Black Metropolis: Harlem, 1915-1930

People Involved

Stephen Robertson, Graham White, Shane White, Stephen Garton

Associate Professor Stephen Robertson,
Dr Graham White,
Professor Shane White
& Professor Stephen Garton
(Left to Right)

Project overview

Our aim is to produce an ethnographic study of everyday life in Harlem as it became the black capital of the world. Not only will our project be a contribution to the exciting historiography of African American culture, but it will be at the cutting edge of new scholarship about twentieth-century America, it will also offer a model of the ways in which the ‘everyday’ can be recovered and demonstrate the advantages, in terms of deeper insights into early twentieth-century black urban life, that such a recovery can yield.

Project Details

This ongoing collaborative project is one of the first fruits of the research strength in American history that the Department of History has developed in recent years.

In addition to those involved in this project, there are four other historians of the United States in the department, a concentration that establishes the university as the largest centre for research in American history in the southern hemisphere.

The project is supported by an ARC Discovery Grant, one of the largest ever awarded in the humanities and the first for a collaborative project on this scale.

Unlike most studies of Harlem in the early twentieth century, the period when the arrival of migrants from the south and the West Indies transformed the neighbourhood into the Negro Mecca, the greatest black city in the world, this project focuses not on black artists and the black middle class, but on the lives of ordinary African New Yorkers. It does so primarily by using the case files of the Manhattan District Attorney, which reveal all manner of things that would not ordinarily be labelled ‘criminal’– streetlife, black language, music, family life – as well as evidence of the role of gambling, violence and confidence men in the black community.

Our analysis of this material pays particular attention to the spatial dimensions of black urban life, breaking new ground in the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to map cultural life. Those maps form the basis of a web site, "Digital Harlem," derived from our research. The site also forms the basis for a second project, a spatial analysis of the riot in Harlem in 1935.

Research Grants

  • ARC Discovery Grant, 2003-2007

Publications

Book
Cover of Playing the Numbers



Playing the Numbers:
Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars

(Harvard University Press, 2010)

*Winner of the 2011 NSW Premier's History Awards, General History Prize

Articles

"Harlem in Black and White: Mapping Race and Place in the 1920s," Journal of Urban History (forthcoming September 2013)

"Disorderly Houses: Residences, Privacy, and the Surveillance of Sexuality in 1920s Harlem," Journal of the History of Sexuality 21, 3 (September 2012): 443-66

"This Harlem Life: Black Families and Everyday Life in the 1920s and 1930s," Journal of Social History, 44, 1 (Fall 2010): 97-122

"Harlem Undercover: Vice Investigators, Race and Prostitution in the 1920s," Journal of Urban History 35, 4 (May 2009): 486-504

Chapters in Books

"Putting Harlem on the Map," in Writing History in the Digital Age, ed Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty (University of Michigan Press, forthcoming) | online

"The Black Eagle of Harlem," in Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Advent of American Mass Culture, 1890-1930, ed W. Fitzhugh Brundage (University of North Carolina Press, 2011)

"The Envelope, Please," in The Cultural Turn in U.S. History: Pasts, Presents, Futures, eds James W. Cook, Lawrence Glickman, Michael O’Malley (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008)

Web Site: Digital Harlem

The Black Metropolis project employs digital technology to integrate a range of sources – the case files of the Manhattan District Attorney, probation files, prison records, undercover investigations, social surveys, census schedules and the two major newspapers published in Harlem, The New York Age and The Amsterdam News – and to visualize and explore the spatial dimensions of everyday life in Harlem. It does so by means of the Digital Harlem site, which allows the mapping of the information gathered in a database

Image of Digital Harlem web page

Whereas a traditional historical map is static, those in Digital Harlem have the advantage of being dynamic. The database can be searched for, and the interface can then map, particular places or types of location, events, where an individual lived his/her life, or moments in time – or any combination of such data. For example, we have generated maps of the sites of nightlife, assaults, the locations that feature in life of a black teenager – his homes, workplaces, where he played basketball, swam, and had sex with his girlfriend – and events that occurred in January 1925 (see image). Clicking on any of the icons of the map links you to the associated database record.

Both the database and the map interface were designed for us by Damien Evans of the Archaeological Computing Laboratory (ACL), and refined over a period of more than a year as we added data, integrated additional types of data and developed a clearer sense of what we could use the map to visualize and analyze. Andrew Wilson of the ACL created an overlay of building footprints for the map, which can be turned on and off, based on information in fire insurance maps from the 1920s and 1930s.

