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This article appeared in the "Checkbook Politics" issue of Blacklight. Vol. 5, No. 1


 







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Harlem

 

 


Harlem was the Black Metropolis and during the 1920's, the home of the "New Negro".
By Garth Tate

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Ethel WatersIn the late 19th and early twentieth centuries, Harlem was an exclusively White, well-to-do suburb of a growing New York City. By 1914, a few middle-class Blacks had been able to move into the area from the Tenderloin district.

As the unemployed flocked to New York and other industrial and commercial centers seeking work, shantytowns sprouted along the fringes of these bustling urban areas, and Harlem was no exception.

In an incredible display of business acumen, astute and aggressive Black businessmen managed to snatch Harlem's newly developed real estate from the hands of White middle-class and, by 1920, Harlem had become the biggest, most elegant Black community the world had ever seen.

Blacks owned modern apartments, beautiful houses and there were many churches and fine restaurants. Doctors, lawyers, people of every conceivable profession, business and trade flocked to Harlem. Exclusive communities such as Sugar Hill and Strivers Row were established.

Harlem became a diverse, dynamic community with a class strata that stretched from the very wealthy to the very poor. There were church-going citizens and there were bootleggers and drug dealers. The one thing they had in common was an African heritage.

C. CullenIntellectuals and artists from around the world came to Harlem. The community offered these men and women an opportunity to speak in their own voices, to discover and pursue their interests without racial barriers or fear.

They came from Latin America, the Caribbean, Central America and colonial Africa. Harlem meant Black freedom - it was a strong and vibrant symbol of the twentieth century Black American.

As the second decade of the century progressed, Harlem became even more diverse and complex as it continued to react to the dynamics of the larger socio-economic environment.

"There are two types of business that employ Blacks in New York," wrote Black scholar E. Franklin Frazier, "those that employ Negroes in menial positions and those that employ no Negroes at all."

In the northern cities, where Blacks had flocked during the war for greater job opportunities, they were suddenly unwelcome as employees in the sweatshops, stores, and other businesses. There was no unemployment compensation, social security, or government assistance of any kind at the time, and unemployed Blacks had to depend on their wits to live.

White merchants in Harlem continued to sell to Blacks all of the staples needed for their existence. But when it came to employment, however, Blacks were not permitted to even work where they shopped. As the economic situation of Blacks generally worsened, more and more apartment lessees and house owners began to take in roomers to offset the costs of upkeep of the residences.

Low income and unemployed people jumped at the opportunity for low cost shelter, and an increasing number of the destitute and near destitute moved into Harlem.

Between 1920 and 1930, 118,792 Whites fled the neighborhood attempting to escape the influx of Blacks.

By 1930, approximately 72% of Manhattan's Black population lived in Harlem.

Although Whites left the community, they retained their property there and extracted high rents from apartment and tenement dwellers. The result was severe overcrowding as Harlem residents struggled to maintain themselves in the face of adverse economic conditions and social neglect.

The over-crowded condition precipitated environments that were unsafe and unsanitary, and many landlords began to neglect the maintenance of the buildings while continuing to collect rent.

The crowded tenements of Harlem became a breeding ground for crime, aggression and disease. By 1927, the year Charles Lindbergh made his historic flight across the Atlantic, the chairman of a New York City housing reform committee would report, "The State would not allow cows to live in some of these apartments used by colored people. . . in Harlem."

Blacks in Harlem took to creating techniques that helped them survive economically and spiritually. Numbers running, bootlegging, rent parties, church bazaars, church missionary events, prostitution, cocaine, and more created an underground economy which sustained the community.

Reports of such illicit activities gave Harlem the reputation of a "wide-open city" where everything that was generally considered taboo was easily available. Consequently, downtown Whites began to perceive the community as a "playground," where they could experience the fantastic, sensual, and sensational.

Some of the more popular cabarets and clubs in Harlem frequented by Whites were the Cotton Club, Connie's Inn, and Smalls Paradise. Although these clubs features the best in Black entertainment and music, they did not allow Black patrons. Entertainment ran the gamut but generally revolved around jazz bands, dancing girls, and singers. Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters and Lena Horne sang in the Harlem cabarets.

Gladys BentleyAt the Clamhouse, openly Lesbian Gladys Bentley, accompanying herself on piano, sang some of the most risqué and provocative songs of the decade. Bentley performed in men's attire and was very popular with White voyeurs from downtown.

There was also a male performer named "Gloria Swanson". To many of the cosmopolites, Harlem was similar to Berlin, only Blacker and far more exotic.

In political and other forms of intellectual life, Harlem was the most militant and radical community in the Black world. Black nationalists, Black socialists, and Black radicals regularly climbed the soapbox at Lenox Avenue and 135th Streets to pronounce their ideologies. Marcus Garvey, A. Philip Randolph and other inspired African Americans to seek alternatives to the oppressive conditions under which they existed.

The ripple effect spread from Harlem to Blacks around the world. Kwame N'krumah, Leopold Senghor, Leon Damas, Miguel Covarrubias, and a host of political and philosophical leaders were influenced by the activities that occurred in Harlem. And jazz, with a doubt, conquered the world.

This was the Harlem of the Renaissance period. A complex, cosmopolitan, strong and vibrant community weathering the storms of economic and racist adversity. This is the Harlem where, in 1926, an investigator found 140 churches in a 150 block area; where speakeasies and after-hours clubs abounded; and where an unprecedented number of poems, stories and works of art by Black Americans were produced.

America was a nation with a fundamentally unsound economy, unhealthy corporate and banking structures, unsound foreign trade policies, a poor distribution of income, and social and occupational violence against its people. Blacks were being lynched, denied employment, segregated, ridiculed and exploited while the rest of the country was on a spending spree.

But it was Harlem that took these conditions and synthesized them into what was to become the beginning of a true American culture and identity. The writers, artists, intellectuals and people of the Black community initiated a revolt which embodied the rejection of White values, definitions and culture.

Langston HughesAlthough this movement was to essentially become coopted and commercialized by White America, it initially posed a very disturbing challenge to traditional American assumptions.

It was the age of the New Negro and African Americans moved collectively beyond mere survival under hostile conditions to intellectual and creative genius.

The final analysis is quite clear, the early years of Harlem still lives in today's society.

Gimme a pigfoot and a bottle of beer.

End