She’s gone, you know.”
I didn’t know.
It was a little after nine on a sunny morning when I got off the A train in Harlem, looking for an elderly woman named Minerva Garcia. I found Arthur Toombs, makeshift mayor of the neighborhood, perched near her last known address.
“Ms. Garcia passed away a couple years ago.”
She had lived alone on the first floor at 191 Edgecombe Avenue, a 3,432-square-foot brownstone built in 1901. She’d been there forever. Toombs said she was all class and decency, and surprisingly independent until a stroke weakened her, and her spirit waned. He’d see her walking along the avenue, more slowly than she used to. “You’re doing all right!” he’d say. She’d smile. She took sick soon after the stroke and died on October 10, 2015, just a month shy of 90. “It happened fast,” Toombs said. She is buried at the Trinity Church Cemetery, not quite a mile north from her front steps.
The executor of her last will and testament was a Brooklyn lawyer who saw to it that her home—estimated market value: $2,501,000—was bequeathed to his brother, as per her instructions. The lawyer’s brother is described in the will as her “dear friend.” His daughter had the place renovated and operates it as a bed-and-breakfast, without the breakfast. Hotelplanner.com describes it as a “resplendent brownstone,” suitable for long- or short-term stays.
I noticed that the door was left open. An Asian couple, their stay over, came down the stairs, suitcases packed, children in tow. Toombs cheerily wished them well as they headed up the tree-lined sidewalk, past pristine facades and potted greens. Kids darted by on bikes. “Hey, Mr. Arthur!” they called out. When they didn’t call out to him, he turned from me to call out to them.
“It wasn’t always like this,” he said. “These buildings you see were all run-down. There were no trees on the street but plenty of trash cans. Abandoned cars. Graffiti. The police wouldn’t even come here in the early nineties. They lost the block to drug dealers, who took over the corners to solicit and shoot dice, leaning on the fence, lording it over everyone.”
Toombs is the superintendent of the building at the corner of Edgecombe and West 141st Street. “I had to face them. You got to stand your ground or they walk all over you. They’d start coming around at four, so I’d get my hose at ten minutes to and wet down my corner, soaking the fence, making puddles. That got ’em moving. But I built a rapport with them. I told them I had a job to do,” he said. “Things were bad here.”
What changed? People started planting trees. The community stepped up. A block association was founded by Georgette Morgan-Thomas, and it pulled in Habitat for Humanity to help elderly homeowners clean up their properties. Gardens were planted in the back, and what bloomed was displayed at the front. The police reclaimed the block. “Beat cops,” said Toombs. Phase Piggy Back, a detox center across the street from Minerva, dented the demand for junk. “I played my Djembe drums for their little graduation ceremonies,” Toombs recalled. “A call to battle,” I said. Morgan-Thomas and police officers would set up “Playstreets,” where all the neighbors moved their cars and traffic was rerouted so that kids could come out in the sunshine for supervised games and arts and crafts. The dealers, who thrived on community disorganization and despair, got the message that Edgecombe was changing and began disappearing.
The NYPD’s crime statistics for the 30th Precinct reflect this dramatic change. In 1993, 56 murders, 45 rapes, and 680 felonious assaults were reported. Robberies and burglaries numbered over 700 each. Five years later, after James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling’s Broken Windows theory of policing was lifted off the page and put into action, the complaints for those five categories plunged 42 percent. And the trend downward hasn’t ceased; last year’s statistics represented a 58 percent drop from 2001, part of an overall 83 percent decline from 1993. It was an achievement to share and remember—a crime-ridden city block’s miraculous rebirth after neighbors emerged from behind bolted doors and Arthur Toombs stood his ground, hose in hand, turning what was gray to green.
Toombs moonlights as a caretaker for several properties on Edgecombe, all of them beautiful, all of them old. There’s a mysterious, stern-faced bas-relief two stories up on Minerva’s brownstone, and a photograph in Surrogate Court records proves that it is no recent adornment. It probably dates back to the architect’s original blueprints. Stone carvings like this, the work of anonymous artisan-immigrants, are found all over the city, staring blankly down at the streets below. Tom Miller, author of Seeking New York, tells us that Athena, the Greek goddess of strategic warfare, was a popular subject. Curiously, the stone portrait on the facade is not unlike images of Athena that I’ve seen on ancient coins. Athena is Minerva in Roman mythology.
