx, with Rye Beach on Long Island Sound becoming the rendezvous of the upper class native whites (2).”

However, while blacks dominated the crowds at Rockaway, whites owned and staffed the businesses, replicating the situation – and the interracial tensions – that occurred in Harlem. A white commentator in 1928 portrayed the changed racial make-up of the beachgoers as a seamless transition, but the Amsterdam News reported incidents in which whites called for the exclusion of blacks from Rockaway Beach in May 1925, and again in August 1927 (3). Tensions between black visitors and  white residents and business owners in Rockaway continued to flare periodically through the 1930s. White bathhouse owners regularly refused admission to blacks, claiming they were full, and leaving them without a place to change into their swimwear. An Amsterdam News journalist claimed in 1939 that the inaction in the face of persistent discrimination resulted from the black bathers being from “the small income groups” rather than “the ‘swells’ of Sugar Hill” who lead Harlem’s political organizations (4).

Lincoln Pool Ad

New York Age, May 31, 1930, 3

Rockaway Beach loomed large enough in Harlem’s consciousness to be featured in a musical performance at the Abyssinian Baptist Church’s 120th anniversary celebration in 1928, and a Revue at the Alhambra Theater in 1929 (5). For those who could not afford to travel to Long Island, the Lincoln Recreation Center that opened on 147th Street in 1930 advertised itself as “Bringing a Rockaway to Harlem.” The owners delivered on that claim at least to the extent of filling the center’s 15,000 square foot beach with “Real Rockaway Sand.”

The only image of African Americans at Rockaway Beach I could find is by white painter Reginald Marsh.  He painted scenes of working class life in New York City, focused on crowds and leisure, including theater, burlesque houses and dance halls, as well as beaches. As with many of Marsh’s paintings, this one presents a highly sexualized world populated by exaggeratedly voluptuous women, with racial stereotypes mixed in.


Reginald Marsh, Negroes on Rockaway Beach (1934)


(1) NYA July 5, 1930, 5; AN June 24, 1925; AN, July 9, 1930, 10; AN, August 17, 1927, 15; AN, August 9, 1931, 9.

(2) NYA, August 25, 1928, 7; NYA, August 3, 1929, 10.

(3) AN, May 13, 1925, 1; AN, August 10, 1927, 15; AN, August 17, 1927, 15; AN, August 31, 1927, 9; AN, September 7, 1920, 20; AN, September 14, 1920, 15.

(4) AN, September 5, 1936, 12; AN, July 22, 1939, 9.

(5) NYA, December 1, 1928, 7; NYA, July 6, 1929, 6

Read Full Post »

Until the mid-1920s, Harlem’s children went to summer camps organized by the city’s Fresh Air Fund (FAF) and other groups inspired by its model. Established in 1877, FAF focused initially on rural home stays, but in the early twentieth century began to run summer camps, initially for groups that “it is not wise to place with private hosts.” Black children were one such group; in the 1910s FAF organized camps with black organizations, including the Urban League (1). Some black children were placed with other groups, such as the Christian Herald, which had been operating Mont Lawn Camp at Nyack since 1894. The YWCA also established a camp for girls in 1920, in Palisades Interstate Park. Frustration with the difficulty in placing black children in these camps, which had limited the number of campers from Harlem to 1100 or less than 5% of the the estimated population of 5-14 year olds in 1926, led to the formation of a Harlem Committee of the Fresh Air Fund in 1927 to expand opportunities for black children (2).

Black groups in Harlem began to establish their own summer camps. In 1927, St. Phillips P.E. Church opened Camp Guilford Bower outside New Paltz in 1927, followed in 1928 by the North Harlem Community Council, who purchased a camp at Livingston Manor, in 1929 by the Harlem Fresh Air Fund, who purchased Camp James Farely near Poughkeepsie, and by the New York City Mission Society who opened Camp Minisink near Port Jervis in 1930. Access to these sites, and annual fundraising drives to send children to camps, promoted by the Amsterdam News in particular, saw more than 3000 children attending summer camps by the early 1930s (3). Even as the Depression took hold and donations fell, Harlem organizations continued to raise funds to send children to camp – although St. Phillips P.E. Church did have to sell its camp in 1936, to the Children’s Aid Society.

