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Posts Tagged ‘1930s’

Cross-posted from drstephenrobertson.com

On March 19, 2016, I participated in the Working Group on Interpreting the History of Race Riots and Racialized Mass Violence in the Context of “Black Lives Matter,” at the National Council on Public History Conference, in Baltimore.

Prior to the meeting, members of the Working Group contributed short posts on their projects to a group blog; my post can be found here. The post is a very preliminary account of my ongoing work mapping the events of March 19 and 20, 1935, in Harlem. Further research in the records of the Mayor’s Commission and the scrapbooks in Mayor LaGuardia’s Papers, and in La Prensa‘s coverage of the riot (kindly shared with me by Lorrin Thomas) has already turned up additional information that I need to add to this map.

The Working Group site also contains blogs on a range of other fascinating projects on the history of radicalized mass violence in the US.

Below is the slide I used in my lightning talk at the Working Group session in Baltimore

Slide1

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5.coverOur article, “Harlem in Black and White: Mapping Race and Place in the 1920s,” has now appeared in the Journal of Urban History, vol. 35, no. 9, September 2013, pages 864-880. The abstract and a related map can be found in an earlier post announcing the acceptance of the article for publication in 2011.

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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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Hubert Julian, in the uniform he often wore around Harlem, May 2, 1924 (New York Daily News / Getty Images)

Hubert Julian, by his own account, arrived in Harlem in 1921.  Born in Trinidad in 1897, he had migrated to Canada in 1914, where he claimed to have learned to pilot an aeroplane and served as a Lieutenant in the Canadian Air Force, and came from there to New York City.  His first appearance above Harlem occurred during the 1922 UNIA Convention, when he flew over the parade in a plane decorated with UNIA slogans.  That flight led to his appointment as head of the organization’s new Aeronautical Department.[1]

Julian first gained celebrity by jumping from planes rather than piloting them.  He made his first parachute jump before an audience of Harlemites the day after the UNIA convention ended, at an airshow for the 15th Regiment at Curtiss Field on Long Island headlined by black pilot Bessie Coleman’s first flight in the United States. Several more jumps followed in the next year, at Curtiss Field and at airshows in Hasbrouk Heights, New Jersey (where he played “I’m Running Wild” on the saxophone during one jump).[2]  However, it was when Julian parachuted into Harlem itself that he garnered headlines.

Julian's first jump in Harlem, April 29, 1923 (Search Event Type="Parachute Jump"; From/To Date="1923-04-29")

On April 29, 1923, a black pilot, Edison McVey, flew Julian from an airfield in Hasbrouck Heights to Harlem, where the plane circled City College, at 139th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, dropping two powder noise bombs to attract residents’ attention – although a failed attempt two weeks earlier and advertising in the neighborhood and around the vacant lot on 140th Street near Seventh Avenue where he intended to land ensured that many had already been watching the skies. Then Julian leaped from the plane in a vivid red suit; the wind carried him away from his target to the roof of a tenement at 301 West 140th Street.  A large crowd followed him, packing tightly enough into the street to damage several surrounding stores, and then carried Julian to the UNIA’s Liberty Hall – but not before a police officer charged him with disorderly conduct.  Addressing the crowd, he spoke about aviation, promoted a parachute he had designed, and urged them to support A. I. Hart, a black-owned department store under threat from white competition. [3] On November 5, 1923, Julian was again flown to Harlem from Hasbrouck Heights, NJ, this time by a white pilot, to make a jump to advertise a UNIA meeting. He intended to land in St Nicholas Park, but wind carried him instead to the police station on West 123rd Street, as a huge crowd followed. He ended up hanging from his rigging between the station and the next building, until two officers pulled him into the second floor.[4]

Julian's Flight, July 4, 1924 (Search Event="Plane Flight")

In  1924, Julian shifted his focus from parachuting to flying, announcing a planned flight from NYC to Liberia and back. In April he lectured and performed parachute jumps in Boston, Baltimore and Norfolk to raise funds for a Boeing seaplane. Those efforts brought attention as well as money, and in May the Pittsburgh Courier reported that Boulin’s Detective Agency had found Julian lacked any qualifications as a pilot, and could not possibly make the flight. Julian answered his critics in June by bringing the plane he was purchasing to Harlem and putting it on display in a lot on 139th Street. He was scheduled to depart at 1 pm on July 4, from the Harlem River at 139th Street, but the several thousand people who gathered there were kept waiting for hours, while West Indian supporters and UNIA members collected enough money from the crowd to make the final payment on the plane. Once Julian did take off, the flight lasted only a few minutes, until one of the seaplane’s pontoons fell off, sending it crashing into Flushing Bay. This ignominious failure made Julian a joke in the white press, which in turn contributed to increased criticism of him in the black press.[5]

