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Posts Tagged ‘Lenox Avenue’

Numbers Arrests, 1925 (Arrests on the street in blue)

Numbers gambling formed part of the rhythm of Harlem’s street life. A map of arrests for playing the numbers in 1925 features almost every corner on Fifth, Lenox, Seventh and Eighth Avenues. Those arrests generally took place in the morning, when players seeking to place bets on their way to work and before before the publication of the daily number at 10 a.m. created a flurry of activity.  By all accounts, making such arrests would not have been difficult: the New York Age reported that runners and collectors followed “a regular schedule each morning, picking up their collections and there is nothing clandestine or hidden in their movements,” as they walked “boldly and openly along, picking up the slips with the money from the players on the streets.” (1)

Few details of what occurred in these cases appear in the legal record, with the clerks in the Magistrate’s Courts generally concerned only with recording the number of slips found in the defendant’s possession, but they occasionally included some mention of the circumstances of the arrest, such as one officer’s statement that the he had watched a man “accept a slip of paper and some money in coins from an unknown man” on the corner of 5th Avenue and 130th Street, and then followed him to 5th Avenue and 129th Street and seen a similar transaction take place. (2)  Other officers observed individuals being approached by a series of people, entering into conversation with them, and then accepting money and slips. Neither police or observers got close enough to hear the conversations between runners and players, but those exchanges constituted a crucial part of playing the numbers.  One exchange that did make it into the record, as part of a statment describing the lead up to an assault, began when a runner called over the superintendent of the building outside which he was collecting bets:

“Fellow ain’t you playing?”

“No, but I had a dream last night.”

“What did you dream.”

“I saw a clock and the hands of the clock, one hand on five and the large hand on eight.”

“Yea. You ought to play five eighteen.”

“I don’t play numbers but give me 18, I’ll play a combination. Five and five is ten and eight is eighteen.”

The superintendent placed a bet of 18 cents, and his number came up, a win that should have been worth $16.50, but the runner said his banker had gone broke and could not pay. (3)

In addition to placing bets, residents discussed numbers on the streets.  “It is a common sight, of mornings, to see two or three individuals, and they are not always of the lower strata, putting their heads together over slips containing presumably the numbers they have played,” according to one observer. (4)  Further evidence of the ubiquity of such discussions can be found in cartoonist E. Simms Campbell‘s widely reproduced 1932 “Nightclub Map of Harlem,” which featured illustrations of street life alongside its better known images of Harlem’s performers and venues.  The map features four different, widely dispersed groups whose involvement in numbers gambling is indicated by the captions, “What’s de numbah?” and “What’s th’ number?”

"A Nighclub Map of Harlem" (1932), E. Simms Campbell

The dispersion and diversity of the four groups capture the ubiquity of numbers in Harlem:

Nightclub Map of Harlem, Detail #1

(#1) A pair of men (perhaps one is a runner?) on the corner of 131st Street and Lenox Avenue, identified as one of the seedier parts of Harlem by the nearby garbage and the illegal marijuana sale taking place just down the street.

Nightclub Map of Harlem, Detail #2

(#2) A woman shopping for dinner (with a chicken in her bag) and a clergyman, alongside a collection of street vendors and street speakers.  These figures are clearly represent respectable Harlem, with the churchman’s involvement a dig at the hypocrisy of many clergy’s opposition to playing the numbers.  Their location amongst street vendors, and the bag indicating that the woman is in the midst of grocery shopping, intertwines numbers gambling with everyday activities.

