Civil Rights, Black Power, and Beyond
Despite the social measures of the domestic policy known as the Great Society of the 1960s, that decade and the following two were a period of decline for New York in general and for black New Yorkers in particular. Between 1958 and 1964, the manufacturing sector, one of the strengths of the city’s economy, suffered a net loss of 87,000 jobs. In the new service-based economy, job opportunities for blacks in finance, communications, and publishing, for example, were limited. Thus changing circumstances led to a depression among black New Yorkers who were still seeking access to the American economy. The Vietnam War compounded economic problems. For the first time, New York City was not strategically positioned to play a major role in an overseas conflict. Benefits that had accrued to the New York economy during most previous wars simply were not by-products of the Vietnam conflict.
The 1960s saw the continued rise and tragic death of Malcolm X and the emergence of black elected officials. The period was also a time of immense creativity and self-awareness for black New Yorkers as the Black Power Movement and its cultural arm, the Black Arts Movement, shaped black consciousness and identity. A new liberalized immigration law, commonly known as the Hart-Celler Act, which was passed in 1965, went into full effect on July 1, 1968, and launched a new wave of immigration from the Caribbean and, by the 1980s, from Africa.
In the 1970s New York City was on the brink of bankruptcy and its most vulnerable residents bore the brunt of its spectacular downfall. The dispersal of some of the black middle class from Harlem, among other factors, would leave the former capital of the black world a shadow of its former self. Upwardly mobile residents moved to Brooklyn or Queens, taking with them their economic resources and social power.
The South Bronx became a national symbol of urban decay, but also the birthplace of an artistic and cultural movement that would take the world by storm. The emergence of hip-hop had a lasting influence on the cultural, social, and physical landscape of the city as rap, emceeing, breakdancing, and graffiti spread throughout the Five Boroughs, then the country and the world, documenting and reflecting on the young black urban experience.
The 1980s brought signs of economic recovery, along with gains in the struggle for black access to the city’s institutions of higher learning, government, and corporate life. The passage of national affirmative action legislation opened the doors of opportunity for thousands of black New Yorkers. But the eighties were still a time of economic hardship for many, and the crack cocaine epidemic and the AIDS crisis added to the community’s woes. The poverty rate for African Americans went from 29 percent in 1979 to over 32 percent in 1984. Overall, blacks represented close to 34 percent of the city’s poor, whereas their percentage in the total population was 25 percent.
The tenures of David Dinkins and Rudolph Giuliani as mayors between 1990 and 2001 saw racial tensions erupt in open confrontations and incidents of police brutality that marked that decade and the following one under Michael Bloomberg.
In 1917, Republican Edward Austin Johnson, an educator, author, and attorney born in slavery in North Carolina, was the first African American elected to the New York State Assembly, but it took several decades thereafter for black New Yorkers to be voted into office. Benjamin Davis, Jr., of the Communist Party who, like Johnson, represented Harlem, was elected to the City Council in 1943. Two years later another Harlemite, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., was the first black New Yorker in the U.S. House of Representatives. Saint Lucia-born Hulan Jack became Manhattan Borough president in 1953, the first black to hold a key elective office in a major American city.
Over the next two and a half decades, the number of elected officials rapidly grew. Charles Rangel, Shirley Chisholm, Major Owens, Edolphus Towns, and Floyd Flake would be elected to multiple terms in the U.S. Congress. In 1968 Shirley Chisholm, U.S. Representative for the Twelfth Congressional District in Brooklyn, became the nation’s first black Congresswoman. In 1972 she launched a bid to be the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, the first black person to run for the presidency in one of the major parties.
Black New York representation on the City Council increased from only a few members in 1965 to seventeen at the turn of the twenty-first century. Between 1965 and 1998, Percy Sutton, David Dinkins, and C. Virginia Fields were elected president of the Borough of Manhattan. And in 1990, David N. Dinkins became the first African-American mayor of New York City, after defeating Republican nominee Rudolph W. Giuliani.
