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Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City's Underground Economy

Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City's Underground Economy

by LaShawn Harris
Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City's Underground Economy

Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City's Underground Economy

by LaShawn Harris



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During the early twentieth century, a diverse group of African American women carved out unique niches for themselves within New York City's expansive informal economy. LaShawn Harris illuminates the labor patterns and economic activity of three perennials within this kaleidoscope of underground industry: sex work, numbers running for gambling enterprises, and the supernatural consulting business. Mining police and prison records, newspaper accounts, and period literature, Harris teases out answers to essential questions about these women and their working lives. She also offers a surprising revelation, arguing that the burgeoning underground economy served as a catalyst in working-class black women ™s creation of the employment opportunities, occupational identities, and survival strategies that provided them with financial stability and a sense of labor autonomy and mobility. At the same time, urban black women, all striving for economic and social prospects and pleasures, experienced the conspicuous and hidden dangers associated with newfound labor opportunities.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252098420
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 06/15/2016
Series: New Black Studies Series
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 296
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

LaShawn Harris is an assistant professor of history at Michigan State University.

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Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners

Black Women in New York City's Underground Economy

By Lashawn Harris


Copyright © 2016 The Board of Trustees
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09842-0


Black Women, Urban Labor, and New York's Informal Economy

On September 28, 1937, Odile Gonzalez, dubbed by police as the "prima donna of the Harlem hot goods racket," was arrested and accused of being "a notorious receiver of stolen goods" The mid-thirty-something-year-old "Hot Goods Queen," who was previously convicted of prostitution, grand larceny, and felonious assault throughout the 1930s, was one of the purported leaders of a burglary ring that terrorized New York clothing merchants. According to the New York City Police Department (NYPD), Gonzalez and her male associates, including William (Bub) Hewlitt, one of "Harlem's most feared hoodlums" and illegal lottery racketeers' gunman, burglarized several men's department stores, stealing business suits and peddling them to street vendors. While searching Gonzalez's house at 217 West 111th Street, officers discovered sixty-eight men's suits valued at $1,207, all taken from Crawford Clothes, a popular men's store in Harlem. With Gonzalez's arrest, police believed they had captured one of the city's notorious thieves and uncovered the mastermind behind "a citywide chain for distributing stolen property" Upon being apprehended and during her 1937 trial, Gonzalez unsurprisingly lied about her involvement in the "hot stuff" syndicate. To avoid a possible lengthy prison sentence, she informed authorities that her arrest was a case of mistaken identity and that she was not part of a citywide ring of thieves. Gonzalez also, perhaps out of fear of being physically reprimanded, did not implicate her male coconspirators. With the incriminating evidence already in her apartment, Gonzalez did however admit to police that she received the stolen men's suits from a friend and later disposed of the merchandise, selling them to her friends and neighbors for $8 apiece. Gonzalez's fictitious story about her noninvolvement in the hot goods ring paid off. Rather than being criminally charged with grand larceny or burglary she was tried and convicted of a lesser criminal offense: receiving stolen property. Gonzalez was sentenced to less than one year at New York State's Bedford Reformatory. Upon her release from prison, Gonzalez was not interested in obtaining legitimate formal work and resumed her position as a thief and hot goods vendor. In 1941, Gonzalez again found herself on the wrong side of the law; she violated her parole and was arrested on a burglary charge.

Gonzalez's criminal activities as a thief, con artist, and sex worker were at odds with prevailing black bourgeois perspectives on female labor and perceptibly clashed with conventional images of proper decorum for black women. As a financially struggling working-class woman, Gonzalez was not concerned with black elites' notions of propriety nor did she feel compelled to contest white New Yorkers' prevailing perceptions of urban African American women as dangerous and unlawful "amazons" Her economic circumstances perhaps did not grant her the luxury of worrying about public perceptions concerning her outward behavior or income-producing activities. Like many economically challenged women of the first half of the twentieth century, Gonzalez was more interested in devising wage-generating strategies that addressed her immediate financial circumstance. Gonzalez became one of the many black women who took part in the city's informal and criminal economies, participating in crimes of survival and refusing to wait for and depend upon economic assistance from race leaders, moral crusaders, and local charitable organizations. She relied upon her own survival skills to earn a living wage, illustrating a sense of individuality and commitment to self-preservation. Her participation within both urban criminal and informal labor markets was fueled by a desire to create a future in which her short- and long-standing economic troubles disappeared and conceivably by personal interpretations of urban space, racial uplift, and respectable politics. For her, and other informal economy women, "uplift" and "respectable" were not necessarily construed as a collective concept aimed at empowering the race but rather as a practical strategy that stressed individual empowerment, self-sufficiency, and fiscal stability.

