DISCRETION: This thesis research paper was done for the completion of my Bachelors of Arts in History at Mercy College 2019. For any inquiries, e-mail email@example.com!
HARLEM & BEDFORD-STUYVESANT:
HOW RACISM AND PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION DEVELOPED TWO OF NEW YORK CITY’S BLACKEST NEIGHBORHOODS
Beginning in the early 20th century, New York City’s Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods developed into two of the largest African American enclaves in the United States. The creation of the New York-Harlem railroad helped African Americans commute from downtown Manhattan to Harlem in search of suitable housing. As 6 million Southern Black Americans migrated to the Midwest and Northeast to flee economic deprivation, Harlem developed into a black mecca with the political, intellectual, and cultural arts explosion historically known as the “Harlem Renaissance.” As the neighborhood became overpopulated, the Independent Subway System (IND) made an extension to its Eight Avenue-Fulton Street A train line which resulted in more opportunities for living space and jobs for African Americans. Harlem’s black residents fled the overcrowded neighborhood using the A train which led to the creation of another black neighborhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant. As history has shown, accessible and affordable transportation has been the principle reason as to why black people were willing to migrate from the south to the North and then furthermore from Harlem to Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Prior to the influx of Dutch settlers during the 1600s, indigenous people populated what would become the five boroughs of New York City. The Lenapes, which translates to “the Peoples,” had already inhabited the land for 1,500 years by 1500 AD with a population of about 5,000. Lenapes called their homeland Lenapehoking which extended to the Mid-Atlantic portion of the United States covering New York City, Long Island, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Amongst the band of Lenapes were the Rockaway, Hackensack, Manhattan, Canarsee, Wappinger and Rechgawank. The Lenape created routes to avoid swamps and marshes several of them still used in present-day such as Broadway, Flatbush Avenue, parts of Atlantic Avenue, and Kings Highway. In present-day Harlem, the indigenous band known as the Wappinger inhabited the land and stretched to Dutchess County and Connecticut. Similarly in present-day Bedford-Stuyvesant, the indigenous band of Canarsee inhabited the land.
By the 17th century, Europe was crippled by plagues and wars. Aside from the epidemics, many Europeans cited “religious freedom” as their reasons for leaving the countries they inhabited to move to the Netherlands for sanctuary. Europeans in the Netherlands were becoming merchant capitalists and began to travel abroad in search of new land to conquer. The island of Mannahatta, soon to be renamed Manhattan, was the first part of New York City to be settled by the Dutch. At the southeastern tip of the island along the Hudson River, the Dutch West India Company created an outpost in 1624 and named the entire colony named New Netherlands to capitalize on the fur trade. At the southern tip of Long Island, Brooklyn was also settled by the Dutch West India Company almost a decade after Manhattan. With neighboring wetlands, forests, fertile lands and harbors, the Dutch West India Company did not hesitate to begin buying the land. The Lenape and other indigenous groups would lose a hold of their home through dishonorable land deals, smallpox, and wars. In Brooklyn township, the Dutch settlers would establish villages with other European settlers from Germany, Scandinavia, England, and France.
The Dutch West India Company imported eleven enslaved African men to the New Netherlands in 1626 with three enslaved African women imported the following year in 1627. The purpose of the newly imported African slave labor was to transform New Netherlands from wetlands and wilderness into a prosperous port. The enslaved African workforce was used to build houses, infrastructure, tend to livestock, construct Fort Amsterdam and to protect the settlement from attacks by indigenous bands. Slavery under the Dutch West India Company was not as restricted as other slave holding colonies. African slaves and white indentured servants were treated as “a single social class, subject to the same restrictions with regard to personal freedom and property ownership.” Many enslaved Africans and white indentured servants were able to buy their freedom. The Dutch West India Company allotted lands to slaves downtown outskirts for their own farms in the 1640. A simple conversion to Christian faith allowed formerly enslaved blacks to work wherever they pleased and be married by the Dutch Reformed Church.