Summer Camp Map_complete

Like vacation playgrounds, summer camps provided a place for children when school was closed and Harlem offered little other than the streets. But their proponents argued camps offered the additional benefit of getting children out of the city entirely. The Fresh Air Fund made the case that summer camps kept children “away from city streets; from the torrid heat of New York summers; from ill-health” (4). The YWCA likewise emphasized the health benefits of time at camp, away from the “tension” and “daily humdrum” of the city, as a means to store up energy for next winter’s work (5). Historian Brian McCammack has recently pointed out the additional dimensions of the temporary, restorative escape from the city for black children; that black summer camps served as “potent racial idylls: their remote locations, separate from whites, laid the foundations for race pride and dignity in ways that were difficult if not impossible in the city [due to] environmental inequalities, segregation and racist treatment (6).”


“Splashing in the Lake at Fern Camp YWCA”

Boating, swimming and hiking had the most prominent place in reports of camp activity. Although accounts of camps never failed to mention the beauty of their natural environment, campers spent much of their time around the camp buildings rather than in nature. Sports was central; most camps had a gymnasium and facilities for basketball , tennis and baseball. As with vacation playgrounds, camps competed against each other in sports, including swimming (7). Girls camps also had handicrafts and other hobbies. Music and dances also featured among the activities.

Camp play

“More Camp Facilities Need for Negro Boys” (Owen Lovejoy, The Negro Children of New York (1932), facing page 43.

Camps, like playgrounds, centered on supervised or organized play. The camp counsellor’s role was very much like that of the playground supervisor, and was performed by educated members of the professional class and church groups, who received specific training. In 1935, the YWCA’s Fern Rock Camp was staffed by a director, Mrs Mabelle White Williams, a physician, a dietician, two handicraft counsellors, a vocal and instrumental music counselor, four swimming counselors (one a man), and a coordinating counselor (8). Camp life followed a routine, including chores and meals in orderly dining halls, and sought to instill healthy habits to take back to the city. While camp publicity emphasized chaperoned activities ranging from calisthenic exercises to group hikes, swimming lessons and refereed sports games, being at camp offered similar respite from this discipline to that found in playgrounds (9). One girl camper described a typical day at Camp Minisink as beginning with exercises at 6.30am, followed by chores, then hobby or rest period and swimming period. Dinner was at 6.30pm, after which the candy store opened (10).

Adults, as well as children, left Harlem for camps in the summer. Each year the 369th Regiment paraded from the Armory on 143rd Street to the train depot at East 125th Street, and then travelled to Camp Smith. Established in 1882 as a training site for National Guard regiments, the camp was named for Governor Alfred Smith in 1919. During the regiment’s time in camp in 1927, they paraded daily, spent four days on the rifle range, and then focused on battle practice in the second week. In the evening there were parades and band concerts. Just over 1000 men made the trip in 1930.The camp was opened to visitors one day. On their return, the Regiment again paraded through Harlem. (11)


Camp Guilford Bower, outside New Paltz, New York, about 85 miles from NYC.

Sponsored by St. Phillips P.E. Church from 1927 until sold to the Children’ Aid Society in May 1936 (who renamed it Camp Wallkill). The sale resulted from the church’s inability to put in the money needed to operate the camp during the Depression (12).

The camp comprised a farm of 314 acres that maintained 40 cattle year round. It was originally planned for boys and girls not qualifying for Fresh Air camps and was interdenominational. In 1930, the camp opened on July 3, with 144 children aged from 8 to 18 years, and a staff of 35, and expected to care for at least 500 children before closing for the season in September 4. Children remained at the camp for two weeks or longer.

Camp James Farley, 5 miles east of Poughkeepsie

Purchased by the Harlem Children’s Fresh Air Fund in July 1929, from former NY State Assemblyman E A Johnson (the first African American member of the NY State Assembly), who sold the property at a discounted price (13). An 86 acre farm, with a large 13-room house. When the farm was purchased, 50 acres was ready for cultivation, with 125 fruit trees already planted. Plans for development included damming a stream to create a swimming pool, converting buildings to create dormitories, a mess hall and gymnasium, and building tennis and baseball grounds. Named for James Farley of the State Athletic Commission, a supporter of the Fresh Air Fund (14).

