Migrations and New Neighborhoods
During Reconstruction (1865–77), two migrations gradually changed not only the demographics of the city’s African-American population but also the geographic center of black New York. Increasing numbers of southerners settled in, as did immigrants from the Caribbean; and black New Yorkers’ movement north continued.
Manhattan’s black population grew from 9,943 to 13,000 between 1865 and 1870, and to 19,500 in 1880. By then, more than four out of ten black New Yorkers were migrants and 36 percent of black New Yorkers were born in the South. The largest increase, 66 percent, came between 1890 and 1910.
As important as it was, the black migration was dwarfed by the immigration of Europeans, mostly from Ireland, Germany, and Italy. In New York, Irish and Italian immigrants displaced numerous African Americans as domestics, laborers and in skilled positions. Segregation and discrimination became more imbedded. Black New Yorkers found themselves living in a city that continued to bar them from most skilled jobs, segregated them in poor neighborhoods, and forbade them entry to many public places.
Denied work as longshoremen, street cleaners, baggage handlers, cement carriers, and garment workers, African Americans fought back by taking jobs when unions went on strike. They also brought numerous lawsuits against hotels, restaurants, and theaters that denied them service.
In mid-August 1900, several thousand whites assaulted and brutally beat African Americans after a black man fatally stabbed an undercover white police officer in the Ternderloin district (see “The 1900 Riot” below). As a result, the social, geographic, political, and demographic landscape of black New York changed once again.
As violence against the black community increased throughout the country, the end of the first decade of the twentieth century saw New Yorkers launch local and national organizations to protect and defend their rights: the Citizens’ Protective League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the National Urban League.
Migrations and Black Neighborhoods
By 1900, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, New Orleans, and Philadelphia each had larger black populations than New York City’s; and despite a 66 percent increase in ten years, the black community represented only 1.8 percent of the total population of the Five Boroughs (about 66,000 out of 3,437,000). What was new was that for the first time most black New Yorkers were born in the South, especially in Virginia and North Carolina, announcing the upcoming waves of the Great Migration.
Southerners, just freed from slavery, moved north in droves in hopes of bettering their economic and social conditions. In 1910 Manhattan, only 14,300 African Americans out of 60,500 had been born in the city.
As was true in all cities except Chicago, females were the majority of the black population. There were 124 women for every 100 men in New York (142 in Atlanta, 126 in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore). One of the reasons for this imbalance was the abundant availability of domestic work and the widespread use of independent laundresses and seamstresses.
Black New Yorkers were not always sympathetic to the new migrants. Long-time residents, especially in the middle class, were wary of what they saw as the newcomers’ lack of education and their rural ways. In 1880, to demarcate themselves from the newcomers, they founded the Society of the Sons of New York and the Society of the Daughters of New York. The Southerners adopted the same pattern and established state-based organizations as well, such as the Sons and Daughters of South Carolina, the Sons of Virginia, and the Sons of North Carolina.
Caribbeans had always been a part of the ethnic mix of New York: upwards of 80 percent of the black population of colonial New York had come from the islands. But after the Civil War, Caribbeans started to immigrate voluntarily to the city. Caribbeans owned the vast majority of black businesses in the San Juan Hill area in midtown Manhattan. As early as 1897 businessmen Clarence Robinson and George Joell had founded the Bermuda Benevolent Association in San Juan Hill. The association later purchased a building in Harlem.
Between 1900 and 1915 more than 51,000 Caribbeans entered the United States, mostly through Ellis Island, then the busiest immigrant inspection gateway in the country. The largest contingent remained in the city. Economic hardship, British colonial rule, and natural disasters represented push factors for emigrants, while a flourishing economy, higher wages, and better employment opportunities in the United States pulled them in. In 1910, the 12,000 Caribbeans living in New York represented 13 percent of the total black population of 92,000. A disproportionately large number went into business.
