The Harlem Reader: A Celebration of New York's Most Famous Neighborhood, from the Renaissance Years to the 21st Centuryby Herb Boyd, Herb Boyd
There is no neighborhood in America as famous, infamous, and inspiring as Harlem. From its humble beginnings as a farming district and country retreat for the rich, Harlem grew to international prominence as the mecca of black art and culture, then fell from grace, despised as a crime-ridden slum and symbol of urban decay. But during all of these phases there was writing in Harlem—great writing that sprang from one of the richest and most unique communities in the world. From Harlem’s most revered icons (like Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Ann Petry, and Malcolm X) to voices of a new generation (including Willie Perdomo, Mase, Grace Edwards, and Piri Thomas), The Harlem Reader gathers a wealth of vital impressions, stories, and narratives and blends them with original accounts offered by living storytellers, famous and not so famous. Fresh and vivid, this volume perfectly captures the dramatic moments and personalities at the core of Harlem’s ever-evolving story.
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THE AFRO-AMERICAN REALTY COMPANY
FROM HARLEM: THE MAKING OF A GHETTO (1963)
NOT UNTIL PHILIP PAYTON ORGANIZED HIS REALTY COMPANY WAS HARLEM OFFICIALLY LAUNCHED AS A COHESIVE COMMUNITY. PAYTON WAS A CLEVER BUSINESSMAN AND A VISIONARY WHO KNEW A HOT PIECE OF PROPERTY WHEN IT FELL INTO HIS HANDS. GILBERT OSOFSKY PROBES THE BEGINNING OF HARLEM METICULOUSLY, CULLING PRECIOUS GEMS OF HISTORY FROM MILES OF RESEARCH.
Payton's activities in Harlem real estate reached a high point in 1904 with his founding of the Afro-American Realty Company. The company had its genesis in a partnership of ten Negroes organized by Payton. This partnership specialized in acquiring five-year leases on Harlem property owned by whites and subsequently renting them to Negroes. In 1904, Payton conceived of reorganizing this small concern into a regular real estate corporation, capable of buying and constructing homes as well as leasing them. The company, incorporated on June 15, 1904, was permitted to "buy, sell, rent, lease, and sub-lease, all kinds of buildings, houses...lots, and other...real estate in the City of New York...." It was capitalized at $500,000 and authorized to issue 50,000 shares at ten dollars each. Ten of the eleven original members of the all-Negro Board of Directors subscribed to five hundred shares each. The company began with an estimated capital of $100,000....[see note 1]
The Afro-American Realty Company was founded with high hopes of successhopes which proved unfounded. At first, the corporation seemed to have sound financial backing and the support of eminent members of the Negro community. "The personnel of the Board of Directors of the company is bound to commend it to the respect, trust and confidence of even the most skeptical of our race," its prospectus stated. "Most of them are men who have made a success in their individual lives and are well-known in New York City for their ability, worth and integrity..[see note 2] Early company transactions were profitable and tended to verify Payton's optimistic judgments. In 1904, for instance, the Afro-American Realty Company sold three of its newly acquired houses on West 135th Street to a white real estate concern, the Hudson Realty Company. Hudson Realty proceeded to evict its Negro tenants in order to replace them with whites. Payton, in turn, "blocked the game" by buying two other houses on the same street and evicting the white tenants in them. Within a short time, he was able to repurchase the original three (at 40, 42 and 44 West 135th Street), "filling the houses with Afro-Americans." These first highly publicized transactions boosted the reputation of the Realty Company. They "gave great publicity to the existence of the Afro-American Realty Company," the New York Age concluded in 1905.[see note 3]
Payton did not let the company rest on its laurels. To attract financial support from the Negro working class he advertised regularly in the Negro press and promised the average investor much more than he was able to fulfill later. (The prospectus offered profits of seven to ten percent, but the weekly advertisements omitted the seven)..[see note 4] Investment would not only yield "Tempting Profit," Negroes were told, but it was also their obligation to support an enterprise which would help end "relentless race prejudice": "To-day is the time to buy, if you want to be numbered among those of the race who are doing something toward trying to solve the so-called 'Race Problem,'" it was argued. The anticipated success of the company would become a symbol of Negro business acumen and would end racial segregation in urban housing: "A respecting, law-abiding Negro will find conditions can be so changed that he will be able to rent, wherever his means will permit him to live," the Prospectus maintained. Race prejudice would be turned into "dollars and cents" for Negroes, not whites..[see note 5] Although public reports showed stocks being sold rapidly, privately the company found it necessary to hire a salesman to drum up business at a commission of twenty percent. And stocks were sold, usually to individuals who could afford only a few shares at a time..[see note 6]
The Realty Company promised the world and delivered little. It had hopefully been incorporated for fifty years, but folded after four. During its short and hectic existence it was racked with internal dissension. In four years there were three major reorganizations of its Board of Directors and officers. James C. Thomas and James E. Garner severed connections with the company in its first year. Wilford H. Smith was later influential in bringing suit against Payton for fraud. The final reorganization, in 1906, left Payton as president and general manager. It was formal recognition of the power he had wielded since the founding of the corporation.
