Thursday, November 16, 2023

The 1893 Max Feist House - 245 West 139th Street

photo by Mark Satlof

In 1890, developer David H. King, Jr. embarked on an expansive and ambitious project.  It was described by the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide on August 16 as, "one of the most important building operations ever undertaken in this city."  The article explained that King intended to cover the entire block between Seventh and Eighth Avenues (today Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, respectively) and 138th and 139th Streets, as well as the south side of  138th Street between the same avenues with "buildings of a first-class character."

King expanded the project in 1891 by adding the northern blockfront of 139th Street.  "The new portion, engulfing the northern blockfront of 139th Street, would follow the same plan as the others and be designed by McKim, Mead & White," said the Record & Guide on January 27.  Stanford White was put in charge of the design.  His Renaissance Revival rowhouses were faced in orange Roman brick above rusticated brownstone bases.  Completed in 1893, they rose four stories above shallow basements.

Among them was 245 West 139th Street.  Its entrance above a short stoop was protected by a glass-and-iron marquee.  A dramatic Venetian-style balcony dominated the second floor.  Its molded brick frame upheld a terra cotta lintel, directly below an ornate terra cotta rosette.  

No. 245 became home to the Feist family.  Max Feist was the principal in the millinery supplies business named for himself.  He also invested in Harlem real estate.  Feist and his wife had one son.  S. Feist entered the Stevens Institute of Technology in 1913, but interrupted his studies a year before graduating to attend the Butt Military Training Camp in Burlington, Vermont.

Following World War I, Henry Allen Wallace, a widower, moved into 245 West 139th Street.  Born in Columbia, South Carolina, he was educated in Canada and at Howard University.  As a young man, he passed a civil service test and was hired as a clerk in the War Department, first in Washington and later in the New York City office.  He held that position for over 30 years.

More importantly, Wallace focused on what today is called Black History.  The New York Age said of him, "Mr. Wallace was a contributor to many Negro historical works, being an authority on Negro Ante-Bellum history; especially during the Reconstruction period in South Carolina."

An early activist for racial equality, Wallace was, as well, a stickler on historic accuracy.  He read an article in the January 1920 issue of The Journal of Negro History, for example, that outlined a meeting of the Secretary for South Carolina with two Black men "concerning the formation of the political organization for the newly enfranchised Negro."  Wallace shot back with a four-page letter to its editor, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, pointing out numerous inaccuracies.  In it, he said, "History, unless it is based on facts, incontrovertible facts, is worthless."

245 West 139th Street is second from left.  photo by Mark Satlof

Living at the address at the time was Mrs. M. E. Richardson, who was either a boarder or Wallace's housekeeper.  Her grandfather, Shandy Jones, had been a member of the Alabama Legislature during Reconstruction.

In 1922 Wallace visited Toronto, Canada (where he had spent his school years) for four weeks.  He wrote an article for The New York Age outlining racial conditions there.  In it he said in part:

Toronto has made wonderful strides and from a population of 50,000 in 1870 is now 529,000.  It would not be true to say there is no prejudice there.  The large influx of Americans has caused considerable prejudice, though one will be told, as in most of our northern cities, that there is none...When I hear a person say there is no prejudice at a certain place I know then there are not many colored persons at that place.

In failing health, Henry A. Wallace sold 245 West 139th Street in June 1922 to Harry and Sarah Wills.  Wallace moved to his sister's home in Chester, Pennsylvania where he died on February 12, 1923.

The title to 245 West 139th Street was in Sarah's name, so when the couple erected a garage in the back lot in 1922, she was listed as the owner of record.  

In reporting that Wills had purchased the property, the Record & Guide called him, "the colored aspirant for the Heavyweight Championship of the World."  He was known in boxing circles as the Black Panther.  That year, on March 12, New York Herald sportswriter W. O. McGeehan interviewed Harry Wills.  The boxer opened up about his personal life, saying for instance, "What do I read?  I read the papers and I like to read about history.  But the best book I ever had is a book written by Paul Lawrence Dunbar.  He was a colored man, too, you know."

Harry Wills, from the collection of the New York Public Library

Harry Wills would hold the World Colored Heavyweight Championship three times.  But because of the "color line" held by the Boxing Commission, he never had a shot at his most coveted prize: the title of Heavyweight Champion of the World.  In his interview with McGeehan, he mentioned that fighting Jack Dempsey would be a distinction, but added frankly that the purse for that fight would be welcomed, as well. "It isn't very easy for colored fighters to get any kind of money."

