Friday, March 31, 2023

The Rev. Frederick A. Toote House - 282 West 137th Street


In 1896, as the Harlem district was rapidly transforming from farmland and summer estates to one of rowhouses and stores, the development firm of Leith & Glenn planned six residences at 282 through 292 West 137th Street.  Designed by the firm of Neville & Bagge, the four-story homes were clad in beige Roman brick above a stone ground base.   

Completed in 1897, the easternmost house at 282 West 137th Street featured a low stoop with solid wing walls, one of which curved jauntily away from the steps to partial protect the basement entrance.  At the second floor a balustraded,  bowed balconette fronted the three windows, which were separated by engaged columns and crowned with splayed lintels and carved, foliate keystones.  Greek key bandcourses defined each upper story, and a pressed metal cornice and frieze crowned the design.

In 1901 282 West 137th Street was purchased by the Obermeier family.  Born in 1835, Charles Obermeier was a partner in C. Obermeier & Co. with Aaron Eichtersheimer, presumably the brother of Charles's deceased wife, Theresa Eichtersheimer.  The couple had had six children, at least three of whom, Leonard J., Maude, and Minnie, moved into the 137th Street house with Charles.  Also living with the family was Charles's sister-in-law, Marie, the widow of Imanuel Obermeier.

282 West 137th Street is at the left of the row.

The year the family moved into the house, Minnie graduated from Normal College.  She immediately began teaching Latin in the New York City public schools.  Leonard J. Obermeier was 24-years-old at the time.  He had graduated from Columbia College in 1896, and received his law degree from Columbia Law School in 1899.

Leonard would go on to great success, being appointed Deputy State Attorney General in 1916.  While in that position he hired a young Fiorella La Guardia as his assistant.  The two would become close friends and Leonard would later serve as Mayor La Guardia's personal counsel.

The house was the scene of Maude's marriage to A. M. Fechheimer at noon on November 5, 1907.   A "member of several New York clubs," according to The New York Times, the groom had until recently been Chairman of the Board of the Young Folks' League of the Montefiore Home and president of the Young Folks' League of the Mount Sinai Hospital.  

On December 16, 1909 Marie Obermeier was crossing 139th Street and Seventh Avenue (today's Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd.) when she was struck by the automobile driven by Dr. G. Harrington.  The physician placed the 74-year-old into his car and drove her to the nearest police station.  An ambulance was called and she was treated there.  Afterward, Harrington drove her home, apparently shaken but not seriously injured.

Three years later, on July 29, 1912, Marie died in the 137th Street house.  Her funeral on August 1 would not be the only one in the parlor that year.  Three months later Charles died at the age of 78, on October 31.

The Obermeiers retained possession of 282 West 137th Street , but were leasing it to a tenant who operated it as a boarding house by 1918.  Then, in 1920, as the neighborhood was becoming the center of the Manhattan's Black community, Leonard J. Obermeier sold the house to Cornelius L. Perdue.

Perdue rented rooms in the house while he worked.  His position-wanted advertisement on May 3, 1925 in The New York Times read:  "Chauffeur, colored, experienced, reliable; city, country, references.  C. Perdue, 282 West 137th St."

Irvin C. Miller, who was renting a room here in 1923, was reflective of the Harlem Renaissance taking place in the neighborhood.  The actor-author had formerly been part of the vaudeville duo Miller & Anthony.  His brother, Flournoy Miller, was one of the co-authors of the hit 1921 musical Shuffle Along, with music by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, both of whom lived just a block away.

Among Irvin C. Miller's productions were Liza, which was currently playing at the Bayes Theatre, Put and Take, and Chocolate Brown.

Irvin C. Miller (original source unknown)

Unfortunately, Put and Take was a financial failure and on April 5, 1923 Vaudeville titled an article "Shows Bankrupted Him" and reported that Miller was insolvent.  The Billboard noted, "The members of the cast of the 'Chocolate Brown' Company are listed as creditors for salary."

