From 1936 to 1940, Aaron Siskind led a group project at the Photo League focusing on one of New York City’s most vibrant communities—Harlem. Perhaps his most beloved image from this Harlem Document series is his photograph of a group of young, black boys gathered around a tree stump. They look rather dapper in their dress coats, sporting a variety of hats—fedoras, a newsboy cap and an aviator hat (at far left). More curious than their clothing to today’s viewer is the stump itself. What is it doing in the middle of a busy city street? And what significance could it possibly have to these boys?
A lot, it turns out. This stump was once a tall elm tree that stood on the corner of 7th Avenue and 132nd Street, just outside two of Harlem’s biggest entertainment venues: the Lafayette Theatre and a jazz club called Connie’s Inn. Performers would congregate beneath the tree’s branches and rub its bark for good luck before going on stage. This Tree of Hope, cherished by so many aspiring musicians, dancers and actors, came to symbolize the promise that Harlem held for many African Americans at that time.
Despite its import to the community, the Park Department cut down the Wishing Tree during an expansion project along 7th Avenue in 1934. It was then sectioned and sold at auction. Bill Robinson, the charismatic tap dancer better known as “Bojangles,” preserved the stump and replanted it later that year in the traffic island at 131st Street. Five thousand Harlem residents attended the replanting ceremony Robinson hosted, which featured night club dancers, a marching band and “rhythmic planting” (think “Stomp” with shovels). “This is the way to plant a tree!” exclaimed Mayor LaGuardia, who was also present for the festivities. Not only did Robinson give Harlem back its Tree of Hope, he also planted a young elm next to it to assume wish-granting duties (you can see the trunk of this new Wishing Tree behind the boys in Siskind’s picture).
Another section of the original Tree of Hope was installed on the stage at the Apollo Theater shortly after the venue opened on 125th Street in 1934. Placed on a pedestal near a wing, it is still rubbed for good luck by aspiring talents before they perform on Amateur Night to this day.
In 1972 the Wishing Tree’s stump on 131st Street was replaced by a metal sculpture by local artist Algernon Miller known as the Tree of Hope III. The abstract statue serves as a brightly colored homage to Harlem’s legendary tree.
Looking back at Siskind’s photograph, I can’t help but wonder what those young boys were wishing for. I hope their wishes came true.
Curatorial Assistant, The Jewish Museum, New York
Next up: Hester Street
Read the previous Photo Hunt post on The Sidewalk Clock here >
The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951 is organized by The Jewish Museum, New York, and the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio.
Image credits (top to bottom): Aaron Siskind, The Wishing Tree, 1937, from the series Harlem Document, 1936-1940. The Jewish Museum, New York. Purchase: Lillian Gordon Bequest. © Aaron Siskind Foundation, Courtesy Bruce Silverstein Gallery./ Excerpt from The New York Times, November 5, 1934./ 1987 Amateur Night at the Apollo, 13-year-old Lauryn Hill touches Tree of Hope before singing./ Algernon Miller’s Tree of Hope III, on 7th Avenue at 131st Street. Photograph by Rebecca Shaykin.