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Before Harlem

The period between 1880 and 1915 marked the first sustained migration of black people into New York City as blacks and whites, both together and in opposition, forged the contours of race relations that would affect the city for decades to come.

Before Harlem
The Black Experience in New York City Before World War I

Marcy S. Sacks

2006 | 240 pages | Cloth $65.00
American History / African-American Studies/African Studies
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Table of Contents


1. The Most Fatally Fascinating Thing in America
2. Purged of the Vicious Classes
3. To Check the Menacing Black Hordes
4. Jobs Are Just Chances
5. The Anxiety of Keeping the Home Together
6. Negro Metropolis


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


In 1902, James Weldon Johnson left his Jacksonville, Florida, home and his steady job as a school principal to settle in New York City. Neither his decision to leave the South nor his choice of destinations came unexpectedly. He had already made a number of trips to New York, the first in 1884 when he was still a boy. From his earliest encounter with Manhattan, Johnson loved the city and its "cosmopolitanism." "It would not have taken a psychologist to understand that I was born to be a New Yorker," he admitted in his autobiography. He felt a strong emotional connection to New York and often heard his parents "talk . . . about the city much in the manner that exiles or emigrants talk about the homeland."

On his first visit, Johnson saw New York through the eyes of a child. He loved the ferryboats, was awed by the crowds and noise, and admired the "biggity" boys. He thrilled at the chance to cross the East River from his aunt and uncle's Brooklyn home and spend the day wandering through Lord and Taylor's. One of his sojourns to Manhattan struck him with particular meaning as he recalled his experience nearly a half century later. He reminisced about a time when his uncle took him on an excursion "far up toward Harlem, a region then inhabited largely by squatters and goats." Johnson perhaps exaggerated Harlem's emptiness; in the 1880s it housed a genteel community of upper-class white elites—Manhattan's first residential suburb. Still, the contrast with the Harlem of the 1930s, when Johnson published his autobiography, could hardly have been more dramatic. In the intervening period between Johnson's first visit and the time he wrote his memoirs, Harlem had become a neighborhood transformed, housing 50,000 black residents in 1914 and nearly 165,000 by 1930.

Johnson noted that he had few black playmates during his childhood stay, not especially surprising in 1884, when the black population of Manhattan was just over twenty thousand and scattered throughout the city. Only about ten thousand black people lived in Brooklyn, where Johnson spent most of his time. Despite the shortage of friends, Johnson remembered that T. Thomas Fortune, another Florida native who had recently settled in New York, often spent time at Johnson's aunt's house. As more and more black people migrated to New York City from the South and the Caribbean, many surrounded themselves with acquaintances from home states and islands in order to create a sense of identity in the anonymous and crowded world of the big city.

Along with his brother, Rosamond, Johnson first returned to New York as an adult in 1899 on a summer hiatus from his teaching job in Jacksonville. The city had literally grown up since his childhood days. Scrambling to find space for its burgeoning business district, architects who felt constrained by Manhattan's geographic limitations began looking upward. During the 1880s the city constructed its first elevator buildings, soon to become the workplaces of nearly one-third of the city's black men. New architectural initiatives and revised building codes allowed for still taller buildings and created a new cultural milieu of high-rises and skyscrapers. Visitors to the city at the end of the nineteenth century marveled at the "slender stone shafts incredibly rising out of the sea to pierce the sky." Five massive skyscrapers adorned the southern tip of Manhattan Island by 1898, the tallest boasting twenty-six stories. A half-century later, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the consolidation of the City of Greater New York, a commentator declared those five skyscrapers the symbol of "the strength and pride and driving ambition of New York." Throughout the "golden nineties," this alluring image attracted migrants and immigrants from around the country and the world.

During their summer in the city, the Johnson brothers immersed themselves in New York's black bohemia, then flourishing in the old Tenderloin district in lower Manhattan. Though the trip was relatively short, it was a defining moment for James. "These glimpses of life that I caught during our last two or three weeks in New York," he explained, "showed me a new world—an alluring world, a tempting world, a world of greatly lessened restraints, a world of fascinating perils; but, above all, a world of tremendous artistic potentialities." He vowed to return as soon as possible.

