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African American

Little-known tidbits about the people and the contributions of African-Americans to society.

Book: Colored People’s Blue-Book and Business Directory of Chicago

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Colored people's blue-book and business directory of Chicago

I could find little on the author of this business directory, which was published privately in 1905, but the directory itself is a goldmine of social history. To give a little context, Chicago was one of the destinations for African-Americans during the Great Migration; morever, the city was founded by a Haitian fur trader in the 18th century, and post-Civil War Illinois was progressive in its anti-discrimination and segregation laws. Nevetheless, in a big city such as Chicago, segregation was rife, and African-Americans settled in the “Black Belt,” or the neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side. There, well-to-do, middle-class, lower-class, and poor African-Americans lived cheek-by-jowl, surviving and thriving in less than ideal circumstances. However, a quick glance through this directory reveals pages of industries in which Chicago’s African-Americans were involved: from restaurants to dentistry, newspapers to millinery, and law to laundries. A lone entry that stokes my imagination is that of Madam Pearl Black, a Clairvoyant–one can only ponder what sort of fortunes she gave her clientele!

You can read the directory here:

Or download it for future perusal here.

Alonzo Herndon and his Crystal Palace

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Herndon's Crystal Palace Barber Shop

The amazing and outrageous dichotomies of life under Jim Crow were embodied in Alonzo Herndon. Each day, he traveled from his home to ride at the back of a street car to his barber shop in Atlanta, where he then entered the building from the rear entrance. When Herndon’s barber shop opened for the day, he shaved, clipped, trimmed, and otherwise pampered many of Atlanta’s most prominent white men in his flagship barbershop on 66 Peachtree Street. It may have shocked his customers to their toes to learn that their elegant and efficient barber had been born into slavery in 1858 and rose to become Atlanta’s first black millionaire and president and founder of the Atlanta Life Financial Group (then known as The Atlanta Benevolent and Protective Association). It would have also shocked white Atlanta even more to visit Herndon’s home, a Beaux-Arts classical mansion designed by his first wife, Adrienne McNeil Herndon, an actress and elocution teacher at Atlanta University.

However, Alonzo Herndon’s most indelible mark was the opulent barbership located, as mentioned above, on 66 Peachtree Street. After the death of his first wife, Herndon soon remarried again (Jessie Gillespie), and they honeymooned in Europe. Herndon was inspired by the sights and elegance of the “Old World,” and returned to Atlanta full of plans to transform the three-story building, which spread an entire block from Peachtree to Broad, into a palace. By the spring of 1913, Herndon Barbershop had become the Crystal Palace.

“One entered through mahogany and plate-glass doors to a long, elegant parlor lined with French beveled mirrors and lit by crystal chandeliers and wall lamps. Ceiled in white pressed-tin and floored in white ceramic tile, the room accommodated twenty-five custom barber chairs that were outfitted with porcelain, brass, and nickel, and upholstered in dark green Spanish leather. ‘Everything in my shop is the best procurable,’ Herndon boasted. It was a brilliant display. Even the boot-black stands were of nickel and marble.”

The Crystal Palace became known from Richmond, Virginia to Mobile, Alabama as the best barbershop in the South, and became an unofficial city attraction visited by local Atlantans as well as tourists who reveled in its opulence. Herndon also counteracted Jim Crow laws by designing his back entrance that looked the same as the front! By the time of Herndon’s death in 1927, Atlanta Life, which he funded with the profits of his barbershops, expanded into one of black Atlanta’s premiere institutions with assets totaling over one million dollars. His son Norris further expanded the insurance business into a multi-million dollar company, which–along with the Herndon mansion–still exists to this day.

Further Reading:

Herndon Home
History of the Herndon Home
The Crystal Palace in Atlanta Magazine
The Alonzo Herndon Family
The Herndons: an Atlanta Family by Carole Merritt

African-Americans in the Great War

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Harlem Hellfighters

When the United States entered the Great War 1917, it was viewed with relief by the war-weary Allied armies. After the passage of the Selective Service Act, America’s relatively small army was bolstered by a draft of 2.8 million men, and by the summer of 1918, was sending 10,000 fresh soldiers to France every day. A hefty percentage of those draftees were black men who were assigned to segregated units commanded by white officers, and rarely saw combat, instead working as stevedores or in other menial positions. Also largely barred from duties were African-American nurses, who enrolled in the American Red Cross during the early days of the war, hoping to gain entry into the Army or Navy Nurse Corps. After much pressure, 18 nurses were offered Army Nurse Corps assignments in 1918, and four black women “were among the 3,480 ‘Y’ women volunteers who provided recreation for the American Expeditionary Force by staffing canteens, nursing, sewing, baking, and providing amusement and educational activities for the soldiers.”

These segregated units got their chance to shine when the French requested and received control of several regiments of black combat troops. Around this time, the front-lines of the French army were exhausted and angry, almost to the point of mutiny, so these fresh (and unwanted) forces were a Godsend. The most notable regiment was the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” among other names, who were organized in 1916 as the 15th New York National Guard Infantry Regiment and manned by black enlisted soldiers with both black and white officers. African-American regiments were usually accompanied by bands, but the Harlem Hellfighters’s band was led by a titan: Lt. James Reese Europe. Europe was one the earliest creators of jazz and he made his mark earlier in the decade with his Clef Club Orchestra, who performed at Carnegie Hall, and as band leader and collaborator for Vernon and Irene Castle. These African-American soldiers brought over not only their valor, but their red-hot music, which the French took to with alacrity.

Now under French command, the Hellfighters did much to prove just how wrong the United States was when segregating troops and refusing to use their black regiments. By the end of the war, 171 members were awarded the Legion of Merit, many were awarded Distinguished Service Crosses, and Sgt. Henry Lincoln Johnson, a railroad porter who, alongside Pvt. Needham Roberts fought off a 24-man German patrol with only a rifle used as a club and a bolo knife between them, was awarded the French Croix de Guerre. No one could ignore these achievements, and when the 369th returned to the United States, it was the first unit to march up Fifth Avenue from the Washington Square Park Arch to their Armory in Harlem, and their unit was placed on the permanent list with other veteran units.

Despite their unwanted or diminished roles in the Great War, African-Americans in combat, in nursing, and in civilian roles served their country in any capacity they could, and proved themselves equal to their white countrymen and women.

Further Reading:
The Unknown Soldiers; Black American Troops in World War I by Arthur E. Barbeau and Florette Henri
From Harlem to the Rhine by Arthur W. Little
The Hellfighters of Harlem: African-American Soldiers Who Fought for the Right to Fight for Their Country by Bill Harris
Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War by Emmett J. Scott