Nightclub Map of Harlem, Detail #3

(#3) A fashionably dressed woman and man (perhaps a runner) on Seventh Avenue, Harlem’s main street, which is captioned “or heaven,” just uptown from the most famous nightclubs.  This couple are very different in character and location from #1 and #2, indicating the reach of numbers across the strata of Harlem’s places and population;

Nightclub Map of Harlem, Detail #4

(#4) Two officers playing cards in the police station, almost certainly intended to indicate their involvement in, rather than policing of, numbers.  That one officer is white highlights the spread of numbers beyond the black community in the 1930s

SOURCES:

(1) Shane White, Stephen Garton, Stephen Robertson and Graham White, Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars (Harvard University Press, 2010), 67-68

(2) Ibid, 135

(3) Ibid, 88; and DA File 181888 (1930)

(4) Ibid, 67

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Harlem is also a parade ground. During the warmer months of the year no Sunday passes without several parades.  There are brass bands, marchers in resplendent regalia, and high dignitaries with gorgeous insignia riding in automobiles.  Almost any excuse for parading is sufficient — the funeral of a member of the lodge, the laying of a corner stone, the annual sermon to the order, or just a general desire to “turn out….[G]enerally these parades are lively and add greatly to the movement, colour and gaiety of Harlem” (James Weldon Johnson, Black Manhattan (1930), 168)

Parades also represented moments when blacks claimed the neighborhood’s streets for themselves, displacing the whites who drove the buses, trams, and taxis which traversed Harlem’s streets as well as most of the private cars.  A few parades were major events, beginning outside the neighborhood, where the audiences were largely whites, and drawing huge crowds once they entered Harlem.  Most parades remained within the neighborhood, attracting small groups of curious onlookers.  The frequency with which they occurred was testimony to the strength of the rich fabric of voluntary groups, institutions and organizations that sustained life in Harlem.

“Famous New York Soldiers Return Home:” the 369th Regiment, 1919 (National Archives)

It is a parade that is most commonly invoked to mark the beginning of a new era for black Americans in the aftermath of World War One: the return of the 369th Regiment in 1919.  That parade was one of the few that literally marched through Harlem, starting at 61st Street, and proceeding up 5th Avenue, across 110th Street, and up Lenox Avenue.

The 369th Regiment marches up 7th Avenue on its return to Harlem from its summer camp, 1934 (NY Daily News/Getty Images)

Black soldiers reappeared on the streets annually in the subsequent decade, as the 369th departed for their summer camps by parading from their armory at 143rd Street to the train depot/station at East 125th, and then returned two weeks later.  Generally the regiment paraded on 7th or Lenox Avenues; in 1930, they marched down 5th Avenue, disappointing crowds waiting for them on Lenox.

The Elks Annual Convention Parade, 1927

 

Processions of lodge members, not marching soldiers are  what Johnson evoked in his description of Harlem’s parades; they were the groups that most frequently took to Harlem’s streets.  The Elks produced the largest parade of the decade, when Harlem hosted their national convention in July 1927.  On that occasion,  25,000 men and women marched in pouring rain, following a route from 60th Street up 5th Avenue, then up Lenox Avenue, before crossing to 7th Avenue to go through the neighborhood (that the Elks did not march up Lenox as the 369th Regiment had in 1919 reflected that 7th had become Harlem’s main street by 1927).  A platoon of mounted police, followed by a car containing James Blondy Brown, grand marshal, and Casper Holstein, honorary chairman of the local entertaining committee, led the parade, followed by the hosts, the Manhattan, Imperial and Monarch Lodges, and twenty-eight bands, including four female bands.

Oddfellows Parade on 7th Avenue (note the masonic aprons worn by the ranks of men) (Untitled photo by James Van Der Zee, 1920s, Minneapolis Institute of Arts [object 32])

July 4th Parade of Monarch Lodge

Fraternal lodges also held smaller parades to mark their anniversaries, marching from their lodges to local churches, participated in parades for the groundbreaking of churches, and to mark holidays such as July 4th; in 1929, Holstein led the Monarch lodge through the neighborhood up Lenox Avenue and down 7th Avenue, before crossing 135th St to St Nicholas Park.

Johnson’s description applied equally well to the parades of another group, Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Although they occurred only once a year, as part of the organization’s convention or anniversary, the UNIA’s parades were Harlem’s most photographed.

Black Cross Nurses, in the 1922 UNIA Parade (Corbis)

What drew the cameras was a combination of spectacle and controversy.  Led by an ornately garbed Garvey — or, after his deportation, by a large photograph of their leader — UNIA parades displayed a combination of military and fraternal elements, including bands and ranks of men and women in the uniforms of the African Legion, Black Cross Nurses, Motor Corps, Juvenile Division and Marching Band, military attire more like that of the 369th Regiment than that worn by members of fraternal orders.  Those UNIA members not in uniform carried placards adorned with slogans such as “Scattered Africa unite” and “The Negro Won the war,” which in expressing the often controversial positions that Garvey took throughout the 1920s gave these processions a political character.  Automobiles, buses and floats also featured in the parades

Marchers in UNIA 1924 Convention (James Van Der Zee, Marcus Garvey Papers, vol V)

When the UNIA took to the streets in the early 1920s, it also typically ventured further south than fraternal organizations, out of black Harlem into blocks populated by whites, to 125th Street on the occasion of its first convention in 1920, and as far south as 110th Street in 1922 and 1924.

UNIA 1922 Convention Parade, with the boundaries of the area dominated by blacks in 1920

When the parade for the 1922 convention crossed into the area occupied by whites, according to a report in the New York World, banners appeared reading, “White man rules America, black man shall rule Africa,” “We want a black civilization,” and “God and Negro Shall Triumph.” (For more, see the post on the UNIA in Harlem)

The final group of parades, those for funerals, were far smaller than those consisting of soldiers or celebrating the anniversaries or activities of organizations.  Funeral processions also followed shorter routes, bearing the coffin from the undertakers to the site of the funeral, and then out of Harlem for burial, usually in Woodlawn cemetery in the Bronx.

As Johnson noted, the typical parade came on the death of a lodge member.  Such parades drew few onlookers, unless that member had attained some degree of celebrity or notoriety, when large crowds could come out, as they did for the funeral of Barron Wilkins, a cabaret owner and sporting identity who was also a member of the Monarch Lodge of the Elks.  The funeral procession that drew by far the largest crowd of any that occurred in Harlem was for one of the neighborhood’s true celebrities, singer Florence Mills, when somewhere over 150,000 packed the streets.

New York Age, June 6, 1924, 1

While the crowds might have differed, funeral parades themselves took essentially the same form. Pallbearers took the lead, as is the photo of Wilkins’ funeral, followed by the hearse and other vehicles.  Bands from lodges also often formed part of the procession, as they did in Mills’ funeral.

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Blocks containing street vendors

On Saturday evenings, as crowds thronged Seventh Avenue in search of entertainment, many residents of Harlem headed to Eighth and Fifth Avenues to patronize street markets.  Street vendors operated throughout the week, but those evenings were a particularly busy time as residents shopped for their Sunday dinners, the main meal on the one day or part day they had off from their jobs.

Eighth Avenue Market, from the 145th St Elevated Train station (Corbis)

The city government determined the location of street markets.  According to a story in the Amsterdam News, it was around 1913 that the city established the first street market in Harlem, on the east side of Lenox Avenue from 138th Street to 142nd Street.  Within a few years, the expanding population of the neighborhood made those blocks too crowded to accommodate street vendors, and the city relocated the market to Eighth Avenue, further uptown, from 139th to 145th Streets.  These blocks, underneath the elevated railroad that ran the length of 8th Avenue, were on the boundary of Harlem, and too noisy and dirty to attract many pedestrians or events such as street speakers and parades.  (Street vendors still operated on Lenox Avenue, around the 135th Street subway station).

Street vendors, Fifth Avenue and 135th Street, 1927 (Corbis) The stovepipe on the right indicates a vendor selling roasted nuts or yams

Soon after another market opened on the west side of Fifth Avenue from 132nd to 135th Streets.  As undesirable as Eight Avenue, these blocks were a “dingy avenue,” bordered on the east by the neighborhood’s least desirable tenement districts.