Named after the Dutch city of Haarlem in the Netherlands, Harlem was settled in the seventeenth century by Dutch farmers. The first Dutch settlement in the Upper Manhattan area was established by Jesse De Forest. Disputes between the Lenape and Dutch settlers began to sharpen leading to the Wappinger War, also known as Kieft’s War. General William Kieft of New Netherlands had attempted to subdue Lenape natives since 1641 which resulted in the beginning of the war in 1643. On February 25, General Kieft’s militia massacre 120 Lenape natives. In the same year, 1,500 Lenape natives retaliate and destroy 40 farms with failed attempts at peace. The results of Kieft’s war resulted in several European deaths and over 1,000 deaths of Lenape. The buying and selling of enslaved Africans in New Netherlands began in 1646 with the first imports coming from Africa through Brazil. By 1655, Africans were being brought to New Netherlands directly from Africa. In only five years, New Netherlands held the biggest slave market in the North American continent while also home to free black landowners “The Company will endeavor to supply the colonists with as many blacks as it possibly can, on the conditions hereafter to be made, without however being bound to do so to a greater extent or for a longer time than it shall see fit.” The English captured the colony and transformed New Netherlands to New York. The English continued to build the slave market built up by the Dutch.
By the nineteenth century, Harlem’s population were made up of mostly white people. A major construction of a railroad line would lead to a shift in Harlem’s demographics despite it not being the intention of those who planned and constructed it. In 1832, the first railroad connecting Lower Manhattan to Harlem would be constructed, known as the New York and Harlem Railroad, New York City’s first ever railroad. The intent of this line was to make it easier for the wealthy white people travel between Lower and Upper Manhattan by means of an easily accessible mode of transportation and ultimately to transform Harlem into a white suburb:
The line of route fixed upon by the Board of Directors, September 13th, 1831, is through the centre of Fourth avenue from the north side of Twenty-third street to Harlem river. The track was first laid from Prince street to Twenty-third street. On the 26th of November, 1832, the track was completed from Prince Street to Fourteenth Street, and cars began running between these two points, about a mile apart. This was the first street railroad built in the City of New York. Locomotives ran down as far as Fourteenth Street.
Prior to wealthy white people moving into Harlem, it was a place where immigrants were living due to cheap rent while commuting downtown using the railroad during the middle of the nineteenth century. Tenement houses were created for the poor, working-class population of Harlem out of old houses. The first tenement opened in lower Manhattan in 1833, but by the 1870s tenements were all over Harlem filled up with Puerto Rican, Jewish and Irish immigrants. By filling in the swamps and flattening the hills, the New York City authorities made attempts at creating more housing for the poor residents for Harlem. Poor immigrants were forced to live in tenements and old rundown buildings in horrific living conditions while still going to work. Harlem’s poorest residents lived in “wretched, improvised shacks constructed from wooden crates cast off by factories in Manhattanville and East Harlem.”
Men, women, and children, dogs, cows, pigs, goats, geese, ducks, and chickens are almost promiscuously mixed together. The street is rank with filth and stench, and the consequence is that mortality holds high carnival there.
As the living conditions in the Lower East Side section of Manhattan deteriorated, the prices were incredibly expensive and the neighborhoods were overcrowded, wealthy white people started to move uptown to Harlem for cheaper rents. Opportunist real estate developers decided this was the time to beautify Harlem for the wealthy. As the poor immigrants lived in tenements, shacks, and old rundown homes, real estate developers decided to tear down the slums of Harlem to create luxury housing for new wealthy and working-class, white residents. The real estate developers invested deeply in Harlem for the white wealthy newcomers, leading to property values in the area to rise. In its writing 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, it 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. Brownstones lined the blocks along West 110th Street with the real estate agents 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, upper-class to stay in Harlem after investing in property for them specifically. This reality did not stop white Harlem 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 negros 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. Behind Manhattan’s surge of black residents were 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 in Tenderloin, Minetta Lane and San Juan Hill. 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 began. 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, 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 disputes 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 to rent to black people in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn, so that any black person could live wherever in New York City if they had the money to pay for it. 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. Thomas was the President of the company with Payton Jr 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.
The Afro-American Realty Company suggested 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 neighborhoods with white people. The mere presence of black residents would make the neighborhood look uninhabitable for the white renters as we saw with the the Hudson Realty Company’s move to evict black renters, and the Afro-American Realty Company sought to capitalize on the racism of white owners and agents also written in their prospectus magazine by Randolph:
Race prejudice is a luxury, and like all other luxuries, can be made very expensive in New York Cty. 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 heterofore 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 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 on West 135th Street received dispossess notices from the Afro-American Realty Company.A 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 negros 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 vengeance against the Hudson Realty Company by putting the white tenants in the same exact position the Hudson Realty Company did to the black residents of the dispossessed tenements. As the 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. This occurrence led to the sale and acquisition of the tenements that Hudson Realty Company originally dispossessed and evicted black renters from by the Afro-American Realty Company. In 1906, Payton and his company ventured even more Uptown as they called for black residents to rent in three-story flat house they purchased on 525 West 151st Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. This flat house was also filled with white residents living within. The purchase of the flat house took place in late July of 1906 and 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 flathouse with a white background and red letters reading: “Choice Four and Five-Room Apartments for Colored Tenants. Apply [with] Janitor.”
