Dec. 31, 2020

Everyday Black History - How Harlem became a Black Cultural Mecca

Everyday Black History - How Harlem became a Black Cultural Mecca

The Black Renaissance was a cultural movement with the Harlem Renaissance being a centerpiece of that movement. The Harlem Renaissance was the development of the Harlem neighborhood in New York City as a black cultural mecca in the early 20th Century and as a result of this social and artistic explosion that lasted roughly from the 1910s through the mid-1930s, the period is considered a golden age in African American culture, manifesting itself thought literature, music, theater and art

In 1911, the center of African American life in New York was downtown in a section of Midtown Manhattan called Black Bohemia. This was an area from 27st to 53st on the West side of Manhattan. Black Bohemia was pretty much a ghetto for African Americans caused by using a variety of methods, including racial steering by realtors, redlining by lenders, restrictive covenants, violence, and white flight. The White population successfully isolated the growing Black population within midtown Manhattan in an area that was very tightly packed and overcrowded with people in boarding houses and apartment tenements.

Around this time the average Black worker earned around seven dollars a week and a small four room apartment in Black Bohemia cost twenty dollars a month to rent. This was two to five dollars more expensive than neighboring white neighborhoods and left very little for black families to live on. In addition Black Bohemia was prime location for the cities brothels and gambling dens because they didn’t demanded much from the landlords and were much more willing to pay the higher rent.

In contrast, Harlem seemed like heaven with well paved streets and beautiful brownstones and apartment buildings, Harlem earned this reputation in the 1880s when developers envisioned this upper class white haven far from the hustle and bustle of downtown Manhattan. In 1880, the elevated rail line was built along Eighth Ave this opened mass transportation open up the west side Harlem, next the subway was schedule to be built under Lenox Ave along the east side by 1904. This caused a sudden boom in development and investors invested an enormous amount of capital in to Harlem with the dreams of a flood of white upper middle class commuters migrating to the area but what actually was, Harlem was quickly became over built years before the completion of the underground subway. By 1902, whole apartment buildings remained unoccupied while they waited for the flood of white tenants. Investors facing facing financial ruin choose money over racial prejudice.

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While Black Bohemia was well over capacity, a man by the name of Philip A. Payton Jr. recognized how desperate the white owners of apartment building in Harlem really were. In 1903, Payton negotiated a deal with white landlords to lease a few houses on West 134 St east of Lenox Ave. He knew middle class African Americans would pay anything to get out of the overcrowding in Black Bohemia. He offered landlords a rental rate above the depressed price, added a percentage for himself and was still able to offer apartments for more reasonable prices than the high rent in Black Bohemia. With the door cracked open Payton was given more properties to manage, first on the west side then across Lenox Ave. This was the beginning of a wholesale migration from Black Bohemia to Harlem.

As African Americans started to move in to Harlem the current white residents became fearful their neighborhood would soon be overrun by blacks and as a result they organized holding companies to buy the properties adjacent to the black apartment buildings. Then they created the Hudson Realty Company with the mission to purchase buildings that housed blacks and evicting them. They also created an organization called Property Owners Protective Association Incorporated with the plan to “get rid of colored people” and to “prevent Negroes from coming to Harlem” Their President John G. Taylor told The Harlem Home News that, they would “work to make it impossible for white renegades to borrow any more money for the purpose of backing negros speculators in their value destroying ventures.”

Outraged blacks fought the white resistance in every way they could, Philip Payton organized the Afro American Realty Company to buy and lease housing to rent to African Americans tenants. Other African Americans made a point to buy Harlem property and dispossess whites and install African American tenants. Despite this whites fought hard to exclude blacks, a real estate publication spoke of the invasion of Harlem and suggested that the only fit place for blacks to live was in some colony in the outskirts of the city. Where their transportation and other problems will not inflict injustice and disgust on worthy citizens.

The pressure applied to the Afro American Realty Company by the Property Owners Protective Association Incorporated made it impossible for the company to survive, The Afro American Realty could not acquire mortgages from banks and the leases it did have were canceled and the company’s capital alone was not nearly enough to keep it above water. Enraged by the company’s failure Philip A Payton Jr. tried to give white Harlem residents a taste of their own medicine, he entered into a partnership with J.C. Thomas a prosperous black undertake to buy two five-story apartment houses evict the white tenants and rent the apartments to black tenants. Another real estate firm was also formed by two other salesmen from the Afro American Reality Company John E. Nail and Henry C. Parker, they bought a row of five apartment house and also evicted the white tenants, next the pair worked with St. Philip Protestant Episcopal Church one of the oldest and riches African American congregation in New York to buy a row of thirteen apartment houses on 135 St. between Lenox and 7 Ave, The church then evicted all the white tenants and rent the apartments to blacks.

By 1910, the tensions between the white and black communities of Harlem was beyond repair with the slums of black bohemia as the only alternative. African Americans doubled down on their efforts to move and remain in Harlem. They not only continue to rent apartment outside the segregated zone east of Lenox Ave but began to purchase the fine private dwellings west of 7 Ave. Whites responded to this “invasion” by completely abandoning the neighborhood, house after house, apartment building after apartment building just left deserted. White owners who resisted selling to blacks actually suffered the most because while they resisted, their neighbors did not. Soon these white owners had nothing but empty buildings because their tenants had moved and they had to sell at prices far below market value.

Ironically by the time the first great migration was in full swing, Harlem was a very popular destination for Black migrants and the real estate began to sky rocket as a result. By the 1920s estimates placed the total African American ownership in Harlem at 200 million dollars, which is almost 1.8 billion dollars today.


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