Harlem’s Great Tree: Perennial talisman for good luck
Most of today’s younger generation is familiar only with part of the original stump saved from the Tree of Hope that stands on the stage of the world-famous Apollo Theater. As in the past, amateur performers continue to rub the stump for luck as they proceed to center stage.
During the Harlem Renai-ssance, the original Tree of Hope, a tall elm tree rumored to be a good luck charm to all who touched it, was located on Seventh Avenue (renamed Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd.), between 131st Street and 132nd Street in New York City. It stood between the popular Lafayette Theatre and Connie’s Inn nightclub. The early gossip mill says aspiring performers such as Ethel Waters, Fletcher Henderson and Eubie Blake, all visited the tree for a touch of luck.
In June, a new Tree of Hope (number four) was planted near the original spot, between the Williams Institutional Christian Methodist Church (formerly Lafayette Theatre) and C-Town grocery store (formerly Connie’s Inn).
It was Harold “Stumpy” Cromer, a 92-year-old original member of the Copasetics Connection tap-dancing group, who asked the N.Y.C. Parks Department to plant another Tree of Hope. Cromer and a new generation of hoofers are carrying on the tradition of the legendary group that was popular in Harlem during the 1940s and 1950s, as well as on the international circuit.
The Lafayette Theatre and Connie’s Inn were Harlem’s top show venues for Black entertainers. At the time, Seventh Avenue was known as the “Boulevard of Dreams.” It became a place where agents and people in show business gathered. Many gigs were negotiated and awarded to Black performers under the shade of this popular tree, reinforcing the good luck legend of the tree.
Cut down in 1934 during the expansion of Seventh Avenue, the tree was chopped up and sold as souvenirs. Ralph Cooper Sr., then the new host at the Apollo Theater, purchased a piece 18 inches across and about a foot high and took it back to his Apollo dressing room. Just before the first “Amateur Night,” a show he instituted, he had it placed at stage right so that the audience could see it and performers could get a rub before taking center stage. That tradition continues to this day.
In 1941, legendary hoofer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson joined New York City Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia in a ceremony to rededicate the stump, which he had purchased after the tree was cut down. A new tree was planted and the old stump was placed beside it with a with a plaque that read “The Original Tree of Hope Beloved by the People of Harlem. You Asked for a Tree of Hope, So Here ‘Tis, Best Wishes, Bill Robinson.” This tree was planted in the meridian not on the sidewalk.
This second tree mysteriously disappeared and was replaced in 1972 with a vibrantly colored abstract “Tree of Hope” sculpture by Alger-non Miller. The Parks & Recreation’s monuments and operations crew installed the piece on the meridian at 131st Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. Miller later restored his painted-steel sculpture with the support of a $5,000 grant from the Fund for Creative Communities and reinstalled it in April 2004.
A new Tree of Hope is planted and the Harlem tradition continues. Don’t ask if the tree brings good luck. If you follow your dreams, a little rub surely won’t hurt your chances.