James and Rosamond made sojourns during the following two summers before finally settling in New York City permanently in 1902. While in 1899 they felt the exhilaration of newcomers imbibing a world of possibilities, in 1900 they endured one of the city's worst race riots in its history. This experience offered the Johnson brothers a stark lesson in northern race relations, exposing the depth of racial antipathy present in the North. Adding insult to injury, they made so little money in the summer of 1900 that they had to borrow from friends in order to make the return trip to Jacksonville. Despite that humiliation, when he finally made the commitment to give up his teaching job for good and move to New York, James marveled at the change he encountered. "I at once became aware of an expanse of freedom I had not felt before." But by 1902, James confronted a black community that looked markedly different from his earlier recollections. The black population of New York had grown dramatically since his first trip in 1884. More than sixty thousand black people now lived in New York, more than half of whom—like him—had been born outside of the city.

The growing black population of New York sparked an increase in the number of social institutions dedicated to alleviating some of the problems faced by black New Yorkers. White and black reformers alike began focusing on the needs of this expanding group, and by 1915 more than a dozen organizations had been formed for this purpose. These included travelers' aid societies, fraternal and benevolent organizations, day nurseries, orphanages, and industrial improvement associations. In addition, a number of institutions that had long served New York's white citizens began opening their doors to black people. The Charity Organization Society, for example, began providing aid to needy blacks as early as the late 1890s. More and more white organizations followed suit as the plight of destitute black families gained public attention.

Institutional barriers to racial equality began falling in the latter half of the nineteenth century as well. In keeping with the spirit of the post-Civil War era, many northern communities achieved some successes in diminishing institutionalized racism. In 1884, the New York City School Board formally declared that no distinction would be made between white and black schoolchildren in determining which school pupils would attend. In this same period a black man sat on a Manhattan jury for the first time in the borough's history. A state law passed in 1895 prohibited discrimination in public facilities. And in the same year, the school board for the first time appointed a black teacher to a predominantly white school. Numerous prominent blacks commented on the apparent improvement in race relations near the end of the nineteenth century. The city's black weekly newspaper, the New York Freeman, noted in an 1887 editorial that "[n]ow in many of the best restaurants, hotels and churches decent colored people receive courteous treatment."

The newspaper's reference to "decent" colored people hinted at some of the tensions that still remained in New York and foreshadowed problems yet to come. The growing population of black southerners in New York City after the 1880s precipitated a decline in the relatively tolerant racial climate of the postwar era. Even as the state enacted laws to guarantee blacks' civil rights, whites demonstrated decreased forbearance toward their black neighbors. New stereotypes of black "coons" emerged in New York City, suggesting that in the urban environment unrestrained black people would become lawless, dangerous, and violent. Churches, restaurants, bars, landlords, and social organizations demonstrated their increased antipathy toward black people by refusing access to nonwhites.

Joining white critics, many black New Yorkers also opposed the vanguard of black migration, exposing divisions within this increasingly diverse population. As they witnessed the deterioration in racial tolerance, some black elites blamed the newcomers for bringing the South's problems with them. Feeling unwelcome, migrants clung to their regional customs and habits, further emphasizing differences among black people. As the trickle of migrants grew into a flood in the early decades of the twentieth century, however, northern black elites, often themselves transplanted southerners, began to support and encourage the migration. By the eve of the Great Migration, which began with the onset of World War I, black New Yorkers had come to welcome their southern brethren into their midst.

The development of chain migrations had a tremendous impact on the nature of the black community in New York City. No longer complete strangers in an unfamiliar environment, later migrants might arrive in the city with a name and perhaps an address of someone who could possibly help the newcomer find a place to live and maybe even provide a lead on a job opening. In addition, as family connections stabilized with extended kin networks being transplanted to New York City, cultural forms could be replicated as well. Residents of particular villages, regions, or states congregated in New York's tenements, established restaurants that could cater to specific culinary preferences, and prayed together in the profusion of black churches. Forming geographic enclaves in the congestion of New York City, the constant infusion of additional members allowed southerners to begin establishing a degree of cultural continuity in the North. At the same time, while the presence of family members or friends gave new arrivals a certain degree of security, the geographic distinctions being created within New York's black population precluded the formation of a cohesive community able to collectively resist the poverty and racism affecting all black people in the city. The chain migrations thus offered only a mixed blessing, allowing for the preservation of specific identities, but at the same time making racial unity a greater challenge to achieve.

