66. Lillian Harris (c.1873-1929) was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, and went on to Harlem to create one of the great “rags to riches” stories.
In the 1900 Census, there’s a Lillie Harris, born 1874, working as a cook in Belzoni, Mississippi. I can’t prove that they’re the same people, but there also aren’t an infinite number of Lillians or Lillies in the delta region in the 1880 and 1900 Censuses.
In any case, in the fall of 1901, Lillian arrived in New York City, in the vanguard of the Great Migration. Tens of thousands of African Americans left behind the oppression and danger of Jim Crow, and the grinding poverty of the rural south, for better prospects in the north. People from the delta region commonly went to midwestern cities such as St. Louis, Chicago, and Detroit, while people from the southeast commonly went to east coast destinations such as New York (Lillian’s future husband, John W. Dean, came from Virginia), but whatever path she took, Lillian wound up in New York.
Lillian settled first in the San Juan Hill neighborhood. The neighborhood covered several blocks west of Columbus Circle, from W.59th to W.65th, between Amsterdam and 11th Avenues. In the early 1960s, it was bulldozed as part of an “urban renewal” project, and replaced by the new buildings of Lincoln Center. But beginning in the 1880s, it attracted a large number of migrants from the south, especially from the Carolinas, many of whom worked on the Hudson River piers.
This 1939 map shows the neighborhood in proximity to the piers
It was a rough neighborhood. Some say the San Juan Hill name came in honor of the Buffalo Soldiers, the all-black regiment that played a vital role in winning the Spanish-American War battle of San Juan Hill in 1898. It is just as likely that it got its name from the ongoing street battles between rival gangs, with Irish gangs from Hell’s Kitchen to the south and Italian gangs to the east and north battling with the neighborhood’s African American gangs. It is said that these gang wars inspired the musical West Side Story, and the film’s opening scenes were shot there in 1961, just before the area was demolished.
It was crowded. It is said that there were as many as 5000 people crowded into just one block. By the time Lillian Harris arrived in 1901, the neighborhood probably didn’t look much different than it did in this photo from the early 1940s:
When Lillian arrived, she followed the standard employment path generally open to black women, north and south: She became a domestic. But as soon as she’d saved up five dollars, she spent it on an old baby stroller, a wash boiler, and a bunch of pigs’ feet. She worked out an arrangement with a neighborhood saloon, probably Rudolph’s, to use its kitchen for boiling the pigs’ feet, and then she sold them from the baby carriage.
She was something of a character. She was a large woman, with a deep voice. Terms like “Goliath” and “Amazonlike” have been used to describe her. Invariably, she wore a starched, checked gingham dress. In the 1910 Census, she is described as a mulatto.
By then, she had married John Dean, who in 1910 was a postal clerk, and they lived on 59th Street. Then both of them moved uptown to Harlem. John opened a news stand, and Lillian, now known to the public as “Pig Foot Mary,” sold pigs’ feet and other southern specialties from a steam table next to John’s news stand on West 135th St. and Lenox Ave., (now Malcolm X Blvd). This 1927 photo may give something of the flavor of Harlem’s street life and its vendors:
Pigs’ feet are an acquired taste. They’re easy to make: just boil them long enough and then season them up with red pepper flakes. As with neck bones, they generate a delicious broth that’s great for rice. But there’s not much meat on them, and eating them requires one to suck around the bones. I’m not squeamish, but I have to admit that, as a white guy, the pinkish-beige color of the pig hide looks a little too much like my own hide.
But for southern migrants in the big city, “trotters,” fried chicken, and other southern delicacies represented a taste of home. Lillian made a lot of money at it, and knew how to manage her money. She began investing in Harlem real estate, and by the 1920 Census, her occupation was listed as “real estate agent.” In 1917, for instance, she bought a five-story apartment building for $42,000 and sold it in 1923 for $72,000. In current dollars, those amounts would be about $782,000 and $1.35 million. By the time she retired in the mid-1920s, she had built up an estate of $375,000, or about $5 million in current dollars.
Lillian also bought real estate in Pasadena, California. She seems to have died there in 1928 or 1929. John stayed in Harlem, and was still alive at the time of the 1940 Census.
The theme here is familiar, and a recurring one in this blog. Jessica B. Harris has written about the free and enslaved women street vendors of Charleston. Psyche Williams-Forson has written about women such as the Gordonsville (Virginia) waiter carriers who made the most of opportunities to sell items like fried chicken. Maria Godoy has written about the women of New Orleans who sold calas as a way of scraping together enough money to buy their freedom from enslavement.
Oyster and fish vendors of Charleston, c.1870
Lillian Harris used pig’s feet and other foods to get her foot in the door, and then proceeded to kick the door down.
Is there a moral to the story? At a personal level, it’s good to recognize and celebrate determination and achievement. At a social level, her story from a hundred years ago might give us pause to reflect on the harsh realities of income inequality and our lack of social mobility compared to our peers among the nations. But that will have to be a topic for another time.
Lillian’s place in Harlem history was established long ago by writers such as James Weldon Johnson and Roi Ottley. But her story still fascinates. Tn recent years, the Negro Ensemble Company has included a play based on her life to its repertoire (see our featured image above), and in 2011, Regina Abraham told Lillian’s story in a book for younger readers.
This is one of the promotional videos: