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James McQuay

Furrier James McQuay was born on November 15, 1924 in Baltimore, Maryland to Sarah and Thomas McQuay. Shortly after birth, McQuay and his family moved to Yonkers, New York. He grew up in a small black community on the second floor of a three-family housing unit. Heavily influenced by his mother and grandmother, they provided him with examples of hard-work and determination. He attended Hawthorne Junior High School and graduated in 1943 from Yonkers High School. Prior to graduation, McQuay began working for Nathan Ginsburg in 1939, a local Yonkers furrier. McQuay and Ginsburg cultivated a friendship that lasted generations. It was through Ginsburg that McQuay realized that he had a dream to own a fur shop.

Immediately after graduating from Yonkers High School, McQuay was drafted into World War II, where he served in the South Pacific until 1946. Upon McQuay’s return, he went back to school working for Nathan Ginsburg, before venturing out on his own four years later. In 1950, McQuay opened his first shop in 1950, Furs by James. He became one of, if not the only, African American furriers in New York City. The store remained open for six years before McQuay closed it in 1956 to open another store of the same name in Mt. Vernon, New York. Furs by James stayed open for seven years, until he closed it in 1963 to pursue freelance opportunities. By the early 1970s, McQuay’s furs could be seen in many blaxploitation films of the time, including Cleopatra Jones and Foxy Brown. In the early 1980s, McQuay participated in the Congressional Black Caucus’ annual fashion show as the only furrier.

Throughout his career, McQuay has received numerous accolades for his achievements, including being featured in Essence magazine and in the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.’s “Furs, the Final Touch” fashion show.

He passed away on June 23, 2012 at the age of 87.

James McQuay was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on September 21, 2007.

Accession Number

A2007.269

Sex

Male

Interview Date

9/21/2007

Last Name

McQuay

Maker Category
Occupation
Organizations
Schools

Yonkers High School

Hawthorne Junior High School

PEARLS Hawthorne School

First Name

James

Birth City, State, Country

Baltimore

HM ID

MCQ01

Favorite Season

Summer

State

Maryland

Favorite Vacation Destination

Fishing

Favorite Quote

If You Change The Way You Look At Things, Things Change The Way They Look.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Birth Date

11/15/1924

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Chicken Salad

Death Date

6/23/2012

Short Description

Furrier James McQuay (1924 - 2012 ) opened his first shop, Furs by James, in Harlem, New York in 1950. His furs can be seen in the 1970s films, "Cleopatra Jones" and, "Foxy Brown."

Employment

Exclusive Fur Shop

United States Military

Furs by James

Favorite Color

Blue

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of James McQuay's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - James McQuay lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - James McQuay talks about his mother and maternal grandmother

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - James McQuay describes his earliest childhood memory

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - James McQuay remembers the holidays

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - James McQuay describes his home in Yonkers, New York

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - James McQuay describes the smells of his childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - James McQuay remembers School 3 in Yonkers, New York

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - James McQuay recalls his childhood responsibilities

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - James McQuay remembers working at the Exclusive Fur Shop in Yonkers, New York, pt. 1

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - James McQuay remembers working at the Exclusive Fur Shop in Yonkers, New York, pt. 2

Tape: 1 Story: 12 - James McQuay describes his U.S. Army service

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - James McQuay describes race relations in the U.S. Army

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - James McQuay remembers his salary in the U.S. Army

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - James McQuay recalls his apprenticeship under Nathan Ginsberg

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - James McQuay describes the furrier industry in Yonkers, New York

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - James McQuay describes his relationship with Nathan Ginsberg

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - James McQuay remembers his storefront in New York City's Harlem neighborhood

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - James McQuay describes the opening of James Furs in New York City's Harlem neighborhood

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - James McQuay remembers his early business at James Furs

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - James McQuay describes his early fashion shows

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - James McQuay remembers the community in New York City's Harlem neighborhood

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - James McQuay remembers the support of Ed Smalls

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - James McQuay recalls his exclusion from the furriers union

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - James McQuay remembers opening a fur shop in New York City's Garment District

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - James McQuay recalls the impact of the Ebony Fashion Fair on his business

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - James McQuay describes his business operations

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - James McQuay remembers meeting his wife

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - James McQuay remembers opening a fur shop in Mount Vernon, New York

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - James McQuay talks about his clientele

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - James McQuay describes the impact of the animal rights movement on the fur business

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - James McQuay remembers his brother's career at the Yonkers Fire Department

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - James McQuay talks about the history of segregation in Yonkers, New York

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - James McQuay describes the African American community in Mount Vernon, New York

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - James McQuay recalls the productions that showcased his fur coats

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - James McQuay reflects upon his success

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - James McQuay talks about his mentorship of young employees

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - James McQuay narrates his photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

