Chapter One: The Neighborhood
The Hotel Theresa was located on the southwest corner of Seventh Avenue and 125th Street. Called the Great Black Way, Seventh Avenue has always been Harlem's most beautiful boulevard. This two-way artery, sectioned for uptown and downtown traffic, was divided by a narrow strip of beautiful trees and manicured grass and gardens. It was Harlem's principal business boulevard. Seventh Avenue mirrored Harlem's life. It had a number of beautiful brownstones, theaters, and apartment buildings that made it the grandest avenue uptown. The writer Wallace Thurman called the avenue Harlem's most representative boulevard, "a grand thoroughfare into which every element of Harlem's population ventures either for reasons of pleasure or of business. It reflects both the sordid chaos and the rhythmic splendor of Harlem." Pastored by Frederick Cullen, Salem Methodist Church at the corner of 127th Street was the largest and best-known church on Seventh Avenue. Near 134th Street was the popular Smalls' Paradise, one of the oldest nightclubs on Seventh Avenue.
James Van Der Zee, Harlem's most famous photographer, who documented so many famous Harlemites, had a studio on Seventh Avenue.
Across the street from the Hotel Theresa on the northwest corner was African Memorial National Bookstore. Owners Willis Huggins and Lewis Micheaux were left-wing ideologues and their voluminous stock reflected their philosophy. W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, A. Philip Randolph, and Thurgood Marshall were among the bookstore's regular customers. "If we couldn't find a book anywhere else," a customer of the National Bookstore said, "we always knew that Micheaux had a copy on hand; but perhaps more important than the availability of books was the kind of books he had -- books on Africa now out of print; books on the history of us."
The Diamond Jewelry Store was next to the bookstore. "It was a front for the Mafia," recalled a former hotel resident. "It was the biggest numbers drop in Harlem. There was dope there. They sold jewelry as a cover. Lots of us from the hotel used to buy jewelry there. They never got raided. The police had to know what was going on. On Saturday nights, all these black cars would be lined up outside -- nothing but white men going inside." Billy Rowe, the Pittsburgh Courier columnist, was talking about the gangsters who ran the Diamond Jewelry Store when he said, "The boys who electrify the corner are reduced to shiveling cowards whenever the Eastside torpedoes resplendent in their Brooks business suits descend upon Harlem to make their collections."
"You didn't place no quarter bet at the Jewelry Store," said longtime Harlemite Jake McKnight. "That was a place for big money. It wasn't small-time nickel-and-dime stuff. None of that was happening over there. The high rollers placed bets there."
"When the riots broke out in Harlem in 1964, nobody touched the Jewelry Store," said Harlem historian Preston Wilcox. "Everybody knew who controlled the place."
Brothers Morgan and Marvin Smith opened their first studio in 1939. The M. Smith Photo Studio was located at 243 West 125th Street, in the building next door to the Apollo Theater. The Kentucky-born photographers documented a visual history of countless legendary African-Americans and momentous Harlem milestones for nearly thirty years. By the late 1940s, the Smith brothers had a new neighbor in Romare Bearden, who taught art classes in the same building.
Adam Clayton Powell Jr. established the People's Voice, a weekly newspaper, in 1942. Located at 210 West 125th Street, the paper's aim was to smash stereotypes about black people and to encourage them to become more active in politics. The paper folded in 1948, three years after Powell was elected to Congress.
The old, dilapidated sign of the Blumstein's Department Store reminds a number of Harlemites of the store once called the "uptown Saks Fifth Avenue." "Blumstein's was the finest department store in Harlem," recalled businessman Nick Jones. "Not many blacks in Harlem went below 125th Street to shop."
Blumstein's was a few doors away from the hotel. Founded by brothers Jack and Kyver Blumstein in 1886, it was the largest department store in Harlem. A number of Harlemites remember the communitywide "don't buy where you can't work" campaign led by Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in the mid-1930s. Blumstein's was the target of an eight-week boycott because blacks were hired only in menial positions for insufficient wages. As the result of the protests, management reluctantly hired blacks as salespersons, but only those blacks who could pass for white.
"I worked at Blumstein's," recalled Naidine Collins. "That was my first job when I came to New York. That was in 1942. There were no dark-skinned blacks there when I worked there. At least not salespeople. The darker blacks were running the elevators and working as janitors."
