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

Playgrounds

 

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

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Colonial Park, 1935 (NYPL Digital Collections)

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

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

CAS

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

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

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

Urban League playground 1930

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

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

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

Notes

(1) NYA, May 5, 1923, 4.

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

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

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

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

(6) AN, July 9, 1930, 10.

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

(8) NYA, July 10, 1920.

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

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

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

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

(13) EG NYA, August 16, 1930, 2.

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

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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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