In 1930, the camp opened on July 21, for 50 girls aged 7 to 12 years, who remained for two weeks, looked after by a staff of trained camp counsellors and a graduate nurse. They stayed in a 13-room house at the camp (15).

Livingston Manor, Sullivan County, NY.

North Harlem Community Council Camp purchased the camp at Livingston Manor  in 1928 (16). An area of 86 acres, it included nine cottages, a 19 room house and a gymnasium (17).

In 1930, the camp opened on July 15, with around 100 children at a time staying for two weeks until September 1, with a  staff on 11 camp leaders. In 1929, 5 groups of 250 children each stayed at the camp for two weeks (18)

Camp Minisink, Port Jervis, NY.

Operated by the New York City Mission Society, Camp Minisink opened in 1930. The camp covered 300 acres and included two lakes used for boating and swimming. The camp hosted approximately 500 children for two week vacations by 1935, with girls and boys attending in separate groups. (). Camp counsellors were drawn from church groups in Harlem; the camp director in 1931, for example, was Daniel Taylor of Mother A.M.E Zion Church on West 136th Street (19).

Fern Rock Camp, Lake Tiorati, Palisades Interstate Park. 45 miles from Harlem.

Established by the YWCA in 1920, to serve girls aged 7 to 17 years. At first, the site had no hot water or electricity. In 1923, the camp was described as made up of “rustic sleeping huts [with open sides] and a dining and recreation hut with an open fireplace (20). The camp expanded in 1928 with enclosed cabins, an infirmary, a living room with fireplace, and a kitchen. Activities included swimming, boating, hikes, camp fires. (21)

Mont Lawn CampNyack, NY.

Sponsored by the Christian Herald (419 4th Ave). 60 boys from Harlem went in 1929, and again in 1930, when it opened on June 26 (22)


(1) Julia Guarneri, “Changing Strategies for Child Welfare, Enduring Beliefs about Childhood: The Fresh Air Fund, 1877–1926,” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 11, 1 (2012); NYA, June 28, 1919, 2.

(2) AN, June 22, 1927, 5.

(3) AN, June 2, 1934, 2

(4) AN, June 22, 1927, 5.

(5) AN, July 6, 1935, 9; NYA, 6 June 1923, 8.

(6) Brian McCammack, Landscapes of Hope: Nature and the Great Migration in Chicago (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), 100.

(7) AN, August 30, 1933, 14.

(8) AN, July 6, 1935, 9.

(9) Guarneri, 51-53.

(10) AN, June 22, 1935, 8.

(11) AN, August 22, 1927, 3; AN, September 24, 1930, 3.

(12) AN, May 23, 1936, 5.

(13) AN, February 1,1928, 6.

(14) AN, July 31, 1929, 3.

(15) AN, July 9, 1930, 5.

(16) AN, July 29, 1931, 20.

(17) AN, 10 July, 1929, 14.

(18) AN, April 23, 1930, 4.

(19) AN, June 22, 1935, 8; AN, September 21, 1935, 3; NYA, 4 July, 1931, 7.

(20) NYA, January 29, 1927, 2; AN, June 20, 1923, 7.

(21) Judith Weisenfeld, African American Women and Christian Activism: New York’s Black YWCA, 1905-1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998),186-87; NYA, June 23, 1923, 8.

(22) AN, April 23, 1930, 4.



Read Full Post »

Harlem’s leaders lobbied for playgrounds to protect “children of school age, whose parents are away from home all day by reason of their occupation, who are left to seek recreation on the streets after school hours” (1). Traffic posed the biggest threat; drivers found it difficult to negotiate children playing games of baseball, basketball and punchball in the streets. In the mid-1920s, an average of two children a day suffered injuries in automobile accidents between 130th and 155th Streets. Even as the city government constructed playgrounds in other neighborhoods, it neglected Harlem. The Children’s Aid Society estimated in 1930 that Harlem had only 15% of the recreational facilities its population needed (2).



The efforts of Alderman John William Smith saw the first city playground in Harlem open in 1923. Located in St Nicholas Park, between 139th and 141st Streets, it was on the western boundary of black settlement, at a remove from many black children and families (3). The city leased a second city playground in 1928 on West 147th Street near Harlem’s northern boundary (although by 1932 that playground was being operated by a community group) (4). As the black neighborhood expanded north, it took in another city playground, in Colonial Park at 150th Street, that had been established in 1911.


