Harlem vs. Columbia University
Black Student Power in the Late 1960s
By Stefan M. Bradley
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS
Copyright © 2009 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Chapter One Why I Hate You Community Resentment of Columbia
The debate over what to do about the possibility of further institutional expansion highlights the competition that occurred between the city, the university, and the local Harlem and Morningside Heights communities for space. The role of city officials is also important to the background of the drama concerning Columbia's plans for expansion because the community's issues with the power structure became much more than just complaints—they became political debates with municipal consequences. This chapter offers a short history of black residents in New York City, Harlem, and Morningside Heights and points out the grievances of the different characters who initiated the protest against the university's expansion policies and eventually the proposal for a gym in Morningside Park. Particularly important to this chapter are the efforts of the residents of the neighborhoods that surround the Ivy League institution and what they reveal about the assertion of power against an overbearing opponent.
A major theme regarding the controversy between Columbia and the neighboring community involved the control of local residents over their living and recreational space, and that theme receives attention in this chapter. Specifically, this chapter covers Columbia University's power as a landlord and its relationship with the city. The neighborhoods adjacent to Columbia watched the university's encroachment into Morningside Heights and Harlem and saw that with each purchase of land or buildings, the situation became more hopeless. When Columbia attempted to take even more land in a park that Harlem residents considered their own, the community reacted to check these "imperialist" ambitions.
While black resentment of white America had accompanied the first slave ship that arrived in the English colonies, Harlem's resentment of Columbia University developed mostly in the 1950s and 1960s. Located amid the nation's largest urban population, Columbia's main campus is adjacent to the lower west side of Harlem. Riverside Park is on the western side of the university, and on the eastern side is Morningside Park, which constituted the only barrier between the richly endowed, elite educational center and Harlem, where many working-class and poor blacks and Puerto Ricans resided. Originally, the university had not been located on Morningside Heights. As early as 1775 the institution, then known as King's College, sat on the land of Trinity Episcopal Church, in the southern part of Manhattan Island. In 1897 it moved to what was known as Morningside Heights because, according to George Nash, author of The University and the City, Columbia University was attempting to "escape" the encroachment of the city onto the campus.
The Morningside Heights section of Manhattan stretches north from 110th Street to 125th Street and west from Morningside Park to the Hudson River. Morningside Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the early 1870s, is very strange in shape. There are cliffs and ledges within the park itself, with very few flat areas for practical use. Many years later, an article about a park patron claimed, however, that those ledges and cliffs "served as a poor-kid's jungle gym." The patron claimed that the summertime was the best time to use the park because the children could climb under one of the protruding rock shelves and relax in the shade. Olmsted commented on its terrain in an 1873 report: "The only surfaces within it not sharply inclined, are two small patches lying widely apart, against the northeast and southeast corners respectively." Harlem begins from the flats of the park and extends eastward and northward in direction. Above the park, on the Heights, is the Ivy League center of higher education, Columbia University, and below and adjacent to the park are the poorer neighborhoods of Harlem. Morningside Park provides the buffer zone between the two very different environments.
Black people in New York City and particularly Harlem have roots that run deep in history. After the Civil War, black migrants found some opportunity in New York as the city became an industrial metropolis. Ethnic groups like the Italians and Russians moved en masse to the city from Europe to fill industrial positions. Many Jewish people moved to the lower east side of Manhattan, and the Italian immigrants settled in similar patterns, creating areas like "Little Italy" on 110th Street. Typically, newer immigrants moved to areas where land was cheaper and then, after amassing enough capital, left for the growing suburbs at the turn of the century. By 1900 there were 60,000 black residents in New York City, with 36,000 of them living in Manhattan. Until that point, black New Yorkers mostly occupied positions in the service industries, such as barbering, waiting, and catering. Some worked as skilled artisans. Some ten years later, blacks migrated mostly from the South to account for almost 92,000 of the city's population.
Harlem, which occupies the northern part of Manhattan, provided a home for most of these black migrants. Originally part of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, Nieuw Haarlem village was established in 1658. Soon after, the English took control of the colony, renaming it New York and changing Nieuw Haarlem to Harlem. Between 1830 and the 1880s, Harlem became a suburb of the city, where mainly Jewish and Italian people resided. Black people did not become the majority population in Harlem until after the turn of the century, when the dynamics of U.S. immigration changed.