I was studying the image as Toombs climbed the stairs into 191 to check on the vacated rooms. After a few minutes, I peeked into the vestibule. The hardwood floor is parquet, with a Greek key border. It’s of recent vintage, though the cast-iron radiator heater and antique pier mirror on either side are certainly not. To the left is a sitting room, entered through a French door under an ornately detailed surround that must go back at least a century.
Minerva didn’t always live alone. She was married in 1952 and lived here with her husband, Clemente Garcia, until 1975, when he fell down an elevator shaft at work, fractured his skull, and left her a widow. Her maiden name was Ward. She appears on the census with her parents and elder sister at 191 Edgecombe as far back as 1930. I found her sister, Cleopatra, in the city death index. The entry was dated 1941; she was only twenty-six. Her mother was a Panamanian of African descent, born Maria Alvarez. She died in 1960, before reaching her 70th birthday.
Her father’s name was William Ward. His ghost is what brought me to the brownstone.
My father was a championship boxer,” Minerva would say to anyone who’d listen. “Kid Norfolk,” said Toombs. He pointed to a door below the front stairs of her address. “His belt was on display in there, in a room she set up with photographs of herself through the years on the walls.” He remembered seeing it.
“That belt was for the so-called colored championship of the world,” I said. Tex Rickard, probably the greatest promoter in boxing history, commissioned diamond belts for black fighters, ostensibly to recognize the best of them, though his efforts actually encouraged segregated tournaments. That was something, finally, Toombs didn’t know. The belt was likely the one handed to Ward after he defeated Big Bill Tate at Madison Square Garden in 1920.
Tate stood six feet six. Ward was five feet eight with his shoes on. The Daily News scoffed at the two “black birds” and reported “screams of laughter” when they were presented to the crowd of 14,000. The crowd was laughing again during the fight when Ward broke a clinch by simply walking under Tate’s arm. I watched the fight recently on an old VHS tape. Ward’s aggression is a bit unnerving, even now. Both his feet leave the ring floor as he repeatedly launches himself upward at a forty-five-degree angle—he’s trying to slam either his glove or his head into Tate’s chin, and it seems to unravel any intention the giant has of winning. Ward, undersize and out of view when Tate’s back is to the camera, slashes and slashes, and Tate’s face periodically spins toward the camera in a flash of contorted features.
Ward was no doubt mindful that Tate was one of heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey’s sparring partners. All concerned knew that Dempsey had himself defeated a giant in Jess Willard to take the crown in 1919; in fact, he was defending the crown that very night in the main event. Ward was demanding a fight with Dempsey. And why not? His brutal fighting style mirrored the champion’s, and he, too, could topple giants.
But Dempsey avoided him. Aside from middleweight berserker Harry Greb, none of the white champions dared face Ward. So he went after Dempsey’s sparring partners and every willing Dempsey opponent to beat them better than Dempsey had, to pile them up and force the issue.
On March 2, 1922, he exceeded his limits. Harry Wills was a huge Harlemite who campaigned for years and in vain against the champion’s color line. Ward fought Wills in a main event at Madison Square Garden in what some fans considered an elimination match to determine the most deserving challenger. Dempsey planned on attending.
The main event was over before Dempsey got there. The morning edition of the Daily News printed a photograph of Wills casually leaning to one side in the second round, his arm resting on the ropes like a man on a street corner. All he needed was a cigarette. Ward is on his hands and knees, too hurt and bewildered to beat the count. When it was over, Ward sat on the steps of the ring with his head in his hands, “as unhappy a picture as we ever remember,” said the Herald-Tribune.
The press was as prone then as it is now toward gleeful disdain. Several referred to Ward as an “orang-outang” and Wills as a “dark giraffe.” The Daily News called the fight “a cocoanut throwing contest,” and published a virulent editorial questioning Dempsey’s chances of overcoming Wills because of the “residual gorilla formations in a Negro fighter” who was “later in climbing down out of the tree.”