When New Yorker H. Carl McCall, won a special election for state comptroller in 1993, it was the first time in the history of New York that an African American held a statewide office (he was reelected in 1994 and 1998). David Paterson became lieutenant governor in January 2007 and held the office for a year before succeeding Governor Eliot Spitzer, who resigned in March 2008. Paterson finished his term but, after a short campaign, did not run for the 2010 election.
In 1960, Malcolm X founded Muhammad Speaks, the Nation of Islam’s official newspaper. Malcolm X broke with the NOI on March 8, 1964, and two days later the Nation ordered the family to vacate their Queens house, which they refused to do. Malcolm formed the Muslim Mosque, Inc. A few days later, he explained the mission of his movement,
The Muslim Mosque Inc. will have as its religious base the religion of Islam which will be designed to propagate the moral reformation necessary to up the level of the so-called Negro community by eliminating the vices and other evils that destroy the moral fiber of the community—this is the religious base. But the political philosophy of the Muslim Mosque will be black nationalism, the economic philosophy will be black nationalism, and the social philosophy will be black nationalism. And by political philosophy I mean we still believe in the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s solution as complete separation.
Throughout April he traveled to the Middle East and Africa. Turning to mainstream Islam, he performed the hajj in Mecca, and became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. His views concerning Islam, white people, and separatism evolved and on June 28, 1964, he announced the formation of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) at the Audubon Ballroom on Broadway and 165th Street. A secular political organization modeled on the Organization of African Unity (OAU), it was meant to attract a broad spectrum of African Americans around issues of education, economic security, self-defense, and pan-African unity. Malcolm, scholar John Henrik Clarke, and others wrote its charter.
From July 9 to November 24, Malcolm X toured Africa, the Middle East, and London, visiting fourteen nations and meeting with at least eight heads of state and numerous other leaders. He petitioned the OAU summit in Cairo to bring the cause of Afro-Americans to the United Nations as a human rights issue. Back home in Harlem, through both of his organizations—which did not survive him—Malcolm tried to strengthen ties to the civil rights movement and local community leaders struggling around issues such as housing and education.
Threats, assaults, and murder attempts on Malcolm and his followers’ lives had become a regular occurrence. On the morning of February 14, 1965, his home in Queens was firebombed. The next day, he still held an OAAU rally at the Audubon Ballroom for an audience of six hundred. On February 18, he gave his last speech, “The Black Revolution and Its Effects Upon the Negroes of the Western Hemisphere,” at Barnard College.
On February 21, at 3:10pm, as he started to speak at the Audubon, he was gunned down. Talmadge X Hayer (aka Thomas Hagan), a member of the NOI, was arrested, as were Norman 3X Butler (paroled in 1985) and Thomas 15X Johnson (paroled in 1987). Hayer—who always claimed the other two were innocent and implicated four other NOI members who were never indicted—was paroled in 2010.
Two days after Malcolm X’s murder, the Nation of Islam’s Mosque No. 7 was firebombed. It relocated to 103 West 116th Street and, no longer affiliated with the NOI, was renamed Malcolm Shabazz Mosque in 1976 by Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, who had succeeded his father, Elijah.
Civil Rights, Black Power, and Beyond
Some black New Yorkers joined the struggle for civil rights by participating in voter registration in the South. They also welcomed Martin Luther King, Jr., as he came to the city to rally support and raise funds. (An earlier visit had almost proved fatal: on September 20, 1958, King was stabbed in the chest by Izola Curry, a black woman, while autographing copies of Stride Toward Freedom, the story of the Montgomery bus boycott, in a Harlem store. Curry was later ruled insane.)
In November 1965, at the invitation of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the civil rights leader preached to overflow audiences at two successive Sunday morning services at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. On April 4, 1967, King declared his opposition to the Vietnam War during a press conference in New York City and reiterated his hostility at Riverside Church in Harlem. Dr. King came back to New York on March 27, 1968, to raise support in Harlem and Queens for a planned march on Washington, D.C., as part of his Poor People’s Campaign.
The presence of the United Nations gave black New Yorkers and African leaders, heads of state, and diplomats the opportunity to meet, build international networks, and rekindle pan-Africanism. In 1960, President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev, and Sam Nujoma, leader of the Southwest Africa Peoples Organization and future first president of Nambia, visited Harlem. Castro stayed at the Theresa Hotel.
