Meet the Neighbors of 409 Edgecombe, One of Harlem’s Most Fashionable Addresses

By Allison Hughes, Archivist, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
July 27, 2022
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Exterior of the building 409 Edgecombe Avenue
Located in the Sugar Hill district of Harlem, 409 Edgecombe is considered one of the area's most fashionable addresses.

409-417 Edgecombe Avenue, Manhattan 1940s Tax Photos, Courtesy of the Municipal Archives, City of New York

"That house that stands so proudly atop of Sugar Hill, 409 Edgecombe," declared Langston Hughes in 1946, is "one of Harlem's most fashionable addresses."

Located just south of the intersection of 155th Street and Edgecombe Avenue in the Sugar Hill district of Harlem, 409 is home to a 13-story apartment building that became famous in the 1930s and 1940s as the home to so many well-known figures that Hughes dubbed the building “Harlem’s House of Celebrities”: residents included W.E.B. and Shirley Du Bois, painter Aaron Douglas, literary critic William Stanley Braithwaite, sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, journalist Marvel Cooke, and lawyer and future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.

The building, designed by architects Simon Schwartz and Arthur Gross, was constructed in 1917 as Colonial Parkway Apartments, named for Colonial Park (now called Jackie Robinson Park), which it overlooks. Though initially its tenants were exclusively white, the building opened to Black tenants on December 1, 1927, and they soon comprised the majority of the building's residents, as 409’s luxury amenities attracted members of New York's Black upper class.

Home to writers, musicians, intellectuals, and activists, the building was both an important site of Black political organizing—in addition to housing NAACP leaders Walter White and Roy Wilkins, 409 hosted meetings of more radical groups like the Civil Rights Congress and the women-led Sojourners for Truth and Justice—as well as a center of Harlem’s vibrant social scene, where luminaries like Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and George Gershwin reportedly mingled at all-night parties. In 1942, the Antillean Holding Group, an investment group led by wealthy Black businessman Augustine A. Austin, purchased the building, but after Austin’s son Orrin defaulted on the mortgage, the building passed through the hands of various owners before being taken over by the city in 1979 and converted into an HDFC coop.

In the 1980s, the 409 Edgecombe tenant association discovered a storage room of abandoned trunks while cleaning out the building and donated their contents to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. These trunks were packed with letters, photos, and personal ephemera saved by former residents, dating mostly from the 1920s–1950s and serendipitously preserved for decades. The trove included the belongings of a few notable figures, such as Walter White and Aaron Douglas, but many more lesser-known inhabitants of the building, whose collected papers are now available to researchers as the 409 Edgecombe collection.

In the words of Karen Taylor, the founder and executive director of While We Are Still Here, an organization of longtime residents dedicated to preserving the history of 409 and neighboring building 555 Edgecombe, the collection “speaks to the diversity of Harlem”: “People consider Harlem to be homogeneous, but in 409 and 555 and other places, you had a co-existence of Black people of all kinds….I love the fact that we get to see the everyday people [who lived in the building], as opposed to just the famous ones.”

Here are just a few stories of some of the residents. To view the full collection, make an appointment with the Schomburg Center’s Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books division

The Boyds, A Family of Entertainers

A group of people smiling. Some are holding a glasses with a beverages inside.
This photo from the New York Amsterdam News shows all three Boyd siblings celebrating Carroll’s birthday at famed Harlem nightclub Small’s Paradise. Pictured from left to right: Annette, club owner Edwin Smalls, Victor Brown, Carroll, Ruth, and Robert Butler.

Credit: Carroll Boyd Honored With Birthday Party By Ed Smalls In Orchid Room, New York Amsterdam News, April 14, 1951. 

Ruth, Carroll, and Annette Boyd were siblings who performed together as “the Boyd Trio” at parties and other high society events. In addition, Carroll, a pianist and singer, was part owner of Chez Clinton, described by the New York Amsterdam News as “one of the swankiest of the Harlem night clubs.” Ruth was an actress who could be seen downtown at the Greenwich Village Theater and on Broadway, acting alongside famed husband and wife duo the Lunts in Noël Coward’s Point Valaine. Annette worked as a public school teacher in Cape May, New Jersey, but would still regularly come into the city to host parties at 409 Edgecombe, dance at the Savoy Ballroom, and sing alongside her brother and sister.

William Anthony George, the "World’s Greatest Medium"

A business card listing the services and Prof. Anthony, who calls himself the “world’s greatest medium. The lists his business hours and office address.
This is one of several advertisements in George’s papers extolling his powers as the “World’s Greatest Medium.” Many of these ads mention his allegedly coming from India, although under questioning in his New York trial he admitted to growing up in New Jersey.

William Anthony George was a spiritualist and medium who claimed to predict the future, heal the sick, and grant “success and happiness in all matters pertaining to money, love, marriage, and all affairs in life.” A larger-than-life character, he made many headlines in his day, for his travels across the country in his Cadillac; for his five marriages, including one to a woman who he claimed was the cousin of actress Anna Mae Wong; and for his numerous run-ins with the law: he was tried in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York on charges of fortune-telling. Nevertheless, his followers did not desert him—his 1950 Manhattan trial attracted so many supporters it had to be moved to a larger courtroom—and after paying fines and even serving jail time he continued to operate, conducting services at his temple in Brooklyn.

Robert Winchester and Horace Hicks, Men About Town

On pink paper, there is an invitation to 1930 costume ball. The day, date, time, and name of the venue are listed in black lettering.
This invitation, sent to Robert Winchester, is to a drag ball that was held at the Central Opera House in New York City. Variety magazine noted that this was one of two “drags” scheduled for the same night, the other being at Madison Square Garden, and commented that such events, once underground, were now being openly publicized: “Events that were once held sub rosa and only advertised in whispers are now proclaimed at all the leading agencies.”

Robert “Bobby” Winchester and Horace Hicks were a gay couple who lived together at 409 Edgecombe. They regularly popped up in the society pages of Black newspapers for hosting out-of-town guests and throwing parties. Their papers reflect their popularity, with dozens of saved holiday cards from friends and well-wishers, and provide a glimpse into gay life of 1930s New York.

Read more about the 409 Edgecombe collection at the Schomburg Center or request an in-person research appointment.

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