In 1917, as the United States became actively involved in the First World War, the nation closed its borders to most European immigrants. During and after the war, many black workers, seeking to fill the jobs that European immigrants had occupied until that point, came to the major U.S. metropolises of the North in search of opportunity and to escape the social hardships of the South. Historians have discussed why black migrants from the South would choose places like Harlem to settle.
These scholars considered the role of "push and pull factors." Some of the push factors were the droughts, floods, and boll weevil epidemics that were occurring just before and during the First World War. Another push factor was that racial violence was as intense as ever in the South, and black people chose to resist by leaving. Among the factors that pulled the black southerners northward were more opportunity for free education, shorter work days, higher wages, political autonomy, and, hopefully, less racism. This phenomenon, known as the "Great Migration," contributed to the booming increase of New York City's black population to 327,000 by 1930.
Considering these push and pull factors, Harlem, and later Morningside Heights, became places where many black southerners eventually settled. Believing that they had escaped voting restrictions, broken-down schools, separate-but-unequal facilities, and blatant racial injustice, not to mention inconsistent crop conditions, many southern blacks looked at life in New York City as an improvement over that in the South. In many ways, the city did constitute an improvement, with its indoor toilets, free schooling, and more consistent work opportunities. At least that was what many black migrants believed. But the jobs that southern black workers left their homes to find did not always materialize.
In the early 1900s most white employers were wary of employing unskilled black workers. Moreover, employers did not believe that blacks could master the skills necessary for various higher-paying industrial jobs and therefore would not train them. Some historians have attributed employers' attitudes concerning black workers to their ideas about whiteness. For the employers it was not just logical that only whites could be capable enough to work as skilled laborers, but necessary for the creation of their identity to believe so. These employers continued to hire white workers in spite of the fact that many black migrants were actually skilled in a variety of industrial crafts. In any event, white employers based their beliefs on their perception that blackness somehow meant "otherness," and that the "others" (black laborers) could not be trusted with the opportunity to do "white work." In turn, employers acted on that rationale.
So the reality of racial discrimination stifled many southern black migrants' dreams of getting ahead financially in New York. Public education was free, but schools seldom offered black youth the type of education that was available to white children. Also, as more black migrants took up residence in the neighborhoods nearest the various factories and job sites, many white city dwellers began to fear the change that was occurring in the racial makeup of their environment. There was, as a consequence, a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in northern cities. Although most northern whites did not go so far as to join the Klan, racial intolerance was evident in the riots and melees that occurred in northern industrial cities between 1915 and 1921. For southern black migrants, their "Great Migration" to New York and other northern cities did not provide the great improvement they sought.
Many black people who moved north soon realized that the "slum" was present in the North as well as the South. Upon arriving in New York, they did what most migrant groups did and moved among their own people. Unlike the Jews or Italians, who could, if they desired, leave their ethnic neighborhoods after a generation or so, segregation limited the areas to which blacks could move for decades. So, much like the south side of Chicago, Harlem became a place where blacks had to remain, in spite of their economic condition. When segregation forced them to stay in Harlem, some prospered but a great many suffered the effects of the urban ghetto. Kenneth Clark, black psychologist and graduate of Columbia, described the ghetto: "The dark ghettos are social, political, educational, and, above all, economic colonies." Harlem was no exception. Under these conditions, resentment and hostility against white America arose. Turning that frustration into fuel for their own artistic and creative projects, black writers and artists created a new era for Harlem.
During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and early 1930s, Harlem thrived as a center for black talent and thought. Views of the Harlem Renaissance have been important to the history of Harlem as a black enclave. Nathaniel Huggins has analyzed the way that the artists of the Renaissance served two purposes. The first was that by considering themselves "New Negroes," the artists enhanced a deeper level of race consciousness among blacks in America. Huggins also suggests that the Harlem Renaissance marked a repudiation of traditional Victorian values in the way of art, music, and writing. West Indian author Tony Martin explains how the literary movement that Marcus Garvey sponsored in his Negro World before and during the Harlem Renaissance pushed the envelope even further by "placing race first" and by not allowing white sponsors or supporters to steer the new movement.