One of the early formative influences of the Black Power Movement took place in New York on February 15, 1961, at the United Nations. About sixty African-American men and women made their way to the Security Council Chamber. As they denounced the UN policy toward the Congo and the killing of its premier, Patrice Lumumba, they fought with the UN police. Outside, demonstrators including LeRoi Jones were beaten and arrested. This dramatic event, in the words of scholar Komozi Woodard, “marked the birth of the New Afro-American Nationalism.” One that, beyond domestic civil rights, was also interested in liberation from colonialism in Africa and the search for a new black, African-rooted, identity.
Trinidad-born Stokely Carmichael, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and fellow SNCC worker Willie Ricks raised the call for “Black Power” in June 1966. Many of the movement’s evolving tenets and practices were rooted in the teachings of New Yorkers Marcus Garvey, Carlos Cooks, and Malcolm X. It is not surprising, then, that New York was the place where some of the most developed social and cultural expressions of black power concepts and ideas emerged.
Carmichael lived in Harlem and the Bronx, where he attended the prestigious Bronx High School of Science before graduating from Howard University with a BA in philosophy and turning down a Harvard scholarship for graduate studies. As he was involved in the Civil Rights movement, most of Carmichael’s early activities took place in the South, where he was jailed numerous times. He became chairman of the SNCC in 1966 but resigned the following year to join the Black Panther Party. After immigrating to Guinea in 1968, he left the BPP in 1969 and took the name Kwame Ture in homage to Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, and Ahmed Sékou Touré, president of Guinea.
The Black Panther Party’s main New York chapter, located at 2026 Seventh Avenue in Harlem, was established in 1968. It was considered to be the central office for the entire state. The BPP also had branches in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Corona-East Elmhurst, and Jamaica in Queens, on Staten Island, and in Mount Vernon. Like other chapters, the BPP organized a free breakfast program for schoolchildren and also opened a health clinic in the Bronx.
The New York chapter gained national attention when in April 1969, District Attorney Frank Hogan charged twenty-one Panthers with conspiracy to bomb department stores and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and to dynamite railroad tracks. Among the accused were Harlemites Lumumba Abdul Shakur and Afeni Shakur (mother of Tupac Shakur). In all, twelve members were arrested in five raids at 5:00 a.m. on April 2; others were already in custody, and a few escaped capture. The group became known as the “Panther 21.”
A long battle ensued to lower the bails set at $100,000 for each defendant. It went up to the U.S. Supreme Court. By the spring of 1970, thirteen Panthers, the “Panther 13,” were still in jail. But on May 13, 1971, after forty-five minutes of jury deliberation, all defendants were acquitted. Although a vindication and victory of sorts, the long time the Panthers spent in jail and the disruption of the trial had unsettled the Party and hampered some of its activities.
In addition, the national leadership expelled the Panther 13, and then the entire New York chapter, which in turn rejected national leaders Huey Newton and David Hilliard and established a new national headquarters of the Panther Party with its own newspaper, Right On, as the organ of the East Coast Black Panther Party. This Party was short lived. In New York as in the rest of the country, the FBI COINTELPRO—a covert program mostly designed to infiltrate and disrupt leftist, civil rights, and Black Power organizations—had successfully split the leadership.
In 1969, the New York chapter of the Chicago-born Young Lords was formed and served as the East Coast center under the leadership of Felipe Luciano, an Afro-Puerto Rican and a member of The Original Last Poets. The New York chapter split from the central organization the following year and became the Young Lords Party. Influenced by the Black Power Movement, it modeled itself partly after the Black Panthers, notably with its 13-point Program and Platform and its 10-point Health Program.
On October 13, 1970, after two months on the run, political activist Angela Davis was arrested by the FBI in a motel in midtown Manhattan. She had been charged with helping supply the guns for a shootout at the Marin County Courthouse in San Rafael, California, on August 7, which left four people dead, including the presiding judge. She was acquitted in June 1972 by an all-white jury.
