Historic, but not famous

Carrie McHenry Thomas, Parks Department

Carrie McHenry Thomas (1913 – 2013) was the first African-American to work at the Arsenal in Central Park with the New York City Parks Department. She was recruited in 1937 by Stuart Constable, the Director of Parks under Robert Moses.

She worked in Room 100, which was then the Capital Projects division for Parks. She was one of three women working there, and started out as a Contract and Specification Writer. She worked in the Capital Projects division until 1978. She also advocated for the hiring of other African-Americans in the park department including engineers and architects.

Ms. Thomas worked on civic and election campaigns at a time when Blacks were becoming politically active, including campaigns with Hulan Jack, the first Black borough president in New York City, coming from Harlem,  Constance Baker Motley, the first female borough president and dozens of others in her Harlem neighborhood. She and her husband, Richard, were donors to Black charities and civic organizations, including Harlem Hospital Center, the Schomburg Center for Research, the New York Urban League, Harlem School for the Arts and the National Office of the NAACP.

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Historic, but not famous

William Roche, Renaissance Ballroom
Renaissance Ballroom – 1920s and 2000s

William Roche was an African American Real Estate Agent that helped build the Renaissance Ballroom in Harlem. Constructed in 1921, the combination ballroom, casino and movie theatre was touted as the first non-segregated institution of its kind.

Mr. Roche (Roach) was an immigrant from Montserrat who became a major player in uptown real estate and a member of Marcus Garvey’s UNIA. He owned a house cleaning business, but bought the northeast corner of 137th Street and Seventh Avenue, now known as Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. With Joseph H. Sweeney and Cleophus Charity, they built the Renaissance Theater there in 1921. They expanded on the block to include the Casino and Ballroom in 1923.  This, unlike most of Harlem, was an African-American built and owned business. The 900-seat theater first showed silent movies, often with stage acts, and was soon converted to talkies. The casino was used for public meetings, like a 1923 anti-lynching meeting held by the N.A.A.C.P., and it was the home court of the Harlem Renaissance Big-Five, the black professional basketball team known as the Harlem Rens.

Interior of the Ballroom

The ballroom closed in 1970. There was a campaign to have the building landmarked, but that failed and there are plans to tear it down and put up a condo complex.

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Historic, but not famous

Molly Williams, first female firefighter

Molly Williams  was the first known female firefighter in the United States. An African American, she was held as a slave belonging to a  Benjamin Aymar, a merchant in NYC,  who was affiliated with the Oceanus Engine Company #11 in 1818. During her time in the company she was called Volunteer No. 11.

Williams fought fires in a  calico dress and apron and was said to be “as good a fire laddie as many of the boys.” Her service was noted particularly during the blizzard of 1818. Male firefighters were scarce due to an influenza outbreak, but Williams worked with the men on the ropes and pulled the pumper to the fire through the deep snow.

Again, thanks to Dave Gardiner for introducing me to this trailblazing woman. 

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Historic, but not famous

Lewis H. Michaux, bookstore owner, civil rights activist

Lewis H. Michaux (1895–1976) was a Harlem bookseller and civil rights activist. Between 1932 and 1974 he owned the African National Memorial Bookstore in Harlem, New York City, one of the most prominent African-American bookstores in the country.  Before coming to New York he worked as a pea picker, window washer and deacon in a church in Philadelphia.

Michaux opened the African National Memorial Bookstore in 1932 on 7th Avenue and stayed there until 1968, when he was forced to move the store to West 125th Street (on the corner of 7th street) to give space to the State Harlem office building. The bookstore finally closed in 1974 after another location issue. He called his bookstore “House of Common Sense and the Home of Proper Propaganda”. The store became an important reading room of the Civil Rights Movement. The bookstore was a rare place for black people and scholars and anyone interested in literature by, or about, African Americans, Africans, Caribbeans and South Americans. Michaux’s bookstore had over 200,000 texts and was the nation’s largest on its subject.

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