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Stephen Robertson’s article, “Constrained but not contained: Patterns of everyday life and the limits of segregation in 1920s Harlem,” has appeared in The Ghetto in Global History: 1500 to the Present, edited by Wendy Z. Goldman and Joe William Trotter, Jr. (Routledge, 2017). The article is based on the presentation he gave to the Sawyer Seminar at Carnegie Mellon University in April 2015.

For a copy of the “accepted manuscript,” the final version of the article before copy-editing and production, click here.

ABSTRACT

In 1966, in the first major historical study of twentieth-century Harlem, Gilbert Osofsky told the story of the neighborhood in the 1920s as the making of a ghetto.  What he described was the emergence of a large, segregated community, and the transformation of the area it occupied into a slum from which black residents could not escape. The demographic evidence of segregated housing is clear, but offers at best only a partial picture of the nature of the neighborhood.  To determine if a neighborhood is a place apart also requires evidence of where residents went when they left their homes and who spent time in the neighborhood. Using the digital mapping tools offered by Digital Harlem as a means of combining fragmentary evidence from a wide range of sources and visualizing the spatial dimensions of everyday life, this chapter reveals patterns of everyday life that show the permeability of black Harlem’s borders in the 1920s. Residents left to work and play, and whites entered to work and visit a range of institutions and patronize various forms of commercialized leisure. Residents experienced white economic and government power and violence in their daily lives, even as they created a range of places and institutions apart from whites. If not contained, black life in 1920s Harlem was constrained, neither entirely separate from whites nor free of their authority. As a result, Harlem in the 1920s was too racially variegated and contested a place to be labeled a ghetto.

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Basketball Venues (Search Event, Event Type=”Basketball Game (M)” and “Basketball Game (F)”

Sports loomed large among the entertainments patronized by Harlem’s residents in the 1920s.   Basketball occupied the most prominent place. Romeo Dougherty, sportswriter for the Amsterdam News, argued that, “Here in Greater New York and New Jersey basketball has meant more to us than baseball for the latter sport among colored people has been so closely allied to the saloon and underground dives…[whereas basketball] is fostered by religious and other institutions working for the uplift of our people (Crusader, Jan., 1921, cited in Kuska, p. 90).”

St Christopher Club emblem (Hoopedia.com)

The first teams had been formed by athletic clubs, with the most prominent the St. Christopher Club (based at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, whose parish house included the best gymnasium available to any club) and the Alpha Physical Culture Club, which had club rooms first on 134th Street and then at 126 West 131st Street. The early members came from among the small black middle class, with West Indians prominent among them, and the clubs also operated as social organizations, organizing dances and other events (often for fundraising), and displayed a fraternal character evident in clothing decorated with club emblems and organized cheering at games. Almost from their inception the clubs also organized women’s teams — the New York Girls at the Alpha Physical Culture Club, the Nomads at the St Christopher Club.  Games between women’s teams took place in Harlem throughout the 1920s.

Harlem’s first major basketball venue, Manhattan Casino (renamed Rockland Palace c.1928) (Source: Father Divine and International Peace Mission Movement)

Only small crowds could fit in the church gymnasiums, so beginning around 1910. as games gained popularity — particularly those featuring black teams from other cities or white teams — they took place at the Manhattan Casino, 280 West 155th Street, well to the north of the boundaries of early black Harlem, but easily accessible by subway.  The crowds featured many respectable men, with newspaper reports drawing attention to the presence of Elks and Post Office clerks. Basketball also continued to be played in gymnasiums connected to St Philip’s Episcopal Church, Mother Zion A.M.E. Church, Abyssinian Baptist Church, St. Mark’s Methodist Church, St Mark’s Catholic Church, in the YMCA, P.S. 136, and at the 15th Regiment Armory.  Harlem’s schools began competing in the Public School Athletic League in 1910, and by the 1920s repeatedly won championships in basketball. P.S. 89,  were city  champions from 1928 to 1937, when they lost to P.S. 139, Harlem’s junior high school. The Monarch and Imperial Lodges of the Elks, the 369th/15th Regiment, and various fraternities also had teams that played in Harlem, and by the end of the 1920s, an inter-church league operated in the neighborhood.

New York Renaissance Big 5, 1925 (James VanDerZee)

All this interest in basketball generated the opportunity for professional teams, which developed as attractions to help fill Harlem’s dance halls.  First came the Commonwealth Big 5, put together in 1922 by the white McMahon brothers to play at their venue, the Commonwealth Casino, primarily a boxing venue. The McMahons’ connections allowed them to open Harlem to mixed-race professional games, including against the Original Celtics, the dominant white team of the era. When sufficient crowds failed to come, the Commonwealth Big 5 folded after two seasons, leaving the spotlight to the New York Renaissance, or Rens, a black-run team named for the new venue in which they played, the Renaissance Ballroom, on Seventh Avenue in the very heart of the black neighborhood. In the 1920s, the Rens played one home game a week in Harlem throughout the season, and often as many as five or six games a week on the road, rather than the 10-15 games a year the amateur clubs had scheduled. The team’s first opponents, on November 2, 1923, were a white team; interracial games became a feature of the Rens’ schedule, not only drawing good crowds that included whites, but offering the team the opportunity to claim to be the best in the nation. On December 20, 1925, the Rens recorded their first victory over the white world champions, the Original Celtics.