The Black Arts Movement
On the cultural front, New York saw the birth of the Black Arts Movement (BAM), the cultural arm of the Black Power Movement—or as scholar and BAM contributor Larry Neal put it, the BAM was the “aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept.” Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) launched the movement when he moved from the Village to Harlem in 1965 (following Malcolm X’s assassination), took the name Amiri Baraka, and founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BART/S.)
A precursor of the movement was the Umbra Writers Workshop that met in the Lower East Side. After it split, some of its members moved to Harlem, where Askia Muhammad Touré, Al Haynes, and Larry Neal formed the Black Nationalist “Uptown Writers Movement.” Some members joined Amiri Baraka at BART/S. Neal and Touré belonged to the national Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), which had a strong following in New York. Another component of the Black Arts Movement was the Harlem Writers Guild.
In 1968, LeRoi Jones (the name he still used in the book) and Larry Neal edited Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing. A collection of essays, (mostly) poetry, fiction, and drama by seventy-seven contributors, including John Henrik Clarke, Stokely Carmichael, Sun-Ra, and Sonia Sanchez, the book captured the spirit of the Black Arts Movement.
As poet and Black Arts Movement activist Kalamu ya Salaam explained, “The two hallmarks of Black Arts activity were the development of Black theater groups and Black poetry performances and journals, and both had close ties to community organizations and issues. Black theaters served as the focus of poetry, dance, and music performances in addition to formal and ritual drama. Black theaters were also venues for community meetings, lectures, study groups, and film screenings.”
In March 1964, LeRoi Jones’s Dutchman, his most celebrated play, had opened off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre and won an Obie. Jones later brought it to BART/S. Actress and director Barbara Ann Teer, dissatisfied with the lack of respect for black culture in American professional theater, founded the National Black Theatre (NBT) in Harlem in 1968. (In 1983 NBT purchased property on 125th Street and Fifth Avenue to develop the National Black Institute of Communication through Theater Arts, a block-long complex that combines commercial retail businesses with theater and arts activities.)
New Yorkers Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez, and Sekou Sundiata were among the best-known poets of the BAM; while Bronx-raised Gil Scott-Heron, and spoken word group The Last Poets were some of the movement’s most creative musicians. Gil Scott-Heron, the son of an American mother and a Jamaican father, was born in Chicago and raised in the Bronx. He released his debut album A New Black Poet—Small Talk at 125th and Lenox in1970. The title of the track “The Revolution will not be televised” was borrowed from the Black Power Movement.
The spoken word group The Last Poets was founded in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) in Harlem on May 19, 1968, on the occasion of Malcolm X’s birthday. Members changed over the years. Their most famous pieces, “When the Revolution Comes,” “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution,” and “New York, New York,” were recorded in 1970. The Last Poets, like Gil Scott-Heron, are credited for being a major influence on the emergence of hip-hop.
The Black Power Movement’s various ideologies and the literary creations of the Black Arts Movement were disseminated throughout the country by magazines, some of which were edited in New York. Freedomways, cofounded in 1961 by W. E. B. DuBois and edited by Shirley Graham DuBois; The Street Speaker and The Black Challenge, organs of Carlos Cooks’ s Nationalist Pioneer Movement; and Dan Watts’s Liberator were precursors in the black revolutionary journals genre and found a new readership among Black Power activists. New literary publications like Umbra Magazine, Black Theatre, and Black Dialogue were also New York–based, although the main publications of the Black Power Movement emanated from the Bay Area and Chicago.
The African National Memorial Bookstore—subtitled The House of Common Sense and the Home of Proper Propaganda—owned and operated by Lewis Michaux at Seventh Avenue and 125th street in Harlem until it closed in 1974; and Liberation Bookstore, opened in 1967 by Una Malzac at 131st Street and Lenox Avenue (renamed Malcolm X Boulevard in 1987), acted as cultural, political, and social centers.
The Ocean Hill–Brownsville struggle for community control of black education was fueled by the energy, ideas, and ideology of the Black Power Movement. In 1968, in the wake of school disruptions, the board of education, with financial assistance from the Ford Foundation, established I.S. 201 in Harlem, along with experimental districts in lower Manhattan and Ocean Hill–Brownsville in Brooklyn. Ministers, parents, and teachers in Ocean Hill–Brownsville created the People’s Board of Education. Their goal was to decentralize the administration of the local schools in order to improve the quality of education available to nonwhite children.