Colonial Park, 1935 (NYPL Digital Collections)

In the second half of the 1920s, community groups and churches built smaller playgrounds, in the yards of their buildings. Refuge Church of Christ on West 133rd Street and Grace Congregational Church on West 139th Street created community playgrounds in their grounds, while the 7th Day Adventist Church had a community playground in the grounds of the school it established further east on West 139th Street (5). The Urban League remodeled the backyard of its headquarters on West 136th Street as a playground in 1930 (6).

In 1930, the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) purchased ten lots for a playground in the block between West 133rd and West 134th and Lenox and Fifth Avenues, demolishing most of the buildings, and adding four additional lots with funds provided by Rockefeller. All but three of buildings were demolished; one building was used for a girls club, and the others for a boy’s club pending a fundraising drive to support a new clubhouse with a gymnasium and swimming pool. The playground covered more than 11,000 square feet and featured two sets of swings, a slide, and a basketball court. Open from 10am to 9pm everyday but Sunday, when it closed at 6 pm, the site was equipped with floodlights to allow children to play in the evenings.  From 9am-3pm the space was set aside for mothers and preschool children; from 3pm-6pm for younger children; and from 6pm-9pm for older children. In 1932, the CAS described the site as having two playgrounds, one for girls and mothers facing 133rd street and one for boys facing 134th Street. A staff of four supervisors worked in the playground; two women worked with girls, two men with the boys.  In 1930, 500-1000 children a day reportedly used the playground (7).


Children’s Aid Society Playground, 1932 (Lovejoy, opposite p.42)

The summer school break added school-aged children to those looking for places to play. In 1920 the city closed particular blocks of streets to create playgrounds: West 131st Street from Lenox to 7th Avenues and West 140th Street from Lenox to 7th Avenue were both turned into playgrounds from July 6 to September 11 (8). Later in the 1920s, the city opened school playgrounds in the summer as vacation playgrounds. Staffed by city employees, usually public school teachers, vacation playgrounds offered physical training, baths, music, and special entertainments, as well as excursions around the city. In 1925, the Vacation Playground at P.S. 139, for example, had a staff of three men and four women. Three baseball games, two basketball games, a stickball game and ten handball games took place at one time in its large yard. In addition, the staff operated a kindergarten for little ones, a game-room, a playground library and a glee club, and each day at 3.45 pm served cold milk for the cost of 25c (9). Harlem’s leaders fought to expand the number of vacation playgrounds in the neighborhood: in 1920, only one operated in Harlem, at P.S. 5; by 1930, six of the eight schools with black pupils had vacation playgrounds, catering to several thousand children each week (10).

Community groups also operated vacation programs at their playgrounds. For example, beginning in 1928, Utopia House offered a program for 200 children that ran from 10am to 6pm in June, July, and August, providing a playground, classes, ping pong, pool and “carom” tournaments, as well as a basketball team, and an excursion every two weeks, to places such Throgg’s Neck and Coney Island, and Yankee Stadium (11).

Urban League playground 1930

Urban League Vacation Playground (AN, August 13, 1930, 11): “Miss Anna Rappaport is shown teaching the youngsters how to play (according to rules). The playground has a canopied pavilion for lunching, a set of showers, sand piles and plenty of benches.”

Playgrounds in the 1920s featured professional supervision. Historians have debated the impact of these supervisors on children and their play. Research focused on the playground movement’s promotional literature led to arguments that supervision operated as a means of social control and Americanization, to shape the values and attitudes of working-class immigrants and migrants into the workers required by industrialists. Other historians have highlighted the limits to playground supervision; its concern with providing safety and security for children necessary for parents to allow them to use the space, including watching out for injuries, preventing equipment being stolen and stopping older children dominating the space. They have also highlighted that participation in supervised activities was not compulsory (12). Newspaper reporting of playgrounds and vacation playgrounds in Harlem tended to emphasize that supervision kept children safe from the dangers of the neighborhood’s traffic and helped them learn to follow the rules of the games they played (13) The experience of supervision in Harlem would also have been shaped by the race of the supervisors. Unlike Harlem’s schools, many were African American, as was the case with J. Louise Ford, the first director of the CAS playground, and her assistant in the girls work, Hortense Sanders (14).

