This post was written by Yingwen Huang, Processing Intern
“I only wish I could send you some of this nice cool weather along with some rain and hail that we are having just now; for it would do Kingston a world of good. Even a little snow wouldn’t do any harm.”
— David C. Hurd to his pen pal Avril Cato in Jamaica, March 16, 1914.
In 2015, Brooklyn Historical Society acquired the papers of David C. Hurd from his granddaughter, Judith C. Lovell. David C. Hurd was a Jamaican immigrant who arrived in Brooklyn in 1907 at the age of twenty two. He settled on Myrtle Avenue near Borough Hall, where a community of African American and West Indian immigrants resided at the time. He also lived in various locations in the Fort Greene and Crown Heights neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Trained as a teacher in Jamaica, Hurd worked a number of jobs in Brooklyn, including as a tailor, a custodian at a pool hall, a sailor on a steamer boat, and a salesman at a luxury car dealership. The collection, particularly the letters, offer researchers an opportunity to study the lifestyle of a Jamaican immigrant living in New York as well as his comparative perspectives on life in America and Jamaica during the early 20th century.
The highlight of the collection are the fifteen letters he wrote to Avril Cato, his future wife, who was in Jamaica at the time. Hurd’s eldest brother Tom was the matchmaker for the two; he only began the pen pal courtship after some nudging from Tom and seeing Avril’s picture for the first time. In the letters, he discussed his employment and the conditions of living in America as an immigrant. He also wrote meticulously about his affections for Avril and about their wedding plans.
Hurd described New York as a “land of opportunity.” He often told April that that anything was possible in America as long as one was willing to learn and try new things. He wrote in his May 7th, 1914 letter to his Dearest Avril,
Conditions in America are different from those in Jamaica. There, when a man has a position if it is desirable at all, he sticks to it as long as he lives, consequently he has no outside experience. When a man comes to American, never mind what he was at home, never mind how much he had there or what he knew; when he comes here he finds that he had to begin afresh. Even the little boys on the street, seem to be wiser than he is. The more he tries to learn here, the better he is fitted to make a comfortable living and to succeed.
He also wrote,
We have taken the word “can’t” from the English language entirely and in its place we’ve written “Let’s try”.
Hurd was an educated young man who dedicated his life to reading and writing in his leisure time while attending to his work during the day. On March 15th, 1914, he described his routine during the winter as “very monotonous”:
I get to work at half past 8 o’clock in the morning and get home at 6 o’clock in the evening. Having eaten my supper, I read the papers in order to get in touch with current events. Then I read a book or do some writing; and sometimes I go to the theatre or to the moving picture show. Sometimes I study a bit, especially when I have an engagement to give an address at a literary club or young men’s league or guild. But for the most part, I stay at home.
He also wrote to Avril to inform her about the weather in New York in comparison to Jamaica. For example, on May 17th, 1914, he wrote about how pleasant spring weather was in New York as compared to Jamaica:
Spring time is here. We have finally discarded our over-coats. Now we can walk or sit in the open air and enjoy the out-door pleasures of life. In Jamaica you cannot fully appreciate the grandeur of out-door life, because the air is always good, and people are always up and around excepting when it rains.
In another letter written in July or August prior to his departure to Jamaica, Hurd wrote about how his appearance can change depending on the weather:
It is rather hot in the City now, and I always lose weight in hot weather so if I look tall and skinny when I get there, don’t be surprised, I will fatten up in the cold months of winter.
He left New York in August 1914 and traveled to Jamaica to collect his bride. The two met in person for the first time the day before their wedding, after nearly a year of exchanging letters. The wedding took place on August 26th, 1914 in Port Antonio.
Soon after, the newlywed couple boarded the S.S. Obidense and left for New York. They arrived five days after their wedding on August 31, 1914 and settled in 37 Lexington Avenue in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. Hurd had arranged their new apartment prior to his trip to Jamaica with the help of Mattie, who was Avril’s cousin and married to his older brother, Tom. David and Avril Hurd raised six children together in several residences including 335A Decatur Street, 48 Putnam Avenue, and 1381 Union Street in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.
The letters in the David C. Hurd papers focus on the courtship between two young people, but they also reveal the experience of a Jamaican immigrant in New York during the early 20th century, and the perceived social and cultural differences between Jamaica and America. Avril Hurd died in 1962 followed by David in 1971, but their children and grandchildren continue to live in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn today.
The collection of letters, photographs, report cards, marriage and birth registers, passport, and notebook were donated in 2015 and 2017 by their granddaughter, Judith C. Lovell, who has great pride in her grandparents’ story and its importance in revealing their importance as documenting immigration, marriage customs, and daily life in the context of local, national and international history. Here is a video and photographs from the momentous day: