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Posts Tagged ‘1920s Harlem’

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

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

 

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

Day Nurseries

Day Nurseries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bryn-Mawr-conference-300x48On May 21, I am presenting a paper entitled “Putting Women on the Map: Gender and Everyday Life in 1920s Harlem” at the Women’s History in the Digital World Conference at Bryn Mawr College

ABSTRACT

This paper focuses on Digital Harlem, an award winning web-based geospatial digital history project on everyday life in the 1920s, to explore how visualizing evidence can provide a way of making meaning of the often fragmentary sources available to historians of women.

Digital mapping offers a means of visualizing historical sources that highlights the spatial dimensions of the past, and can offer a different perspective on particular places. It is not just that mapped sources are seen in their geographical context. Location provides a basis for integrating material from a wide range of disparate sources, and incorporating and organizing material that historians typically treat as ephemera, or pass over it as too sparse or fragmentary to support an analysis. Layers of different data, and hence large quantities of data, can be combined on a single map, providing an image of the complexity of the past. Examining those maps can reveal spatial relationships that prompt questions and facilitate comparisons that a researcher might otherwise not have considered.

Digital Harlem employs digital mapping to explore everyday life in the 1920s. It incorporates material from almost three thousand felony cases files from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, and hundreds of pages of black newspapers, which were mined for every event or place for which an address was given. Men dominate those sources, but they also contain a rich range of fragmentary material on women. Women are less often accused of crimes, and thus the focus of legal records, than men, but they are present as witnesses and victims of crime. If you look beyond the major news stories and editorial pages, women appear far more often in black newspapers than in legal records: in reports of church and fraternal orders, on social pages, sports pages, and in advertisements.

Mapping these sources goes someway towards makes it possible to see the gendered nature of waged work, business, home life, leisure, and criminal activity and victimization, to juxtapose the experiences of men and women to highlight the distinctive aspects of women’s lives in Harlem.

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magazineWinter2013_265 A two-page spread on Digital Harlem appears in the Winter 2013 issue of New York Archives.  The article offers a brief introduction to the site, using as examples a map of nightlife and two maps discussed in posts on this blog: prostitution in 1925 & 1930; and Morgan Thompson’s work sites.

Digital Harlem_NYArchives

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

116 West 144th St in 1920

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

116W144th in Google Earth

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

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

Long-Term Residents of 116 West 144th Street

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

Address residents moved to or from

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

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

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

Households with Lodgers (highlighted in purple)

Neighborhood of 116W144th (click to enlarge)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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