The photograph of the CAS playground above offers evidence that supervised playgrounds offered space for both organized and free play. The image is dominated by two circles of children, each with including an adult supervisor, involved in organized play. Around those circles other children participate in a variety of other unsupervised activities. In the foreground boys play table tennis and pool, and to the left of the circles, shoot basketball in what does not appear to be an organized game. Behind the circles, girls occupy all of the swings. While adults are certainly managing the playground, they do not appear to be completely controlling or dictating what the children do within its bounds.


(1) NYA, May 5, 1923, 4.

(2) NYA, April 12, 1930, 1.

(3) NYA, September 8, 1923, 2; NYA, May 3, 1924, 1.

(4) NYA, July 7, 1928, 1. On a private group operating 147th Street playground in 1932, see Owen Lovejoy, The Negro Children of New York (New York: Children’s Aid Society, 1932), 42.

(5) NYA, March 15, 1930, 5; AN, July 9, 1930, 10; NYA, September 2, 1922, 1.

(6) AN, July 9, 1930, 10.

(7) AN, March 5, 1930, 20; AN, April 16, 1930, 14; NYA, June 28, 1930, 1, 4; NYA, October 18, 1930, 3; Lovejoy, 43. See also George Gregory, “The Harlem Children’s Center,” Opportunity (November 1932): 341-343. For film of children playing in this playground in 1935, see: http://www.criticalpast.com/video/65675063275_Negro-children-camp_playing-cricket_children-discuss_playing-Chinese-checkers_Childrens-Aid-Society

(8) NYA, July 10, 1920.

(9) NYA, July 25, 1925, 2; NYA, September 5, 1925, 10. See also NYA, July 21, 1928, 10; NYA, July 31, 1926, 10.

(10) For the opening of a second playground, PS 89, see NYA, July 16, 1921, 6. VP 139 had an average attendance of over 800 children a day (AN, July 28, 1926, 9; NYA, September 6, 1930, 2). See also NYA, July 26, 1930, 2; NYA, August 20, 1927, 10; NYA, September 7, 1929, 2.

(11) NYA, June 16, 1928, 9; NYA, September 6, 1930, 2. Vacation programs could also be found at the Children’s Aid Society Playground and the NY Urban league (AN, July 9, 1930, 9).

(12) Sarah Jo Peterson, “Voting for Play: The Democratic Potential of Progressive Era Playgrounds,” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 3, 2 (2004): 145-175; Ocean Howell, “Play Pays: Urban Land Politics and Playgrounds in the United States, 1900-1930, Journal of Urban History 34, 6 (2008): 961-994.

(13) EG NYA, August 16, 1930, 2.

(14) NYA, June 28, 1930, 1;  “Survey of the Month,” Opportunity (July 1937): 220

Read Full Post »

By 1930, there were more than 24,000 school-age black children in Harlem (1). Five public elementary served the black community in the 1920s, with two new junior high schools built in the 1920s, PS 139 (boys), which opened in 1924, and PS 136 (girls), which opened in 1925. The one secondary school located in black Harlem in the 1920s was an industrial school for boys on 138th Street, which occupied the building that until 1914 had been PS 100. (Harlem was also home to three Catholic Schools)

Schools copy

New York law prohibited segregation, and in the early 1920s all of Harlem’s schools contained both black and white students. However, residential patterns created de facto segregation; as the neighborhood’s population became almost entirely black, so did its schools (2). (Note the black population boundaries on the map). The industrial high school was the exception; in 1930, three-quarters of its students came from white neighborhoods across the river in the Bronx.

% of Black Students in Central Harlem Schools

While the pupils in Harlem’s schools became almost entirely black, the teachers remained overwhelming white. In 1920, PS 89, for example, had only twelve black teachers among its fifty-nine staff (3). In 1928, only one hundred  of the five hundred teachers in Harlem’s eight public schools were black (4). But that proportion of black teachers was higher than in other northern cities (5).

