HOW RACIST HOUSING PRACTICES LAID FOUNDATIONS FOR A BLACK HARLEM

 

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In the middle of the 19th century,  the living conditions of Downtown Manhattan deteriorated, the prices were incredibly expensive and the neighborhoods were overcrowded. This led wealthy white people to Harlem for cheaper rents and more living space and opportunist real estate developers decided this was the time to beautify Harlem for the wealthy. As poor Puerto Rican, Jewish and Irish immigrants lived in tenements, shacks and old estates, white real estate developers decided to tear down the slums of Harlem to create luxury housing for the white elite. The real estate developers invested so deeply in Harlem for the white wealthy newcomers which made the value of other property in the area rise. In praise of Harlem, the New York Times wrote that the neighborhood was “one of the most densely populated and prosperous wards in the City,” with almost fifty thousand people, a police precinct, a public library, and four newspapers.”

As Harlem became a bastion for economic growth, the neighborhood was annexed by the city authorities in 1873 due to a nationwide financial crisis. Despite the annexation and financial crisis, Harlem saw new construction of sights such as Oscar Hammerstein’s opera house on 125th Street in 1889, the world’s largest gothic cathedral, St. John the Divine in 1892 on West 112th Street and Amsterdam Avenue and finally the completion of the Columbia University campus on 116th Street and Broadway in 1897.4 Brownstones lined the blocks along West 110th Street ensuring that “great care is taken of the property to preserve its exclusive appearance,” in its advertisement to white wealthy New Yorkers. Costs of rent differed drastically in other parts of New York City filled with working-class residents between 10 to 12 dollars in contrast to the starting price of 80 dollars for upper-class white Harlem. The over-investment into Harlem’s new demographic backfired as the neighborhood saw hundreds of newly constructed homes unsold and thousands of apartments unoccupied. The real estate developers and owners of buildings could not convince the white elite to stay in Harlem after the over-investment in property for them specifically. This reality did not stop real estate agencies from trying to keep Harlem filled with white tenants. One example case of white owners and agents attempt to remove black tenants took place in April 1904:

It was the Hudson Realty Company that put the colored tenants out of the three houses. This concern had bought a tract of land fronting on 135th Street near Lenox Avenue. In order to increase the desirability of the property, which they were preparing to cut up in lots for sale to a builder, they bought the three tenements which are situated across the street from their own building lots, and which were then inhabited by negroes and put in white tenants.

The Hudson Realty Company shamelessly purchased the three tenements with the intent to evict the black tenants and rehouse white tenants within them. Rehousing them with white tenants was the Hudson Realty Company’s desperate attempt at pitching to racist white owners who were now looking away from Harlem to own or rent. A move to show power over black residents and how far the racist white elite would go to maintain Harlem as an upscale white neighborhood, the Hudson Realty Company ignited a fire in black residents that would yield results they weren’t prepared for.

Between the years of 1890 to 1900, the black population of Manhattan grew by 41 percent from 25,674 to 36,426.7 Behind Manhattan’s surge of black residents were the growing numbers of blacks leaving the South to escape segregation, racialized violence, poor living conditions and declining economic opportunities. Black people in downtown Manhattan were also facing violence from anti-black riots such as the one in Tenderloin, Minetta Lane and San Juan Hill. The construction of the Subway IRT Ninth-Avenue line in 1904 made the travel from downtown to uptown Manhattan easier by moving straphangers from City Hall to 145th Street in Harlem, making for another accessible way for black people in Downtown Manhattan to commute Uptown. When the black people of Harlem saw the black tenants displaced for white tenants by the Hudson Realty Company to “increase desirability” for prospective white owners and renters, a plan of retaliation went underway. Banking on the desperation of the real estate agents and landlords of these buildings, as well as the black working-class in downtown Manhattan looking for suitable housing, a man named Philip A Payton Jr sought to make sure black people would fill out the vacant homes, apartments and tenements in Harlem. Payton opened an office in 1900 which money from his custodian job to create housing opportunities for black people in Manhattan and published advertisements in an array of real estate publications. One of Payton’s advertisements read:

“COLORED/TENEMENTS WANTED/Colored man makes a speciality of managing colored tenements; references; bond. Philip A. Payton, Jr., agent and broker, 67 W. 134th”