As was the case with Harlem’s stores, whites operated most street businesses – although photographers tended to pick out those operated by blacks.  Street vending did require less capital than operating a store: in 1930, the city charged $1 for a license and $1 a week for use of the street, while rental of a cart, from a business operating on 142nd Street, cost an additional $2 a week. An Amsterdam News journalist hopefully described the black vendors as the fruit or produce barons of tomorrow.  One of Harlem’s most famous identities did achieve wealth selling on the street,  but not by competing directly with whites in selling what most street vendors did. Lillian Harris, better known as Pig Foot Mary, sold pig’s feet and other southern hot food such as corn, fried chicken and chitlins, from a converted baby carriage stationed at Lenox and 135th Street, eventually making enough money to buy an apartment building on Seventh Avenue, and retire to California.

Street Vendor, Fifth Avenue, 1927 (Corbis)

Most vendors sold vegetables, and apples, bananas and grapefruit, but no other fruit. A few sold regional delicacies – sugar cane and pomegranates for southerners, and dried fish and cassavas for West Indians — or hot food such as roasted peanuts and roasted yams.  Only whites sold goods other than food, more expensive items such as clothing, china, and kitchen utensils, although there was a black selling socks on Eighth Avenue in 1930.

Residents chose to shop at the street markets because they believed them cheaper than stores. Harlem’s newspapers sometimes criticized street vendors, joining in attacks on them as sources of disorder out of place in a modern city common in the early twentieth century.  L Baynard Whitney, in the Amsterdam News in May 1928, rejected the idea that residents saved money by buying from vendors, and criticized the quality of the produce sold on the street.  Labeling the markets “gutter markets,” he reported that on one wet Saturday night, “Decaying lettuce, spinach and cabbage leaves carpeted the sidewalks, while the gutters were choked with black mud, foul water and refuse.” Street vendors also had a reputation for cheating that threatened any savings shoppers might make.  Whitney found one vendor hiding two small sweet potatoes in the bottom of his scales to add half a pound of weight; others added weight by keeping their arms or hands on the scales when weighing goods.   Such conditions and complaints did not discourage custom, and street vendors remained a feature of Harlem into the 1940s, even as Mayor La Guardia closed street markets throughout the city.  By 1946 only ten of the sixty markets that existed in 1934 remained, but two of those markets were in Harlem.

Lenox Avenue Pushcart, 1940, Carl Van Vechten (Beinecke Library, Yale University)

“Harlem Pushcart Markets Provide Colorful Spectacle and Give Small Tradesmen Chance,” Amsterdam News (November 5, 1930): II, 2

L Baynard Whitney, “Harlem’s Food Sold Amid Filth from Street Carts,” Amsterdam News (May 23, 1928): 1, 2

Ella Mae Harper, “How Harlem Housewives Are Cheated Of Hundreds of Pounds of Vegetables and Meats Every Week by Shortweight Scales,” New York Age (August 14, 1926): 9

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A new feature has been added to Digital Harlem, thanks to the folks at the Archaeological Computing Laboratory.  It is now possible to link the path of an event.  This is most obviously useful for mapping events such as parades.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you map the July 4th parade of members of the Elks in 1929, the map that first appears contain only two points, the beginning of the parade at the Monarch Lodge, and its end in St Nicholas Park.  If you toggle on the new left hand button on the layers display, the path of parade appears.

 

 

 

 

This feature can also be used to link a sequence of incidents associated with an event, such as the murder of Jennie Hoyer: the series of isolated points is linked in the sequence in which the events occurred, showing William Hoyer’s activities and movements before and after the crime (I have now replaced the maps in the post on the Hoyer  murder with these improved maps).

 

 

With this new feature available to us, look out for a post on parades in Harlem.

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Beauty parlors (Search Place, Location type=”Beauty parlor”)

Beauty parlors were the most prevalent form of black business in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s.  When George Edmund Haynes, the black sociologist and founder of the Urban League, surveyed the neighborhood’s businesses in 1921 he found 103 hairdressers, compared to 63 tailors, pressers and cleaners and 51 barbers.  Simm’s Blue Book, a directory of black businesses and professionals published in 1923, listed 161 beauty salons, more than any other enterprise.  Combining that list with the businesses that advertised in Harlem’s newspapers, the map shows the location of 199 beauty parlors that operated in the 1920s. So many existed because it took relatively little capital to open a beauty parlor, particularly if you operated out of your home, as most women in Harlem did.  Of the 103 hairdressers identified by Haynes in 1921, 46 operated out of stores and 57 from their homes. Beauty parlors also proliferated because the trade provided an alternative to domestic service, an occupation based in Harlem rather than in the homes of whites, which even if it still involved sweating and scrubbing was, in the words of an operator overheard by Federal Writers’ Project interviewer Vivian Morris in a salon in 1939,”cleaner and you don’t have no white folks goin’ around behind you trying to find a spec of dirt.”