The presence of dwindling numbers of white students and persistently high proportions of white teachers apparently led to almost no racial conflict within Harlem schools, at least as reported by the black press. An incident at PS 5 in 1928 in which a white teacher threatened to flog a black boy like they did in the South was reported as the first instance of children being molested by white teachers in the 1920s (6). An investigation in 1935 did report “a great deal of turnover in the white personnel of these schools” and “a disproportionate number of older white teachers,” who “are naturally impatient and unsympathetic towards the children” (7).

New York City’s [white] school administrators adjusted the curriculum in Harlem’s schools in response to the arrival of black students, adding more vocational training in place of higher level academic classes. For boys that meant classes in operating low-skilled machinery and in service industry etiquette, and for girls in dressmaking and domestic work. Schools relied on intelligence testing to identify which students should be sent to those classes, and also used them to classify students transferring from southern schools, who were generally at least a year behind local children. The focus on vocational classes enjoyed wide support among Harlem’s black leaders and in the black press (8). Controversy did flare in 1926 over claims that the principal of PS 136, the girls’ junior high school, was steering her pupils toward vocational programs rather than college preparatory courses (9).

As early as 1921, Harlem’s schools were so congested that they had to run double sessions, meaning that students were only able to attend for part of the day. That year there were 26 double sessions at PS 90, 24 at PS 5, 16 at PS 89, 8 at PS 119, 7 at PS 68 (10). The construction of the junior high schools brought some relief to the overcrowded elementary schools, but Harlem schools remained at or over capacity into the 1930s as the Board of Education failed to add schools to keep pace with the growing population. The Depression brought cuts to spending on the schools, exacerbating the pressure on school facilities. By 1935, conditions had deteriorated to a level that horrified investigators:

On the day that one or our investigators visited this building, the first thing that attracted his attention in the principal’s office was a pile of old shoes strung across the floor and a pile of old clothes stacked in one corner. The principal’s office was equipped with an old dilapidated desk and two chairs, one of which was broken… The classrooms are dark and stuffy; the blackboards are old and defective, and the wooden floors are dirty and offensive… Moreover, the school has no gymnasium or library and generally lacks in the educational equipment which is deemed necessary in modern schools of its grade (The Complete Report of Mayor LaGuardia’s Commission on the Harlem Riot of March 19, 1935, 78-80).

Continuing on to high school required leaving Harlem. The closest high school to Harlem was Wadleigh High School, an option for the neighborhood’s girls. Few black girls attended Wadleigh before the 1930s; they made up 25% of the students in 1937 (11). The nearest boys high schools were De Witt Clinton High School on West 59th Street (renamed Haarn High School in 1927) and George Washington High School on West 192nd Street. A study in 1926 found 507 black children in New York City high schools (12).

By 1927, three of Harlem’s public schools, P.S. 89, 90, and 136, were also home to public evening vocational schools. One evening school catered to men, at PS 89; in 1927, it offered ten classes with over 400 students (13). For men, the city’s evening classes provided a path to white-collar work; by contrast, they equipped women for industrial work. In 1928, over one thousand women attended the evening school at PS 136 for classes in dressmaking, sewing, embroidery, lamp shade making, novelty work, cooking, artificial flower making, millinery, interior decorating and painting lamp shades and silks (14).

PS 5


PS 5

PS 5 (1920) NYPL Digital Collections

  • Built: 1894-1899
  • Capacity: 2799 students (1934) / Enrollment: 2996 (1913)
  • Teachers: 76 (1937)

PS 68


PS 68

PS 68 (1920) NYPL Digital Collections

  • Built: 1875-1906
  • Capacity: 1056 students (1934) / Enrollment: 1561 (1913); “nearly 1500” (1931)
  • Teachers: 40 (1931); 48 (1937)
  • No outdoor playground; 128th St closed to traffic from 12-1pm

PS 89


PS 89

PS 89 (1920) NYPL Digital Collections

  • Built: 1889-1895
  • Capacity: 1875 pupils (1934) / Enrollment: 1841 (1913)
  • Teachers: 62 (1934)
  • Evening vocational school (men)

PS 90


PS 90

PS 90 (1920) NYPL Digital Collections

  • Built: 1907
  • Capacity: 2547 students (1934): Enrollment: 2666 (1913)
  • Teachers: 78 (1929); 70 (1934)
  • Evening vocational school (women)

