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Until the mid-1920s, Harlem’s children went to summer camps organized by the city’s Fresh Air Fund (FAF) and other groups inspired by its model. Established in 1877, FAF focused initially on rural home stays, but in the early twentieth century began to run summer camps, initially for groups that “it is not wise to place with private hosts.” Black children were one such group; in the 1910s FAF organized camps with black organizations, including the Urban League (1). Some black children were placed with other groups, such as the Christian Herald, which had been operating Mont Lawn Camp at Nyack since 1894. The YWCA also established a camp for girls in 1920, in Palisades Interstate Park. Frustration with the difficulty in placing black children in these camps, which had limited the number of campers from Harlem to 1100 or less than 5% of the the estimated population of 5-14 year olds in 1926, led to the formation of a Harlem Committee of the Fresh Air Fund in 1927 to expand opportunities for black children (2).

Black groups in Harlem began to establish their own summer camps. In 1927, St. Phillips P.E. Church opened Camp Guilford Bower outside New Paltz in 1927, followed in 1928 by the North Harlem Community Council, who purchased a camp at Livingston Manor, in 1929 by the Harlem Fresh Air Fund, who purchased Camp James Farely near Poughkeepsie, and by the New York City Mission Society who opened Camp Minisink near Port Jervis in 1930. Access to these sites, and annual fundraising drives to send children to camps, promoted by the Amsterdam News in particular, saw more than 3000 children attending summer camps by the early 1930s (3). Even as the Depression took hold and donations fell, Harlem organizations continued to raise funds to send children to camp – although St. Phillips P.E. Church did have to sell its camp in 1936, to the Children’s Aid Society.

Summer Camp Map_complete

Like vacation playgrounds, summer camps provided a place for children when school was closed and Harlem offered little other than the streets. But their proponents argued camps offered the additional benefit of getting children out of the city entirely. The Fresh Air Fund made the case that summer camps kept children “away from city streets; from the torrid heat of New York summers; from ill-health” (4). The YWCA likewise emphasized the health benefits of time at camp, away from the “tension” and “daily humdrum” of the city, as a means to store up energy for next winter’s work (5). Historian Brian McCammack has recently pointed out the additional dimensions of the temporary, restorative escape from the city for black children; that black summer camps served as “potent racial idylls: their remote locations, separate from whites, laid the foundations for race pride and dignity in ways that were difficult if not impossible in the city [due to] environmental inequalities, segregation and racist treatment (6).”

s-l500

“Splashing in the Lake at Fern Camp YWCA”

Boating, swimming and hiking had the most prominent place in reports of camp activity. Although accounts of camps never failed to mention the beauty of their natural environment, campers spent much of their time around the camp buildings rather than in nature. Sports was central; most camps had a gymnasium and facilities for basketball , tennis and baseball. As with vacation playgrounds, camps competed against each other in sports, including swimming (7). Girls camps also had handicrafts and other hobbies. Music and dances also featured among the activities.

Camp play

“More Camp Facilities Need for Negro Boys” (Owen Lovejoy, The Negro Children of New York (1932), facing page 43.

Camps, like playgrounds, centered on supervised or organized play. The camp counsellor’s role was very much like that of the playground supervisor, and was performed by educated members of the professional class and church groups, who received specific training. In 1935, the YWCA’s Fern Rock Camp was staffed by a director, Mrs Mabelle White Williams, a physician, a dietician, two handicraft counsellors, a vocal and instrumental music counselor, four swimming counselors (one a man), and a coordinating counselor (8). Camp life followed a routine, including chores and meals in orderly dining halls, and sought to instill healthy habits to take back to the city. While camp publicity emphasized chaperoned activities ranging from calisthenic exercises to group hikes, swimming lessons and refereed sports games, being at camp offered similar respite from this discipline to that found in playgrounds (9). One girl camper described a typical day at Camp Minisink as beginning with exercises at 6.30am, followed by chores, then hobby or rest period and swimming period. Dinner was at 6.30pm, after which the candy store opened (10).

Adults, as well as children, left Harlem for camps in the summer. Each year the 369th Regiment paraded from the Armory on 143rd Street to the train depot at East 125th Street, and then travelled to Camp Smith. Established in 1882 as a training site for National Guard regiments, the camp was named for Governor Alfred Smith in 1919. During the regiment’s time in camp in 1927, they paraded daily, spent four days on the rifle range, and then focused on battle practice in the second week. In the evening there were parades and band concerts. Just over 1000 men made the trip in 1930.The camp was opened to visitors one day. On their return, the Regiment again paraded through Harlem. (11)

 

Camp Guilford Bower, outside New Paltz, New York, about 85 miles from NYC.