In 1930, Dr. H. Binga Dismond and his wife, the former Geraldyn Hodges, moved into 245 West 139th Street.  He was a graduate of the University of Illinois, where, according to The New York Age, "he equalled [sic] the world's record for the 440-yard dash."  He had been practicing medicine since 1924, prompting the newspaper to call him in 1934, the "well known Harlem medico and sportsman."  He moved his medical practice into the house, as well.

photo by Mark Satlof

Geraldyn Hodges Dismond (known as Gerri) was a fascinating woman, especially considering the period and her race.  Ebony magazine would call her "one of the 'new Negroes' of the early 20th Century," and "one of the best known black women in America."  She and Dismond had met during World War I when she was a major in the American Red Cross and he was a soldier.

Her far-reaching resume included journalist, newscaster, publicist, author, community leader and editor.  Her residency at 245 West 139th Street would be relatively short, however.  Geraldyn received a Mexican divorce in 1933, although reportedly the couple remained friendly over the succeeding years.

The reason for the divorce soon became clear.  On March 24, 1934, The New York Age reported that Dr. H. Binga Dismond had married Harriet Richardson.  "The bride's address was given as 245 West 139th street, which is the same as the doctor's," said the article.

Three months after his marriage, Dismond resigned from the American Medical Association.  The New York Age reported the move was "a protest against a new type of discrimination."  The AMA annually published a membership directory, and the article explained, "In previous years all members were listed without any special reference to their racial origin."  But when Dismond received his proof-sheets for approval, he saw "col." next to each Black physician's name.

The Dismonds had two "lodgers" that year, musicians Cyrus St. Clair and Fred Moore.  In 1940 there were three lodgers living at the address, Benjamin Franklin, Elizabeth Wade, and Nilo Rivera.

In 1941, Harriet Dismond was granted a divorce.  On July 18, 1942, The New York Age mentioned that Dismond "recently took unto himself a fourth wife."  (Cora Dismond was, actually, his third.)

The West 139th Street house was, at times, the scene of lavish entertaining.  On September 19, 1942, The New York Age reported on the couple's "Haitian Bar" themed party in honor of Judge and Mrs. Herman E. Moore of the Virgin Islands.  "The invitation started uptown's Fall social season with a flair," said the article, adding, "the setting was reminiscent of the good old days when Harlem was 'Harlem' and A'Lelia Walker, Carolyn Wilkins, and Turner Layton and Tandy Johnson were in their hey day."

Dismond surprised those who knew him when he published a book of poetry, We Who Would Die, in 1943.  The New York Age said it was "glowingly received by critics nation-wide."  The critic of the Hartford, Connecticut newspaper Courant said, "It is this reviewer's belief that the Negro poet, Binga Dismond, numbers among the great poets of modern times."  Twelve years later, Dismond's second volume, I've Often Wondered, was released.

The Dismonds moved to Sag Harbor in 1950.  Five years later, the upper floors of 245 West 139th Street were converted to furnished rooms.  A doctor's office still occupied the first floor.

Major change came in 1979 when Mutulu Shakur purchased the house.  He converted the doctor's office to the Harlem Institute of Acupuncture, headquarters of the Black Acupuncture Advisory Association of North America, or BAANA.  According to Rachel Pagones in her 2021 Acupuncture as Revolution--Suffering, Liberation, and Love, "The front room was used as a classroom, and in back was a conference area.  At street level was a clinic, with a front desk and waiting room--sometimes doubling as a classroom--to the fore and a treatment room behind."  

Mutulu Shakur, from the Federal Bureau of Investigation

On October 20, 1981, a Brink's armored car was robbed in Rockland County by several Black Liberation Army members and four former members of the Weather Underground.  In the process, a guard was murdered.  When their getaway car was stopped by two police officers, the robbers shot them dead, too.  Mutulu Shakur disappeared from West 139th Street.  

In Shakur's absence, the F.B.I. wiretapped the 245 West 139th Street telephones.  The New York Times reported, "they repeatedly heard orders placed for cocaine by a variety of people."  On March 7, 1983, nearly two years after the heist and murders, The New York Times reported, "at 245 West 139th Street, Mr. Shakur ran a clinic that, according to the F.B.I., was really the planning center for armed robberies.  From that address, F.B.I. officials say, the robbers left for Rockland County on Oct. 20, 1981."

On August 9, 1982, The New York Times reported, "The groups identified by the F.B.I. as communicating through the acupuncture center included the Black Liberation Army, the Republic of New Afrika, the May 19 Communist Organization, the Black Panther Party, the Weather Underground Organization and the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee."  Mutulu Shakur was finally arrested on February 12, 1986 in California.  He was sentenced to 60 years, but was released on December 16, 2022 because of his failing health.  He died on July 7, 2023.

photo by Mark Satlof

In the meantime, 245 West 139th Street was returned to a single family home in 1999.  

many thanks to Mark Satlof for suggesting this post
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