While most employed adults travelled outside Harlem to work six days a week, children remained in the neighborhood. An Urban League study of 2400 families published in 1927 found that more than half of the mothers were in paid employment. Those women reported a variety of means of providing care for the youngest of their children. Most commonly, they put them in the care of relatives or friends, or their father. A much smaller proportion relied on paid childcare, in private homes or less often in day nurseries.
White and African-American philanthropists established day nurseries to allow poor women with children to work. Harlem had only six day nurseries in the 1920s, run by community and church groups, providing places for approximately 200 children a day. Their locations were not well-distributed, so for most of the neighborhood’s mothers, even if they had been able to secure one of the limited places, getting their children to the nurseries would have involved impractical journeys.
- Hope Day Nursery – opened in 1902 by a board composed entirely of black women, relocating from West 35th Street first to 114 West 133rd Street, and in 1914 to a donated building at 33 West 133rd Street. It had a capacity of 35 children in 1921. Supported entirely by donations, the nursery’s major fundraiser was an annual May entertainment at a venue in Harlem.[i]
- New York Colored Mission — opened in 1917 by white Quakers at 8 West 131st Street, relocating from West 30th Street. The nursery had a capacity of 25 children in 1920. (By January 1935, the nursery had relocated to 5-7 East 130th Street).[ii]
- St Benedict the Moor Day Nursery – opened in 1923 by the Catholic Church at 27-29 West 132nd Street. Operated by black nuns, supervised by a trained nurse, the nursery accepted Catholics and non-Catholics, with a capacity of 100 children (In 1928, 80% of the children were non-Catholic). Supported by donations, and the work of a black auxiliary, the nursery also held an annual benefit at a venue outside Harlem.[iii]
- Harlem Community Center Day Nursery – opened in 1923 by members of the Grace Congregational Church. Originally located in the church building, in 1924 the nursery moved across the street to 309 West 139th Street. In 1928, renovations increased the capacity of the nursery to 36 children.[iv]
- Utopia Neighborhood Club – opened in 1926 by a club of 100 black women at 170 West 130th Street. The club included a nursery school with recreation and a study hall for children after school whose mothers do not return from work until evening.(The nursery closed at some point during the 1930s, although the club retained the house, and during WW2 reopened the nursery in partnership with city agencies).[v]
- Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments Nursery – opened in 1927 as part of an apartment complex funded by J. D. Rockefeller between 149th and 150th Street. The nursery, available to tenants, had a capacity of 12 children. [vi]
Community leaders were well-aware that the need for child care was far greater than these provisions. They expected that black churches would address this need, and there is fragmentary evidence that some may have created additional nurseries. The Abyssinian Baptist Church did open a day nursery, but not until after 1930, when Adam Clayton Powell Jr succeeded his father as leader of the church.[vii]
Women operating nurseries in their homes could be found far more widely distributed through the neighborhood. Leaving children at a private nursery also did not require the rituals of benevolence involved in dealing with the elite women who ran day nurseries, or the agendas for remaking families and returning women to the home of the social workers who began to succeed them in the 1920s. The home-based nurseries varied widely in quality. It was certainly the case that no training was required and in that sense the barriers to entry were lower than the case with beauty work. If those advertising their services in the Amsterdam News identified a qualification, it was that of being a mother. A small number also advertised that they were licensed. New York was one of several large cities whose sanitary code required that day nurseries – defined as “a place where more than three children are received, kept and cared for during the day time” – have a permit issued by the Board of Health and be subject to periodic inspection. The permit required presenting a physician’s certificate attesting to the proprietor’s/nurse’s good health; the inspection examined the sanitation, morality and general appointment of the day nursery.[viii]
The need for a permit clearly did not operate as barrier to women operating nurseries in their homes: in 1927, Amsterdam News columnist Edgar Grey’s investigation of 123 nurseries advertising in local newspapers found only 19, less than 10%, had permits. Grey claimed to have found all the day nurseries he visited, even those with licenses, to be “filthy and unsanitary,” and he offered examples of proprietors passing illnesses on to the children in their charge, and nurseries being used as fronts for the illegal production of liquor and gambling.[ix] His polemic likely exaggerated the state of the homes he saw, but juxtaposing the locations of home nurseries and beauty parlors does indicate that they clustered in areas of tenement housing and prostitution arrests rather than the more upscale and respectable districts that had the greatest concentration of beauty parlors.
[i] New York Age, 5 March, 1921, 5; Amsterdam News, January 11, 1933, 4.
[ii] New York Age, September 13, 1917, 8; New York Age, February 9, 1935, 12.
[iii] Amsterdam News, April 25, 1923, 7; New York Age, 24 November, 1928, 2.
[iv] New York Age, 13 December, 1924, 10; New York Age, 31 March 1928, 5.
[v] New York Age, 13 November 1926, 2; Amsterdam News, January 29, 1944, 6A; Amsterdam News, February 22, 1958, 10.
[vi] Amsterdam News, October 30, 1929, 2; James Ford, Slums and Housing, vol. 2, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1936, 746.
[vii] Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., Upon this Rock, New York: Abyssinian Baptist Church, 1949, 49, 54. Writing in Survey Graphic in 1925, George Haynes intimated the existence of more church run nurseries than I could find (Survey Graphic, editorial, 698). Edgar Grey saw “the future of this important work depends largely upon an increased interest in the problem taken by the church”(Amsterdam News, September 7, 1927, 15). Emanuel A.M.E. announced plans to establish a nursery in its basement at 37-41 West 119th St, but there are no reports that it actually opened (New York Age, 22 June 1929, 3).
[viii] Arthur Crosby, New Code of Ordinances of the City of New York, New York: Banks Law Publishing Company, 1922, pp. 408, 457.
[ix] Edgar Grey, “Harlem’s ‘Baby Farms’,” Amsterdam News, September 7, 1927, 15
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