Years later, Payton would see the housing contradictions between black and white people in Harlem. The frustration of the displacement of the black tenements led to the creation of the Afro-American Realty Company led by Philip A Payton Jr alongside other well-off African Americans. The Afro-American Realty Company began with an authorized capital of $50,000 and vowed to lease, buy and build flats and apartments for rental to black people in the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn, so that any black person can live wherever in New York City if they had the money to pay for it.10 The men who started the movement were William Ten Eyek, Winston Dabney, Walter E. Handy, James A Garner, John Stevenson, Wilford H Smith, James C Thomas and of course, Philip A Payton Jr. James C. Thomas was the President of the company with Payton Jr as vice president and General Manager. In the prospectus of their company’s subscription magazine, they wrote:

The reason for the present condition of the colored tendency in New York City today is because of the race prejudice of the white owner and his white agent. When the owner becomes colored and his agent colored, then there is compelled to come an improvement of the condition.

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The Afro-American Realty Company explained that racist white owners and their agents could never improve the housing segregation in New York City because they simply did not want to. Racist white owners and agents did not believe that black people should be living or simply coexisting in upscale neighborhoods with the white elite. The mere presence of black residents would make the neighborhood look uninhabitable for the white renters as we saw with the Hudson Realty Company, and the Afro-American Realty Company sought to capitalize on the racism of white owners and agents also written in their prospectus magazine:

Race prejudice is a luxury, and like all other luxuries, can be made very expensive in New York City. With a cash capital of $50,000 the Afro-American Realty Company can turn race prejudice into dollars and cents. The very prejudice which has therefore worked against us can be turned and used for profit.

The Afro American Realty Company’s methodical plan to house black people in New York City wherever they desired worked. Housing discrimination implemented by the Hudson Realty Company and others with the same approach were not helping to occupy the very homes and buildings created for the prospective wealthy whites. Payton and his colleagues capitalized on the money the white owners were not receiving due to their racism, but not without retaliation.

In 1905, white tenants of three tenement houses in West 135th Street received dispossess notices from the Afro-American Realty Company.13A New York Times article wrote that “Philip A Payton Jr., who is chief organizer had obtained the title to the houses where they made their homes and decided to put out the white residents and put negroes instead.” Payton and Afro-American Realty Company gave these three white tenants the same fate in which the black tenements faced at the hands of Hudson Realty Company. In the same New York Times article is stated that:

Philip A Payton Jr in a few days will begin to fill the tenements on the other side of the street with negroes. The houses were bought, not from the Hudson Realty Company, because that concern had sold them long ago, but from Kassel and Goldberg, another real estate concern. Yesterday, they were sold again by Payton to a “client. No one doubts that the client is the Afro-American Realty Corporation.

Payton and his real estate partners sought to give the white residents, agents and owners a taste of their own medicine by putting the white tenants in the same exact position as the Hudson Realty Company did to the black residents of the dispossessed tenements. As Hudson Realty Company exerted their power to keep Harlem white, Payton and the Afro-American Realty Company returned the favor to assure that black people would live wherever they wanted in Harlem and that the neighborhood was now for them. The white residents of the tenements dispossessed by the Afro-American Realty Company were of working-class background and pleaded to keep their flats but were met with scrutiny by the workers of the company. This occurrence led to the sale and acquisition of the tenements that Hudson Realty Company originally dispossessed by the Afro-American Realty Company.

In 1906, Payton and his company ventured even more Uptown as they called for black residents for a three-story flat-house they purchased on 525 West 151st Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. This very flat-house was also filled with white residents living within. The purchase of the flat-house took place in late July of 1906 in which the white residents were notified that they would have to leave by August 1st. The advertisement from the Afro-American Realty Company calling for black residents was a sign posted right outside the flat-house with a white background and red letters reading:“Choice Four and Five-Room Apartments for Colored Tenants. Apply Janitor.”

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This very purchase confused and angered the white residents within the flat-house due to high-class apartment houses and private residences on the block not being sold instead. The news of the flat-house sale spread around the neighborhoods paired with the sign caused the residents to grow indignant. An investigation of the property at 525 West 151st Street showed that Herman Raabe Sons of 161 Boulevard Lafayette built the flat-house a year before the purchase and sold it to Louis Meyer of 320 Broadway as Louis Meyer eventually sold it to the Afro-American Realty Company. Louis Meyer introduced Payton to the woman who worked as the janitor in the flat-house as “the agent for the new owners of the house here. He’s going to get all the white families out and put negro families in their places.” The woman went to tell all the white families who occupied the flat the bad news as Louis Meyer tasked her to nail the sign that called for prospective black residents to inquire about the newly available flats. The janitor, Mrs. Roth, refused to nail the sign as Meyer insisted he’ll have someone else, a black man, nail it instead. According to accounts from fifteen white flat-house families, Payton greeted them with the August 1st move-out date: “You’ll have to get out by Aug. 1. We’ve got black families to take your place.” Soon enough word around the neighborhood spread so fast that even the Herman Raabe Sons found out the fate of the flat-house they built:

It’s a trick to make us buy them out,” they declared. “We own other property in the same block, and anybody with common sense can see that if negroes move into that apartment building our values will be ruined. It’s an outrage—a shame. We’ll fight it to a finish.”