1$2

DAStory

10$6

DATitle
James McQuay remembers working at the Exclusive Fur Shop in Yonkers, New York, pt. 1
James McQuay remembers his storefront in New York City's Harlem neighborhood
Transcript
So let's first talk about some of the help that you would provide your mother on her job. How did you help your mother complete her duties when you were about twelve or thirteen?$$Right. Well, what, what happened was that my mother didn't, couldn't walk well. She had a problem walking and she needed somebody to come to her house where she worked at to help her with her job, because the lady she worked for told her that, "Before you go home, Sarah [Sarah McQuay], you have to clean the kitchen floor and you have to clean the bathroom floor every day. I don't care what, you can't leave before the kitchen floor and the bathroom is clean." So my mother asked me if I would come there after school and do those two things for her so she could get out and that was my job to go there.$$And so could you tell me a little bit about the schedule of your day? You would go to, you might even wake up in the morning and do the papers?$$Do the papers.$$Then you'd go to school?$$Then I'd go to school.$$Then you'd go meet your mom?$$Then I'd go and meet my mom.$$And how far was it to meet your mother?$$Well she didn't--she wasn't too far. It was about five blocks. She was on Valentine Lane, so that was five blocks from Culver Street.$$And then after you finished at your mother's would you come on back on your own, or would you bring her back?$$No, I, I would be late enough to walk back with her. She would leave when I left.$$And how often did you do that with your mother?$$I did it nearly every day.$$And, so how did that result in your meeting Mr. Ginsberg?$$Well, there came a time where I was walking home with my mother from that job where she was working at where I was helping her to get her things together, and it was a furrier and he used to stand in front of the shop. His name was Nathan Ginsberg and the shop was Exclusive Fur Shop in Yonkers [New York]. It was there for many, many years. I had never noticed the store, but we use to see him standing in the front of the store, and one day he said to my mother, "I see you going by with this young fellow every day, and I can see he is an ambitious little fellow, and I'd like him to work for me." And my mother said to him, "When did you want him work?" He said, "He can start anytime on Saturday, when he's not going to school." And I started to work for him while I was in junior high school [Nathaniel Hawthorne Junior High School; PEARLS Hawthorne School, Yonkers, New York] and that's how I--it led to a, a trade. It led to a business and it led to my life work.$$So start off by telling us what your Saturday schedule was like? What were you doing at Ginsberg's shop?$$Well, when I went to, to work for Mr. Ginsberg on Saturdays a lot of times--I initially started--I would accompany him. When I say I would accompany him, he had deliveries to make for people that had storage coats, so he, he could run in and deliver the coat and let me sit in the car while he went in and delivered to the customer. Eventually, that became a job that I did when I got older and got a license. As a matter of fact, I got a license when I was sixteen because in Yonkers that had something they called a junior license and you get it before you're eighteen and he helped me to get the license so I could be of assistance to him to drive the car.$$And when you say license, you mean a driver's license (simultaneous)?$$(Simultaneous) A driver's license.$$Did he teach you to drive?$$Oh yes, I learned how to drive with him and in his car. I learned how to drive and had a license at sixteen.$So what was your fe- first step in trying to establish your own business, where, how did you find a location to put your business and how did you get that location (simultaneous)?$$(Simultaneous) Well, I--right. I had made up my mind that for me to exist I had to be in a black neighborhood and the only black neighborhood in New York where there would be a lot of black people would be Harlem [New York, New York]. So I went to Harlem because I use to go there to go to some of the nightclubs and I was a little familiar with Harlem and I had a couple of friends that lived there and, and so I went around with them different places and from time to time and one day I saw a sign in a window that said Eleanor Bush [ph.] and it was at 150th Street and Broadway. It said, "Store for Rent," but the store had had a fire and then it had water damage to it, and it was just sitting there. So I went by, by a few times and saw, saw it sitting there, but I decided that would be an excellent location. I'm right there in Harlem but not at 110th Street or down 115th Street where I thought was not good. This was Broadway and Harlem and, and I, I could only see me growing in a place like that. So that's--I made up my mind I wanted to be there and I, I copied the number off the sign and I went to Eleanor Bush because he was down at 72nd Street someplace and I, I, I talked to the person that was there at the desk and they, they asked me what I wanted and I told them I wanted to be in the fur business. I wanted to be, I wanted to rent the store and then they asked me what I wanted to do with it and I said a fur business, he kind of laughed and he said, "A fur business in Harlem?" I remember him saying that and then he told me how much the rent was and I told him that I couldn't pay the rent so he didn't understand what I meant. And I said I, "I'm going to offer you a proposition," and I said, "If you let me have three months free rent, I will get that store in order, clean up all that stuff that you have in the store there and, and paint it and get it up." I said, "What you benefit from is that if I can't make it you got a store that's all cleaned up. What I got is a store, that I--a business that I can start out without paying money." So he laughed at me, he said that "I've never heard such a thing," he said. He said, "I don't know, you better, you better talk to my father." His father wasn't there so I left, and believe it or not about a week or so later, maybe two weeks later, I got a call and they said it was Mr. Bush and he wanted to talk to me, so I went down to talk to Bush, to the father, and I explained to him that if he gave me the three months rent free, what I was going to do. He said, "You know son, if you're really anxious to have a store like that I'm going to give you four months. You got four months to get it together." And believe it or not, that's how I went into business without any money at all.