The demographic and economic importance of the migrants and immigrants as well as their dynamism and spirit of enterprise can be seen in the number of businesses they operated. A survey done by George E. Haynes for his study The Negro at Work in New York shows that in 1909, out of 330 black business owners in Manhattan whose origin was known (out of 363), 67 percent were Southerners—Virginians, South Carolinians, Georgians and North Carolinians were the leaders–and almost 20 percent Caribbeans. Only eight were born in the City. Immigration from Africa was only a trickle.
Brooklyn became part of the City of New York in 1898. Its black population at that time was small, just under 20,000. By 1910 it had reached 22,708. Reflecting the migration trends, only 8,800 Brooklynites were born in the borough; 11,180 were born in other states; and 2,500 were foreign born.
The southern and international migrations were paralleled by another within the city. While most African Americans had lived in Lower Manhattan from the seventeenth century, they now moved to midtown and uptown. By 1870, Five Points’ black population had been reduced by 50 percent. Little Africa in Greenwich Village was disappearing. As the Southern Workman, the organ of the Hampton Institute, noted in 1902, “In former years a large colony occupied the blocks bounded by 3rd, Thompson, Bleecker, Jones and 4th streets and 6th avenue, but gradually they are being driven out and forced uptown by the Italian fruit vendors.” That area became Little Italy.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, two out of three black New Yorkers lived in Manhattan. The locations of “colored schools” pinpoint some of these black neighborhoods. Downtown schools were located at 135–137 Mulberry Street, 51 Laurens Street in Five Points, and 128 West 17th Street. Uptown counted only one school, at 120th Street and Fourth Avenue. But the school at West 41st Street and Seventh Avenue, and The New York Colored Mission at 137 West 30th Street, identify another, newer and increasingly important black neighborhood. The vast majority of African Americans, about 25,000, now lived on the west side of Manhattan in two areas known as the Tenderloin and San Juan Hill.
San Juan Hill was one of the most congested areas in the city, one of its blocks was home to 6,173 people. Situated between 60th and 64th streets from Tenth to Eleventh avenues, it was predominantly African American and Caribbean.
To Mary White Ovington—a white activist author of Half a Man: The Status of the Negro in New York —San Juan Hill was “a bit of Africa, as Negroid in aspect as any district you are likely to visit in the South. A large majority of its residents are Southerners and West Indians. . . . The dwellings . . . are human hives, honeycombed with little rooms thick with human beings. Bedrooms open into air shafts that admit no fresh breezes, only foul air carrying too often the germs of disease.”
San Juan Hill was a dangerous area, where tensions ran high between the black residents west of Amsterdam Avenue and their Irish neighbors east of it. These frictions exploded into a race riot in July 1905 during which the police killed one black man and arrested and beat scores of others. San Juan Hill remained a black neighborhood until the 1960s, when it was demolished to make place for Lincoln Center.
The boundaries of the Tenderloin changed over time, but it extended roughly from 20th Street to 53rd Street between Fifth Avenue and Seventh Avenue. Blacks had moved in during the 1870s as white residents who could afford to leave migrated further north to avoid the noise generated by the construction and then the operation of the elevated train. Their apartments were taken over mostly by black southerners who lived in close proximity with Irish immigrants with whom they competed for low-paying, low-skilled jobs. The animosity between the two groups was high.
Ovington noted the discrimination black renters encountered: “The shelter afforded is poorer than that given the white resident whose dwelling touches the black, the rents are a little higher, and the landlord fails to pay attention to ragged paper, or to a ceiling which scatters plaster flakes upon the floor.”
The Tenderloin, like San Juan Hill, was New York’s red light district, but part of it was also the heart of the black middle class and a haven for artists and writers, whose presence earned the neighborhood the name of Black Bohemia. West 53rd Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues was where professionals lived in expensive rentals. The street boasted the Colored Men’s YMCA, a variety of small businesses, Mount Olivet Baptist Church, St. Mark’s Methodist Episcopal Church, St. Benedict the Moor Roman Catholic Church, and the offices of major fraternal societies and political clubs.