Sponsored by St. Phillips P.E. Church from 1927 until sold to the Children’ Aid Society in May 1936 (who renamed it Camp Wallkill). The sale resulted from the church’s inability to put in the money needed to operate the camp during the Depression (12).

The camp comprised a farm of 314 acres that maintained 40 cattle year round. It was originally planned for boys and girls not qualifying for Fresh Air camps and was interdenominational. In 1930, the camp opened on July 3, with 144 children aged from 8 to 18 years, and a staff of 35, and expected to care for at least 500 children before closing for the season in September 4. Children remained at the camp for two weeks or longer.

Camp James Farley, 5 miles east of Poughkeepsie

Purchased by the Harlem Children’s Fresh Air Fund in July 1929, from former NY State Assemblyman E A Johnson (the first African American member of the NY State Assembly), who sold the property at a discounted price (13). An 86 acre farm, with a large 13-room house. When the farm was purchased, 50 acres was ready for cultivation, with 125 fruit trees already planted. Plans for development included damming a stream to create a swimming pool, converting buildings to create dormitories, a mess hall and gymnasium, and building tennis and baseball grounds. Named for James Farley of the State Athletic Commission, a supporter of the Fresh Air Fund (14).

In 1930, the camp opened on July 21, for 50 girls aged 7 to 12 years, who remained for two weeks, looked after by a staff of trained camp counsellors and a graduate nurse. They stayed in a 13-room house at the camp (15).

Livingston Manor, Sullivan County, NY.

North Harlem Community Council Camp purchased the camp at Livingston Manor  in 1928 (16). An area of 86 acres, it included nine cottages, a 19 room house and a gymnasium (17).

In 1930, the camp opened on July 15, with around 100 children at a time staying for two weeks until September 1, with a  staff on 11 camp leaders. In 1929, 5 groups of 250 children each stayed at the camp for two weeks (18)

Camp Minisink, Port Jervis, NY.

Operated by the New York City Mission Society, Camp Minisink opened in 1930. The camp covered 300 acres and included two lakes used for boating and swimming. The camp hosted approximately 500 children for two week vacations by 1935, with girls and boys attending in separate groups. (). Camp counsellors were drawn from church groups in Harlem; the camp director in 1931, for example, was Daniel Taylor of Mother A.M.E Zion Church on West 136th Street (19).

Fern Rock Camp, Lake Tiorati, Palisades Interstate Park. 45 miles from Harlem.

Established by the YWCA in 1920, to serve girls aged 7 to 17 years. At first, the site had no hot water or electricity. In 1923, the camp was described as made up of “rustic sleeping huts [with open sides] and a dining and recreation hut with an open fireplace (20). The camp expanded in 1928 with enclosed cabins, an infirmary, a living room with fireplace, and a kitchen. Activities included swimming, boating, hikes, camp fires. (21)

Mont Lawn CampNyack, NY.

Sponsored by the Christian Herald (419 4th Ave). 60 boys from Harlem went in 1929, and again in 1930, when it opened on June 26 (22)

Notes

(1) Julia Guarneri, “Changing Strategies for Child Welfare, Enduring Beliefs about Childhood: The Fresh Air Fund, 1877–1926,” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 11, 1 (2012); NYA, June 28, 1919, 2.

(2) AN, June 22, 1927, 5.

(3) AN, June 2, 1934, 2

(4) AN, June 22, 1927, 5.

(5) AN, July 6, 1935, 9; NYA, 6 June 1923, 8.

(6) Brian McCammack, Landscapes of Hope: Nature and the Great Migration in Chicago (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), 100.

(7) AN, August 30, 1933, 14.

(8) AN, July 6, 1935, 9.

(9) Guarneri, 51-53.

(10) AN, June 22, 1935, 8.

(11) AN, August 22, 1927, 3; AN, September 24, 1930, 3.

(12) AN, May 23, 1936, 5.

(13) AN, February 1,1928, 6.

(14) AN, July 31, 1929, 3.

(15) AN, July 9, 1930, 5.

(16) AN, July 29, 1931, 20.

