Posts Tagged ‘Photographs’

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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Boys Watching Icemen Make Delivery, 1936 (© Lucien Aigner/CORBIS)

Ice dealers were prominent among the white deliverymen, salesmen and bill collectors who ventured into the residential blocks occupied by blacks. In an era before widespread electrification, Harlem’s residents and businesses relied on ice to store food as well as to cool drinks. For much of the 1920s, Italians enjoyed what the New York Age called “a practical monopoly in serving ice to the homes of Harlem.”

Ice Dealers (Search=Location Type="Ice Dealer")

They typically operated out of cellars, usually located near intersections, buying ice from wholesalers, who carted it from the Colonial Ice and Coal Company, on Eighth Avenue and 151st Street, and delivered it to residents and businesses in the surrounding blocks.  Unlike almost all other white businessmen, at least some icemen also lived in Harlem. *Vito Passantino, an Italian ice dealer on probation between 1930 and 1935, for example, lived in a furnished room on West 132nd Street, and later with another black family, to whom he had sold ice for several years, at 21 Maccombs Place. (* This is a pseudonym as required by Municipal Archives)

Man Delivering Ice Block, 1936 (© Lucien Aigner/CORBIS)

A business that required relatively little skill and capital, the ice trade was within reach of some of the blacks who came to Harlem in the 1920s. Italian icemen secured their trade against black competition through agreements with janitors and superintendents for exclusive access to a building’s residents. However, the biggest obstacle reported by blacks seeking a share of the ice trade was “the average Harlem Negro.” “Time and time again,” L. Baynard Whitney wrote in the Amsterdam News, “they have been told by colored people, ‘I don’t want no nigger iceman!’.”  The ice trade was the subject of a widely reported joke about the unwillingness of blacks to patronize businesses owned by members of their own race.  As recounted by Lawrence Levine, the joke concerned a black ice dealer in a small southern community who had both black and white customers:

When a white competitor came into town, one Negro lady immediately began to buy from him.  “Now why did you stop buying from John?” her white neighbor asked, “he was so courteous and nice, and we did business with him a long time.” “Well I tell you truth Miz George, I tell you just why I changed,” the black woman replied, “that white man’s ice is just colder than that nigger’s ice.”

(Black Culture, Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (NY, 1977), 330)

Despite such attitudes, by 1928, between twenty and forty black dealers did sell ice in Harlem. *Vito Passantino’s experiences suggest that some of those gains had been achieved by force.  When he opened a cellar on West 148th Street, a black dealer across the street threatened him if he did not close. Subsequently the sign in front of his cellar was stolen, and in subsequent months, his cart broken and advertising board taken, and he also lost a number of customers. Within a few months *Passantino abandoned the business.

By 1931, the number of blacks dealing in ice grew to 120, and they sold more tonnage than any single white company.  In July of that year, two Italian companies, fighting over who would control the Harlem trade, now the richest in the city thanks to the spread of electrification in other neighborhoods, began selling ice at half the usual cost.  As black retailers saw their business evaporate, some responded with violence: one, having carried 75 pounds up five flights of stairs only to find a white dealer had taken his customer, returned to the street and assaulted the man with an ice stick.

J Raymond Jones, president of the Afro Ice Dealers Association, making an ice delivery (New York Amsterdman News, August 5, 1931, 3)

A new organization also appeared, the Afro Ice Dealers Association, initially consisting of 25 trucks and 50 cellar dealers.  Unable to negotiate a new agreement with their supplier, the Association threw itself into the price war, undercutting the white companies.  With the support of the Harlem Housewives League and the National Negro Business League, they took to the streets in trucks displaying placards adorned with the Association’s name, and slogans such as ‘Give Us A Break,” and “We Will Stick It Out Though We Starve,” and went house to house.  Harlem’s residents gave them their business, even when the Italian companies countered by staffing their trucks with black workers, and within ten days a truce had been negotiated, returning prices to their original levels. Just how many blacks returned their custom to white dealers once the discounted prices ended is not clear, but *Vito Passantino was able to find work with Italian ice dealers doing business in Harlem as late as 1935.


“Harlem’s Colored Ice Dealers Are Making Determined Fight For Share of Business Among Their Own People,” New York Age, July 21, 1928, 1.

L. Baynard Whitney, “Negro Icemen Receive Cold Shoulder From Harlem Housewives,” New York Amsterdam News, May 30, 1928, 8.

“Icemen Organize to Avert Bankruptcy,” New York Amsterdam News, August 5, 1931, 3.

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Hospitals in Harlem (Search Place, "Location type=Hospitals")

Harlem in the 1920s was not well served by hospitals.  One public hospital was located in the neighborhood, but continued to be dominated by whites throughout the decade. Blacks did operate four small private hospitals, but they charged fees beyond the resources of most blacks and were not well-supported by those who could afford them.