The first all-black YMCA established in a northern city was the center of black New York, and two black-owned hotels—the Marshall and the Maceo—were the heart of intellectual, social, and artistic life. The five-story Marshall (127–129 West 53rd), owned by James L. Marshall, was a hotbed of jazz; the first jazz band to appear in New York was organized there by James Europe and Ford Dabney. James Weldon Johnson recalled in his Black Manhattan,
There gathered the actors, the musicians, the composers, the writers and the better-paid vaudevillians; and there one went to get a close-up of Cole and Johnson, Williams and Walker, Ernest Hogan, Will Marion Cook, Jim Europe, Ada Overton, Abbie Mitchell, Al Johns, Theodore Drury, Will Dixon and Ford Dabney. Paul Laurence Dunbar was often there. A good many white actors and musicians also frequented the Marshall, and it was no unusual thing for some of the biggest Broadway stars to run up there for the evening.
Benjamin F. Thomas (originally from South Carolina) owned the Maceo Hotel, at 213 W. 53rd. The place had, according to Johnson, “a more staid clientele” than the Marshall. In 1905, members of the Head Hallmen’s Association held their dinner at the Maceo Hotel. They were employed at a variety of New York City hotels.
But soon black life would be exiled from the Tenderloin. An impetus to the forced migration out of midtown was the demolition in 1910 of many predominantly black blocks to make way for the construction of the Pennsylvania Railroad Station.
Harlem, a mostly white (Irish, Italian, and Jewish) middle-class neighborhood, had undergone many changes. In 1865, the widening of Sixth Avenue north of Central Park to the Harlem River, and the following year the construction and widening of two major roadways—Harlem Lane (St. Nicholas Avenue) and Manhattan Avenue—north of Central Park had made the neighborhood more accessible. In 1873 the Town of Harlem was annexed by New York City. The area located between 110th Street and 145th Street became Ward 12.
The extension of the elevated trains and the completion of the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) subway system triggered the rapid urbanization of upper Manhattan and the surrounding boroughs. Brownstones and townhouses were built for the wealthy. Harlem then “was a cheerful neighborhood of broad drives, brownstone dwellings, and large apartment houses,” wrote Roi Ottley in New World A-Coming. “The white gentry resided here in suburban aloofness. . . . Lenox Avenue was used for the showing of thorough bred horses, and polo was actually being played on the Polo Grounds.”
The neighborhood also attracted poor Italian immigrants who settled in the tenement houses between 110th and 125th streets. A few African Americans had lived in Harlem for centuries, but their numbers had been low. As the neighborhood developed and the bourgeoisie settled in, African Americans found job opportunities as domestics and artisans. From 219 in 1850, they were 600 by 1870 and more than 1,000 in 1880.
But bigger change was on the way. The anticipated extension of the subway line drove a building frenzy that led to rampant speculation. By 1904, when the subway was completed up to 145th Street, Harlem had been overbuilt. The cost of land and houses had reached unsound heights, and the housing market finally collapsed, leaving a large inventory of vacant apartments and houses.
On June 15, 1904, Massachusetts-born Philip A. Payton, Jr., a real estate agent, founded the Afro-American Realty Company. Selling shares to affluent African Americans, he launched a drive to bring blacks to Harlem. He attributed his first opportunity to a dispute between two white landlords on West 134th Street. “To get even, one of them turned his house over to me to fill with colored tenants. I was successful in renting and managing this house, and after a time I was able to induce other landlords,” he stated.
An article in the New York Herald, on December 25, 1905, titled “Negroes Move Into Harlem” pointed out, “During the last three years the flats in 134th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, that were occupied entirely by white folks, have been captured for occupancy by a Negro population. . . . The cause of the colored influx is inexplicable.”
