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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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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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In the mid-1920s, an average of almost ten people a day, including two children, suffered injuries in automobile accidents between 130th and 155th Streets. Reports of those accidents regularly appear in the black press, and occasionally in The New York Times, and in some cases led to felony prosecutions that appear in the District Attorney’s Case Files.

Automobile Accidents (Search 'Type of Event=Automobile crash')

The accidents on this map are those reported in January and July 1925 and 1930, together with some prosecuted in other months of those years, and a handful of prominently reported incidents from other times. The largest number occurred on or near Lenox and Seventh Avenues.  Those two streets saw more traffic than any other roadway north of 59th Street, helped by people traveling to and from events at the Polo Ground and Yankee Stadium.  Public transport also ran on both avenues:  street cars traveled on Lenox from 116th to 148th Street (and on 125th and 135th Streets), and double-decker buses ran on Seventh from 110th to 155th Street.

"Many accidents are attributed to unpatrolled intersections in Harlem. Here school children are allowed to run across busy intersections unescorted" (1943) Photo by Gordon Parks, FSA (Library of Congress)

School children’s encounters with this traffic provoked particular concern. One of Harlem’s public schools, PS 89, was located on Lenox Avenue, and children walking to the neighborhood’s other schools also had to cross the busy avenues, often on their own.  Gordon Parks gave this photograph, which he took after this period, in 1943,  a caption that reflects the ongoing concern about that situation.

Accidents with Traffic Police Posts (Search 'Place=Traffic police post')

Harlem’s black leaders agitated for traffic police to be stationed at the most dangerous intersections.  Sometime around 1920, their efforts saw an officer stationed at 135th and Lenox, the most dangerous intersection, with others added at 138th and Lenox and 145th and Lenox.  Additional posts were added on 5th Avenue and Seventh Avenue in 1921 and 1924, and in 1925 officers were placed on 134th and 135th streets during school hours.  But by 1928, a columnist in the NY Amsterdam News reported only five posts in operation: on Lenox at 125th and 135th streets, and Seventh at 125th, 135th and 145th streets.  Moreover,  posts were only manned from 8.30 am to 6.30 pm, while traffic was often heaviest in the evenings, when crowds descended on Harlem’s nightlife.

Officer Reuben Carter Directing Traffic at Lenox and 135th St, 1925 --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Traffic posts occupied a prominent position in images of Harlem because many were manned by black officers, with Reuben Carter the first and best known.  In March 1921, he was assigned to the post at 135th and Lenox, the heart of Harlem, next to the subway station by which many came to the neighborhood.  At 6 feet 2 inches tall, weighing 250 pounds, he became a symbol of what African Americans could achieve in New York City.  Columnist Lester Walton reported that for many months after he occupied the post, “Negroes lined the sidewalks to watch him ‘do his stuff’.”  What most engaged the crowd was the sight of a black man directing white drivers.  That image was confronting enough for whites that in 1926 the police department rejected Carter’s request to be transferred to the post at 125th St and Lenox Avenue, in the midst of the white business district.  By 1928, 3 of the 5 Harlem traffic posts were manned by black officers, with the exceptions being the two posts on 125th Street, where white officers held sway.

For all his symbolic power, Officer Carter, and his colleagues, could not control the traffic.  In fact, on at least one occasion, Carter was himself hit by a vehicle while at his post. Nor did the signal lights installed on the avenues in 1928 appear to help much; a misunderstanding of the signals was a common explanation given for crashes.

Given that most drivers, including all those driving public transport and most behind the wheel of taxis, were white, many crashes were interracial affairs. Some flared into confrontations that drew in bystanders. Such was the case one afternoon in June 1925, when a crosstown streetcar hit a black laborer named Thomas Emanuel as he tried to cross 145th Street near Seventh Avenue. He apparently suffered only minor injuries, at least until he demanded an explanation from the white motorman.  What Emanuel got was an insult, sparking a fight in which the two men traded blows, another motorman joined in and countless bystanders followed suit.  Accompanied by a cacophony of swearing, screaming women and children, whistles and car horns, the crowd fought for twenty-five minutes, stopping traffic, until a police officer finally arrived.

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