PS 119


PS 119

PS 119 (1920) NYPL Digital Collections

  • Built: 1900
  • Capacity: 1800 (1925); 2500 students (1934) / Enrollment: 2080 (1913); 2540 (1920)
  • Teachers: 60 (1937)

PS 136


PS 136

PS 136 Girls Junior High School (19??) NYPL Digital Collection

  • Built: 1925
  • Capacity: 1886 students (1934) / Enrollment: 1774 students (1926)
  • Teachers: 100 (1937)
  • Evening vocational school #157 (women)

PS 139



PS 139

PS 139 Boys Junior High School (19??) NYPL Digital Collections

  • Built: 1924
  • Capacity: 1482 students (1934)
  • Teachers: 66 (1937)

There is a large playground outside and the entire ground floor is a gymnasium gymnasium with showers and a lunch kitchen.  The second floor has the offices of the principal and his assistant; kindergarten, kindergarten, class rooms and an auditorium auditorium seating 550 people with a motion picture booth and a stage. The third floor has the medical department department with its waiting room, teacher’s rest room, library, open air room and gymnasium for the juniors. On the fourth floor is the drawing room, music room and science room. The fifth floor is given to manual training Shop. A and B, with class rooms and office of the industrial department (NYA, August 30, 1924, 1).

Information on dates of construction and capacity from Maps and charts prepared by the Slum Clearance Committee of New York, 1933-34, page 96:



(1) Owen Lovejoy, The Negro Children of New York City (Children’s Aid Society, 1932), 11.

(2) Frances Blascoer, Colored School Children in New York (New York: Public Education Association of the City of New York, 1915), 11-12; NYA, March 12, 1921, 1; Floyd Snelson, “The Negro in New York Public Schools,” Federal Writers Project, October 3, 1937.

(3) NYA, January 17, 1920, 1.

(4) World, July 1, 1928, 7.

(5) Thomas Harbison, “Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution? Harlem’s Public Schools, 1914-1954,” PhD dissertation, CUNY, 2011.

(6)  Afro American, June 23, 1928, 5.

(7) The Complete Report of Mayor LaGuardia’s Commission on the Harlem Riot of March 19, 1935, 81-82.

(8) Harbison, chapter 1.

(9) NYA May 29, 1926, 1, 2; June 5, 1926, 1, 2.

(10) NYA, March 12, 1921, 1.

(11) Floyd Snelson, “The Negro in New York Public Schools,” Federal Writers Project, October 3, 1937.

(12) AN, 2/2/1927, 15.

(13) NYA, 10/22/1927, 3.

(14) AN, 1/25/1928, 7.

Read Full Post »

Stephen Robertson’s article, “Constrained but not contained: Patterns of everyday life and the limits of segregation in 1920s Harlem,” has appeared in The Ghetto in Global History: 1500 to the Present, edited by Wendy Z. Goldman and Joe William Trotter, Jr. (Routledge, 2017). The article is based on the presentation he gave to the Sawyer Seminar at Carnegie Mellon University in April 2015.

For a copy of the “accepted manuscript,” the final version of the article before copy-editing and production, click here.


In 1966, in the first major historical study of twentieth-century Harlem, Gilbert Osofsky told the story of the neighborhood in the 1920s as the making of a ghetto.  What he described was the emergence of a large, segregated community, and the transformation of the area it occupied into a slum from which black residents could not escape. The demographic evidence of segregated housing is clear, but offers at best only a partial picture of the nature of the neighborhood.  To determine if a neighborhood is a place apart also requires evidence of where residents went when they left their homes and who spent time in the neighborhood. Using the digital mapping tools offered by Digital Harlem as a means of combining fragmentary evidence from a wide range of sources and visualizing the spatial dimensions of everyday life, this chapter reveals patterns of everyday life that show the permeability of black Harlem’s borders in the 1920s. Residents left to work and play, and whites entered to work and visit a range of institutions and patronize various forms of commercialized leisure. Residents experienced white economic and government power and violence in their daily lives, even as they created a range of places and institutions apart from whites. If not contained, black life in 1920s Harlem was constrained, neither entirely separate from whites nor free of their authority. As a result, Harlem in the 1920s was too racially variegated and contested a place to be labeled a ghetto.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »