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Posts Tagged ‘black families’

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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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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Detail - Search People, First Name="Annie" + Surname="Dillard"

Annie Dillard*, an 18 year old native of St Kitts in the British West Indies, was admitted to the New York State Reformatory for Women in July 1924. (*This name is a pseudonym, as required by the New York State Archives). A judge committed her as a Wayward Minor, at the request of her sister, Rose. Dillard had arrived in Harlem in October 1918, likely after the death of her mother, to live with Rose and her husband at 121 West 137th Street.  Her arrival, in the company of an older sister, completed the family’s relocation to the city; one brother already lived with Rose, and the other and another married sister, Glennis, lived elsewhere in the city. Annie was raised by Rose, who was just seven years her senior, and by her account, that upbringing included the strict supervision characteristic of West Indian families concerned with respectability, including regular attendance at church, and the company of her sisters or family friends when she went to movies and dances.  Dillard attended PS 119, completing 8th grade, and then took dressmaking classes in the night school at PS 89 and a job as a domestic servant on West 102nd Street.

Domestic Servants waiting for work, Bronx, 1938 (Detail from Robert McNeil, Make a Wish (1938), Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Domestic service represented the main occupation open to African American women in New York City, in part because white women increasingly shunned it in favor of factory and sales jobs, an alternative largely closed to black women.  Dillard continued to live with her sister, rather than her employer, Mrs Watt,  notwithstanding employers’ preference for live-in staff.  She was not alone in doing only day work; many black domestic servants were married and had families, making them unwilling to live in.  Housework generally took black women to different parts of the city than those to which men traveled for laboring jobs: Dillard ventured from Harlem to the Upper West Side and midtown, whereas laborers like Morgan Thompson went to Lower Manhattan, the East Side, and the outer boroughs.  In private homes, domestic servants usually performed a multitude of tasks, such as laundry, ironing, cooking, cleaning and serving. The hours were long, the status low and the supervision tight. Many black women complained that the work was too hard for the wages they received, and frequently changed jobs in search of higher wages, or pursued alternatives like work in beauty parlors.

Annie’s jobs between 1924 and 1927 highlight that housework took forms other than service in private homes.  She worked as a chambermaid in the McAlpin Hotel in midtown and in a boarding house on West 75th Street.  Both jobs offered shorter hours than work in private homes: 9 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. at the hotel and part-time at the boardinghouse.  Dillard also worked at Park West Hospital on West 76th Street, probably cleaning.  In addition, she had a job in a laundry on Cherry Street in Lower Manhattan.  A commercial steam laundry was mechanized and organized like a factory, and a job there is more properly thought of as industrial work, but the tasks nonetheless bore some resemblance to those done in homes and hotels.

It was not workplace conditions that caused Dillard to go through this variety of jobs, but rather her home life. At 17 years of age, she became pregnant.  The man with who she had been having sexual intercourse had promised to marry her if that happened, and admitted to her sister Rose that he was responsible for Annie’s condition, but he later disappeared.  With no possibility of preserving the family’s reputation, Rose turned her over to the court.  Four months after Dillard gave birth to a daughter, she was paroled into the care of her other married sister, Glennis, a household that lived initially at 8 West 137th Street, and later relocated to the Bronx. But after four months, and a brief stay at the home of an aunt, at 2142 5th Avenue, Annie wrote to the Reformatory that she was “an outcast because she has bought disgrace upon her family,” and needed to return and get help finding work where she could have her baby with her.

After three months away, Dillard returned to Harlem, this time to again live with her sister Rose, who was about to give birth to another child and had agreed to look after Annie’s daughter so she could work.  But even a visit from parole officers after Rose appealed for their help in stopping Annie from staying out at night and seeing men only enabled the sisters to live together for three months, at which point Annie and her child reappeared again at the Reformatory.  Two parole placements as a domestic servant in upstate New York proved no more successful in allowing Annie to work and be a mother, and eight months later she returned again to Rose’s home in Harlem, which was now on St Nicholas Avenue.  She and her sister continued to clash over Annie staying out at night, but the household held together at least for the remaining eleven months of Dillard’s parole.

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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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Search Event, Type="Murder-domestic", Particpant="Hoyer"

The shots with which twenty-five-year-old William Hoyer killed his wife Jennie and five-year-old daughter Sylvia were fired at 430 St Nicholas Avenue, but the events leading up to those murders wove through the spaces of Harlem.  Rich evidence of this case survives because Hoyer was ultimately executed for the crime, one of ten black residents of Harlem to receive the death penalty in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

William Hoyer's residences

William and Jennie had been married for six years, the first five of which they spent living with his mother, half brother and stepfather at 564 Lenox Avenue.  William’s inheritance from his father, a successful businessman in their native Danish West Indies, ensured that the relationship started in grand style, financing a lavish courtship and wedding.  His own income was more modest; although he had learned to paint during a stint as a seaman, William worked primarily as a porter for a shirt company in downtown Manhattan.  A year before Jennie left, the couple moved to two rooms of their own in an apartment in 158 West 129th Street.  In the two rooms behind them lived another couple, the Reubens; the two women became friends, intimate enough that they left open the connecting doors between their homes. Their friendship, at least according to William, also introduced conflict into the Hoyer’s marriage.

On June 22, 1925, while William was at work, Jennie took their daughter Sylvia and joined the Reubens in relocating to a four room apartment on the fourth floor of 430 St Nicholas Avenue.  No one questioned by the police and prosecutors offered any explanation for Jennie’s decision to leave her husband other than William himself.  He blamed the influence of Mrs Reuben, and Jennie’s attendance at the Holy Utopia Spiritualist Church, which met in an apartment on the first floor of 208 West 134th Street. Although she had been married and had Sylvia baptized at St Mark the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church, according to William, Jennie had begun attending spiritualist services early in 1925,  Concerned that she was out 4 nights a week, William claimed to have confronted Jennie, who told him that the church’s leader, the Reverend T. O. Johns was in love with her.  A week later she moved out.  Somehow William found her, and took custody of Sylvia, who he placed in his mother’s care.  He himself had taken up residence with his wife’s cousin, for who he sometimes worked as a painter, at 222 West 139th Street.  But ultimately he wanted to reestablish a household with Jennie. William offered different accounts of how he went about trying to do that.  In one version he starting attending the Holy Utopia Church to meet with Jennie, enlisting the Rev. Johns to assist him.  In the other, he regularly visited her new home.  It is certain that on July 16th he approached the priest at St Mark’s seeking his aid in convincing Jennie to return, but the priest did not have time to speak to him.

That evening, William once again visited Jennie.  But first he met a friend, Joseph Clarke, an elevator operator, at the West Indian Cricket Club to which they both belonged and asked for a gun so he could go hunting.  They went together to an apartment in 117 West 138th St, to get a pistol Clarke had left there in the care of James Perry, with whom he had lodged for fourteen years.  Hoyer then walked half a block east to Lenox Avenue, picked up his daughter from his mother’s apartment, and took her with him to see his wife.

430 St Nicholas Ave, Apartment 4th floor South (rear of the building) (Record on Appeal, People v William W. Hoyer)

Arriving at 430 St Nicholas Avenue, William found Jennie in the living room helping Mrs Leslie White remodel a dress; the Reubens were in the South, visiting a sick relative. The room was sparsely furnished, but comfortable: the sewing machine sat on a trunk, in front of which was a chair; on the opposite wall was a couch; a mantle on which stood glasses occupied much of the outside wall, next to which stood part of a bed; and a table occupied the wall that backed on to the public hallway and stairs.  Leslie White was a neighbor, living with her husband and son in the two front rooms of the apartment.  Soon after William arrived, Mrs White left to go to a shoemaker.  He then made another effort to restore his marriage, but Jennie would not return to him.  William’s response was to shoot both her and their daughter.  Sylvia died instantly, Jennie several days later, living long enough to identify William as her assailant.

The rain was so heavy that night that Mrs White, sheltering at the foot of stairs, did not hear the shots, and so simply watched William leave. Upstairs in their rooms, her husband and son did hear what they thought were firecrackers, but on investigating discovered the woman and child on the floor of the apartment. By then William was on his way uptown, to the basement apartment of an aunt, on West 156th Street, beyond the boundaries of Harlem.  Uncomfortable, he soon returned to the neighborhood, spending time on the roof of West 140th Street, before appearing at the door of a friend in 67 West 140th Street saying he had been drinking and needed a place to sleep.  Sleep he did until that afternoon, when the friend and an acquaintance returned.  Worried the men had learned of his crime, Hoyer again fled Harlem for his aunt’s apartment, but that night police, acting on a tip off, appeared to arrest him.

At his trial, William testified that the shootings had been accidental. After an argument, he claimed Jennie attacked him with a pair of scissors, and then, after the pistol fell out of his trousers, fought with him for the weapon, causing it to go off four times. The first and fourth shots hit Jennie, the third hit Sylvia, who William claimed was holding on to her mother. The medical evidence appeared to contradict this account, indicating that the girl was shot at point blank range, and would have died instantly, yet she was found on the opposite side of the room to where her parents had fought. The all white, all male jury deliberated for just over an hour, and, after seeking  guidance from the judge about premeditation, convicted William.  Four days later the judge sentenced him to death.  The execution took place on August 19, 1926, with the New York Times reporting William Hoyer’s last words as, “I wouldn’t take ten years instead of execution, let alone consider serving a life sentence so I could be saved from the chair.  I deserve to go, I ought to go, and I want to go.”


  • Record on Appeal, People v William W. Hoyer, June 4, 1926 (NYS Archives)
  • “Two Die in Chair; De Maio Goes First,” New York Times, August 20, 1926, 2
  • “Child Used as Intercessor With Wife By Father Pleading For Renewal of Marital Relations, Is Killed By Shot,” New York Age, July 25, 1925, 1.

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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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Search People, First Name="Perry" + Surname="Brown"

Perry Brown* was a forty-five-year-old born in Pennsylvania, who was placed on probation after stealing coats from the building of which he was superintendent in 1930.  (*This name is a pseudonym, used at the request of the Municipal Archives).That crime came in response to his wife Pauline’s long illness, and was a marked departure from Brown’s respectable life in Harlem.  He had lived in the neighborhood for fourteen years, at the same address, a four room apartment, #17, in 142 West 143rd Street.  During that time, Brown had gradually found more stable unskilled work, beginning with several positions as an elevator operator, and a stint laboring in the Brooklyn Naval Yard, before securing the job as a building superintendent in downtown Manhattan, which he held for five years before his arrest.

B.P.O.E Monarch Lodge, 1931 (James Van Der Zee)

Brown took pride in his standing in the community, reflected in his membership of several social organizations, including the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, through which he claimed an extensive network of friends. The Elks were Harlem’s largest fraternal order, attracting professionals and working-class men who shared Brown’s aspirations to respectability and leadership. A secular organization, the Elks emphasized educational programs and community service, and offered insurance benefits, help finding jobs and housing, and entertainment, such as organized boat rides and parties.  Fraternal orders also regularly paraded through the neighborhood, offering opportunities for the “janitor, bricklayer, waiter, street sweeper and counterman” who made up the members to display and perform their respectability — and for more avowedly ‘modern’ blacks, such as the journalist George Shuyler, to satirize their appearance:  “How proudly they prance down the streets in their tin helmets and breastplates, multi-colored capes, patent leather boots, prodigious swords, purple pantaloons and dyed ostrich feathers.” (New York Amsterdam News, October 26, 1927, 12)

Fraternal Lodges (Search Place="Fraternal Lodge")

160-164 West 129th Street (Building is still standing)

Brown attended weekly meetings of his lodge. Depending on which of the five Elks lodges in Harlem he belonged to, he would have had access to a clubroom with bars, halls, offices, and orchestras and bands.  The Manhattan Lodge had clubrooms, a hall and offices on 139th Street, catering to about 2000 members.  Two blocks south, Monarch Lodge, in which numbers banker Casper Holstein played a leading role, had its rooms on 137th Street.  Imperial Lodge had a large dance hall as part of its purpose-built rooms on 129th Street, and over 1500 members.  The Henry Lincoln Johnson Lodge, with rooms on 145th Street and a mainly West Indian membership, and the Neptune Lodge, with rooms on Lenox Avenue near 121st Street in the 1930s, lacked grand halls and large memberships, but like their fellows, sponsored large bands.

Although fraternal orders were secular organizations, Lodge members were also frequently church members. Brown, although he had been raised a Baptist, attended a variety of other Harlem churches, to avoid, as he told one of his probation officers, “becoming tired of listening to one preacher all the time.”  Among the congregations he visited was the Catholic Church of which his wife, Pauline was a member, St Charles Borromeo.

Perry Brown's residences

When the Depression hit Brown, the Elks helped him, as they did many of their members. After his conviction, Brown could only find employment as a freight elevator operator, heavier work for lower wages. He and Pauline also relocated several times, first to an apartment where the housework was easier, then to a larger apartment where they could take in a lodger.  After Brown lost his job, without working children to contribute to the household, as Morgan Thompson had, the couple soon had their electricity cut off and were surviving on food from friends and Perry’s lodge brothers while the rent remained unpaid.  Facing eviction, they moved again, a sequence that repeated itself twice more before Brown was discharged from probation at the end of 1933.

As his economic situation deteriorated, and facing the burden of paying restitution for the goods he had stolen, Brown was forced to give up many of the organizations to which he had belonged. He remained an Elk, paying his dues in installments and attending meetings once a week, until the end of 1931.  By September 1932, “somewhat discouraged” and “without proper clothing,” he had also stopped attending religious services. His probation officer urged him to become involved in the YMCA, and obtained a free membership for him.  However, Brown took time to adjust to “the atmosphere” of the organization, which would have been very different from that of the secular Elks, and had not taken up any “definite activities” at the time his probation ended.  As he retreated from his social relationships, his family relationships came to the fore, and Brown chose to make a weekly visit to the movies with his wife.

A more detailed account of Perry Brown’s life in Harlem can be found in our article, “This Harlem Life: Black Families and Everyday Life in the 1920s and 1930s,” which appears in the Fall 2010 issue of the Journal of Social History.

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