(17) AN, 10 July, 1929, 14.

(18) AN, April 23, 1930, 4.

(19) AN, June 22, 1935, 8; AN, September 21, 1935, 3; NYA, 4 July, 1931, 7.

(20) NYA, January 29, 1927, 2; AN, June 20, 1923, 7.

(21) Judith Weisenfeld, African American Women and Christian Activism: New York’s Black YWCA, 1905-1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998),186-87; NYA, June 23, 1923, 8.

(22) AN, April 23, 1930, 4.

 

 

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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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By 1930, there were more than 24,000 school-age black children in Harlem (1). Five public elementary served the black community in the 1920s, with two new junior high schools built in the 1920s, PS 139 (boys), which opened in 1924, and PS 136 (girls), which opened in 1925. The one secondary school located in black Harlem in the 1920s was an industrial school for boys on 138th Street, which occupied the building that until 1914 had been PS 100. (Harlem was also home to three Catholic Schools)

Schools copy

New York law prohibited segregation, and in the early 1920s all of Harlem’s schools contained both black and white students. However, residential patterns created de facto segregation; as the neighborhood’s population became almost entirely black, so did its schools (2). (Note the black population boundaries on the map). The industrial high school was the exception; in 1930, three-quarters of its students came from white neighborhoods across the river in the Bronx.

% of Black Students in Central Harlem Schools

While the pupils in Harlem’s schools became almost entirely black, the teachers remained overwhelming white. In 1920, PS 89, for example, had only twelve black teachers among its fifty-nine staff (3). In 1928, only one hundred  of the five hundred teachers in Harlem’s eight public schools were black (4). But that proportion of black teachers was higher than in other northern cities (5).

The presence of dwindling numbers of white students and persistently high proportions of white teachers apparently led to almost no racial conflict within Harlem schools, at least as reported by the black press. An incident at PS 5 in 1928 in which a white teacher threatened to flog a black boy like they did in the South was reported as the first instance of children being molested by white teachers in the 1920s (6). An investigation in 1935 did report “a great deal of turnover in the white personnel of these schools” and “a disproportionate number of older white teachers,” who “are naturally impatient and unsympathetic towards the children” (7).

New York City’s [white] school administrators adjusted the curriculum in Harlem’s schools in response to the arrival of black students, adding more vocational training in place of higher level academic classes. For boys that meant classes in operating low-skilled machinery and in service industry etiquette, and for girls in dressmaking and domestic work. Schools relied on intelligence testing to identify which students should be sent to those classes, and also used them to classify students transferring from southern schools, who were generally at least a year behind local children. The focus on vocational classes enjoyed wide support among Harlem’s black leaders and in the black press (8). Controversy did flare in 1926 over claims that the principal of PS 136, the girls’ junior high school, was steering her pupils toward vocational programs rather than college preparatory courses (9).

As early as 1921, Harlem’s schools were so congested that they had to run double sessions, meaning that students were only able to attend for part of the day. That year there were 26 double sessions at PS 90, 24 at PS 5, 16 at PS 89, 8 at PS 119, 7 at PS 68 (10). The construction of the junior high schools brought some relief to the overcrowded elementary schools, but Harlem schools remained at or over capacity into the 1930s as the Board of Education failed to add schools to keep pace with the growing population. The Depression brought cuts to spending on the schools, exacerbating the pressure on school facilities. By 1935, conditions had deteriorated to a level that horrified investigators:

On the day that one or our investigators visited this building, the first thing that attracted his attention in the principal’s office was a pile of old shoes strung across the floor and a pile of old clothes stacked in one corner. The principal’s office was equipped with an old dilapidated desk and two chairs, one of which was broken… The classrooms are dark and stuffy; the blackboards are old and defective, and the wooden floors are dirty and offensive… Moreover, the school has no gymnasium or library and generally lacks in the educational equipment which is deemed necessary in modern schools of its grade (The Complete Report of Mayor LaGuardia’s Commission on the Harlem Riot of March 19, 1935, 78-80).

Continuing on to high school required leaving Harlem. The closest high school to Harlem was Wadleigh High School, an option for the neighborhood’s girls. Few black girls attended Wadleigh before the 1930s; they made up 25% of the students in 1937 (11). The nearest boys high schools were De Witt Clinton High School on West 59th Street (renamed Haarn High School in 1927) and George Washington High School on West 192nd Street. A study in 1926 found 507 black children in New York City high schools (12).