The disparate experiences of the different groups of newcomers helped foster ethnic, class, and geographic distinctions within the burgeoning black population of New York City. The preservation of strong family and island connections among Afro-Caribbeans allowed them to maintain a separate identity from that of other black Americans. Hoping to avoid the mistreatment faced by native-born black people, many specifically chose to distance themselves from their U.S. brethren by refusing to become citizens. Southerners also tended to sustain their particular customs when opportunities allowed them to do so. And northern-born blacks, confronting an aggravation of race relations and a decline in job prospects, often placed the blame at the feet of the newcomers. As their proportion of the population shrank with each passing decade, this group struggled to privilege its heritage as native New Yorkers by staking a claim—without great success—to elite status.

Despite optimistic expectations, few black New Yorkers fared well in the city. At the turn of the twentieth century, most black people labored in unskilled jobs, and many lived in poverty. As a group they paid the highest rents in the city but had the smallest number of organizations to serve their needs. With the exception of the New York Colored Mission, between the Civil War and 1890 no organizations in New York City concerned themselves with the welfare of black citizens. This most impoverished and needy population received the least support from reformers and municipal agencies. Disease ran rampant within congested black neighborhoods, contributing to this population's startlingly high mortality rates—37.5 per thousand in 1890, for example, in contrast to 28.5 for the white population. The statistics for tuberculosis (ironically referred to as the Great White Plague) were especially striking. A study conducted in 1908 found that while 380 whites per 100,000 died in New York from the disease, more than double that number (845) of blacks fell victim to this highly contagious illness. In fact, between 1895 and 1915, the death rate for black New York exceeded the birth rate. The dramatic growth of New York's black population in this period resulted entirely from the arrival of newcomers.

The black community slowly marched uptown during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Before the Civil War, the majority of the black people living in the city resided in the lower tip of the island in the infamous Five Points neighborhood, known then as the most depraved of the city's neighborhoods. Junius Browne described a street scene. "A stalwart, cruel-looking negro sits on the dirty door-step, and calls to a white child to get him a dram," he wrote, while a "young mulatto woman . . . leans against the broken door-way with a dirty pipe in her mouth, and leers at you as you go by." From this notorious district, the black population escaped into Greenwich Village.

By midcentury the northward movement pushed into a district bounded by Thompson, MacDougal, Bleeker, Sullivan, and Minetta streets. Italian immigration drove blacks still farther uptown into the Tenderloin district, extending from Twenty-forth Street to Forty-second Street. The black population in the 1870s and 1880s was centered in the west Twenties and Thirties, though a vanguard headed directly into the Forties and Fifties blocks, just above the northern edge of the Tenderloin. At century's end, the San Juan Hill district, stretching between Sixtieth and Sixty-forth streets and Tenth and Eleventh avenues, claimed the bulk of the city's black population. The district grew with tremendous speed, spurred by the growing migration of black people into the city. The rapid influx of black migrants into this neighborhood made it among the most congested of any in New York City; one block alone housed upward of five thousand residents.

It also became among the most contested areas of the city. Irish immigrants living adjacent to San Juan Hill often clashed with their black neighbors. And within the black population, different classes and ethnicities endured an awkward coexistence within the overcrowded tenements and blocks. Mary White Ovington, a white reformer who dedicated much of her life to improving conditions in New York City and nationwide for black people, spent eight months in 1908 living in this notorious neighborhood. She described conditions as "little better than Hell's Kitchen, the picturesque Irish gangster neighborhood a few blocks south." Ovington vividly described the conflicting mass of humanity that lived there: "There were people who itched for a fight, and people who hated roughness. Lewd women leaned out of windows, and neat, hardworking mothers early each morning made their way to their mistresses' homes. Men lounged on street corners in as dandified dress as their women at the wash tubs could get for them; while hardworking porters and longshoremen, night watchmen and government clerks, went regularly to their jobs."

As this neighborhood expanded, the number of institutions housed there increased as well. Like the hotels and clubs, black churches followed their constituents to midtown. St. Mark's Methodist Episcopal, Mount Olivet Baptist, and St. Benedict the Moor all opened new buildings on West Fifty-third Street during the 1880s and 1890s. The rapid increase in the southern-born black population in this district contributed to the proliferation of storefront churches as well, often catering to the specific needs and customs of city newcomers. The YMCA also opened on West Fifty-third Street at the end of the nineteenth century, providing a "home" to "every young man in the South . . . where he can come and find friends." The decades immediately preceding the twentieth century witnessed the formation of numerous fraternal and benevolent societies, including the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, the Colored Freemasons, and the Negro Elks, most located in San Juan Hill.

