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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.

ABSTRACT

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.

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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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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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Our article “Disorderly Houses: Residences, Privacy and the Surveillance of Sexuality in 1920s Harlem” has been accepted for publication in the Journal of the History of Sexuality. It will appear in 2012/2013.

The article argues that despite overcrowding, Harlem’s residences  provided privacy, due to the regular, extended absence of residents at work, the willingness of those not bound by familial ties to look the other way, the ability to pass as married or as heterosexual, and the limited surveillance conducted by public and private authorities.  Residents used that privacy not simply for the marital sexuality that reformers promoted, but for homosexual, extramarital and premarital sexual activity, ranging from casual relationships to informal unions, and to operate venues that commodified privacy and gave others space for the same kinds of sexual expression.

There are several maps already posted on this blog that are related to the article’s arguments.  The police focus on street prostitution rather than what happened inside residences is evident in the map of prostitution arrests.  Divorce raids, which offer a glimpse of the privacy that unmarried couples could obtain in residences, are mapped in this post.  The night life venues that residents operated in their homes for a black clientele, away from the nightclubs and speakeasies frequented by whites, can be found on the map of Harlem’s nightlife.

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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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Boys Watching Icemen Make Delivery, 1936 (© Lucien Aigner/CORBIS)

Ice dealers were prominent among the white deliverymen, salesmen and bill collectors who ventured into the residential blocks occupied by blacks. In an era before widespread electrification, Harlem’s residents and businesses relied on ice to store food as well as to cool drinks. For much of the 1920s, Italians enjoyed what the New York Age called “a practical monopoly in serving ice to the homes of Harlem.”

Ice Dealers (Search=Location Type="Ice Dealer")

They typically operated out of cellars, usually located near intersections, buying ice from wholesalers, who carted it from the Colonial Ice and Coal Company, on Eighth Avenue and 151st Street, and delivered it to residents and businesses in the surrounding blocks.  Unlike almost all other white businessmen, at least some icemen also lived in Harlem. *Vito Passantino, an Italian ice dealer on probation between 1930 and 1935, for example, lived in a furnished room on West 132nd Street, and later with another black family, to whom he had sold ice for several years, at 21 Maccombs Place. (* This is a pseudonym as required by Municipal Archives)

Man Delivering Ice Block, 1936 (© Lucien Aigner/CORBIS)

A business that required relatively little skill and capital, the ice trade was within reach of some of the blacks who came to Harlem in the 1920s. Italian icemen secured their trade against black competition through agreements with janitors and superintendents for exclusive access to a building’s residents. However, the biggest obstacle reported by blacks seeking a share of the ice trade was “the average Harlem Negro.” “Time and time again,” L. Baynard Whitney wrote in the Amsterdam News, “they have been told by colored people, ‘I don’t want no nigger iceman!’.”  The ice trade was the subject of a widely reported joke about the unwillingness of blacks to patronize businesses owned by members of their own race.  As recounted by Lawrence Levine, the joke concerned a black ice dealer in a small southern community who had both black and white customers:

When a white competitor came into town, one Negro lady immediately began to buy from him.  “Now why did you stop buying from John?” her white neighbor asked, “he was so courteous and nice, and we did business with him a long time.” “Well I tell you truth Miz George, I tell you just why I changed,” the black woman replied, “that white man’s ice is just colder than that nigger’s ice.”

(Black Culture, Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (NY, 1977), 330)

Despite such attitudes, by 1928, between twenty and forty black dealers did sell ice in Harlem. *Vito Passantino’s experiences suggest that some of those gains had been achieved by force.  When he opened a cellar on West 148th Street, a black dealer across the street threatened him if he did not close. Subsequently the sign in front of his cellar was stolen, and in subsequent months, his cart broken and advertising board taken, and he also lost a number of customers. Within a few months *Passantino abandoned the business.

By 1931, the number of blacks dealing in ice grew to 120, and they sold more tonnage than any single white company.  In July of that year, two Italian companies, fighting over who would control the Harlem trade, now the richest in the city thanks to the spread of electrification in other neighborhoods, began selling ice at half the usual cost.  As black retailers saw their business evaporate, some responded with violence: one, having carried 75 pounds up five flights of stairs only to find a white dealer had taken his customer, returned to the street and assaulted the man with an ice stick.

J Raymond Jones, president of the Afro Ice Dealers Association, making an ice delivery (New York Amsterdman News, August 5, 1931, 3)

A new organization also appeared, the Afro Ice Dealers Association, initially consisting of 25 trucks and 50 cellar dealers.  Unable to negotiate a new agreement with their supplier, the Association threw itself into the price war, undercutting the white companies.  With the support of the Harlem Housewives League and the National Negro Business League, they took to the streets in trucks displaying placards adorned with the Association’s name, and slogans such as ‘Give Us A Break,” and “We Will Stick It Out Though We Starve,” and went house to house.  Harlem’s residents gave them their business, even when the Italian companies countered by staffing their trucks with black workers, and within ten days a truce had been negotiated, returning prices to their original levels. Just how many blacks returned their custom to white dealers once the discounted prices ended is not clear, but *Vito Passantino was able to find work with Italian ice dealers doing business in Harlem as late as 1935.

References

“Harlem’s Colored Ice Dealers Are Making Determined Fight For Share of Business Among Their Own People,” New York Age, July 21, 1928, 1.

L. Baynard Whitney, “Negro Icemen Receive Cold Shoulder From Harlem Housewives,” New York Amsterdam News, May 30, 1928, 8.

“Icemen Organize to Avert Bankruptcy,” New York Amsterdam News, August 5, 1931, 3.

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