By 1927, three of Harlem’s public schools, P.S. 89, 90, and 136, were also home to public evening vocational schools. One evening school catered to men, at PS 89; in 1927, it offered ten classes with over 400 students (13). For men, the city’s evening classes provided a path to white-collar work; by contrast, they equipped women for industrial work. In 1928, over one thousand women attended the evening school at PS 136 for classes in dressmaking, sewing, embroidery, lamp shade making, novelty work, cooking, artificial flower making, millinery, interior decorating and painting lamp shades and silks (14).

PS 5

PS5

PS 5

PS 5 (1920) NYPL Digital Collections

  • Built: 1894-1899
  • Capacity: 2799 students (1934) / Enrollment: 2996 (1913)
  • Teachers: 76 (1937)

PS 68

PS68

PS 68

PS 68 (1920) NYPL Digital Collections

  • Built: 1875-1906
  • Capacity: 1056 students (1934) / Enrollment: 1561 (1913); “nearly 1500” (1931)
  • Teachers: 40 (1931); 48 (1937)
  • No outdoor playground; 128th St closed to traffic from 12-1pm

PS 89

PS89

PS 89

PS 89 (1920) NYPL Digital Collections

  • Built: 1889-1895
  • Capacity: 1875 pupils (1934) / Enrollment: 1841 (1913)
  • Teachers: 62 (1934)
  • Evening vocational school (men)

PS 90

PS90

PS 90

PS 90 (1920) NYPL Digital Collections

  • Built: 1907
  • Capacity: 2547 students (1934): Enrollment: 2666 (1913)
  • Teachers: 78 (1929); 70 (1934)
  • Evening vocational school (women)

PS 119

PS119

PS 119

PS 119 (1920) NYPL Digital Collections

  • Built: 1900
  • Capacity: 1800 (1925); 2500 students (1934) / Enrollment: 2080 (1913); 2540 (1920)
  • Teachers: 60 (1937)

PS 136

PS136

PS 136

PS 136 Girls Junior High School (19??) NYPL Digital Collection

  • Built: 1925
  • Capacity: 1886 students (1934) / Enrollment: 1774 students (1926)
  • Teachers: 100 (1937)
  • Evening vocational school #157 (women)

PS 139

PS139

 

PS 139

PS 139 Boys Junior High School (19??) NYPL Digital Collections

  • Built: 1924
  • Capacity: 1482 students (1934)
  • Teachers: 66 (1937)

There is a large playground outside and the entire ground floor is a gymnasium gymnasium with showers and a lunch kitchen.  The second floor has the offices of the principal and his assistant; kindergarten, kindergarten, class rooms and an auditorium auditorium seating 550 people with a motion picture booth and a stage. The third floor has the medical department department with its waiting room, teacher’s rest room, library, open air room and gymnasium for the juniors. On the fourth floor is the drawing room, music room and science room. The fifth floor is given to manual training Shop. A and B, with class rooms and office of the industrial department (NYA, August 30, 1924, 1).

Information on dates of construction and capacity from Maps and charts prepared by the Slum Clearance Committee of New York, 1933-34, page 96:

Page_96

Notes

(1) Owen Lovejoy, The Negro Children of New York City (Children’s Aid Society, 1932), 11.

(2) Frances Blascoer, Colored School Children in New York (New York: Public Education Association of the City of New York, 1915), 11-12; NYA, March 12, 1921, 1; Floyd Snelson, “The Negro in New York Public Schools,” Federal Writers Project, October 3, 1937.

(3) NYA, January 17, 1920, 1.

(4) World, July 1, 1928, 7.

(5) Thomas Harbison, “Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution? Harlem’s Public Schools, 1914-1954,” PhD dissertation, CUNY, 2011.

(6)  Afro American, June 23, 1928, 5.

(7) The Complete Report of Mayor LaGuardia’s Commission on the Harlem Riot of March 19, 1935, 81-82.

(8) Harbison, chapter 1.

(9) NYA May 29, 1926, 1, 2; June 5, 1926, 1, 2.

(10) NYA, March 12, 1921, 1.

(11) Floyd Snelson, “The Negro in New York Public Schools,” Federal Writers Project, October 3, 1937.

(12) AN, 2/2/1927, 15.

(13) NYA, 10/22/1927, 3.

(14) AN, 1/25/1928, 7.

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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.

image-12

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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