The other real estate company, Shearer & Ginsburg, shared the same sentiment as Herman Raabe Sons and vowed to fight for the properties in the neighborhood to remain filled with white residents. White real estate companies viewed the Afro-American Realty Company’s acquisition of properties as a conspiracy to bring down their property values with black residents. These real estate companies would not acknowledge how their racist practices led to the Afro-American Realty Company’s creation and bid to house black residents all over Harlem. Payton stated that what the company aimed to do was “stop forced colonization.”

Payton Jr’s successful housing of black residents earned him the nickname “Father of Harlem,” but his tendency to acquire more properties with a failure to house black residents in all of them led him to suffer the same fate of the racist owners and agents he capitalized on. Legal troubles began to plague Payton as he continued his real estate venture. By 1907, Payton was arrested for fraud in a civil suit “brought against him and his company by Charles J. Crowder, acting for himself and as assignee for other stockholders in the company, to recover money paid for capital stock of the company and to have stock subscriptions cancelled.” Crowder’s complaint against Payton accused him of running the Afro-American Realty Company with the intent to deceive the general public and black people. Crowder alleged that amongst of Payton’s fraudulent statements were that “$100,000 of the capital stock of the company had been paid in; that the company was in a position to do away with negro colonization in the City of New York; that the company was in a position to double the interest paid by savings banks; that it would pay from 7 to 10 percent dividends on every dollar invested in its stock; that the company held five-year leases on ten flats, while as a matter of fact all the leases contained sixty and ninety day cancellation clauses; that the company owned four five-story flats valued at $125,000, while as a matter of fact the company held an equity in four five-story flats worth about $10,000. Crowder also alleges that Payton concealed the fact that $50,000 of the stock of the company was issued to Payton and his associates fraudulently.” 

Payton retorted the claims of fraud brought onto him by saying that “the whole affair is a spite action brought against me by the former counsel of our company and several dissatisfied stockholders.” What would be left of the Afro-American Realty Company crumbled in the recession of 1907-1908. By this time, Harlem was already developed into the African American enclave as white property owners continued to resist, forming block associations and insisting on only renting or selling to whites. Organizations such as the Save Harlem Committee, the Protective Association for 130th to 132nd Streets, Anglo-Saxon Realty and the infamous Harlem Property Owners Improvement Association all fought to no avail to keep Harlem white. One tactic used by these organizations were petitions to keep black owners from renting to black people in Central Harlem led by a man named John G. Taylor. Amongst other tactics he used were:

moral suasion to prevent other deals, opposing policy changes that allowed Negroes to use the New York Public Library branch at 103 West 135th Street, approving of mass evictions of blacks, working for the resegregation of the Sixth Avenue and Ninth Avenue elevated trains, hiring detectives to investigate new arrivals, and advocating a twenty-four-foot-high fence along West 136th Street to keep blacks from moving north.

The employment of all these tactics showed the desperation of white Harlem residents and how fearful they were as they saw the transformation of Harlem into a black enclave from the stoop of their brownstones. The Harlem white owners and their agents invested into did not come into fruition as they hoped. The peculiar circumstances of racial prejudice and economics would continue to transform Harlem into a highly-populated black neighborhood. Years before World War 1, racial segregation made “vacancy rates in black neighborhoods elsewhere in Manhattan drop to the extraordinarily low rate of 3 percent by 1914.” Black and white landlords alike were more than willing to rent to black people in Harlem as they were able to pay the rent. Soon enough, the black exodus of the South, known as the Great Migration led to another spike of black population within the neighborhood Harlem. By 1916, an estimate of 6 million Southern Black Americans would migrate North to escape segregation, racial violence, and economic deprivation. Between the years of 1920 to 1930, Harlem’s black population increased to 120,000. with the white population decreasing by the equivalent amount. With an influx of black people from the South, black from other parts of New York City and blacks who immigrated from the Caribbean, Harlem’s culture would shape into one yet seen throughout the diaspora.

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