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

Louis Blumstein, department store owner

In 1885 Louis Blumstein arrived in the United States from Germany. He worked as a street peddler and in 1894 opened a store on Hudson Street. In 1898 he moved to West 125th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, already a major regional shopping center.

Mr. Blumstein died in the 1920s and his family took over the store. The family tore down the store after his death and built a 5 story building. It was a beautiful $1 million art deco building, second largest on 125th street after the Hotel Teresa and completed in 1923.  They were the largest department store in Harlem. The store did not hire African Americans and became the main focus of the “Don’t shop where you can’t work” campaign in 1934. The department store had only hired African Americans as porters and elevator operators, not as sales people though 75% of its sales came from African Americans in the neighborhood.

On July 26, William Blumstein, head of the store and a brother of Louis Blumstein, capitulated, promising to hire 35 blacks for clerical and sales positions by the end of September. in 1943 Blumstein’s had the first black Santa Claus, was the first to use black models and mannequins and successfully appealed to cosmetic manufacturers to produce make-up for non-white skin tones. For years its mechanical black Santa Claus was a Christmas fixture on 125th Street.

Blumstein’s was also the site where Martin Luther King was attending a book signing engagement when he was stabbed in the chest on September 20, 1958 by Izola Curry, a deranged woman. He was taken to Harlem Hospital where he recovered. The building is now the site of Touro College.

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Historic, but not famous

Holcombe Rucker (March 2, 1926 – March 20, 1965) was a playground director in Harlem for the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation from 1948 to 1964. He founded the New York City pro-am basketball tournament, that still bears his name and is the namesake of a world-famous basketball court in Harlem.

Rucker grew up in Manhattan and  started the tournament in 1950 at a playground on 7th Avenue between 128th and 129th streets. He insisted that education be a fundamental part of the Rucker League, in keeping with its motto — “Each one, teach one.” Through his efforts, over 700 individuals were able to obtain basketball scholarships to help finance their education. The tournament grew into the stuff of legend in the 1960s, when many NBA stars such as Wilt Chamberlain participated.

Rucker attended City College of New York and graduated in 1962 with a degree in Education.  He went on to teach English at J.H.S. 139 before he died of cancer in 1965 at age 38. In 1974 the city renamed P.S. 156 Playground, located at 155th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, as Holcombe Rucker Playground in dedication to his community efforts and his basketball tournament is played there every year. The court is the most famous street basketball court in the world.

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Historic, but not famous

Elmo Hope was born on June 27, 1923, in New York City. His parents were immigrants from the Caribbean and had several children. Elmo began playing the piano aged seven.

He had classical music lessons as a child, and won solo piano recital contests from 1938. Fellow pianist Bud Powell was a childhood friend; together, they played and listened to jazz and classical music. Hope attended Benjamin Franklin High School, which was known for its music program. He developed an excellent understanding of harmony, and composed jazz and classical pieces at school.

At the age of 17, Hope was shot by a New York policeman and doctors reported that the bullet had narrowly missed his spine. Six weeks later, after Hope had been released from the hospital, he appeared in court. The judge freed Hope of all the charges, after which Hope’s attorney described the shooting as an “outrage”, and the charges as “an attempted frameup”. Hope’s recovery was slow, and he did not go back to school. Instead, he played the piano in an assortment of dance halls and other establishments in the city.

Hope and Powell met fellow pianist Thelonious Monk in 1942, and the three spent a lot of time together. This was interrupted in March 1943, when Hope enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army.

After leaving the Army, Hope played in many bands and eventually started playing Jazz as part of a quintet led by trumpeter Clifford Brown and alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson. He worked with Blue Note records and had his own jazz trio for recording. He appeared on recordings with Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Donald Byrd among others.

Unfortunately, he developed a drug problem and ended up in prison. He was unable to play in New York City clubs after his release from prison and began touring with Chet Baker and moved to Los Angeles. He began recording with many jazz musicians in LA, but came back to NYC in the early 1960s. He performed regularly until his death in 1967 in New York City from pneumonia.  Hope, Bud Powell, and Thelonius Monk were considered by their contemporaries to be influences on each other early in their careers, and all, therefore, helped affect the development of jazz piano. He released 15 albums as a frontman and almost as many as a sideman through his career.

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