The late Doris Rosenblum, former Manhattan Borough historian, concurred with my theory of New York’s “Big Apple” nickname, once telling me, “Personally, I do believe you are correct regarding the derivation of the ‘Big Apple.’”
At the behest of Deputy Mayor John S. Dyson, Rosenblum had been directed to review my Big Apple theory, which was part of my submission to the City’s request for proposals for an official City of New York logo and merchandise.
Several years earlier in Central Park, I graphically interpreted a visual cacophony of diverse images, and multitudes enjoying sunshine and harmony. I called it EYE LUV THE BIG APPLE/GOLDEN OpportUNITY FOR UNITY.
Portrait of Cab Calloway, Columbia studio, New York, N.Y., ca. Mar. 1947. (Photo/ William P. Gottlieb collection at the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
While conducting research the midtown Manhattan library, I learned that the question of where the term “Big Apple” derived was New York’s top trivia inquiry. I also discovered the “official” explanation of its origin was suspect. All clues pointed north, to Harlem.
Without great difficulty, I uncovered evidence at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem which revealed a pattern of obfuscation by so-called experts regarding African-American contributions to the Big Apple’s genesis.
Besides informing me that she concurred with my findings, Rosenblum asked for an expanded version of my Big Apple theory, including refutations of other “theories.”
Cab Calloway’s repeated actions on the Big Apple’s behalf firmly established the term in popular culture nationally by 1940. An Amsterdam News article from September 4, 1937, entitled “Avenue Cats Do ‘Big Apple” chronicled the Big Apple dance and Cab Calloway’s embrace of “The Big Apple” as a cultural ideal.
There is further proof that the term “Big Apple” was firmly established nationally as New York City’s nickname by 1940. Malcolm X arrived in New York City at age 16 in 1941 and wrote in his autobiography: “For a long time I’d wanted to visit New York City. Since I had been in Roxbury (Massachusetts), I had heard a lot about the Big Apple, as it was called by the well-traveled musicians, merchant mariners, salesmen, chauffeurs for white families, and various kinds of hustlers I ran into.”
Calloway was the first to publish a book of Black slang that explicitly defined “Apple” as New York City: “Apple (n) the big town, the main stem, Harlem.” Under Jim Crow, Harlem was synonymous with New York City for African Americans in that day.
Calloway’s dictionary achieved two million sales worldwide and was the official jive language reference book of the New York Public Library, potentially reaching millions more who borrowed and shared it.
The information requested by Rosenblum was shared with Dyson, along with my EYE LUV THE BIG APPLE logo and merchandise portfolio, and ostensibly then-Mayor Giuliani was briefed.
Despite strong evidence and validation from the Borough historian, Giuliani went on to proclaim the southwest corner of Broadway at 54th Street “Big Apple Corner” in honor of John Fitzgerald. In his speech, Giuliani said “Fitzgerald overheard African-American stable hands refer to New York City race-courses as ‘The Big Apple.’” The mayor’s deed is further proof that a critical slice of African American history has been pilfered.
The Big Apple is a very valuable brand identity for New York City. Those who’ve been benefiting most from the Big Apple Lie would obviously rather credit a drunken White ne’er-do-well than diminish the value of this premium New York City brand by rightfully associating it with Blacks.
Baltimore native Cab Calloway gave the world The Big Apple as we know it. Calloway never took credit for promulgating the Big Apple nickname because the term was both hip parlance in his musician’s circles, and everyday speech for millions of African Americans—which is why he included the term in his anthology.
Calloway made it clear in the forward to the 1944 edition of his book of Black slang, “The Hepster’s Dictionary: Language of Jive,” that he is only parroting the words made popular from Black culture.
“It is reasonable to assume that jive will find new avenues in such hitherto places as Australia, the South Pacific, North Africa, China, Italy, France, Sicily, and inevitably Germany,” he wrote. “I don’t want to lend the impression these words are a figment of my imagination. They are gathered from every conceivable source.”
Camay Calloway Murphy, 91, daughter of Cab Calloway, resides in Baltimore, MD. She is the widow of former AFRO Publisher John H. Murphy, III.