The public institution, Harlem Hospital, stood on the block between 136th and 137th Streets, on the east side of Lenox Avenue, one block north of its current location.  It opened on April 13, 1907, providing 150 beds, facilities that were proving inadequate as early as 1911.  An additional wing and a Nurses Home were added in 1915, increasing the capacity to 390 beds. Although by 1926 the hospital was again overcrowded, further expansion was not undertaken until the 1930s.  (The building on the block between 135th and 136th Streets did not open until 1969).

Despite its location near the heart of Harlem, the hospital remained essentially a white space. It had no black staff until some nurses were hired in 1917, no black physicians until Louis T. Wright was appointed in the Out-Patient Department in 1919, and no black doctors able to visit patients or conduct surgery until 1925.  By 1930, there were still only 25 black physicians on the in-patient, out-patient and intern staff, with whites in all the leadership positions.  The majority of the nurses were blacks, including graduates of the training school opened in the hospital in 1923, but  whites still formed the leadership of the nursing staff.  Even the majority of the non-medical staff were white.

Harlem Hospital, 1926 (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL)

Perhaps most strikingly, as late as 1929 whites also made up a third of the patients, coming from the southern end of the hospital’s district, which reached from the East River to St Nicholas Avenue and from 145th Street down to 110th Street.

Edgecombe Sanitarium (NY Amsterdam News, September 30, 1925)

There were several small black-run private hospitals in Harlem.  The Booker T. Washington Sanitarium opened on 7th Avenue between 138th and 139th Streets in 1920, offering inpatient treatment for those with tuberculosis. In 1925 it was merged with the Edgecombe Sanitarium, when a group of black physicians purchased Brunor’s Sanitarium, located on the corner of 137th Street and Edgecombe Avenue. That hospital had 15 beds, and 3 nurses, and admitted 255 patients in 1929.  Also in 1925, Dr Wiley Wilson expanded his offices on the corner of 138th Street and 7th Avenue into the Wiley Wilson Sanitarium, with 8 beds and 3 nurses in attendance.  In 1929 Wilson’s hospital admitted 220 patients, 80% for surgery.

Dr Conrad Vincent undertook an even more ambitious expansion of his practice, opening the Vincent Sanitarium at 2348 Seventh Avenue in March 1929 (less than half a block from Wilson’s Sanitarium).

Advertisement from the New York Age, July 6, 1930

The remodeled five story building housed 50 beds, an operating theater, dental clinic, pharmacy and x-ray laboratory. Illness forced Vincent to sell his hospital to a group of black investors in February 1930.

The new owners operated it as the International Hospital, with noted Harlem Renaissance author and physician Rudolph Fisher as superintendent.  Although the institution treated 350 patients in its first 8 months, 1/4 of who were white, it went bankrupt in October 1931.  The hospital then passed into the hands of whites.  An editorial in the New York Amsterdam News blamed divisions among Harlem’s black physicians, which caused many to fail to send patients to the hospital.  The paper’s own medical columnist, Dr Lucien Brown, disagreed, blaming instead the limited number of residents with funds for private care, and the preference for white institutions of those with money to spend, a choice based on what he termed exaggerated accounts of deaths in black-run hospitals.


Arthur Davidson, “A History of Harlem Hospital,” Journal of the National Medical Association 56, 5 (September 1957): 373-380

Lester Walton, “Harlem Hospital Has Mixed Staff,” The World (April 27, 1930): 6E

Glenn Carrington, “Community Institutions of Harlem Shoulder Ponderous Tasks in Mending Bodies of the Sick,” NY Amsterdam News (November 12, 1930): 13

Lucien Brown, “International Hospital,” NY Amsterdam News (November 11, 1931): 11

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Churches in Harlem (Search Places, Location Type=”Church”)

Churches were the most prominent black places and institutions in Harlem. They made a powerful impression on visitors to the neighborhood, such as the (white?) journalist who wrote in The Independent in 1921 that “In the main, [Harlem] is impressive. Especially the churches.” This map shows 52 black church buildings located in the neighborhood. They were home to a variety of Christian denominations: Baptist; African Methodist Episcopal; Protestant Episcopal; Presbyterian; Congregationalist; Catholic; 7th Day Adventist; African Orthodox, Holiness; and Apostolic.

A number were elaborate, grand complexes, which coupled houses of worship that seated over a thousand, with community houses, incorporating gymnasiums, reading rooms, recreation rooms and offices. The buildings reflect the broad role Harlem’s churches played in community life: they organized athletic clubs (particularly basketball teams), classes ranging from vocational training to art, choirs and musical groups, and social clubs.  It was such activities that James Weldon Johnson had in mind when he wrote in Black Manhattan (1930) that a Harlem church is “much more besides a place of worship.  It is a social center, it is a club, it is an arena or the exercise of one’s capabilities and powers, a world in which one may achieve self-realization and preferment (165).”