The People’s Board began making personnel decisions in the local schools. As a result, the community found itself at odds with the United Federation of Teachers. The unified experiment collapsed because of a teachers’ strike in the fall.
In higher education, John Henrik Clarke, one of the leading architects of the then-emerging discipline of Black Studies, founded the Department of Black and Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in 1969; and 1970 saw the opening of Medgar Evers College, a senior college of the City University of New York, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. Named for the slain civil rights leader, it was the result of a request by community organizations. The same year, the City University of New York (CUNY) inaugurated an open admissions policy designed to increase the number of poor and minority students.
The Black Power movement inspired other marginalized groups to assertively fight for empowerment. Among them was the black gay and lesbian community. Black gay men were part of the rebellion against the police that took place at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, in June 1969, an event that launched the gay liberation movement. Actually, the Gay Liberation Front allied itself with radical black groups such as the Black Panther Party. “However,” note scholars Robert Reid-Pharr and Justin Rogers Cooper, “as most gay political groups abandoned their radical beginnings and reverted to predominantly white, middle-class outlook and membership, gay black activists became alienated from and less involved in their activities. Many blacks continued to feel unwelcome in the white gay community.” This reality led some years later to the creation of black gay institutions. The Pentecostal preacher Charles Angel, who had contracted AIDS, founded Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD) in 1986; and the Audre Lorde Project (ALP), a gay and lesbian organization for people of color, was organized in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
The racial tensions that characterized the 1960s and ’70s were encapsulated in the founding of SPONGE: the Society for the Prevention of Negroes Getting Everything in 1968 by white residents of Queens and Brooklyn. It was their response to the increase in civil rights and Black Power protests. Race relations were so poor that Mayor John Lindsay established a commission to study racial hatred and tension in the city. Ten years later, seeing little improvement, the National Urban League declared the state of race relations in New York City to be at a twenty-year low, especially in the relationship between the New York Police Department and African Americans. A series of incidents of police brutality and racial profiling occurred in the upcoming decades.
On July 16, 1964, fifteen-year old James Powell was fatally shot by a white police officer (later cleared of all wrongdoing). For six nights African Americans battled with the police in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. The uprising left one dead, hundreds of people injured, and 465 arrested. On December 20, 1986, Michael Griffith, of Trinidadian ancestry, was run over by a car while being chased by a white mob in Howard Beach, Queens. On August 23, 1989, Yusuf Hawkins was killed by a gang of white youths in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. A “Day of Outrage and Mourning” gathered 7,500 demonstrators across the Brooklyn Bridge. The march ended in violence as police clashed with the protesters.
Several cases of police brutality during the mayoralty of Rudolph Giuliani got national attention. In 1996 Abner Louima, a Haitian American, was arrested after fighting outside a nightclub in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Four police officers beat him and he was then tortured in the bathroom of the 70th Precinct. On February 4, 1999, Amadou Diallo, a twenty-three-year-old Guinean, was killed by four plainclothes police officers in the doorway of his Bronx apartment building. As he tried to take his wallet out of his pocket, they shot forty-one bullets; nineteen hit him.
The brutal death of Diallo sparked massive demonstrations, as did the change of venue to Albany for the trial of the officers, and their acquittal of all charges in February 2000. In the end, the City of New York settled a suit brought by Diallo’s parents by agreeing to pay $3 million. In 2000, twenty-five-year-old Malcolm Ferguson and Haitian-American security guard Patrick Dorismond were killed by police in the Bronx and midtown Manhattan, respectively; and in 2006, twenty-three-year-old Sean Bell was killed in Queens the night before his wedding by five undercover police officers. The three men who were tried were acquitted of all charges. A civil settlement awarded Bell’s family $3 million.