Interior of the Manhattan Casino, 1911 (http://www.blackfives.com/)

A Saturday or Sunday evening at the basketball included not only a game, but also the dance that followed, featuring good orchestral music, songs, and dance contests. The ballroom could hold about 1500 people, or 3000 standing-room-only, but was less than an ideal venue, shorter (100 feet by 89 feet), darker and with a lower ceiling than the Commonwealth Casino, where the dance floor measured 176 feet by 40 feet (nearly twice as long as a current NBA court).  The crowd sat at three tiers of tables around the court, and in cheaper seats in the upper gallery (the realm of the ‘Gallery Gods,’ famous for their catcalls during games).

Renaissance Casino and Ballroom, 1927 (Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images)

Games were also periodically played at the Alhambra Ballroom and the Palace Garden Casino, but, thanks to increased charges, only rarely in the late 1920s at the Manhattan Casino  (which was renamed the Rockland Palace in 1928).  The Renaissance Ballroom continued to host basketball into the 1930s, although the Rens spent most of their time on the road.  It was in Chicago, on March 20, 1939, that Harlem’s basketball team defeated a white team to win the first ever professional basketball tournament, officially becoming world champions.

Additional Sources:

  • Bob Kuska, Hot Potato: How Washington and New York Gave Birth to Black Basketball and Changed America’s Game Forever (University of Virginia Press, 2004)
  • James Gardner, “The Negro in Sports,” WPA Writers’ Program, Negroes of New York, Roll 5 (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL)

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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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Search People, First Name="Frank" + Surname="Hamilton"

Frank Hamilton*, a twenty-three-year-old born in Memphis, Tennessee, raised in Arkansas, and educated at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, was placed on probation in 1928 after stealing three suits from the midtown clothing store where he worked as a porter. (*This name is a pseudonym, used at the request of the Municipal Archives) He had resorted to theft in an effort to support an expensive lifestyle.  Hamilton rented what his probation officer described as a “luxuriously outfitted” apartment, with walls adorned with photographs of beautiful women, in a “high class apartment building with every modern convenience,” where he entertained young men and women from “good circles,” dressed stylishly.  Rather than helping pay for this lifestyle, the theft made it even less sustainable: Hamilton was required to pay $500 in restitution, which meant that even though he found a new job as Pullman porter, he had less to live on.  Nonetheless, in September 1929, he married Alice, a woman he had met in Atlanta before coming to New York, and set up a home for them in a ‘high class building’ at 582 St Nicholas Avenue.

(The trolley icons linked to 582 St Nicholas Ave indicate the stores to which Hamilton was in debt)

Hamilton had bought the radio and furnishings for his new home on installment plans, putting himself almost $1000 in debt, a sum equal to almost six months wages for a Pullman porter — a fact his new wife discovered only after he was arrested in November 1929 for failing to make restitution payments. That debt was owed to white-owned businesses, including two large stores on West 125th Street, the major retail district on the southern edge of Harlem still dominated by whites.  Hamilton was not satisfied with devoting all his income to clearing those debts, instead looking to Harlem’s underground economy to get ahead.  He gambled fifty cents a day playing numbers, insisting that the odds of winning were too good to refrain (actually one in a thousand), and talked of buying an interest in a speakeasy or running a dice game, working briefly in two nightclubs.

Pawn Brokers (Search Place, Location type="Pawnbroker")

Hamilton also used Harlem’s pawnshops to go even further in debt.  In July 1931, he showed his probation officer $200 of tickets for pawned clothing and jewelery. Such a collection horrified the officer, who could only attribute it to a need to pay gambling debts.

Pawnbroker's sign, Lenox Avenue (Detail from "A Harlem street scene in the 1920s" © New York Daily News)

However, Harlem residents, like other working-class Americans, did not pawn goods only out of desperation, as the officer imagined, but as a survival strategy, a means of obtaining cash to tide them over to pay day, or to pay rent or other bills that had become due, circumstances that recurred in the economic rhythm of the lives of individuals only able to obtain intermittent work.  Banks did not accept personal property as collateral, and rarely made loans to blacks; in fact, few, and in some periods, none, operated in Harlem. But at least sixteen pawnshops did, owned by Jews, providing modest access to white capital.