Another opportunity for African Americans presented itself when on December 10, 1907, John E. Nail and Henry C. Parker, former salesmen with the Afro-American Realty Company, opened their own firm as Philip Payton’s closed. The new business thrived and was instrumental in moving the 53rd Street YMCA to Harlem.
Samuel Battle, the first black patrolman of the New York Police Department, recalled Harlem in 1910: “All of Eighth Avenue was Irish, and Seventh Avenue was a mixture of Irish and Jewish. One hundred and Thirty-seventh Street to 140th Street, any place below 133rd St., was Irish, German, and Italian. One thing I shall never forget. The Irish boys on Eighth Avenue wouldn’t let the other races come on Eighth Avenue at all. It was forbidden ground to them. Up here at 142nd Street and Ninth Avenue we had the Canary Island gang, composed of Irish. They were tough boys.”
The neighborhood was in transition, as Battle, who lived on 136th Street, recalled. “During those early years, it was a transition period, whites to Negroes. There were houses where Italian, Jewish, and Irish lived, but they’d let colored people in if they paid more money. Still the places were deteriorating because they didn’t make the money that they had been making. A lot of people got wealthy as a result.” “The Reminiscences of Samuel J. Battle,” The Oral History Collection of Columbia University.
A map drawn by George E. Haynes, Columbia University graduate and Professor of Social Science at Fisk University, shows that by 1911, blacks in Harlem were mostly concentrated in six blocks on both sides of Lenox Avenue between 135th and 132nd streets.
In February 1911, arguing that the black presence devaluated properties from 10 to 20 percent, ninety-one owners (85 percent of the total) on 136th Street filed a covenant in the Hall of Records to put a stop to what they called the “One Hundred and Thirty-fourth Street Black Belt.” They agreed not to sell or rent their properties to any “negro, mulatto, quadroon, or octoroon” or even have them as guests for the next fifteen years. They also agreed not to have more than one male and one female or two females as domestics.
Nevertheless, black institutions moved in or were soon established in the area. In 1911 Saint Philip’s Episcopal Church, which had migrated in 1886 from Center Street to 25th Street, moved once again, this time to a new building at 214 West 134th Street, designed by the black New York architects, Vertner Tandy and George Foster, Jr. Active supporters of the migration to Harlem, St. Philip’s pastor Rev. Hutchens C. Bishop and parishioner John Nail engineered a deal worth over a million dollars, including land for the new church and for apartment buildings to be rented to black households. In 1914 St. James Presbyterian Church relocated from West 55th Street to West 137th Street; and the Libya Hotel opened at 149 West 139th Street.
White residents fought hard against the changing demographics. They formed several organizations to defend their neighborhood against the “black invasion” and the “black plague.” They offered discounts to white renters, refused to sell property to blacks, or evicted them from rentals. The Harlem Home News warned, “Wake up and get busy before it is too late to repel the black hordes that stand ready to destroy business in the very heart of Harlem.”
Despite these efforts, Harlem was about to become the center of black life not only locally but also nationally, and for a time the cultural capital of the black world.
The 1900 Riot
On August 13, 1900, at 2:00 a.m., during a heat wave that had tempers flaring, Arthur Harris, a twenty-two-year-old migrant from Virginia, got into a fight with Robert Thorpe, a white plainclothes police officer who was trying to arrest Harris’s common-law wife, May Enoch, for soliciting (although she was just waiting for Harris) at the corner of 41st Street and Eighth Avenue in the Tenderloin district. Fearing for his life, Harris stabbed Thorpe and then fled to Washington, D.C. Thorpe died the following day.
On August 15, rioting erupted in the Tenderloin and rapidly spread as black men and women were attacked where they worked or were pulled out of streetcars. Scores of white policemen were reported to have taken part in the attacks, but a grand jury later refused to indict any of them. Houses were looted and burned. Among the many injured was poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. African Americans still fearing for their lives armed themselves. In the Tenderloin, 145 guns and ammunition were sold. The riot lasted until August 16 when a thunderstorm dispersed the mobs. Scattered clashes continued for over a month.