The institutions that the black community developed in the decades leading up to the Great Migration further facilitated the movement of thousands of black southerners into the North. Churches, travelers' aid societies, fraternal societies, and charity organizations all eased the transition for newcomers. Most had their roots in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Likewise the racial attitudes that participants in the Great Migration encountered upon arrival in Harlem in the 1920s also originated in the initial period of sustained migration to New York City. The movement of members of the South's first freeborn black population into the North contributed to the rise of "coon" stereotypes. The hostility directed at black people led to the creation of New York City's first urban ghetto as whites scrambled to confine this population into a single, restricted neighborhood. Later migrants, part of the movement most frequently studied by historians of the twentieth-century black North, arrived already branded as violent and dangerous. Most headed directly for Harlem, settling into patterns that had been laid by their forebears.

During the thirty-five years between 1880 and 1915 that marked the first sustained migration of black people into New York City, blacks and whites together and in opposition forged the contours of race relations destined to affect the city for decades to come. In 1903, Mary White Ovington, upon hearing a speech given in New York by Booker T. Washington, learned to her "amazement" that "there was a Negro problem in my city." But within contested neighborhoods, whites who had been witnessing the growth of this population for years harbored keen resentment towards their black neighbors. As the black population of New York soared, black people made their presence increasingly felt. Whites responded with an intensification of racial intolerance. Within this complex and often daunting world, black people forged their lives, working, praying, loving, and playing as they made New York City their own.

This study jumps into the fray of the decades-long and often acrimonious debate about life for African Americans in the inner city. Beginning in the mid-1960s, historians have examined the evolution of the inner city in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. New York City, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia are among the cities that have faced historical scrutiny. These studies, coming primarily on the heels of the civil rights movement and urban rioting, focused principally on the creation of explosive, desolate inner-city ghettos. While valuable to an understanding of the evolution of urban demographics, these studies have done less to expose the internal workings of urban black populations.

Furthermore, scholars have long limited their discussions of black urban life to structural conditions in the city, most notably residential and economic ones. This narrow framework discounts the broader challenges facing blacks as they made the initial transition toward urbanization. During the first sustained growth of the northern urban black population, whites forged enduring cultural, social, and economic responses to the mounting presence of black people in their midst. These developments impinged upon every aspect of black life in cities and have had stubbornly lasting consequences.

From Daniel Patrick Moynihan's now-discredited thesis of family instability to the more contemporary defenses of the black family's resiliency, this dichotomy has persistently offered stark and unsatisfying alternatives. Historians have not adequately acknowledged the complexity of the middle ground: tremendous economic and cultural pressures imposed on black men and women by their experiences in New York City impeded the sometimes-Herculean efforts to preserve family ties. Although the black family overwhelmingly remained intact, black people nevertheless confronted obstacles that no other group, immigrant or native, experienced in New York City.

While the story of racial retrenchment has been told numerous times and in many ways from the southern perspective, the northern experience has been largely ignored. Yet this was the moment in which the contours of the northern black experience were being forged. Because of southern attitudes influencing northern whites, because of fatigue over persistent sectional tensions, and because of the influx of blacks into New York City, Yankees at that moment developed new attitudes about black people. Earlier stereotypes and caricatures had been less fixed within white society. The immigrant and working classes facing direct economic and residential competition with black residents expressed much of the overt racial tension in antebellum northern cities. In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, however, elite whites joined the lower classes in fostering negative stereotypes. More importantly, the images themselves changed from benign and buffoonish to sinister and dangerous. And for New York's white population, this view was specifically directed toward urban blacks. The urban environment, they argued, caused the degeneration of former slaves and threatened the white city.

This moment was critical for the internal development of the black population as well. Despite—and because of—overwhelming homogenizing pressure from whites who saw them as a monolithic group, black New Yorkers laid the foundations of long-standing geographic and ethnic divisions within the community. They created the infrastructure and support networks that would continue to sustain the population for generations to come, and they forged cultural patterns that helped them adapt to a hostile environment. As policy makers continue to grapple with the legacy of economic blight in inner cities and as academics debate the primacy of structural versus racial barriers to black success, we would all do well to understand the moment at which these conditions converged with explosive, surprising, uplifting, and devastating consequences.

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