This purchase confused and angered the white residents within the flat house. The news of the flat house sale spread around the neighborhoods paired with the sign caused the white residents to grow indignant. The property at 525 West 151st Street was first owned by that Herman Raabe Sons of 161 Boulevard Lafayette who built the flathouse 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’s successful housing of black residents earned him the nickname “Father of Harlem,” but his tendency to acquire more properties than tenants 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:
$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 keep Harlem white. One tactic used by these organizations was 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 led to “vacancy rates in black neighborhoods elsewhere in Manhattan dropped 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. By the end of World War 1, Harlem 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 people from other parts of New York City and blacks who immigrated from the Caribbean, Harlem’s culture would develop into an expressive black art movement. The New Negro Movement, also known as the Harlem Renaissance, was an intellectual, artistic, and sociopolitical explosion characterized by the assertion of black voices in regards to race and class conscious demands. Harlem became home to black intellectuals, musicians, and writers such as Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Marcus Garvey, Claude McKay, W.E.B Dubois, Josephine Baker, and Jessie Fauset. The Cotton Club was a whites-only establishment but featured a variety of black musicians such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Lena Horne. The Apollo Theater helped propel careers of black musicians such as Ella Fitzgerald. Political organizations such as the National Advancement Association for Colored People and the United Negro Improvement Association were invested in how to uplift and empower black people. The explosion of black and art within Harlem, led it to become overpopulated. Black people in Harlem needed more space to live and jobs to maintain their livelihood and a new train line would help address both needs at once.
Bedford Stuyvesant, colloquially known as Bed-Stuy, was named after the Dutch village of Bedford and governor Peter Stuyvesant in 1667. Bedford Stuyvesant was originally considered two separate neighborhoods: Bedford and Stuyvesant Heights. Bedford as a separate neighborhood was the first major, settlement in the borough positioned east of Long Island and Stuyvesant Heights was farmland built by enslaved black labor. In 1790, 60 percent of white families in Brooklyn held enslaved black people while only three percent of black people in Brooklyn were free. This would change with the abolition of slavery in New York state in 1827. Formerly enslaved African Americans moved to a subsection between Bedford and Flatbush named Weeksville which was recognized as one of the first free black communities in the United States in 1838. One of the country’s first black newspapers, The Freedman’s Torchlight, launched in Weeksville which helped fund community institutions such as the Berean Baptist Church, the Colored School No.2, the Zion Home for Aged Relief and the Howard Colored Orphanage Asylum. When arsonists burned down the Colored Orphan Asylum in Manhattan during the draft riots of 1865, many traumatized African Americans fled to Weeksville for shelter. Weeksville would lose its identity as a free black community with mass European immigration to Brooklyn. In 1883, the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge encouraged white wealthy people from Manhattan to inhabit Brooklyn. Stuyvesant Heights still housed a small, black bourgeoisie that lived in brownstones with white servants and traveled by horse and carriage in 1895. With the Williamsburg Bridge’s opening in 1907, Irish, Italian and German Jews people from the Lower East Side section of Manhattan moved in numbers to Brooklyn with many of them merchants, shopkeepers and professionals. The elite class fled Bedford and Stuyvesant Heights which left both sections to be inhabited by working-class Jews and Italians. The Great Migration would shift the demographics again dramatically.
In April 1936, the Independent Subway System line or IND, IND Eight Avenue line that covered the Inwood, Washington Heights, and Harlem neighborhoods of Manhattan was extended. New York City Mayor La Guardia announced the new IND Fulton Street line:
The new Fulton Street line, the Board of Transportation announced yesterday, will be served by trains from 207th Street and Broadway, the present Washington Heights “A” line. These trains, which have been running to Church Avenue, Brooklyn, since October 1933, will continue to enter Brooklyn by way of the Fulton Street tunnel from Manhattan. But at the Jay Street-Borough Hall station they will turn into Fulton Street. Beyond Fulton Street they will serve the following stations: Hoyt-Schermerhorn Street; Lafayette, Clinton-Washington, Franklin, Nostrand, Kingston-Throop, Utica, Ralph and Rockaway Avenue.