On September 12, 3,500 people gathered for a meeting at Carnegie Hall in support of the newly formed Citizens’ Protective League, which claimed five thousand members. The league had been organized at St. Mark’s Church on West 53rd Street. It demanded the removal of all officers involved in the riot. Seventy-nine people submitted affidavits about the violence they had sustained; the league published them in the booklet Story of the Riot.
“I was clubbed by three officers. The officers led the crowd, and did not interfere when others were beating me,” one man testified. “They made no attempt to disperse the crowd. I did nothing whatever to justify this brutal assault upon me by the police.” One woman stated, “About two o’clock A.M. I heard shooting in the street, and in a short while after I saw two police officers dragging a colored man from 341 West 36th Street, who had on no clothing except a gauze undershirt. The officers were clubbing the colored man, and the man was begging them not to club him, as he had done nothing. The only answer he got was more blows and a reply from one of the officers as follows: ‘Shut up, you black son of a b—-, or I’ll kill you.’”
Arthur Harris was arrested in October in Washington. Condemned to hard labor for life, he died in 1908.
James Weldon Johnson reflected that the riot “was a brutish orgy, which, if it was not incited by the police, was, to say the least, abetted by them. But this fourth of the great New York riots involving the Negro was really symptomatic of a national condition. The status of the Negro as a citizen had been steadily declining for twenty-five years; and at the opening of the twentieth century his civil state was, in some respects, worse than at the close of the Civil War.”
On December 22, a Harper’s Weekly editorial noted the profound hostility that confronted African Americans in the city,
The Negro is not a newcomer in New York. He has been here for two centuries and a half . . . but even during the time of bondage his condition was not much worse than now. . . . The strangest thing about this strange problem is that so many native Americans should feel hostile—not actively hostile, but in sympathy with the lawless Negro-baiters. I heard many native Americans, even New Englanders say after the riot that they would have been glad if many of the Negroes had been killed.
Responding to antiblack violence throughout the country and aiming to assist migrants as they moved north, two major national organizations dedicated to the defense of African Americans’ rights and to the promotion of their welfare were born in New York in the first decade of the twentieth century.
In the wake of the August 1908 race riot of Springfield, Illinois—Abraham Lincoln’s hometown—that left seven blacks dead and vast destruction of property, Mary White Ovington organized a small meeting in her San Juan Hill apartment with Socialists William English Walling and Henry Moskowitz. “It was then,” she wrote, “that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was born. It was born in a little room of a New York apartment.”
Sixty people responded to Ovington, Walling, and Moskowitz’s call for a meeting to discuss racial justice. Seven were African Americans, including W. E. B. Du Bois, cofounder in 1905 of the civil rights organization Niagara Movement; journalist and civil rights leader Ida B. Wells-Barnett; and Mary Church Terrell, active in civil rights and women’s suffrage. From its downtown office at 20 Vesey Street, the NAACP addressed issues such as lynching and the destruction of black communities. Du Bois, a member of the board of directors, was the director of publicity and research and the editor of its monthly journal, The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races, whose first issue was published in November 1910.
The interracial National League on Urban Conditions among Negroes (National Urban League) was founded in New York City in September 1910. It consolidated three organizations: the Committee on Urban Conditions among Negroes, the Committee for Improving the Industrial Condition of Negroes in New York, and the National League for the Protection of Colored Women. George Edmund Haynes, a cofounder of the National Urban League, became its first executive director. In 1912, Haynes was the first African American awarded a PhD by Columbia University. His doctoral dissertation was, appropriately, “The Negro at Work in New York City.” The League helped Southern migrants in housing, education, employment, and health and opened chapters in the various northern cities where they had settled.