The illiteracy rate for African-Americans, over 57 percent a generation after slavery, improved remarkably every decade after 1890. By 1920, it had dropped to 22.9 percent. Both of Ward’s parents were illiterate; he was not. He read the sports sections in the New York dailies and could only shake his head when his race was dehumanized or the perfectly proportioned physique he’d forged through constant training was cheapened: “The coon Adonis,” they called him. “The king of some cannibal isle.” Damon Runyon acknowledged his status as an elite athlete but couldn’t leave it there. “A real tar baby,” he wrote. “He has a little round head. Not much room inside that head for thinking.”
What Runyon didn’t know was that Ward had a bank account that rivaled Runyon’s. He didn’t know that Ward’s ever-present gold-toothed smile belied a sharp mind, that Ward was not what white folks mistook for “a mild-mannered kitten” who “never forgot his place.” The Baltimore Afro American had him right. “Kid Norfolk is not a carefee Negro,” C. Starr Matthews wrote. “Boxing is a business with him.”
Liberty Hall stood at 120 West 138th Street, about a half-mile from Edgecombe Avenue. On April 16, 1922, Marcus Garvey was flanked by an honor guard as he marched down the aisle, past the African Legion on one side and the Black Nurses on the other, the hushed crowd marking his progress to the stage by following the enormous plume jutting out of his hat. Garvey, the titular head of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, was at the peak of his popularity. The hall was packed. “Men and women of Liberty Hall, men and women of my race,” his baritone voice sailed over the rafters and across Harlem:
Do you know that the God we love, the God we adore, the God who sent His Son to the world nearly two thousand years ago never created an inferior man? Some of us seem to accept the fatalist position, the fatalist attitude, that God accorded to us a certain position and condition, and therefore there is no need trying to be otherwise. . . . If there is anything you want in this world it is for you to strike out with confidence and faith in self and reach for it!
Garvey gave his exhortation on a Monday. The following Friday, seven weeks after he struck out against Harry Wills, William Ward sat in the office of Moton Realty at 63 Park Row and affixed his signature to a deed. He put down $5,500 toward a property worth $17,000 ($217,161 in 2017 dollars) and secured a mortgage for the difference, becoming the owner of 191 Edgecombe Avenue. The new building owner—an anomaly in the company of fellow owners with names like Grossman, Goodman, Mackin, Rosen, Riedler, and Cohen—joined the vanguard transforming Harlem into a black metropolis, pushing contrived boundaries westward across Seventh Avenue.
The 1920 census tells us that the residents on that block were white American natives and white immigrants, mostly German and Russian Jews and Irish. Many were naturalized; some were marked “alien.” No black people lived on that block in 1920. The property that Ward purchased only two years later was then occupied by a middle-aged Canadian immigrant named James Lucas, his family, and three white lodgers.
By the end of 1922, Ward was bringing handwritten real-estate ads to the offices of the Amsterdam News on Seventh Avenue.
EDGECOMBE AVE., 191–(near 142nd St.)–Rooms for respectable people, furnished and unfurnished. Large, small.
The 1925 New York census tells us that the vast majority of residents on that block were now African-American natives and black immigrants, mostly from the British West Indies. Many were naturalized; some were marked “alien.” Fewer than 100 white people lived there by then, and Lucas was among those fleeing the rising tide. Ward had not yet moved his family from their apartment on West 137th Street, but collected rent from a red-cap porter who lived in his building with relatives and two black lodgers.
Ward’s boxing career, which had opened with blindfolds and battles royal, was closing much the same way. His vision had been compromised since 1921, when a heavyweight puncher ruptured a blood vessel in one of his eyes and closed the other. Word leaked out. While he was in training for a match against Battling Siki in 1923, the World asked him about it. “I can see the other bloke just as well as ever,” he said. And to prove true what wasn’t true, he wagered $3,800 on himself at eight-to-five odds—and won. In 1924, he bet $6,000 on himself at two-to-one odds to beat Harry Greb in Boston, winning via disqualification after a desperate battle. When Tommy Gibbons, a top white contender who had avoided him for years, finally agreed to face him late in 1924, odds-makers installed Gibbons as a five-to-one favorite. Ward went to his bank and withdrew ten $1,000 bills to wager on himself by knockout—and was knocked out himself. “Man, he done hit me with everything in New York,” he recalled.