Out of the eight stations that the new IND Fulton Street line extension would cover, five of them opened in Bedford-Stuyvesant: Franklin Avenue, Nostrand Avenue, Kingston-Throop Avenue, Utica Avenue, and Ralph Avenue. The IND Eight Avenue line-Fulton Street line connected Harlem to five different parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant with just one ride on the A train. Harlem’s black residents sought better living conditions, less crowded neighborhoods and more job opportunities, especially at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II.
As the influx of black residents leaving Harlem for Bedford-Stuyvesant increase, the white residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant were becoming fearful. White fear turned into tactics to intimidate the Bed-Stuy’s black newcomers. The Midtown Civic League, a white supremacist group, organized resistance and terrorism against the black residents. The Midtown Civic League worked alongside other groups of white Bed-Stuy residents such as the Bedford Home Owners’ Association to defame and scapegoats the black migrants as intruders turning the neighborhood into an unsafe, crime ridden area and the primary group behind racial tension. With the support of the Midtown Civic League, the Bedford Home Owners’ Association protested that the neighborhood was not patrolled enough by cops. In June of 1937, members of the group held a meeting in Fosters Temple’ on 295 Gates Avenue where they voted to demand more cops on patrol in Bed-Stuy to help curb the supposed crime committed by the black newcomers. This was a methodical plan to smear and possibly cause unnecessary arrests as police brutality was a growing phenomenon for African Americans in New York City. A committee of the group would go on to alert Mayor La Guardia and the Police Commissioner Valentine of their demands:
And if we don’t get results a series of meetings will be called to crystalliez the popular demands of the people of this community for an investigation of conditions as they really exist here,” Thomas A. Sheridan, president of the group, asserted.
The Midtown Civic League employed other measures to ensure black people were not acquiring property in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Later in the month of June of 1937, the Midtown Civic League held a meeting aimed at the white residents of Bed-Stuy:
A vigorous fight to keep the Bedford and Stuyvesant sections as a high class residential district has been mapped by the Midtown Civic League of Brooklyn. At the June meeting in the Bedford Branch YMCA, Bedford Ave. and Monroe St., it was announced that residents who wish to sell or rent their properties may expect assistance from the league in procuring desirable tenants or purchases.”
The Midtown Civic League wanted to preserve Bedford-Stuyvesant as a wealthy, white neighborhood. The aim of their assistance was to limit the influx of black residents in Bed-Stuy as much as possible. They wanted no black newcomers to acquire homes from white residents and no opportunity for white residents to rent to black tenants. The Midtown Civic League would come under fire by December 1937 as they faced charges for violations of civil rights against black people in Bed-Stuy. The inquiry into the charges was sponsored by a black Harlem organization known as the State Temporary Commission on the Condition of the Urban Colored. The organization held hearings where allegations were brought upon the Midtown Civic League was a “vigilante organization to terrorize Negroes.” At the hearings, Malcom Martin of the National Negro League, accused Sumner A. Sirti, a main figure of the Midtown Civic League, of leading the movement among white residents in Bedford-Stuyvesant, encouraging them to be vigilantes:
Mr. Martin said the “vigilantes” wished to prevent the spread of Negroes in this area, and that pistol permits had been obtained by the organization’s members who held “gun practice” in their campaign to frighten Negro residents.”
Sirti of the Midtown Civic League did not attend the meeting, laughed at the allegations of vigilante terrorism towards the black residents of Bed-Stuy, and defended the gun practice as a means of home and business defense despite it actually being an intimidation tactic for the black residents: “He described his organization of 11,000 members in the Bedford-Stuyvesant of 33,000 blocks as interested only in maintenance of health and order.”