Barber Shops (Search Place, Location type="Barber Shop")

Large Barber Shop In Harlem c. 1929, © Bettmann/CORBIS

Hamilton’s refusal to pursue a respectable, middle class life led to fights with his wife; once he lost his job in June 1930, the relationship quickly fell apart.  Alice left to live with relatives in Long Island, and he moved into a furnished room, incurring further debt to put his furniture into storage.  The forwarding address Hamilton left, for many weeks the only means his probation officer had of trying to locate him, was a barber shop on 7th Avenue. Centers of sociability, barber shops fostered a male world less concerned with respectability than the fraternal orders and churches frequented by other, older Harlem residents like Perry Brown, while still providing similar services, like help finding work. Even as Hamilton immersed himself in that world, and relocated frequently, his wife’ eviction, unemployment and illness led her to re-establish a home with him four times in the twenty-two months after they separated, until a particularly violent fight led her to leave permanently.

To support herself, Alice became a domestic servant, giving up an ambition, nurtured by two years of study at a junior college, to be a social worker.  For Hamilton, by contrast, a middle-class life remained within reach.  At end of his probation, he had a permanent position as a porter for Russell Sage Foundation, was using their library to prepare to finish high school and contemplating studying sociology, and had joined the YMCA and St James Presbyterian Church — and still owed several hundred dollars to two furniture stores, $288.33 in restitution,  $70 to the storage company, and $87 for a radio he had long since sold.

A more detailed account of Frank Hamilton’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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Select a Person – Perry 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”)

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.

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

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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Catholic Churches (Search "Place=Church" + Keyword=Catholic)

Catholic churches were spread throughout Harlem, reflecting an organization that assigned each parish a particular part of the neighborhood. Unlike other religious denominations, the Catholic Church did not leave Harlem as blacks occupied the neighborhood. Catholic parishes retained white members into the 1930s, and even as blacks slowly came to dominate congregations, white clergy still presided.  The Church also operated schools in Harlem, and in the 1920s added a day nursery for preschool children and an additional primary school, both operated by black nuns.

In 1929, Lester Walton estimated that 5000 blacks attended Harlem’s Catholic churches.  The earliest were migrants from Maryland; the largest number were immigrants from the West Indies, Puerto Rico and Cuba. Walton identified St Mark’s on West 138th Street as the “largest Negro Catholic Church in New York,” with a membership of 1000.  In 1912, the Holy Ghost Fathers had taken charge of the parish, and within 4 years had converted 400 blacks. At St Charles Borromeo on West 141st Street whites remained a majority of the congregation until the mid-1920s, but by 1929, blacks made up 90% of members.  In Harlem’s other parishes, blacks were still a minority: at St Aloysius on West 132nd Street they made up about half the congregation; at the Church of the Resurrection on 151st Street blacks constituted about 40% of members; and only a few could be found at the two churches on the boundaries of the black neighborhood, St Thomas on West 118th Street and All Saints at East 129th Street and Madison Avenue.

Catholic Schools and Day Nurseries (Search Place="School_Catholic")

Catholic churches undertook one activity that the neighborhood’s Protestant institutions did not: they operated schools.  In 1929, the school next to St Mark’s housed 500 students, taught by seven nuns from the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and three lay teachers.  Of the 330 students at St Charles Borromeo, all but 15-20 were black, taught by 8 Sisters.  Those teachers were white, as were most of those in the public schools.  Not so those at St Mary’s Primary School, set up in 1930 by the Franciscan Handmaidens, an order of black nuns, in the basement of their convent on East 131st Street (they also operated a day nursery on West 132nd Street).

St Mary's Primary School (Cecilia Moore, "Keeping Harlem Catholic," American Catholic Studies 114, 3 (2003): 14)

The school soon outgrew that location and in the mid-1930s relocated to St Aloysius, first to the rectory, and later to a purpose built structure, dedicated in 1941.

Notwithstanding the work of the Franciscan Handmaidens, the Catholic Church in 1920s Harlem needs to be seen as one of the institutions in which white control persisted long after blacks residents filled the neighborhood

______

Cecilia Moore, “Keeping Harlem Catholic: African-American Catholics and Harlem, 1920-1960,” American Catholic Studies, 114, 3 (2003): 3-21.

Lester Walton, “Catholic Church Makes Strides in Harlem,” The World, September 29, 1929, 6E

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Our article “This Harlem Life: Black Families and Everyday Life in the 1920s and 1930s” has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Social History.  (It appeared in the Fall 2010 issue).JSH cover

The article uses the Probation Department files to reconstruct the lives of five men “to highlight what the black metropolis offered those outside the elite, to show how ordinary blacks negotiated the challenges, and drew on institutions and organizations, to establish and sustain new lives.  We offer the kind of individualized perspective on everyday life that other scholars have provided for high culture, but which does not exist for Harlem, even in early twentieth century sociological studies of black life.”   Relationships with spouses, children, siblings and cousins sustained individuals faced with the social reality of living in overcrowded, deteriorating, disease infested housing, subject to the racism of white police, politicians and employers; so too did friendships made in nightclubs, speakeasies, dances and movie theatres, and membership of churches, fraternal organizations, social clubs, and sports clubs and teams.

There are blog posts about each of the five men we discuss —  Fuller Long*Morgan Thompson*, Perry Brown*, Frank Hamilton* & Roger Walker*.

*These names are pseudonyms, as required by Municipal Archives

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