Posts Tagged ‘St. Philip’s Episcopal Church’

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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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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