Another series of boycotts ensued, led by the rabid Communist Party leader Benjamin Davis. By the late 1940s, if one walked into Blumstein's, there would have been blacks of all hues working side by side with white employees. At Christmastime, a black Santa was in the window adorned with black mannequins.
By 1953, Jack Blumstein said, "The employment policy at Blumstein's is one of the best in the city; turnover is slow with employees whose service ranges from five to thirty years. They are of all races and creeds, serving positions on every level."
In 1958, Martin Luther King Jr. was autographing copies of his first book, Stride Toward Freedom, at Blumstein's. "Suddenly, a deranged woman ran up and started screaming that he was a Communist and was trying to convert her to Catholicism," said Harlem emcee Hal Jackson, who was with King. "Without warning, she pulled a letter opener out of her pocket and plunged it into his chest."
Bobby "Happy Times" Robinson owns a record shop on 125th Street near Eighth Avenue that opened in 1946. Robinson, a slight man in his seventies, said, "I used to walk the streets to get ideas. I used to make it a point to walk the streets around four-thirty or five in the morning -- often. I loved to watch the people sitting on their stoops, talking; I'd listen to the winos and their conversation, catch the whores on the street, listen to them talking to their pimps. I'd walk under the el when it was dark. I wouldn't dare now! It's a goddamn shame! I've got the oldest black business on the street. I've been here since the 1940s."
By the early 1940s, virtually every every white establishment on 125th Street was integrated except Frank's Restaurant, near Eighth Avenue. Beautiful palm trees adorned Frank's windows to offer its white clientele a degree of privacy while dining. Famous for steaks and seafood, the Greek-owned restaurant was the most elegant dining facility in Harlem. Frank's permitted certain black celebrities but, in general, maintained their Jim Crow policy until the late 1940s. There are a number of accounts of how blacks in the hotel reacted to Frank's Jim Crow policy.
"Joe Louis integrated Frank's Restaurant," recalled Preston Wilcox. "Joe called up from the Theresa and said I'm coming down to the restaurant, and I'm bringing some people with me. He made reservations. Joe was bold. Nobody was going to mess with the champ. Joe and his entourage went to Frank's. They were seated and nothing was said."
There is another version on who integrated Frank's: In 1940, a Jack Benny movie, Buck Benny Rides Again, premiered at the Loews Theater on 125th Street, which was one block from the Theresa. Rochester (Anderson) had a starring role in the movie. While in New York, Rochester stayed in the Theresa. After leaving Loews, Rochester and his entourage headed to Frank's Restaurant.
"There was Rochester and his people, a few press guys, and a few of us behind the press group," recalled former Theresa employee Horace Carter. "Rochester boldly walked into Frank's. We all followed him. I was thinking -- we are going to be thrown out of the damn place. But the waiters realized who Rochester was and gave us all menus. I think they were afraid of Jack Benny so they weren't going to mess with Rochester. After that night, Frank's let blacks come in."
"Grace Nail Johnson integrated Frank's," said Naidine Collins. "She was light enough to pass for white and did pass whenever she wanted to. In the early 1940s, she took a group of black people from the Theresa to Frank's and ordered steaks for everybody. They served her party. That's the first time that I recall any black people getting service in Frank's. And the next day, everybody in the Theresa was talking about it. After that, Frank's only let light-skinned blacks in like Willie Bryant and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Black people had to be damn near white to get in."
"Grace Johnson had experience walking into the best restaurants in downtown New York," recalled Jewel Sims Okala. "Frank's certainly wasn't a problem. There was no business in all of New York that she wouldn't enter. In 1942, our brownstone on Seventh Avenue caught fire. While it was being repaired, Grace, my husband, and I moved into suites 721 and 723 in the Theresa. In fact, my wedding reception dinner was held in the hotel's dining room a few months before we moved there. My husband was French-Nigerian -- neither of us could pass for white. I'd dress like an Indian and put a red dot on my forehead. My husband wore his native-African attire. We'd get a car and head downtown to Le Cirque's or one of the other expensive establishments. Grace didn't walk in and say, 'I'm white.' She just went wherever she wanted to go and that was that. They knew Grace because she was a regular customer. They thought she was a rich white lady. The waiters assumed my husband and I were foreigners. When we walked in, two or three waiters descended upon us. They were so gracious to my husband and me. We often spoke French in their presence. Grace wanted to make the point that racism was irrational. White folks back then would serve anybody but an American Negro."
Copyright © 2004 by Dr. Sondra Kathryn Wilson