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Posts Tagged ‘Seventh 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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Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was headquartered in Harlem from 1918 to 1927.  The organization generally appears in accounts of Harlem on parade, on the occasion of its conventions.  However, the UNIA occupied more than the streets. Its headquarters was on West 135th Street, as were the offices of a number of the organizations it established.  Liberty Hall, the site of weekly meetings and the annual convention, was on West 138th Street, while a range of UNIA owned and operated businesses occupied buildings in the heart of Harlem.

UNIA Offices and Businesses, 1918-1927 (search Places, Location Name=UNIA)

Liberty Hall, 1922 (Marcus Garvey & UNIA Papers)

Garvey purchased Liberty Hall in 1919.  The single level hall with low ceilings had previously been home to the Metropolitan Baptist Tabernacle. From 1922 the hall bordered the grand new home of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, meaning that the UNIA met adjacent to the largest African American church in New York City, one of the bastions of the Harlem establishment with which Garvey was frequently at odds. Although the UNIA’s home had a far less impressive exterior than the church, once festooned with flags and banners, and filled with up to 6000 people, including many in the uniforms of the UNIA’s soldiers, nurses and officials, the hall became the heart of Garvey’s vision for blacks in the US and around the world.

Detail from Bromley map (1925) The 1930 map on Digital Harlem shows one of the apartment buildings later constructed on the site by Casper Holstein

On Sunday evenings, Liberty Hall hosted the weekly meeting of the UNIA.  James Weldon Johnson, in a widely quoted account, offered a critical take on what occurred in the building, noting that “Meetings at Liberty Hall were conducted with an elaborate liturgyThe moment for the entry of the Provisional President into the auditorium was solemn; a hushed and expectant silence on the throng, the African Legion and Black Nurses flanking the long aisle coming to attention, the band and audience joining in the hymn: “Long Live Our President:” and Garvey, surrounded by his guard of honor from the Legion, marching majestically through the double line and mounting the rostrum; it was impressive if for no other reason than the way in which it impressed the throng (Black Manhattan, 255).”

Source: Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers

A typical Sunday evening meeting did resemble religious services, opening with prayers and the UNIA anthem, musical programs featuring the Liberty Choir and the Black Star Line Band, and a range of speakers, and included fundraising collections.  For a time, Liberty Hall also hosted religious services on Sunday mornings. The  UNIA almost lost the hall in early 1927, having been forced to mortgage it, until numbers king Casper Holstein stepped in.  However, he sold it at the end of the year, and by 1930 apartments occupied part of the site (shown on the map in Digital Harlem).

UNIA Headquarters, 54-56 West 135th Street (Marcus Garvey & UNIA Papers)

The UNIA headquarters, and the offices of the Black Star Line, was located first at 36 West 135th Street, in the Crescent Theater building, and from 1919, at 54-56 West 135th Street, next door to the Lincoln Theater, locations at the very heart of black Harlem. Although white journalist and NAACP officer Herbert Seligman described them as “dingy old dwelling houses…converted to new uses,” the offices clearly appeared as much more to black residents. When Captain Hugh Malzac visited, outside was “a line more than 100 yards long waiting to enter.  There were jobseekers and supplicants, stock-owners-to-be and a few hero worshippers who simply wanted to tell Mr Garvey how proud they were of him for what he was doing for the race.” “To walk into these offices,” white journalist and NAACP officer Herbert Seligman wrote in 1921, “was to enter a fantastic realm in which cash sales of shares and the imminence of destiny strangely commingle.” Garvey’s office was on the third floor.  By 1921, the UNIA needed extra office space, and expanded next door to 52 West 135th Street.  It retained offices there until January 1926, when the building was sold to pay back taxes; 54-56 West 135th Street was also sold in November 1926.

Advertisement from the Negro World (Marcus Garvey & UNIA Papers)

The UNIA established the African Communities’ League in 1918 and the Negro Factories Corporation in 1920 as the business side of the organization, to show that blacks could compete with whites and makes them self-reliant. In Harlem, the Corporation opened the Universal Steam Laundry, with 50 employees, and the Universal Tailoring and Dress Making Department, both at 62 West 142nd Street, producing UNIA uniforms and fashionable clothing, which was displayed in fashion shows at Liberty Hall. The Corporation also operated three grocery stores, two restaurants, one in Liberty Hall, and a printing plant. The printing plant gave the UNIA an address on Seventh Avenue, the most prestigious of Harlem’s avenues, which was on its way to becoming the black neighborhood’s main street, and a location that Garvey used to advantage as the site of a reviewing platform for the 1924 parade (see below). The other enterprises were located on the less prestigious Lenox Avenue and on 135th Street east of Lenox Avenue, with laundry in an industrial area. These enterprises employed over 200 people, but by the end of 1922, most had gone out of business.

Source: Marcus Garvey & UNIA Papers

At the 1922 UNIA convention, Garvey also announced the creation of the Phyllis Wheatley Hotel, to house delegates, and the Booker T. Washington University, at 3-13 West 136th Street . The university offered training in civil service, agriculture and commerce for UNIA officers. Exactly how long it operated is unclear.

The UNIA’s presence on the streets, however, survived even as its ownership of structures crumbled.  The grandest parades took place while Garvey was in the US, on the occasions of the conventions in 1920, 1921, 1922 and 1924 (Garvey, in prison awaiting bail having being charged with mail fraud and fearing divisions within the organization, canceled the 1923 convention and parade.).

Reviewing platform, in front of UNIA Printing and Publishing House, 2305 7th Avenue, 1922 (Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers)

On these occasions, uniformed members of the African Legion, Black Cross Nurses and dignitaries and placard bearing members paraded up and down Seventh and Lenox Avenues as far south as Central Park, putting on a spectacle for black residents and their neighbors in the blocks further south (for details, see the post on Parades; there is only sufficient evidence to map the routes of the 1920, 1922 and 1924 parades).