Black people in Bedford-Stuyvesant were at odds with racist, white organizations but also with the US government. In 1938, Bedford-Stuyvesant was redlined by the Federal Housing Authority and the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, creations of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to revive the collapsed housing market after the Great Depression. Redlining was the systematic practice of denying or limiting financial services to certain neighborhoods based on racial or ethnic composition without regard to the residents’ qualifications or creditworthiness. Areas populated with African Americans were heavily discriminated against. Bedford-Stuyvesant was assessed by an appraiser for the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. After he placed the lowest rating of a D, the appraiser described what put the redline around Bed-Stuy: “Colored infiltration a definitely adverse influence on neighborhood desirability.” As an effect, few prospective homeowners in Bed-Stuy, black or white, were able to receive access to federally guaranteed mortgages. Foreseeing a plummet in the property value, existing homeowners sold their properties as fast as they could, fled the neighborhood along with other whites for suburbs, and encouraged residents to keep African Americans away, whose mere presence risked damaging the investments in the suburbs. Black people found themselves confined to redlined neighborhoods such as Bed-Stuy. By the year of 1940, housing in Bedford-Stuyvesant was the neighborhood’s biggest priority. As New York state approved a loan of 20 million dollars to create housing for low-income black families, the City Planning Commission used a portion for Bed-Stuy: “a site in Beford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn, which is inhabited largely by Negroes, for a municipal housing project to accommodate 1,000 families. The project was aided by the Federal Housing Authority.” Ironically the Federal Housing Authority was on board to create low-income housing for black people in Bedford-Stuyvesant while they were directly responsible for the economic strangulation of black Bed-Stuy.
Despite many whites fleeing Bedford-Stuyvesant due to its redlined status, the Midtown Civic League remained hard at work to smear the black population who now inhabited majority of the neighborhood. In his campaign for re-election, Mayor La Guardia made a visit to Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Concord Baptist Church on Putnam and Marcy Avenues on October 30, 1941. He spoke to 500 members of the Bedford Neighborhood Council in an effort to win over black voters and separate himself from the racist Midtown Civic League.:
Pray for forgiveness of those evil men with hatred in their hearts who, with strong words on their tongues, hurling invective and vituperation, create racial hatred because they are so desperate. Pray for them—they need it. Let us be serene, kindly and forgiving—for they know not what they do.”
In 1943, the Midtown Civic League launched a campaign to get the Kings County grand jury to investigate Bedford-Stuyvesant’s supposed crime problem. Police Commissioner Lewis J. Valentine delivered the Bedford-Stuyvesant crime report from the data gathered by police to Mayor La Guardia at City Hall on November 20, 1943. A mass meeting was also held by the Midtown Civic League at the Bedford branch of the Young Men’s Christian Academy (YMCA) on Bedford Avenue and Monroe Street. With Sumner A. Sirti as the facilitator, members at the meeting complained of black people making noise on the streets past midnight and an attack on an older white woman by a young black man: “An employee at the Navy Yard, reported to the Gates Avenue station that a hatless young Negro in a zoot suit attacked her over the head while she walking in Macon Street.”
Three days later, a meeting was held by the National Negro Congress and the Bedford-Stuyvesant Congress of Industrial Organizations Community Council at 474 Sumner Avenue with 100 people present to protest against the August Kings Country grand jury presentment on crime conditions in Bed-Stuy. City Councilman Peter V. Cacchione asserted that the Bedford YMCA should “open its doors to all regardless of race, creed or color” and expressed his aims “to expose the enemy agents who had started this organized move.” The “enemy agents” that Councilman Cacchione wanted to expose was the Midtown Civic League. The State Attorney General demanded an investigation of the organization. The meeting ended with a decision to create “two committees to investigate conditions and formulate reports to disprove the grand jury presentment.”
In December of 1943, the Midtown Civic League’s constant smearing of black residents of Bed-Stuy would be put to an end with the help of the NAACP. Led by Walter White, the executive secretary, the NAACP requested permission of Judge Nathan R. Sorbel to allow prominent New Yorkers to address the Kings County grand jury on the recent crime presentment on racial crime in Bed-Stuy. Judge Sorbel invited a popular black Brooklyn citizen and Henry Ashcroft, probation officer of Special Sessions to address the panel. Judge Sorbel invited Ashton for the sole purpose of addressing misstatements made by the Midtown Civic League at the August Kings County grand jury presentment:
The colored people residing in the real Bedford-Stuyvesant district had their pride hurt, their sensibilities wounded, their intelligence overlooked and their daily livelihood endangered as a result of the incisive and language of the August grand jury.