Arts and Culture
Nineteen sixty-eight was an important year in the cultural life of black New Yorkers. The Studio Museum in Harlem opened its door on 125th Street and Fifth Avenue to promote the works of artists of African descent. The Negro Ensemble Company began operations with the goal of developing black actors, playwrights, technicians, and managers. Walter J. Turnbull founded the Boys Choir of Harlem; and the concept of the African American Day Parade was born. Its first edition was held in Harlem in 1969, with Grand Marshal Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
In 1970 New York native Arthur Mitchell, moved by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem to provide African-American youth with the opportunity to learn and perform classical ballet. Harlem businessman Lloyd Williams launched Harlem Day in 1974. It became Harlem Week (today it lasts a month), a celebration of the borough’ s multiethnic economic, political, social, and cultural history.
But the most far-reaching artistic, social, and cultural movement of the 1970s, one of the legacies of the Black Power Movement, was the birth of hip-hop in the postindustrial landscape of the South Bronx. Hip-hop emerged in 1973 with the street dance parties of the legendary DJ Kool Herc (Clive Campbell). Kool Herc, born in Kingston, Jamaica, had migrated to New York City in 1967. Inspired by the Jamaican yard parties of his youth, he organized large parties, looping break-beats from soul, jazz, funk, and disco tunes to which break-dancers could showcase their acrobatic talents.
Afrika Bambaataa, who founded the Universal Zulu Nation in 1973, popularized the term “hip-hop” coined by DJ Lovebug Starski. Bambaataa stated, “When we made Hip Hop, we made it hoping it would be about peace, love, unity and having fun so that people could get away from the negativity that was plaguing our streets (gang violence, drug abuse, self hate, violence among those of African and Latino descent). Even though this negativity still happens here and there, as the culture progresses, we play a big role in conflict resolution and enforcing positivity.”
From the Bronx, hip-hop, made of MC’ing (rapping), DJ’ing, break dancing, and graffiti art, expanded throughout the city, the nation, and the world. Grandmaster Flash and KRS-One from the Bronx; Heavy D, Run-DMC, Salt-n-Pepa, Nas, Chuck D, 50 Cent, LL Cool J from Queens; Notorious BIG, MC Lyte, Mos Def, Jay-Z, and Talib Kweli from Brooklyn; and Puff Daddy and Tupac Shakur from Harlem are some of the hundreds of rappers who grew up in the city.
Also notable were break-dancers The Rocksteady Crew, Crazy Legs, Mr. Wiggles, Fast Feet, and Tony Touch; and graffiti artists such as Cornbread, Cool Earl, and Taki 183.
Starting in the late sixties, the newest black New Yorkers, more ethnically and culturally diverse than ever, were no longer mainly southern migrants. The Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 opened the doors to immigrants from the Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa. Immigration from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Vincent, Grenada, Barbados, Panama, and Guyana increased dramatically. Nearly half of all immigrants from these islands settled in New York City, as did more than three-quarters of all Dominican immigrants. Dominicans are the largest foreign-born group in New York City, Jamaicans the third largest, Guyanese the fourth, Haitians the seventh, and Trinidadians the eighth.
In 1967 Carlos Lezama, a Trinidadian of black Venezuelan origin, became president of the West Indian American Day Carnival Association, which had been holding a small celebration in Crown Heights after Carnival moved from Harlem in 1965 following the large influx of Caribbeans to Brooklyn. Lezama obtained the right to have the parade along Eastern Parkway in 1969, and since then it has become the largest event in New York, drawing over 2 million people every year, and thousands of marchers, bands, and floats.
Half the Caribbean immigrants today live in Brooklyn, primarily in the neighborhoods of Crown Heights/East Flatbush, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Brownsville/East New York. In Queens, they settled in Cambria Heights, Jamaica, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens, Laurelton, Jackson Heights, and Rosedale; they also settled in Central Harlem and Washington Heights in Manhattan, and in the northeast and south Bronx.
Growing numbers of Africans have made New York City their home. By 2010, they numbered slightly more than 92,400. Nigerians are the most numerous with about 15,700 (35 percent live in Brooklyn and 27 percent in the Bronx). Ghanaians number about 15,000, 62 percent of whom live in the Bronx. Ethiopians, Senegalese, Sierra Leoneans, Liberians, Ivoirians, Malians, and Burkinabe are also increasingly represented in the African population. More generally, about half of the African-born population lives in the Bronx and Brooklyn, 20 percent in Queens, 17 percent in Manhattan, and 7 percent in Staten Island.