Beauty Shop in Harlem, 1935 © Bettmann/CORBIS

While most beauty salons were in homes, they were nonetheless a prominent presence along the streets occupied by the neighborhood’s businesses, particularly 7th Avenue (the photo on the left is of 2131 7th Avenue, near 125th St). Helen Bullitt Lowry, writing in the New York Times on August 21, 1921, associated beauty parlors with the more middle-class style of Seventh Avenue: On Lenox Avenue, “the proleteriat heart of the Black belt”,  “the language is frank and from the shoulder. “Straightening combs fifteen cents.”  But on Seventh Avenue, “the beauty parlors on the first floor hint more mysteriously. “Hair culture. The Poro System.  Satisfaction guaranteed.” Groups of heads leaning out of any apartment house stone-cased windows demonstrate what it means to be permanently unkinked.” The map above, which draws on Simm’s Blue Book and later sources, shows only eight beauty parlors on Lenox Avenue, compared with 32 on 7th Avenue. By the 1930s, as the Depression brought an expansion in the beauty trade, which was perceived as “depression-proof,” 7th Avenue became dominated by beauty salons.  In 1939, Vivian Morris, described a more elaborate geography that encompassed a cross-section of Harlem’s population: on the avenues between 135th and 110th Streets were beauty parlors that catered to the “average Harlemite,” particularly women employed as domestic servants; on 7th avenue between 135th and 138th Streets were the “Theatrical” parlors, which catered to men and women; while further north on 7th were the “elite” parlors whose clients came from the better residences of Sugar Hill, often by car; and finally, “hometown” shops filled the cross streets, bringing together operators and clients that hailed from the same parts of the South.

Madam C J Walker’s Townhouse, 108-110 West 136th Street (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL)

By far Harlem’s most elaborate beauty parlor was the Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Shoppe, at 110 West 136th Street, in the elaborate townhouse built by Walker in 1914, and occupied in the 1920s by her daughter A’Lelia, until it became the home of a government Health Centre in 1930.  The building also housed a beauty school teaching the Walker System.  At least five other beauty schools operated in Harlem, the largest being the Poro School, at 1997 7th Avenue, and the Apex School, on the corner of 7th Avenue and 135th Street, both of which taught nationally marketed systems that competed with the Walker system for dominance in Harlem and elsewhere in black America.  In October 1927, for example, the Pittsburgh Courier‘s Harlem reporter claimed that Sarah Spencer-Washington, president of Apex Hair Company, had initiated a “Beauty War” by opening a string of new beauty parlors on 7th Avenue.

Interior of Beauty Parlor (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL)

Much more than hairstyling took place in beauty parlors.  They also served as centers of community life, places, as a writer in the Afro American put it in October 1926, where “one may learn the latest Harlem news, listen to the choicest bits of scandal, hear the private life of one’s neighbor’s discussed, and collect opinions of all and sundry on the events of the day.” Perhaps more unexpectedly, they were also “marts of exchange for everything salable from lingerie to tickets for dances, church socials or what have you.”  Not all that business was legal, even in elite beauty parlors. While Vivian Morris was in “a swanky shop,” listening to customers discuss the international situation and the latest bestseller, a man entered, and went to the back of the shop, from where he sold “hot stuff,” stolen lingerie with ten dollar tags for three dollars.