This chapter moves beyond prevailing historical narratives of urban northern black women as formal wage earners during the early twentieth century. It situates the complex and varying labor accounts and economic strategies of black women like Gonzalez at the center of New York's burgeoning informal labor economy. I probe the socioeconomic and personal factors shaping black women's attraction to informal occupations as well as the many challenges and obstacles women faced as off-the-books laborers. Participation in the urban informal economy reflected black women's desire to advance their own socioeconomic and private agendas, including financially providing for one's families, fulfilling sexual and personal needs, and achieving labor independence and flexibility. More importantly, New York black women, taking advantage of the economic and social opportunities furnished by the city's informal labor sector, desired to "alter the recipe of possibilities" for themselves, according to historian Sarah Deutsch. Although different categories of informal labor were considered illegal, quasi-legal, disreputable, and dangerous by urban moral reformers and by disapproving relatives and neighbors, black women readily and grudgingly secured jobs as hostesses, dancers, and waitresses at nightclubs and speakeasies; became unlicensed street peddlers, numbers runners, and narcotics saleswomen and bootleggers; and established home- and street-based gambling, psychic, and sex-related businesses. Wide-ranging categories of under-the-table work benefited many women's lives, enabling some to sidestep menial labor such as household work and others to periodically combine illegal and quasi-legal employment with that of formal wage labor. Nontraditional avenues of labor afforded some black women occupational autonomy, an intangible benefit that made it possible for women to balance their multifaceted roles as workers, wives and mothers, and amusement seekers.

Conversely, laboring in some of the city's grittiest environments and associating with unsavory urbanites came at a price. Depending on the occupation, informal work complicated and at times endangered some women's lives. Informal work in no way guaranteed labor equity or financial stability and success, and it did not always yield social rewards. As informal laborers, black women knowingly and inadvertently sacrificed their neighborhood reputations and risked their personal liberties and safety. Their visions of economic stability and labor autonomy within the city's informal labor market were thwarted by race and gender discrimination, public and family shame, arrest and imprisonment, verbal and sexual exploitation, and death. In spite of such tremendous labor constraints, women struggled to carve out niches for themselves within highly competitive and masculine labor sectors. Consequently, many, for the sake of economic security and to lay claim to urban spaces, developed and relied upon a complex web of survival strategies that allowed them to earn a living and more importantly to navigate the city's informal labor market.

Urban Black Women's Socioeconomic and Labor Conditions

Urban working-class black New Yorkers faced tremendous financial pressure during what Rayford W. Logan referred to as "the nadir" and throughout the Depression era. While a segment of better-class and educated African Americans experienced economic prosperity during the post–World War era and New York's flourishing social, cultural, and literary transformation of the 1920s and participated in urban commercialism, the vast majority of working-class black urbanites residing throughout the city's five boroughs lived under financial distress. The national economic downturn of the 1930s coupled with mounting unemployment, poverty, and race, class, and gender discrimination exacerbated many working-class blacks' existing low socioeconomic status. Discussing the severe impact of the 1930s financial upheaval on African Americans, scholar Cheryl Greenberg writes, "Most African Americans did not have that far to fall when the Great Depression arrived. Even before 1929, the vast majority lived in desperate poverty"

Northern-style racial prejudice and customary forms of race segregation further complicated blacks' financial circumstances and relegated them to crime-infested sections and inadequate housing structures. Black urbanites, according to historian Thomas Sugrue, "faced a regime of racial proscriptions [in the North] that was every bit as deeply entrenched as the southern system of Jim Crow. Economic injustice and pervasive discrimination knew no regional boundaries" Daily encounters with roaches and rats, leaky ceilings and chipped paint, hall toilets, poorly ventilated rooms, and at times nonexistent hot water and heat were representative of many blacks' apartment living experience. Describing black San Juan Hill residents' housing conditions, NAACP activist Mary White Ovington described slum apartments as "human hives, honeycombed with little rooms thick with human beings. Bedrooms open into airshafts that admit no fresh breezes, only foul air carrying too often the germs of disease" Despite such inadequate housing conditions, city blacks paid considerably more money per month for rent than whites residing in the same impoverished communities and apartment buildings. Black New York newspapers of the day routinely reported on the disproportionate amount of rent prices between the races. A 1923 NYA article noted that black families living on 145th Street moved into a "five-room apartment paying $80 per month and "former white tenants [paid] $40 per month" In 1925, a judge at a hearing of the Mayor's Committee on Rent Profiteering testified that "colored tenants in [New York, especially in Harlem] pay twice as much as white tenants for apartments" with leaking ceilings, rats, smashed windows, and the daily stench of garbage. Writing about the impact of New York's housing problem on poor wage earners during the late 1920s, NYAN journalist and community advocate Thelma E. Berlack rightfully maintained that "New York rents are generally exorbitant; [and] that, all things being considered, a Negro pays rents far out of proportion to that charged a white man in a more exclusive section of the city."

But black New Yorkers were not alone in occupying substandard high-rent apartments. Paying exorbitant rents for dilapidated and rundown housing structures was commonplace for blacks residing in other urban northern and mid-western communities. Black residents in Indianapolis's "Bucktown" paid $25 a month for "flimsy one-story frame row houses that rented to whites for $18"; on average black Chicagoans paid at least $100 more for rent per month than whites between 1909 and 1919; in Detroit, white and black landlords and real estate agents charged black families one-third more for rent. Apartment building proprietors and landlords assumed that blacks, especially those of a low socioeconomic status, could live off fewer amenities and were unworthy of quality housing. Moreover, landlords, particularly those concerned only with monetary gain, cared less about their tenants' poor living conditions or the physical structures of their buildings.