The African presence has become very visible, especially on 116th Street in Harlem, where Africans—mostly from francophone West Africa—own restaurants and stores. African businesses are also numerous on Malcolm X Boulevard and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard above 125± Street. In mid-Manhattan, about six hundred West African traders sell African arts and crafts out of a mini-storage unit.
Religious institutions have mushroomed. Ethiopian immigrants have established Ethiopian or Coptic Orthodox Christian churches. Protestants of many denominations have done the same. There are over 100 African churches. The Redeemed Christian Church of God, a Pentecostal church based in Nigeria, has established over forty branches in New York. The Presbyterian Church of Ghana has several branches in the city. Dozens of mosques frequented by West Africans have opened since the mid-1990s. They are mostly storefront mosques like the storefront churches that were the hallmark of the southern migrants during the Great Migration, some of which still exist today.
July 28 has been officially declared Cheikh Amadou Bamba Day in New York. The late Cheikh Bamba, the founder of the Murid Sufi order in Senegal, has thousands of followers among the Senegalese diaspora in New York. Men, women, and children walk up Fifth Avenue in Harlem every year in what is the most visible West African Muslim event in the nation. In 2005, young African professionals established the African Day Parade, which includes a street fair, music, dance, and fashion.
Despite the influx of immigrants, for the past few years, New York City’s black population has been on the decline, losing over 5 percent of its numbers between 2000 and 2010. According to the 2010 census, 1,861,295 “Black/African American non Hispanics” lived in New York City. They represented 22.8 percent of the total population of over 8 million New Yorkers. Manhattan, once the city’s “blackest” borough, has been outdistanced by Brooklyn and the Bronx.
Brooklyn has by far the largest concentration of black residents: 799,066. They made up 32 percent of the borough’s population and 43 percent of New York City’s black population in the last census. Its 416,695 black residents represent 30 percent of the Bronx’s population and 22 percent of black New Yorkers. In Queens, 395,881 black inhabitants represent 18 percent of this borough’s population and 21 percent of all black New Yorkers. Manhattan counts 205,340 black residents. They represent 13 percent of the borough’s population and 11 percent of the total black population of the city. Numbers for Staten Island are 44,313 (9.5 percent of the borough and 2 percent of black New Yorkers).
At the turn of the twenty-first century, even though the black population of New York City had increased by 6 percent, its representation in the overall population had declined to 24.5 percent. Ten years later, in 2010, black New Yorkers represented 22.8 percent of the total population.
One factor in the decline of New York’s black population has been the reverse migration or return south migration. Starting in the 1970s, after most of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty programs had been dismantled by President Richard Nixon and because of the dismal economic and social conditions faced by inner-city communities, African Americans started a new migration pattern from the urban North to the South. The trend often involved people born in the South, retirees, and single mothers. It was followed by the departure of college-educated young people. Between 1995 and 2000 New York was the top brain-drain state, losing more than eighteen thousand African-American college graduates. Another factor has been the migration of the middle class from the city to the suburbs.
People and Neighborhoods
New York was one of the first cities in the country to pass laws banning restrictive racial covenants in housing, but discrimination and segregation in housing nonetheless continued to be major problems for black New Yorkers. In 1965 The New York City Planning Commission reported that 70 percent of families who could not find housing of reasonable size and price were black or Puerto Rican. Despite the federal Fair Housing Act passed by Congress in April 1968, the 1970s and ’80s were marred by numerous incidents of housing discrimination.
In 1971, City Commission on Human Rights Chairman Eleanor Holmes Norton investigated block-busting real estate agencies and found “ample circumstantial evidence to indicate that unscrupulous realtors are deliberately fomenting fear and racial bigotry.” In Queens, the Department of Justice investigated the Lefrak building firm—developers of Lefrak City—for discriminating against nonwhite applicants; and the Trump Management Corporation—owners of fifteen thousand apartments—was sued by the Justice Department in federal court for violating the Fair Housing Act by refusing to rent to nonwhites.