“A numbers headquarters at 351 Lenox Avenue in Harlem” (1938) © New York Daily News

At a “hometown” shop the illegal trade Morris witnessed was playing the numbers, with a runner arriving to collect bets from operators and customers.  As more numbers betting moved to stores during the struggles between black and white bankers for control of the racket in Harlem, beauty parlors became centers for gambling.  The New York Daily News in 1938 identified the Ritzy Beauty Salon at 351 Lenox Avenue, an Apex parlor based on the signs displayed in the window, as a numbers ‘headquarters.’

Harlem’s beauty parlors also contributed to life in the neighborhood in less direct ways.  The career of A Philip Randolph, the socialist and founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was supported by his wife Lucille Green Randolph, one of the first graduates of the Walker Beauty School in Harlem, who operated an exclusive beauty parlor on 135th Street from 1913 to 1927.

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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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(Search People="First Name=Roger" + "Surname+Walker")

Roger Walker* was a nineteen-year old native of North Carolina and restaurant worker placed on probation after being convicted of trying to burgle a drug store in 1930, when he was unemployed and without money for food (*This name is a pseudonym, used at the request of the Municipal Archives).

The map of Walker’s life during the four years he spent on probation reveals an experience quite unlike that of Morgan Thompson* and Fuller Long*, two other men whose lives feature in our article “This Harlem Life” who have been the subject of blog posts. In the first place, Walker changed residence far more often than they did, living at fourteen different addresses in four years.  He did not set up his own household, but rented furnished rooms in apartments.

Lodgers such as Walker were a ubiquitous and growing population in 1920s Harlem, present in perhaps half of all households by 1930 (including that of Morgan Thompson).  Many were related to their landlords; Walker lived for his first two years in Harlem with an aunt and uncle who resided on West 153rd Street.  When they returned to the South, he retained some ties to family by sharing a room with a cousin, with whom he entered into an agreement that in the event that one was out of work, the other would pay the entire rent.  After 19 months of living together the two men quarreled, and from then on he shared rooms with unnamed friends — with his cousin occasionally helping with rent and bills — until he married.  Even then, Walker was not able to set up his own household; he and his wife lived with her married sister and husband. His mobility in the interim sometimes reflected an inability to pay rent, but on other occasions simply the unstable nature of relationships with roommates and landlords and his life in general. Observers, particularly white social reformers, worried that lodgers threatened the stability and morality of the families with who they lived; Walker, however, appeared to have little to do with his landlords.  He spent most of his leisure time outside his residences.

Aaron Siskind - Harlem Document (1940/41) (George Eastman House Still Photograph Archive)

Certainly, furnished rooms did not offer attractive places to do anything other than sleep, usually being equipped with no more than beds, a stove for heating, a chair, lamp, and perhaps a bureau.  For lodgers, the streets and businesses of the neighborhood functioned as part of their home: restaurants and chop suey joints were their dining rooms; speakeasies, pool halls and movie theaters their parlors and sitting rooms.  Walker preferred to spent his time at the movies, attending four or five shows a week, a fairly typical activity for Americans in these years, even as the Depression hit.

The map of Walker’s life is also strikingly different from those of Thompson and Long because employment did not take him outside Harlem, as it did in the case of the other two men, and almost all residents of the neighborhood.  Rather than laboring, Walker worked as a kitchen hand, counterman or soda dispenser in restaurants and drug stores (with soda fountains), which were found in abundance the length of Lenox and Seventh Avenues.  He often worked 12 or 13 hours a day in these positions, and even overtime beyond those hours; in other cases he worked the night shift. While he worked in Harlem, Walker,  like Thompson and Long, would still likely have been employed by whites, who controlled almost all the businesses in Harlem.

Harlem Soda Fountain (no date) (Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS)

Service work was not by nature as itinerant as was the laboring work done by Thompson, but Walker changed jobs repeatedly, holding nine different positions during his four years on probation. He lost some of those positions due to cutbacks resulting from the Depression, but more often he quit or was fired as a result of disputes about unpaid or inadequate wages and taking days off.  In October 1933, Walker’s fortunes took a turn for the better, and he secured one of the best jobs available in his line of work, as a waiter in a Pullman dining car traveling between New York City and Chicago.

A more detailed account of Roger Walker’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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