The rent parties Bernice Gore (fictitious name) described flourished in Harlem in the 1920s, a response to the high rents and low wages blacks faced when they arrived in New York City. Around the time the rent was due, neighbors were invited to a get-together with music, food, and corn liquor and charged an entrance fee of 15 cents or a quarter. On Saturday night, Federal Writer Frank Byrd recalls, "You couldn't walk down Lenox Avenue without hearing music from a dozen rent parties."
When I first came to New York from Bermuda, I thought rent parties were disgraceful. I couldn't understand how any self-respecting person could bear them, but when my husband, who as a Pullman porter, ran off and left me with a $60-a-month apartment on my hands and no job, I soon learned, like everyone else, to rent my rooms out and throw these Saturday get-togethers.
I had two roomers, a colored boy and a white girl named Leroy and Hazel, who first gave me the idea. They offered to run the parties for me if we'd split 50-50. I had nothing to lose, so that's how we started.
We bought corn liquor by the gallon and sold it for 50 cents a small pitcher. Leroy also ran a poker and black jack game in the little bedroom off the kitchen. On these two games alone, I've seen him take in as much as $28 in one night. Well, you can see why I didn't want to give it up once we had started. Especially since I could only make $6 or $7 at most as a part-time domestic.
The games paid us both so well, in fact, that we soon made gambling our specialty. Everybody liked it, and our profit was more that way, so our place soon became the hangout of all those party-goers who liked to mix a little gambling with their drinking and dancing.
And with all these young studs with plenty of cash in their pockets out to find a little mischief, we soon learned not to leave things to chance. Instead, Hazel and I would go out and get acquainted with good-looking young fellows sitting alone in the back of gin mills looking as if they would like a good time but had nobody to take them out. We'd give them our cards and tell them to drop around to the house. Well, wherever there are pretty women you'll soon have a pack of men.
So we taught the girls how to wheedle free drinks and food out of the men. If they got them to spend more than usual, we'd give them a little percentage or a nice little present like a pair of stockings or a vanity case or something. They were all out looking for a little fun, and when they came to our house, they could have it for nothing instead of going to the gin mills where they'd have to pay for their own drinks.
And we rented rooms, sometimes overnight and sometimes for just a little while during the party. I have to admit that, at first, I was a little shocked at the utter boldness of it, but Leroy and Hazel seemed to think nothing of it, so I let it go. Besides, it meant extra money -- and extra money was what I needed.
I soon took another hint from Hazel and made even more. I used to notice that Leroy would bring home some of his friends and, after they'd have a few drinks, leave them alone in the room with Hazel. I wasn't sure that what I was thinking was so until Hazel told me herself. It happened one day when an extra man came along and there was no one to take care of him. Hazel asked me if I would do it. I thought about it for a while, then made up my mind to do it.
That was the last of daywork for me. I figured I was a fool to go out and break my back scrubbing floors, washing, ironing and cooking, when I could earn three day's pay, or more, in 15 minutes, and when I began to understand why Hazel got all those find dresses and good-looking furs. From then on, it was the life for me. . . .