By 1931, 282 West 137th Street was a private home again, owned by Rev. Frederick Augustus Toote and his wife, the former Lillie M. Tooks.  Rev. Toote was already an important figure in the Civil Rights movement.  Born in the Bahamas in 1899, he came to America and joined the Marcus Garvey movement, early on sitting on the board of Garvey's Black Star Steamship Company.  

On June 8, 1923 The Morning Telegraph reported on the trial of Marcus Garvey, who was accused of mail fraud.  In telling of the Rev. Frederick Augustus Toote's testimony, the journalist provided readers an up-to-date resume.  "He testified that in addition to his pastoral duties he is a director in the Black Star line, a national organizer, national public speaker and a former president of the [United] Negro Improvement Association."

On November 8, 1931, Frederick and Lillie brought home a baby girl, Gloria E. A. Toote.  The infant would go on to become as (or more) influential than her noteworthy father.

On Sunday morning, September 6, 1953, Rev. Toote was "enthroned as archbishop of New York," as reported by The New York Age.  The newspaper said "More than 2,000 members and friends filled the Pro-Cathedral of the Church of the Good Shepherd that morning.  Toote's sermon reflected his continued work for racial justice.  He said in part:

So have I faith in this Negro race.  Not long removed from a wicked slavery, they still manifest a great deal of servility to their former masters.  For this I pity them, but I have hope for them still.  The time is coming when with self reliance and self determination, cultivation of race conscienceness, race pride and race cooperation they will outgrow the slavishness of centuries past and honor and follow their leaders.

Gloria was studying at Howard University and graduated the following year, the youngest-ever graduate of its School of Law at the time.  For years the Urban League had been pressuring Time Inc. to hire Black writers.  In 1955 Gloria was hired as its only Black journalist, writing for the National Affairs Section of Time magazine.  She continued her education and in 1956 earned her Ph.D. from Columbia University with a dissertation on constitutional law and civil rights.

In 1957, the head counsel for Time, Inc. arranged an interview for Gloria with Greenbaum, Woolf & Ernest.  She later recalled, "My daddy said they would never hire me...When Morris Ernst hired me, I asked to call my daddy.  I phone him and was told that he had just died."  Rev. Frederick Augustus Toote had suffered a fatal heart attack in March 1957 at the age of 58.  

Lillie and Gloria remained in the 137th Street house.  At Greenbaum, Woolf & Ernest Gloria was among the first Black entertainment attorney/agents.  In 1966 she founded Town Sound, the only independent Black-owned studio in the country that recorded major white artists.  Among the artists who recorded there were The Animals, Gloria Lynne, Lloyd Price, the Isley Brothers and the Mothers of Invention.  Additionally, Gloria Toote created a record label with James Brown.

Following her work in Richard Nixon's reelection campaign in 1971, she was made assistant director of ACTION.  In 1973 she became head of the Office of Voluntary Action Liaison, working at the White House.  And on June 24, 1983 a press release from the Reagan Administration announced that Gloria E. A. Toote had been appointed Vice Chairman to the President's Advisory Council on Private Sector Initiatives.

Gloria E. A. Toote, from the collection of Penn State University

In 1984 Gloria co-founded the National Political Congress of Black Women.  Its first chair person was Shirley Chisholm with Gloria its vice chair, a position she would hold until 1992.

Lillie Tooks Toote underwent surgery in the fall of 1987.  Complications rose afterward, and she died at the age of 79 on October 9.  Among those participating in her memorial service on November 14 at St. Philip's Episcopal Church on West 134th Street were nationally-known singer Ed Townsend, singer-actress Sally Blair, and pianist Lynn Richards.

Gloria E. A. Toote died in Palm Desert, California in 2017.  Her home for decades remains a single family house, its brick and stone painted today, but otherwise remarkably intact after a century and a quarter.

photographs by the author
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