Ward was risking his health and his savings, but he knew his earning power was waning fast. He may have sought extra income to finance new real-estate ventures while he could still see what he was punching at. There is some indication that he purchased an Old Law tenement—the dark, dank, and cramped structures built to accommodate the immigrant poor before the Tenement House Act of 1901—on Edgecombe.
In March 1926, Ward traveled to the West Coast and fought for the last time. He was in against England’s Ted Moore and spent more time groping than punching, at times “holding on for dear life.” Moore won by technical knockout. “Norfolk is through,” said the San Francisco Examiner. He knew it, and announced his retirement. The Chronicle printed a warm commendation rarely seen in a sport whose practitioners usually wind up broke. “He will have no cause to worry, for he is well fixed financially.”
Minerva was four months old when her father returned home. He soon moved his family from 44 West 137th Street to 191 Edgecombe Avenue, his brutal career condensed into a few keepsakes and packed in a box.
In the meantime, the percentage of African-Americans living in Central Harlem skyrocketed from 32 percent in 1920 to 70 percent in 1930. Its 25 blocks became the undisputed capital of black America, a welcoming place for West Indians and Carolinian country folk spilling off the train at Penn Station. Harlem was a hot spot for downtown spenders but heaven to the new majority living there, and heaven was hopping: street-corner orators on stepladders heckled by noonday crowds, parades featuring big brass bands and fraternal orders in eye-popping costumes, laughter on the avenues as couples promenaded and revelers hustled to Small’s Paradise or Edmond’s Cellar; all-night rent parties, where virtuoso pianists like Fats Waller introduced Harlem, and then the world outside, to the uptown stride. Ministers were cautioning against jazz and dissipation, but sermons in at least one of the 200 churches in Harlem were boiled down to two words—“buy property!”
Entrepreneurship was on the upswing and community pride with it. A police captain said that the 38th Precinct was about the most law-abiding in all of New York City, partly because of the relatively large percentage of African-American officers on the beat. Harlem was the sun-drenched center of all things black and beautiful, a cup overflowing into white America and beyond.
Sugar Hill was its most exclusive real estate. Only a short walk from the Wards’ front door, it doesn’t slope upward as much as unfurl, as if by royal decree. Row houses rise to the left. Colonial Park, now Jackie Robinson Park, is at the right. Your legs are tired when a towering neo-Georgian building comes into view at 409 Edgecombe. Five minutes farther is 555, “the Triple Nickle.” Both have been declared state and federal landmarks, respectively, and for good reason. Legends of song, civil rights, sociology, sports, and the stage lived at these addresses: Canada Lee, Paul Robeson, W. E. B. Du Bois, Roy Wilkins, Thurgood Marshall. Among them were royalty: Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Harlem’s “Queen of Policy” Madame Stephanie St. Clair, and Joe Louis—the heavyweight king who heralded the end of the color line. “Select colored tenants” passed by a doorman into a lavish marble lobby at 555. Intellectuals gravitated to 409, though a neighbor of the lawyers, artists, folklorists, and bright lights of the NAACP was Madame St. Clair, who laughed at the threats of Dutch Schultz and climbed the ranks of the underworld in strap pumps.
Langston Hughes, the foremost voice of the Harlem Renaissance, said that the era reached its peak when the stock market crashed in 1929, when “whites, Negroes, and everyone else were sent rolling down the hill toward the Works Progress Administration.” Land values went rolling down, too, though the Wards did all right in their sanctuary. They appear on the 1930 census, collecting rent from eight lodgers. Maria is working as a maid in a theater, and Ward is spending his days training boxers at Grupp’s Gym at 116th Street and Eighth Avenue, alongside Harry Wills.
In the early 1940s, he was working as a laborer in a shipyard, making $720 per annum—enough for Maria to remain home and manage their business interests. Within a few years, his political connections landed him a coveted state job at the Labor Department on Center Street. Ward told a reporter that a property he owned had burned down, which may have been an Old Law tenement on Edgecombe that had, in fact, burned down in 1934. Two women, pinned by fire, leaped to their deaths after tossing a ten-year-old boy out a fourth-story window.
Harlem was turning mean. Unemployment was skyrocketing, the wartime boost to the economy was slow in filtering down to black areas, apartments were overcrowded with an unrelenting stream of migrants—in 1950, Harlem’s population was twice what it is today—and everyone’s teeth seemed on edge. For Ralph Ellison, the common reply to the greeting “How are you?”—“Oh, man, I’m nowhere”—said it all. The long, hot summers turned Harlem into a powder keg of discontent, and much of that discontent—then, as now—was directed at the police. At the Hotel Braddock, a black soldier intervened when he witnessed a white police officer manhandling a black woman, and the officer shot and wounded him. A rumor spread up and down the avenues that the soldier was dead, and Harlem exploded with looting and violence that ended only after Mayor Fiorello La Guardia called in the army. When the smoke cleared, there were six dead, hundreds wounded, 500 arrests, and $5 million in property damage. It was the second of three major riots in post-Renaissance Harlem.
I’d read that residents would stockpile projectiles on roofs to hurl at police officers. While admiring the outlines of the brownstones against the blue sky on Edgecombe, I spotted a half-collapsed chimney. Was it deliberately taken apart for bricks, generations ago?
By the 1950s, William Ward was in decline, too. His right eye had to be removed, and the width of him was catching up to his height. He hung around a billiard parlor and a local Elks club and was revered by those who knew him as “a real gentleman and a true friend.” Not everyone knew him: one night, he was walking along the avenue more slowly than he used to when a couple of muggers mistook him for an easy mark. They made a grave mistake when they got within arm’s reach. Had police officers not bounded on the scene and peeled him off his assailants, a story goes, they would have been carted off to the morgue.
Maria died in 1960. She had been William’s wife since about 1914 and his eyes for nearly as long. He still had Minerva and son-in-law Clemente under the same roof, but the loss of his wife felt as though someone had pulled the shade down and closed the curtains. Many in Harlem were doing exactly that, retreating behind brownstone walls, as block after block became arenas of free-floating hostility. Everything had gone gray. Tension crackled whenever a patrol car rolled down Lenox Avenue or a white merchant argued with a customer on 125th Street. “Harlem,” said one observer, “was lodged in the throat of New York City like a lump.”
Ward was a face in the window when his neighborhood exploded in 1964. And he was as somber as everyone else when Malcolm X’s funeral was held at a church on Sugar Hill, though probably more nostalgic—Ward had known that church as the Bluebird Theatre in the 1920s. He knew Harlem when Marcus Garvey was carrying the same message of self-determination on the same streets.
Old age’s backward gaze is inevitably interrupted by mortality’s tap on the shoulder. Ward spent his final years in near-darkness with his rich memories but roused himself for one last act of official business. It concerned his real estate. In 1966, he transferred the title of his property to Minerva, ensuring that she, too, would have something to hold on to for the rest of her life. As it happened, 191 Edgecombe belonged to either him or his daughter for almost a century of Harlem history.
William Ward died on April 26, 1969. His funeral was held within walking distance of his home, at the Church of Saint Charles Borromeo on West 141st. He is buried with Maria at Old St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx, section 21, range 18, grave 101.
Arthur Toombs wears dashikis and sports a stick in his ear. Does it signify the pain of his ancestors? “It isn’t that. I used to whittle chicken bones for my ear, but I’d fool with it and the hole got big,” he said. “So I got this stick, polished it up, and filled the hole.” He’s a folk historian. He fills a lot of holes. I noticed an Ethiopian cross and an ankh dangling from around his neck: “death and life.”
The Edge is a chic new café at 101 Edgecombe. I stopped in after taking up too much of Toombs’s time. “This place used to be a bodega,” the barista said. That was then.
Then is now. A painting of Langston Hughes hangs on exposed brick behind the bar. He, too, had a dream, a variation of a dream:
To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun.
Top Illustration by Keith Henry Brown