While black leaders like Marcus Garvey suggested that black people return to Africa and start anew, others took more ownership of the United States by using art to express themselves and change the view of racist whites. Writers like Claude McKay, author of Harlem Shadows (1922), wrote of their experiences as blacks in Harlem and America. Also contributing to the Harlem Renaissance was poet Langston Hughes, who wrote the black pride–filled "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" and his observations of the economic advancements of Jewish people, "Fine Clothes to the Jew." These and many other authors and artists represented the "New Negro" of Harlem in the early twentieth century.
Before the Second World War, very few, if any, black families lived in the neighborhood of Morningside Heights. Early on, many Columbia faculty members resided in the comely apartments on Riverside Drive and Claremont Avenue. During the war, as part of the second "Great Migration," black people began moving into many of the once exclusively white neighborhoods of Morningside Heights. The rate of increase of black and Puerto Rican residents caused concern among some university officials.
Concurrently, the construction of the elevated transit lines out of 120th Street brought property values down and contributed to the deterioration of the area. As Melvin Webber put it in the book Urban Planning and Social Policy, "Highway and transit facilities ... are now treated as both servers and shapers of the larger land-use and accessibility relationships." This statement spoke directly to the fact that city planners were most interested in getting those who worked in the city but lived in the suburbs directly in contact with the city through transportation. Unfortunately for many of the black residents and other minorities who had moved closer to the jobs in the city, this meant that the lines of transportation would cut through their neighborhoods.
By the Second World War, the black population in Harlem had skyrocketed, creating a somewhat homogeneous community that dealt daily with racism and segregation. Regarding Harlem, historian Roi Ottley wrote that "it is the fountainhead of mass movements. From it flows the progressive vitality of Negro life." That statement described the history of social protest in Harlem. Residents of Harlem rioted in 1935 in part because of the economic effects of the Great Depression and partly because of the frustration of blacks with local white shop owners. Protesters pointed out that while mostly black people lived in Harlem, white people owned a majority of the businesses there, leaving the residents feeling economically exploited. Rioters destroyed the shops of those white owners who would sell to black people but would not hire them as clerks.
Part of Harlem's frustration dealt with foreign affairs. In 1935 Mussolini's Italian forces invaded Ethiopia, a black nation in Africa that held a high symbolic significance for blacks across the Diaspora. If Ethiopia fell to its European opposition, then many blacks in America and around the world feared that white Europeans would understand the victory over the independent black nation as certification of white supremacy. In response to this concern, black activists in New York formed the International Council of Friends of Ethiopia to protest the invasion. Working with other groups, such as the Ethiopian Research Council of Washington, D.C., and the Provisional Committee for the Defense of Ethiopia, the council brought a case to the recently created League of Nations urging that the League block Italy's efforts in Africa. In places like Harlem, pro-Ethiopian sentiments ran deep, as Harlem was the home to many pan-African Garveyites, civil rights organizations, and churches. Leaders like the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr. emerged to fuel the fight against fascism in Africa. Italy's invasion of Ethiopia touched the black community of Harlem in ways that transcended class and educational backgrounds. Black people in New York and other major cities in America viewed Mussolini's actions in very racialized terms and as an outright attempt to further entrench the oppression of black people everywhere.
One mass protest in particular, the Harlem Riot of 1943, signified a difference between the way blacks in Harlem viewed themselves and how white Americans viewed them. In the midst of the Second World War, black residents in Harlem questioned the country's allegiance toward democracy for all when a white police officer shot a black uniformed soldier in a local hotel. The soldier, who had allegedly engaged the officer in a scuffle after the officer placed an elderly woman under arrest for disturbing the peace, attempted to run from the altercation. When news of both the arrest and the shooting traveled, Harlem residents filled the streets to vent their frustration with housing and employment discrimination as well as with police brutality. By the end of the riot, six black people had died and police had arrested over five hundred. This disturbing scene set the stage for many others in the decades to come. It also showed that race relations would continue to be unstable, unless discrimination faded.
Excerpted from Harlem vs. Columbia University by Stefan M. Bradley Copyright © 2009 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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