1. "Certificate of Incorporation of the Afro-American Realty Company filed and Recorded June 15, 1904" (New York City Hall of Records). 2. The Afro-American Realty Company, Prospectus (New York, 1904), 7 (original in New York City Hall of Records 3. E. F. Dycoff, "A Negro City in New York," 949-50; New York Age, December 21, 1905; L. B. Bryan, "Negro Real Estate in New York" (WPA research paper, Schomburg Collection), 2-3. 4. See the New York Age in 1905 and 1906 for advertisements. 5. Prospectus, 3-7. 6. Fred R. Moore to Emmett J. Scott, December 27, 1905. Washington. Papers, Box 29.
A JOURNEY TO GREATNESS: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF GEORGE GERSHWIN
DAVID EWEN (1956)
During his early years, George Gershwin (1898-1937) lived with his family and on his own at several locations in Harlem. For him the environment was brimming with energy and musical verve, which fueled his creative juices. David Ewen has written one of the more engrossing studies of Gershwin's genius and his early years in Harlem.
George responded with an instinctive sympathy to music whenever he came into contact with it. He was about six years old when, strolling along 125th Street, he stopped outside a penny arcade and heard Anton Rubinstein's "Melody in F" on an automatic piano. "The peculiar jumps in the music held me rooted," he later recalled. "To this very day, I can't hear the tune without picturing myself outside that arcade...standing there barefoot and in overalls, drinking it all in avidly." One day, during the same period, while roller skating in Harlem, he heard jazz music outside Baron Wilkins Club, where Jim Europe and his band performed regularly. The exciting rhythms and raucous tunes made such an impression on him that he never forgot them. From then on he often skated up to the club and sat down on the sidewalk outside to listen to the music. He later told a friend that his lifelong fascination for Negro rags, blues, and spirituals undoubtedly began at this time; that Jim Europe's music was partially responsible for his writing works like "135th Street" and parts of Porgy and Bess.
There were other musical associations. When he was about seven or eight he attended two free concerts at the Educational Alliance on East Broadway. A year later he was the victim of a puppy-love affair with a little girl of the neighborhood; what attracted him to her was the way she sang. There were excursions to the local penny arcades where, at the drop of a penny, automatic machines would disgorge recorded music through rubber ear tubings....
The idea for "Swanee" was born during a lunch at Dinty Moore's. Irving Caesar and Gershwin had met to discuss new ideas for songs. Caesar suggested that they write a one-step in the style of "Hindustan," then in vogue. "Let's use an American locale," Caesar suggested. And Gershwin added: "Just like Stephen Foster did in 'Swanee River." It did not take them long to agree on the subject of Swanee River. They kept on discussing the idea and allowing it to acquire a definite shape, as they rode atop a bus to Gershwin's apartmentthen located at 520 West 144th Street, in the Washington Heights section of New York. By the time they reached there, much of the song was clear in the minds of both composer and lyricist. They went to the piano in the living room to work out the details.
At the moment, in the adjoining dining room, which was separated by drawn portieres, a poker game was in progress. At first the poker players were annoyed at the disturbance caused by George's playing and Caesar's singing as they worked on their song. One of the cardplayers called out, "Can't you two work some other time?" But as the song began assuming a recognizable form and personalityand the process had taken less than half an hourand after Gershwin had played it through several times, the cardplayers became interested. The game was momentarily stopped. Papa Gershwin improvised an obbligato for the melody by whistling through tissue paper in the teeth of a comb....
When immediate deadlines had to be met, George sometimes fled from the frenetic activity that always seemed to be a part of the Gershwin household, by renting a room in a nearby hotel. He had begun this practice when the family lived on 110th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, which always overflowed with relatives and friends, and continued it at 103rd Street. But since his intimate circle usually followed him to his hotel room and brought with them the tumult and the shouting, his isolation was ephemeral.
Mostly Gershwin could be found on that fifth floor. Here he had his favorite piano, a Steinway (two others were in the family living quarters downstairs), his books, and music, and the precious mementos of his career. The walls were lined with photographs of famous people affectionately inscribed to him, together with his favorite portraits of great composers commissioned by George from Will Cotton. Later on, a framed poster announcing a performance of the Gershwin Concerto in Paris occupied a prominent wall, while some of the composers made way for five lithographs by George Bellows.