Julian himself remained undaunted, and through the remainder of the 1920s his efforts to raise funds for equally ambitious flights kept him a public figure in Harlem. He joined the soapbox speakers who lined Harlem’s avenues: in 1925, while selling donated safety razors at the corner of 140th Street and Seventh Avenue, he got into a fight with Herbert Boulin, the private detective who had exposed his lack of a pilot’s license, and later worked for Julian’s wife when she sought a divorce. In 1926, police seized Julian’s car after he attached a sign soliciting contributions to the cost of a plane for a flight to Liberia to it and left the vehicle parked overnight, apparently in response to police banning him from soliciting on the street. Julian claimed those backing the flight included a West Indian subsidiary of Standard Oil, boxer Tiger Flowers, and Elks Lodges, but it never took place. In 1928 Julian set up a headquarters for the Hubert Julian Aeroplane Fund at 2196 7th Avenue, seeking funds for a plane to make a round trip flight to Paris. This flight had the backing of State Senator Spencer Feld, but the response proved disappointing, and Feld abandoned the effort after 6 months.[6]

Hubert Julian, arriving in NYC in November 1930, having left Ethiopia after crashing the Emperior's plane. His stylish dress was a trademark, and regularly drew comment from reporters (Corbis)

Although Julian never made a flight across the Atlantic, he achieved enough celebrity to make that journey by sea in 1930, after being invited by the new Emperor of Ethiopia to take part in his coronation ceremony. He impressed his host with a parachute jump that landed at his feet, and was rewarded with a position in the Ethiopian Airforce; the Emperor’s mood changed four months later when Julian crashed a plane gifted to him by Selfridge’s department store during a pre-coronation rehearsal. Julian left Ethiopia soon after, arriving back in Harlem in November, but insisted he had not been banished, successfully suing the Hearst publication the New York American for stating he had been “thrown out.”[7]

In 1931, Julian obtained a pilot’s license and embarked on the air show circuit, barnstorming around the country, appearing, for example, as part of a group of black aviators, the Five Blackbirds, in Los Angelos in December 1931.  Harlem remained his base, and through the 1930s he continued to fly above events in the neighborhood, such as A’ Leila Walker’s funeral procession in 1931, and a parade by Father Divine’s followers in 1934.  His aerial exploits appear to have ended by the 1940s; in later decades it would be Julian’s activities as an arms dealer that brought him media attention.  At some point in these years he joined many other black New Yorkers in relocating outside Harlem; when he died in 1983, Julian was living in the Bronx.

[1] The Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers, vol 4, ed. Robert Hill (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 1059-60.

[2] “Julian ‘Runs Wild’ 3500 Feet in Air,” Amsterdam News 13 June 1923, s.2, 1

[3] “Aviator Thrills Harlem By Descent To Roof of House,” New York Age 5 May 1923, 1; “Julian Jumps From Plane 3000 Feet Up,” Amsterdam News 2 May 1923, 1; “Harlem Sees Devil Drop From The Sky,” New York Times 30 April 1923, 3.

[4] “Negro in Parachute Hits Police Station,” New York Times 6 November 1923, 7.

[5] “Negro Flyer, Off for 4 Continents, Lands in Hospital,”  New York World, 5 July 1924, 1

[6] New York Age, August 7, 1926, 1; Chicago Defender, July 7, 1928, 10

[7] David Shaftel, “The Black Eagle of Harlem: The truth behind the tall tales of Hubert Fauntleroy Julian”, Air & Space Magazine, January 01, 2009; New York Age December 30, 1933, 1.

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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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The Australian Research Council today awarded us a five year grant totaling $702,000 for our new project, Year of the Riot: Harlem 1935.  This amazing news means that we will be to able to expand “Digital Harlem” into the 1930s, taking advantage of the incredibly rich evidence collected by the committee that Mayor La Guardia set up to investigate the causes of the riot.  The new funding will also allow us to re-employ the Archaeological Computing Laboratory here at the University of Sydney to add new functionalities to the site – watch for the mapping of sequences of events (like parades and the riot itself) and the inclusion of images — and much more!

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Our article, “This Harlem Life: Black Families and Everyday Life in the 1920s and 1930s,” has now been published in the Journal of Social History, in the Fall 2010 issue.  <update, 19 July 2011: as six months have elapsed since its publication, I can now provide a copy here>.  I’ve already posted maps and discussions of the lives of the five men who feature in the article: Morgan Thompson, Perry Brown, Fuller Long, Frank Hamilton and Roger Walker.

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