Fourteen of the largest churches were purchased by black congregations moving uptown from white congregations (Christian and Jewish), whose members had left Harlem. These included:

Metropolitan Baptist Church

West 128th St and 7th Ave (NYPL Digital Gallery)


409 West 141st St (NYPL Digital Gallery)


201 Lenox Ave

201 Lenox Ave (NYPL Digital Gallery)


The other congregations that had taken over church buildings in Harlem by 1930 were: Mother Zion AME Church (136th St); Grace Congregational Church (139th St); Emanuel AME Church (119th St); Salem Methodist Church (129th St); St John AME Church (128th St); Mt Calvary United Methodist Church (Edgecombe Ave); Little Mount Zion AME Church (140th St); Transfiguration Lutheran Church (126th St); Williams Institutional CME Church (130th St), St Martins Episcopal Church (Lenox Ave) and Ephesesus 7th-Day Adventist Church (Lenox Ave).

Not all the church buildings in Harlem passed into the hands of black churches. The Catholic Church retained its presence in Harlem, preaching to congregations increasingly made up of blacks.

Nine other relocating black congregations built their own grand churches, including St Philip’s Protestant Episcopal Church on West 134th Street (the wealthiest church in Harlem), the Abyssinian Baptist Church on West 138th St, which seated 3000, and St Mark’s Methodist Church, with seating for 2000.

208 W 134th St (NYPL Digital Gallery)

208 W 134th St (NYPL Digital Gallery)

208 W 134th St (NYPL Digital Gallery)

136-142 West 138th St (NYPL Digital Gallery)

136-142 West 138th St (NYPL Digital Gallery)

136-142 West 138th St (NYPL Digital Gallery)

St Marks Methodist Church, 49 Edgecombe Ave (NYPL GigitalGallery)

St Mark’s Methodist Church, 49 Edgecombe Ave (NYPL Digital Gallery)

St Mark's Methodist Church, 49 Edgecombe Ave (NYPL Digital Gallery)

The other churches built by blacks were: Mother Zion AME Church (137th St); St James Presbyterian Church (137th St); Salem United Methodist (133rd); Rush Memorial (138th St); the Metropolitan Baptist Tabernacle (138th St); and Shiloh Baptist (7th Ave). Smaller churches converted residences or theatres, such as Metropolitan AME Church (134th St) and Union Baptist Church (145th St).

Mother Zion AME Church pursued both strategies, first taking over a church on West 136th St, and then building its own, more elaborate building behind that structure, facing West 137th Street, with a community house and gymnasium.

153 West 136th St

153 West 136th St (NYPL Digital Gallery)


140 West 137th Street

Mother Zion AME Church, 140 West 137th Street (NYPL Digital Gallery)


As the example of Mother Zion suggests, setting up in Harlem was often not the final move a congregation made. It was common to relocate within the neighborhood, seeking more space as membership grew. Thus while on first glance the map suggests Harlem’s churches were spread throughout the neighborhood, by the late 1920s, most of the major houses of worship were located on or near 7th Avenue, or further west. That was where the churches built by white congregations were located. Only below 125th Street, where the black population did not predominate until 1930, were there major church buildings on Lenox Avenue and further east.

The location of Harlem’s church buildings had an impact on the spaces around them.  As Theophilus Lewis noted in his column in The Amsterdam News on January 22, 1930, “As most of the churches, and the biggest ones, are either on [7th] Avenue or only a few steps away, the thoroughfare is also the main artery of the town’s religious life (9).”  The concentration of structures concentrated Harlem’s churchgoers, giving the street a religious character – at least on Sunday mornings.  As Lewis went on to note, twelve hours earlier, on Saturday evenings, 7th Avenue was a “hub of amusement,” filled with “throngs out for hours of joy” in the very forms of leisure  that many Harlem clergy denounced as the greatest obstacles to religious practice.

Church buildings were not the only locations in which Harlemites worshiped. Missing from this map are the churches that operated in storefronts and residences, which far outnumbered those housed in church buildings. Writing in Opportunity magazine in 1926, Ira Reid reported finding 140 churches in 150 blocks in Harlem; two thirds were located in former storefronts, on the first floor of private dwellings, or in the back room of a flat (274). A portion of those churches were what James Weldon Johnson, in his Black Manhattan, described as “ephemeral and nomadic,…here today and gone somewhere else or gone entirely tomorrow (163-4).”  Reid experienced that turnover: returning six weeks after he made his list, seven of the churches could no longer be found (275). Both this transience, and the location of these churches within structures designed for other purposes, meant that they had less of an impact on the streetscape of Harlem than the church buildings that appear on this map.  Rather than marking out distinct spaces within the neighborhood,  storefront churches contributed to the fluidity of commercial spaces: a store could be not only a place of commerce; it could also be a place of worship, or a front for the sale of illegal liquor — a speakeasy — or for the numbers racket.

See also: “Catholics in 1920s Harlem


“Churches,” Box 2, Reel 2, Writers Program Collection (WPA) (Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture)

David Dunlap, From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship (New York, 2004)

Cynthia Hickman, Harlem Churches at the End of the Twentieth Century (New York, 2001).

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