What was life like in 1920s Harlem?

Sawyer-300x138On April 24, 2015, I’m presenting a paper entitled “What Was Life Like in 1920s Harlem?” at the Sawyer Seminar on The Ghetto: Concept, Conditions, and Connections in Transnational Historical Perspective, from the 11th Century to the Present, hosted by the Center for African American Urban Studies and the Economy, at Carnegie Mellon University.

A chapter based on this presentation has now been published.

Look out for new blog posts using content from this talk, on topics ranging from childcare in Harlem, to the YMCA and YWCA, to social clubs, and summer camps!


Gilbert Osofsky’s classic study of the early years of African American settlement in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood bears the subtitle, “The Making of a Ghetto.” It offers an unrelentingly negative picture of overcrowded residences that fostered disease, juvenile delinquency and family dissolution, poverty resulting from limited employment opportunities and low wages, and violence and vice encouraged by police neglect. Osofsky views Harlem from a distance, in terms of aggregates and patterns: the average number of lodgers in a household; rates of disease; lists of occupations. By contrast, a subsequent and still growing generation of scholarship focused on the Harlem Renaissance offers portraits of the lives of a small group of writers and intellectuals and the cabarets and parties they frequented. These studies offer rich accounts of Harlem’s high culture, but offer little sense of the lived experience of the mass of residents, or of aspects of the neighborhood, such as streetlife, religion, and sports, that loomed large in their lives.

This paper will use the award-winning web site Digital Harlem to explore the lived experience of the population of Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s. I will focus in particular on the extent to which residents lives confined to the ghetto, and within its bounds, tracing the rhythms of everyday life on different times of the day, week and year, and examine how those experiences are reshaped the Depression. The map-based interface of Digital Harlem enables a multi-scalar spatial analysis, one which zooms from a citywide perspective into the neighborhood and down to the individual places, to see the relationship between places, and to trace movement through the city.

The sources for this project include more than four thousand cases from the files of the District Attorney and Probation Department, and hundreds of pages of black newspapers, supplemented with a range of other published and archival material, including the records of the anti-prostitution organization the Committee of Fourteen, the Bedford Hills prison for women, the WPA Writers’ Program, and census schedules. Working with a geospatial database makes it possible to include and organize material from these sources that historians typically pass over it as too sparse or fragmentary to support an analysis: material from newspapers such society columns, sports reports, news from churches and fraternal organizations, and advertisements; and every offense, not just a particular crime or group of crimes, from the legal records, and information on victims and witnesses as well as offenders, on the nature of the crime’s location, and on the circumstances in which it occurred, which ranged from card games to shopping trips.

With my collaborators Shane White and Stephen Garton, I have been analyzing interwar Harlem for almost a decade, producing, in addition to Digital Harlem, a book, four articles, three book chapters and thirty-seven presentations on life in the neighborhood. That scholarship focuses on particular aspects of everyday life – numbers gambling, interactions with whites, privacy, family life, and confidence tricks. This paper will weave those threads together with topics such as work, public transport, shopping, sports, parades and fraternal lodges, to highlight the movement of residents within and beyond Harlem, and to reconsider the relationship between residence and daily life in understanding lived experience in the ghetto.

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