The August grand jury charged the La Guardia administration with “failure to check the lawlessness in Brooklyn’s Little Harlem” and utilized the presentment as a political attack on Mayor La Guardia and a racial attack on the black residents of Bed-Stuy. Judge Sorbel took it upon himself to criticize the August grand jury resentment. He called it dangerous and gave an explanation: “It indicts an entire people for the faults of very, very few. it places the great body of decent, law-abiding Negros in a most humiliating position; it stirs up resentment, hatred and fear.” Next Judge Sorbel pointed out that “in 1943 only 220 Negroes had been convicted of felonies committed in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area, constituting less than one-fifth of one person of the youth and population.” Judge Sorbel also noted that convictions for all crimes showed that black people constituted less than one percent. These statistics contradicted the smearing done by the Midtown Civic League and their grandiose stories of crimes committed by black people in Bed-Stuy. Judge Sorbel went on to comment about the influx of black migrants from the south:
What are we to do about it? Are we to erect a fence around the Bedford-Stuyvesant? I think we have enough. We have welcomed our Negro brethren from the cabins in the south to the slums of New York. We have extended to them the privilege of paying the highest rents for the rottenest roosts out of the poorest wages for the dirtiest jobs. Now let us deny them relief! Let’s punish the poor being poor and the ignorant for being ignorant! Maybe we can create a smokescreen that wil hide the real culprits– ourselves.
Judge Sorbel pointed out the hypocrisy behind racist, white organizations such as the Midtown Civic League who fought to keep black people out of their neighborhoods after they escaped the poor, starving conditions of the south, only to end up in the slums of New York City and work for extremely low wages.
By 1963, Bedford-Stuyvesant rivaled Harlem as the “Negro population center.” 1,100,000 black people lived throughout New York City’s five boroughs. Approximately 400,000 black New Yorkers lived in Harlem while 300,000 resided in Bedford-Stuyvesant by the 1960 census. As racial tension throughout the United States and New York City increased, “Bedford-Stuyvesant has also begun to rival Harlem as a focal point for racial protests, with Negro clergymen serving as the catalyst.” Protests and riots reached its peak in the year of 1964 with police brutality, daily discrimination and institutionalized racism aimed at black New Yorkers that brewed over the prior three decades.
On February 3, 1963, approximately 464,000 students from New York City participated in a citywide school boycott which resulted in their absence for the day. Although segregation in New York was not put into law like Jim Crow legislation in the south, the city’s school system evidently adhered to de facto segregation. Among the students were teachers, picketers, parents and activists who marched to over 300 New York City schools which went over the Brooklyn Bridge to the Board of Education’s building on Livingston Street in downtown Brooklyn. Bayard Rustin, long-time Civil Rights activist, directed the boycott. The organizations behind the boycott were the Presbyterian Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the City-Wide Committee for Integrated Schools, the NAACP, the Harlem Parents Committee and the Brooklyn, Harlem, and Bronx chapters of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The three chapters of CORE were the only to support the second citywide school boycott on March 16, 1964.
The 1964 World’s Fair was to be held the following month in New York City. Backed by Mayor Robert F. Wagner and Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the World’s Fair would attract tourists to its extravagant exhibits and enrich the city, meanwhile everyday life in Bed-Stuy and Harlem was plagued with police brutality, unemployment, poverty-related crimes, uninhabitable housing and extremely underfunded schools. The CORE chapters of Brooklyn, Harlem, Bronx and Queens planned a subway tie-up in April 1964 to disrupt attendance to the World’s Fair:
Teen-age girls and boys who fanned out in Harlem and Brooklyn with leaflets were told to ask Negroes who felt they could not participate in the demonstrations not to go to the fair on opening day.
The Willets Point Station in Queens was designation as a picketing to discourage commuters from attending the opening day ceremonies for the World’s Fair. The purpose of the pickets was to “contrast the technical and material achievements inside with the reality of police brutality, denial of the vote and complete subordination to the man.”
A high-profile police brutality case would bring the two blackest neighborhoods in New York City together in unison against state violence. On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the “Civil Rights Act” which banned discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin and ended segregation of public places. Two weeks after the signing of the act, a case of police brutality plagued the borough of Manhattan. 15-year-old African American, James Powell, was murdered by an off-duty white police Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan on July 15, 1964. Gilligan alleged that Powell threatened him with a switchblade outside of an apartment building on East 76th Street in Manhattan. Powell’s murder enraged the Harlem community as another instance of a black life lost to police brutality. The first two days of protest regarding Powell’s death were peaceful in Harlem and other communities of New York City. On July 18th, protestors were at the police station in Harlem to call for the resignation or termination of Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan. The station was being guarded by police officers leading to some protestors throwing bricks, rocks and bottles at the officers who walked through the crowd with nightsticks. After word about the confrontation outside of the police station got back to different communities, riots began in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant:
MONDAY. There was new violence in Harlem 17 persons were injured. For the first time, violence broke out in in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where a CORE rally turned into a riot.