Culture and Entertainment
New York was the birthplace, infamously, of the genre called “coon songs” that depicted stereotypically violent, philandering, shiftless, and impudent urban black men; and promiscuous, money-hungry women (as opposed to the rural blacks of minstrel songs). Black performer Ernest Hogan created the genre with his 1890 hit “All Coons Look Alike to Me.” These songs enjoyed tremendous success among white New Yorkers and informed their distorted vision of the black men and women in their midst. As scholar Marcy S. Sacks observed in Before Harlem: The Black Experience in New York City before World War I, these songs “legitimized latent (and explicit) denunciations of the black urban migration, affecting black New Yorkers’ everyday struggles to meet the challenges of city life.”
A Trip to Coontown by Bob Cole—the first full-length musical comedy written, produced, directed, and performed by blacks—opened on April 4, 1898, at the Third Avenue Theater, and later toured the country for three years. According to scholar Krystyn R. Moon’s article “Forgotten Manuscripts: A Trip to Coontown,” Cole “played to and against stereotypes of African Americans.” For example, the song ‘The Wedding of the Chinee and the Coon’, “was more than a comedic ditty that perpetuated African American and Chinese immigrant stereotypes. To address interracial marriage in a period when African American men were lynched for merely looking at European American women, [the song is] a bold political statement that celebrates a future where interracial marriage is commonplace.”
The most popular black actors of the times were Bert Williams, born in Antigua, and George Walker. This multitalented and internationally renowned team, who formed their own company with their wives, had numerous hits, including In Dahomey (1902), and Bandana Land and In Abyssinia (1908). Williams and Walker are credited with having turned the Cake Walk into an international sensation. Starting in 1910, Williams pursued a solo career with the Ziegfeld Follies. He was at the time the country’s most successful black comedian.
An important development on the musical scene in 1911 was the organization by James Reese Europe of the Clef Club, which served as a booking office for African-American musicians. Europe, born in Mobile, Alabama, had moved to New York in 1903. In 1912 he organized a concert at Carnegie Hall featuring an orchestra of 125 of New York’s distinguished black musicians presenting works by black composers. The following year, on February 12, 1913, a ”Concert of Negro Music“ was held at Carnegie Hall in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. It featured the Clef Club Orchestra conducted by Europe.
In 1909, the Lincoln Theater opened at 56–58 West 135th Street. Owned by the Cuban businesswoman Maria Downs and managed by African American Eugene “Frenchy” Elmore, it was the first to cater to a mixed audience. Increasing its capacity to 850 seats in 1915, the theater offered vaudeville shows, movies, and plays. The Anita Bush Players opened The Girl at the Fort in November 1915 before moving—as Elmore also did—to the Lafayette Theater over Bush’s refusal to change the name of her company to the Lincoln Players. Over the years, Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Florence Mills, Ma Rainey, Fletcher Henderson, and many other celebrities appeared at the Lincoln—now the Metropolitan AME Church.
An emerging figure of the times was Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. Born in Puerto Rico in 1874, he had migrated to New York City in 1891 at age seventeen. He was involved in the independence movements of Puerto Rico and Cuba before turning his attention to the African American community. In 1911, he cofounded the Negro Society for Historical Research, designed to collect information and conduct research into the history and culture of black people worldwide. In 1914, Schomburg was elected to the American Negro Academy, whose objective was the promotion of education, science, literature, and art. An avid collector, he amassed a collection of books, pamphlets, manuscripts and art and became an important player during the Harlem Renaissance.
In October 1913, the Emancipation Proclamation Commission—entirely made up of black men—of the State of New York presented a ten-day national exhibition at the 12th Regiment Armory in Manhattan. A panorama of black history from Africa to emancipation, it attracted more than thirty thousand visitors. W. E. B. Du Bois, chairman of the committee on exhibits, asked sculptor Meta Warrick Fuller to create a statue. Her eight-foot-high Spirit of Emancipation featured the standing figures of determined and dignified African Americans.