Presentations

Stephen Robertson, "Joining the Crowd: Connecting a Digital History Project to the Web," Data - Asset - Method Network Workshop - So you think you're an expert?, University of Nottingham, January 15, 2013

Stephen Robertson,"Harlem in Black and White: Mapping Race and Place in the 1920s," Department of American and Canadian Studies, University of Nottingham, January 14, 2013

Stephen Robertson, "Digital Harlem: Researching and Mapping Everyday Life in 1920s Harlem," Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London, January 9, 2013

Stephen Robertson, "Mapping Everyday Life: Digital Harlem, 1915-1930," Digital History Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, January 8, 2013

Stephen Robertson, "Digital Harlem," Center for Cultural Analysis, Rutgers University, December 11, 2013

Stephen Robertson, The Challenge of Virtual Cities, presented at the Organization of American Historians Annual Meeting, Milwaukee, April 21, 2012

Stephen Robertson, Putting the Census in Place, presented at The 1940 Census: A Public Roundtable Discussion, Digital Humanities Lab, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, April 10, 2012

Stephen Robertson, Putting Harlem on the Map, presented at Digital Humanities Australasia 2012: Building, Mapping, Connecting, Canberra, March 30, 2012

Stephen Robertson, “Putting Harlem on the Map,” presented at the Australian Society of Archivists, ACT Branch, Canberra, March 29, 2012

Stephen Robertson, "Lightning Short: Digital Harlem: Race and Place in the 1920s," presented at the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Baltimore, October 22, 2011

Stephen Robertson, "Digital Harlem: Race and Place in the 1920s," presented at the CUNY Graduate Center, New York City, October 17, 2011

Stephen Robertson, "Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars," presented at the Lehman Center for American History, Columbia University, October 12, 2011

Stephen Robertson (Keynote Speaker), "Digital Harlem: Visualizing Everyday Life in a Black Metropolis," at Digital Resources in the Humanities and Arts 2011, University of Nottingham Ningbo, September, 2011

Stephen Robertson, "Digital Harlem," Virtual Cities / Digital Histories Virtual Symposium, December 4, 2010

Shane White, The Clearing House Blues, or “Numbers” in Harlem, Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Western Australia, August 25, 2010

Shane White, The Black Capital of the World, By Design - ABC Radio National, June 16, 2010 <podcast>

Shane White, Stephen Robertson and Stephen Garton, Harlem - the Black Capital of the World, Sydney Humanities Forum, June 10, 2010 <podcast>

Stephen Robertson, Mapping Everyday Life: Digital Harlem, Expanding Horizons: History, the City and the Web, University of South Australia, May 18, 2010

Stephen Robertson, Digital Harlem, Digital Humanities in Practice, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, April 13, 2010

Stephen Robertson, Mapping Everyday Life: Digital Harlem, 1915-1930, Social Science History Association Conference, Long Beach, California, November 14, 2009.

Stephen Robertson, Digital History and Digital Harlem, "Writing American History," University of Melbourne, June 5, 2009

Stephen Robertson, Disorderly Houses? Sexuality in the Apartments of 1920s Harlem, ‘Let’s Talk About Sex' Conference, Macquarie University, October 2, 2008

Panel at the 2008 Conference of the Organization of American Historians, New York City, March 29, 2008

  • Stephen Garton, When Black Kings and Queens Ruled in Harlem
  • Stephen Robertson, Mapping Harlem: Everyday Life in a Digital Neighborhood
  • Shane White, Everyday Violence in Harlem

Shane White, The Envelope, Please, Calhoun College, Yale University, New Haven, March 27, 2008.

Shane White, When Black Kings and Queens Ruled in Harlem, The Annenberg Lecture, University of Pennsyvlania, Philadelphia, March 24, 2008.

Shane White The Black Eagle of Harlem, History Department, University of Reading, March 12, 2008.

Shane White, When Black Kings and Queens Ruled in Harlem, American History Seminar Series, Institute for Historical Research at University College London, March 6, 2008.

Stephen Robertson, Digital Harlem: Mapping Everyday Life in the 1920s, Department of History Seminar, University of Sydney, October 22, 2007

Shane White, The Black Eagle of Harlem, Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Advent of American Mass Culture, 1890-1930, University of North Carolina, October 4-5, 2007

Shane White, The Envelope, Please, Australian and New Zealand American Studies Conference, Launceston, July 12, 2006

Stephen Robertson, Watching Harlem, Australian and New Zealand American Studies Conference, Launceston, July 12, 2006

Shane White, The Envelope, Please, Duke University, 2006

Shane White, The Envelope, Please, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2005

Shane White, The Envelope, Please, The State of Cultural History: A Conference in Honour of Lawrence Levine, 2005

Stephen Robertson, Harlem Undercover: Surveillance, Race and Nightlife in the 1920s, Department of History Seminar, University of Sydney, May 31, 2005.