TUESDAY. In Bedford-Stuyvesant there was large-scale looting as gangs broke into stores and shattered plate-glass windows. Two Negro men were shot by police; their wounds were described as critical. In Harlem, too, there was looting and fighting, but on a smaller scale.
The riots lasted in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant for six days with businesses being vandalized and set on fire. It all came to a cease on July 22 with roughly 450 arrests, 100 people injured and $1 million dollars worth of property damage. The riots in both boroughs were part of a series of summer riots in different parts of the country such as Rochester and Philadelphia. President Lyndon B. Johnson feared these riots would cause a rise in white backlash, putting a dent in his election hopes: “One of my political analysts tells me that every time one occurs, it costs me 90,000 votes.”
Gilligan was cleared of any criminal liability by a New York County Grand Jury on September 1, 1964. Later that year in November 1964, black New York City residents protested as Lieutenant Gilligan was exonerated in the shooting death of 15-year-old James Powell. After the riots occurred, a group known as the Unity Council of Harlem Organizations formed and repeated their demand that “Mayor Wagner dismiss Police Commissioner Michael J. Murphy,” who failed to terminate or force resignation upon Gilligan: “The action taken by the Police Department’s review board was a deliberate slap in the face to the Harlem community,” Arnold P. Johnson of the unity council said.”
Arnold P. Johnson exclaimed that the community was “seething with resentment over the complete whitewash of Lieutenant Gilligan in the killing of James Powell.” The community believed the “whitewash” of Gilligan was him killing Powell and getting away with it scott-free due to his power and protection as a white police officer. Representatives from Brooklyn also came out to detest the Gilligan exoneration. A civil rights activist from Brooklyn named Reverend Milton A. Galmison spoke about the case:
“This modest demand on the part of the Negro community has been callously ignored by the Mayor,” he said, “and as a result Gilligan, be he innocent or guilty, finds himself exonerated by forces in which the people have no confidence.”
As shown with the development of accessible public transportation in New York City, black populations have typically taken action to migrate from economically destitute areas to those with greater economic opportunities. This however, did not happen in a seamless fashion as institutional racism and other factors have caused a great deal of harm to these same communities before and after migration. In today’s time the embryonic policies and strategies of the past used against black and immigrant communities have consolidated themselves on paper while merely shifting appearances in practice. Phenomenons such as redlining, police brutality in historically oppressed communities, and the economic disadvantages that black owned businesses face all still carry a deep thread in New York’s current fabric. Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant in particular have since become two of the most gentrified zipcodes in the United States as of 2018. Without radical movements to change the current political-economic system in place, major communities within the United States will suffer the same fate as the heavily afflicted neighborhoods in New York City.
Gill, Jonathan. 2012. Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History from Dutch Village to Capital of Black America. New York: Grove Press
Hyatt, E. Clarence, 1835-. History of the New York & Harlem Railroad
O’Donnell, Edward T. “CITY LORE; A Neighborhood of Their Own.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 6 June 2004, www.nytimes.com/2004/06/06/nyregion/city-lore-a-neighborhood-of-their-own.html.
Du Bois, W. E. B. 1901. The Black North in 1901: A Social Study.
TO MAKE COLOR LINE COSTLY IN NEW YORK.” New York Times (1857-1922), Jul 26, 1904. http://rdas-proxy.mercy.edu:2048/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.rdas-proxy.mercy.edu/docview/96469595?accountid=12387.
REAL ESTATE RACE WAR IS STARTED IN HARLEM.” New York Times (1857-1922), Dec 17, 1905. http://rdas-proxy.mercy.edu:2048/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.rdas-proxy.mercy.edu/docview/96528435?accountid=12387.
NEGRO INVASION THREAT ANGERS FLAT DWELLERS.” New York Times (1857-1922), Jul 21, 1906. http://rdas-proxy.mercy.edu:2048/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.rdas-proxy.mercy.edu/docview/96648304?accountid=12387.
Woodsworth, Michael. 2016. Battle for Bed-Stuy: The Long War On Poverty in New York City
TWO SUBWAY LINKS START WEDNESDAY.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Apr 06, 1936. http://rdas-proxy.mercy.edu:2048/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.rdas-proxy.mercy.edu/docview/101915158?accountid=12387.
“Bedford Area Called Copless City ‘Stepchild,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 4 Jun 1937