SARAH L. DELANY AND A. ELIZABETH DELANY, WITH AMY HILL HEARTH
FROM HAVING OUR SAY: THE DELANY SISTERS' FIRST 100 YEARS (1994)
Not only did the Delany sisters share an apartment when they first settled in Harlem; they were practically inseparable over the rest of their long lives. Both were graduates of Columbia University who became prominent professionals, and neither had "husbands to worry us to death." Bessie practiced dentistry and Sadie taught home economics at several schools. With wit, humor, and intelligence, the sisters often astounded listeners with their vivid recollections of their years in Harlem, particularly the glorious twenties and harrowing thirties. They combined their resourceful memories in the book Having Our Say, which was later adapted to the stage with a successful run. They lived long enough to enjoy several years of celebrity. Bessie, at 104, died in her sleep on September 25, 1995, and Sarah died in January 1999 at 109.
We made our first trip to New York City with our Mama in 1915. We took the train from Raleigh to Norfolk, then took a boat to New York, which cost us eight dollars each. The boat left Norfolk in the afternoon. We slept on cots on the open deck, and woke up just as the boat pulled into New York harbor.
Somebody asked us if we remembered seeing the Statue of Liberty as we pulled into the harbor. Tell you the truth, we didn't care too much about it. The Statue of Liberty was important to white European immigrants. It was a symbol to them. We knew it wasn't meant for us.
On that first visit, we could not get over the size of New York. Papa had been there once, and had tried to describe it, but it was beyond our imagination. The bridges and buildings were on a massive scale compared to anything we had ever seen.
And there were so many different kinds of people, from all over the world. In North Carolina, there were white people, Negroes, and Indians. That was it. In New York, there were Irish people, German people, Jewish people, Italian people, and so on. So many different white people! And they ate different foods, and you could smell strange things cooking when you walked by people's apartments in the nice weather when their windows were open. And you'd hear these voices, speaking languageswell, you could only guess what exotic place they were from, and what they were saying.
You could buy anything in New York. We had thought we were so sophisticated, being from Raleigh, where you could get things like fruit from Florida shipped in by train. That was a big deal! But in New York, Raleigh seemed pretty small.
On that first trip we stayed with friends of the family for a few days, then we went home. But we wanted more! So when we returned to Raleigh, we talked to Papa about us moving to New York to attend college. Our brother Harry was already there, working as a Pullman porter, saving money to attend New York University. By then we were grown women, twenty-four and twenty-six years old, and toughened up by our rural teaching years. So when a Presbyterian minister asked Mama, "Aren't y'all afraid to let those girls go up to Harlem-town?" Mama said, "No, I'm not afraid to let my girls go anywhere. We've taught them right from wrong and if they don't do what's right, there's nothing we can do about it."
So we had Mama and Papa's blessing, sort of. Of the two of us, it was Sadie who made the move first, in 1916, followed by Bessie a year and a half later. Eventually, all of us Delany children, except Lemuel, moved to New York City.
Now, it was awfully hard to find an apartment in Harlem then. There were a lot of colored folks coming to Harlem at the same time, looking for a new life. So looking for an apartment was like a full-time job in itself. You'd have to go from one place to the next, and the super would say, "There's no room now, but come back next month and see." And you'd come back, but somebody had always beat you to the punch.
So, it was common for people to take in boarders. Our brothers were boarding over at the Williamses' house, and we Delany girls boarded with the Scotts. The Scotts were a West Indian family, rather well-to-do. Mr. Scott worked in a white bank, which was absolutely unheard of for a colored man in those days, but he was very light. Like many West Indians, Mrs. Scott was a follower of Marcus Garvey. She would drop whatever she was doing and run off to his parades and meetings.
A lot of the West Indian Negroes thought they were better than American Negroes, and the American Negroes thought they were better than the West Indian Negroes. One thing about the West Indian Negroes at that time was that the ones who came to Harlem to go to school were a better class than the ones who came to get jobs. There was some silly tension.
Mrs. Scott had taken us in as a favor to Mrs. Russell, who lived across the street and ran a boardinghouse, only it was full. Mrs. Russell had been a pupil of Mama's. But Mr. Scott really didn't want us "boarders" living in his home, and so the whole time we lived at the Scotts we never once ate in the dining room. They made us eat in the kitchen. It wasn't ideal, but it was the best we could do.
Our brother Lucius was the first one of us to get an apartment and he let us all move in with him. So there we wereSadie, Bessie, Julia, Hubert, and Luciusliving together in a three-room apartment at 2505 Seventh Avenue at the corner of 145th Street. This was in about 1919.
Our share of the rent was nine dollars each.
Meet the Author
HERB BOYD is the national editor at The Black World Today, an online publication. He currently teaches African and African-American history at the College of New Rochelle in Manhattan. Boyd is also coeditor with Robert Allen of the American Book Award–winning collection Brotherman and, more recently, editor of Autobiography of a People. He resides in Harlem with his wife, Elza Dinwiddie-Boyd, also a noted writer and college professor.
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