Even in Garvey’s absence, UNIA members continued to parade each August for the remainder of the 1920s, bearing portraits of their deported leader. Several thousand marched on each occasion, according to press reports, but they did not venture outside black Harlem, as in earlier years, to confront white New Yorkers.  The 1930 parade ventured the furthest south, to 120th Street, but by then that area was almost entirely populated by blacks.

UNIA Parade 1930

The reduced reach and challenge of the parades paralleled the lost offices and businesses.  Although still a part of the neighborhood’s life, after 1924 the UNIA did not have the presence it had in the early years of the 1920s.

Lerone Bennett Jr., “Marcus Garvey’s Day of Triumph.” Ebony (November 1976)

Herbert Seligman, “Negro Conquest,” World Magazine (4 December 1921)

For a good overview of the UNIA, see David Van Leeuwen, “Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association,” (National Humanities Center)

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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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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=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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Soapbox or street corner speakers were a feature of everyday life in Harlem from World War One to the 1960s.  Each year, the appearance of speakers was heralded as a sign of spring, and they were particularly prevalent through the summer months, when the heat led residents of Harlem to spend most of their leisure outdoors.  The first speakers were political orators, with West Indian members of the Socialist Party such as A. Philip Randolph and Richard Moore most prominent. They set up at 135th Street and Lenox Avenue, which offered a wide sidewalk and a steady stream of passers-by coming to the surrounding stores or entering and exiting the subway station. Crowds numbering in the hundreds stopped to listen. Marcus Garvey made his debut in Harlem at that corner in 1916, and he and members of his organization, the UNIA, regularly spoke on the neighborhood’s streets throughout the 1920s.

Speakers Corners (Search Place="Speakers Corners")

By 1921, socialists could be found at other corners along Lenox Avenue, and on Sunday evenings, at 135th Street and Seventh Avenue. Later in the 1920s, speakers also set up along Seventh Avenue, as it rather than Lenox became Harlem’s main street.  In the 1930s, speakers could be found on both avenues as far south as 115th Street and as far north as 144th Street.

Hubert Harrison, Harlem’s most famous street speaker, began as a socialist, but became famous for his lectures discussing “philosophy, psychology, economics, literature, astronomy or the drama.” [1]  By the mid-1920s, he drew crowds numbering in the thousands.  A reporter exiting the Lafayette Theater on to Seventh Avenue one evening in 1926 encountered “one of the biggest street corner audiences that we have ever met,” an audience whose “faces were fixed on a black man who stood on a ladder platform, with his back to the avenue and the passing buses and his face to the audience who blocked the spacious sidewalk.” [2] It was Harrison, speaking on the theory of evolution.  Harrison died in 1927; no other orator demonstrated his learning or achieved his stature.  For listeners, even lesser street speakers represented an alternative to churches and middle-class organizations, a source of more radical ideas, less constrained by institutional authority.  On the street, speakers were accessible, available for sampling by residents out for a stroll or doing their shopping, who might not otherwise have had the time to seek out orators.  Middle-class critics complained of the ignorance of some speakers, of the misinformation they spread, of the racial hatred they aroused.

Street Corner Orator, 1938 (Morgan and Marvin Smith, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL)

In the later half of the 1920s, political orators were outnumbered by speakers selling medicine.  Many were East Africans, or West Indians posing as Africans, who attracted crowds with elaborate costumes and performances.  Journalist Lester Walton, who campaigned against such “quacks,” described them in terms that expressed his frustration at the credulity of his black neighbors, but also conveyed some sense of what drew in passers-by:

They lend a theatrical touch to their manipulations by dressing in gaudy costumes of supposedly foreign make, and attractively decorate the platform with multi-colored ribbons, bunting and the like.  Attention of pedestrians is first gained by performing a feat of magic, such as turning wine into water.  Next rheumatism or some other chronic disease is dwelt on and a cure, whose reliability is proclaimed beyond any question, is offered for what is represented to be an amazingly small price.” [3]

Not all those offering something for sale were black.  According to Walton, some of the medicine vendors were whites posing as American Indians. Whites were also among those selling things other than medicine. Edgar Grey reported that Gypsies returned to Harlem’s street corners between 1922 and 1924, establishing ‘shops of astrology,’ while another journalist encountered “a dingy Czechoslovak,” “a provincially dressed peasant [with] a beautifully colored parrot on his shoulder,” and “innumerable Gypsies,” all offering to tell his fortune or reveal a winning number.[4] The first speaker Walton heard in 1928 turned out to be selling a dream book.  Others collected funds for business enterprises: Hubert Julian, the black aviator, could be found in May 1925 at 140th Street and Seventh Avenue selling razors donated to him to pay for the plane he hoped to fly across the Atlantic.

In the 1930s, political speakers returned to prominence, and appeared in new locations, particularly on 125th Street, in the vicinity of Harlem’s major white-owned businesses.  From there, they played a significant role in mobilizing support for campaigns to force white retailers to hire black staff, increasingly speaking on behalf of organizations and at regular times and places. Some, however, also drew on the appeals employed by medicine sellers.  Sufi Abdul Hamid, who arrived in Harlem in 1932, fresh from a successful campaign to win jobs for blacks in Chicago, rallied residents dressed in a white turban, green shirt, black riding boots and a black crimson-lined cape.

[1] Pittsburgh Courier, December 31, 1927

[2] New York News, 1926, cited in Irma Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations, 94

[3]  “Street Speaker Heralds Spring in Harlem,” World, March 23, 1928, 17M

[4]  Amsterdam News, March 30, 1927, 16; Amsterdam News, August 19, 1931, 9

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