Posts Tagged ‘white business’

5.coverOur article, “Harlem in Black and White: Mapping Race and Place in the 1920s,” has now appeared in the Journal of Urban History, vol. 35, no. 9, September 2013, pages 864-880. The abstract and a related map can be found in an earlier post announcing the acceptance of the article for publication in 2011.


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Our article “Harlem in Black and White: Mapping Race and Place in the 1920s,” has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Urban History.  It should appear at the end of 2012.  The abstract reads:

In the 1920s, as Harlem emerged as the largest black city in the world, a significant white presence remained in the neighborhood.  Whites not only frequented nightlife, they owned and operated the vast majority of Harlem’s businesses, policed its streets, staffed its schools and hospital, drove its public transport and most of the vehicles travelling its streets, delivered goods, collected rent and insurance payments, and patronized sporting events. Scholars have only made briefly mention of this presence and its impact on everyday life, portraying race relations as harmonious and inconsequential in a neighborhood represented as a segregated refuge from whites.  Drawing on black newspapers and legal records, and using the Digital Harlem site to map and visualize that evidence of the white presence, reveals a very different picture, of interracial encounters that often led to conflict, and of Harlem as a place of contestation, negotiation, resistance, and accommodation.

The map below captures part of the white presence in Harlem, locating the institutions staffed by whites, some of the posts patrolled by police, and the routes traveled by the buses and streetcars driven by whites.  The streets serviced by public transport also featured the neighborhood’s businesses, most staffed as well as owned by whites.  Other maps relating to the white presence in Harlem are already on the blog, in posts on traffic accidents, street vendors, and ice dealers.

Whites in Harlem (Bus routes, Streetcar Routes and Police Patrols appear in the list of Event Types)

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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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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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(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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