Throughout the 1970s, cross burning, vandalizing, threats, and fire bombs and pipe bombs were used against black New Yorkers trying to rent or buy homes in Staten Island, Queens, and Brooklyn. People fought back against housing discrimination. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., called for a protest in front of an apartment complex purchased by Columbia University, claiming that the university had raised rents to force out black and Latino residents. Black students staged a protest at Columbia University against the construction of a large gymnasium in Morningside Park, saying it would dominate the park, preventing its use by local residents, which prompted Columbia to stop the construction. Families brought a class action lawsuit against the Starrett City housing complex in Brooklyn, challenging its 35 percent black residency ceiling. In May 1987 a federal court barred racial quotas that limited nonwhite residency.
White migration to the suburbs opened up some neighborhoods to African Americans until then segregated in a few overcrowded areas. Members of the middle class were the first to leave. Between 1970 and 1980, Central Harlem, then 96 percent black, lost over 33 percent of its population, and Harlem as a whole lost 60 percent of its residents between 1950 and 1980. Four out of ten Central Harlem residents were officially poor. With underprivileged tenants and rising tax and maintenance costs, landlords in the South Bronx, Harlem, and some areas of Brooklyn forsook their properties or burned them down for the insurance money. Abandoned buildings, vacant lots, boarded-up brownstones and townhouses, and the absence of stores and services characterized these neighborhoods.
Properties that went into foreclosure passed into the hands of the city, which in the 1980s owned 35 percent of Central Harlem’s housing stock, while it also ruled over 26 percent of the units as public housing or publicly assisted buildings. Only 38 percent of housing was in private hands. Under Mayor Edward Koch’s “Redevelopment Strategy for Central Harlem,” townhouses were auctioned off for an average of $50,000 each (some went for as little as $2,000) to local residents. But in 1981 Koch stopped the policy of giving preference to neighborhood residents when selling off city property.
To address the issue of housing, community-based organizations came to the forefront. In 1979, the Council of Churches of New York City reported that 133 congregations had formed 84 nonprofit housing organizations and constructed over 33,000 apartments in the previous four years. Starting in the 1980s and continuing today, the Pratt Area Community Council in Brooklyn, the Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement, and the Abyssinian Development Corporation, for example, have been involved in renovating and building affordable housing units, facilitating home ownership, opening commercial spaces, attracting retail stores, and revalorizing entire neighborhoods.
As once depressed areas stabilized and became more inviting, gentrification accelerated in the late 1990s. In 1995, 144 blacks and 19 whites received mortgage loans to buy Harlem property; in 1998, the loan numbers increased to 348 and 107, respectively. With an influx of wealthier residents and renovated units, rents increased, as did property taxes, which led to the displacement of some old-time residents.
The gentrification of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant led to a 22 percent increase in rent between 2005 and 2010, while the median household income rose only by 4.7 percent. Some people who could no longer afford the neighborhood moved to Brownsville, leading to housing competition between low-income residents.
In all areas undergoing gentrification, residents voiced their fear of displacement and organized to preserve mixed-income communities and to get some of the benefits of the new developments. Scholar Lance Freeman notes that “blacks are an integral component of the gentrification process” in New York and that African Americans fled the desolate, segregated inner-city neighborhoods of the 1960s and ’70s, pointing out that “a gentrifying black neighborhood provides an alternative not available in a depressed ghetto, suburban black enclaves, or nonblack neighborhoods. . . . The gentrification of the hood . . . can represent a spatial manifestation of an urbane black middle class.”
But segregation endures, and a 2013 study of the city’s residential patterns from 1970 to 2010 has shown the existence of an “emerging black/non-black color line, where Asians and Hispanics are increasingly aligned with whites while distancing themselves from blacks.” The study’s authors, Ronald J. O. Flores and Arun Peter Lobo, emphasize that “integrated, without blacks” neighborhoods nearly tripled from 13 percent to 37 percent in 2010. These neighborhoods include white-Hispanic-Asian, white-Hispanic, and white-Asian residents. On the other hand, they assert, “integrated, with blacks” areas fell from 22.4 percent to 14.9 percent. If residential segregation, a reality in New York since 1626, eased over the years, it appears that it is actually increasing in the twenty-first century.