Menial employment wages made it difficult for black New Yorkers to afford exorbitant rents, household necessities, food and transportation costs, and other expenses of city living. According to one resident, "livin' is so high that you've just got to scrub and scrub for the pennies to pay the bills." Racial exclusion in the urban labor market effectively barred black men and women from high-paying skilled positions, including industrial labor. In 1910, only 12 percent of black men worked in mechanical and manufacturing jobs; by 1920 that number increased to 21 percent. At least two-thirds of all gainfully employed black men occupied positions as janitors, elevator operators, waiters, and personal servants. Working-class African American women fared no better than black men. Writing about the burdens of race and gender biases on black female wage earners, educator Elise Johnson McDougald's seminal 1925 essay, "The Double Task: The Struggle of Negro Women for Sex and Race Emancipation," observed that "young Negro girls who might be well suited to salesmanship [or any other well-paying job were] barred from all but the menial positions." Statistic data on black female industrial laborers confirm McDougald's assertions, showing that black women made up 2 percent of professional workers and 23 percent of manufacturing and mechanical industries laborers between 1910 and 1920.

The vast majority of working-class black women engaged in various forms of household work. New York black women labored as cooks, laundresses, domestics, and caregivers for white children. In 1905, National Urban League cofounder and activist George Edmund Haynes reported that 89.3 percent of black women were employed as domestic laborers. Between the first and second decades of the twentieth century, an estimated 70 percent of Manhattan black women labored in white homes at least six days a week, earning between $4 and $6 per week. Even well-educated black women, with "their spirits broken and hopes blasted because they had been obliged to forfeit their training on account of race prejudice" found themselves cooking and cleaning in other peoples' homes. No matter what their academic backgrounds or skilled labor experience was, black women like Florida native and former Mary McLeod Hospital and Training School for Nurses student Blanche Haines had difficulties securing professional labor positions. Arriving in New York in the 1930s, the thirty-year-old Haines's failure to locate employment that corresponded with her educational training forced her into household work. Haines eventually took a position as a laundress at a Manhattan brothel and later became a prostitute at the same sex resort. Speaking on the "problem of the unemployed negro woman in New York city," white social reformer Frances A. Kellor, in her 1905 Charities article on black female urban behavior, labor, and pathology, noted that women like Haines were "unquestionably shut out from many lines of occupation and in many instances [pushed] to rely upon odd jobs and employment in the questionable houses" Indeed, Kellor was right about black women's limited employment options. Haines's jobless status was not unique. Nor was her decision to labor as a domestic worker at a house of assignation easy or uncommon. She was one of many academically trained women that toiled at gambling, drug, and brothel dens, especially as household workers. Actual percentages of women who secured employment as domestics, cooks, and laundresses at underworld establishments are difficult to discern as many intermittently wove in and out of informal labor.

Limited employment opportunities and low wages made it virtually impossible for working-class African American women to navigate the urban terrain. Writing letters to various African American and radical Left newspapers and city politicians throughout the early twentieth century, working-poor single women and mothers publicly expressed their individual and collective frustrations with joblessness, poverty, and low wages, and revealed their day-to-day agony over affording household expenditures. Articulating the sentiments of countless impoverished women during the national economic crisis of the 1930s, one unemployed black mother writing to the Communist Party's Daily Worker passionately explained the impact of poverty on millions of households around the country, and poor women's inability to provide their children with the basic necessities of life. "[We are] tired of seeing our children go naked and hungry, crying for bread. We must raise our voices louder against this" Similarly, in a 1938 letter to New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, which was later printed in the NYAN, domestic worker Martina Harris explained the difficulty of stretching her meager $10-a-week salary. "Out of $10 [Harris] was faced with room rent at least $5 per week [and fees for] proper medical care" Lower-class black women's heartfelt testimonials were representative of urban poor women's collective hardships and their tireless efforts to care for themselves and their families. Women's individual writings offer rare glimpses into how poverty and economic hardship framed their daily lives and encroached upon their traditional roles as mothers, wives, and caregivers. Moreover, poor black women's written artifacts, signaling a sense of desperation and hope, illuminated their attempts to bring public attention to less privileged women's economic troubles, as well as their aspirations for decent employment and adequate wages.


Excerpted from Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners by Lashawn Harris. Copyright © 2016 The Board of Trustees. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Cover Title Contents Acknowledgments Introduction 1. Black Women, Urban Labor, and New York’s Informal Economy 2. Madame Queen of Policy: Stephanie St. Clair, Harlem’s Numbers Racket, and Community Advocacy 3. Black Women Supernatural Consultants, Numbers Gambling, and Public Outcries against Supernaturalism 4. “I Have My Own Room on 139th Street”: Black Women and the Urban Sex Economy 5. “‘Decent and God-Fearing Men and Women’ Are Restricted to These Districts”: Community Activism against Urban Vice and Informal Labor Conclusion Notes Index

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