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Harlem: Dark Weather Vane

by Alain Locke

Professor of Philosophy, Howard University

August 1936

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Eleven brief years ago Harlem was full of the thrill and ferment of sudden progress and prosperity; and Survey Graphic sounded the tocsin of the emergence of a "new Negro" and the onset of a "Negro renaissance." Today, with that same Harlem prostrate in the grip of the depression and throes of social unrest, we confront the sobering facts of a serious relapse and premature setback; indeed, find it hard to believe that the rosy enthusiasms and hopes of 1925 were more than bright illusions or a cruelly deceptive mirage. Yet after all there was a renaissance, with its poetic spurt of cultural and spiritual advance, vital with significant but uneven accomplishments; what we face in Harlem today is the first scene of the next act—the prosy ordeal of the reformation with its stubborn tasks of economic reconstruction and social and civic reform.

Curtain-raiser to the reformation was the Harlem riot of March 19 and 20, 1935; variously diagnosed as a depression spasm, a Ghetto mutiny, a radical plot and dress rehearsal of proletarian revolution. Whichever it was, like a revealing flash of lightning it etched on the public mind another Harlem than the bright surface Harlem of the night clubs, cabaret tours and arty magazines, a Harlem that the social worker knew all along but had not been able to dramatize—a Harlem, too, that the radical press and street-corner orator had been pointing out but in all too incredible exaggerations and none too convincing shouts.

In the perspective of time, especially if the situation is handled constructively, we shall be grateful for that lightning-flash which brought the first vivid realization of the actual predicament of the mass life in Harlem and for the echoing after-peals of thunder that have since broken our placid silence and Pollyanna complacency about it. For no cultural advance is safe without some sound economic underpinning, the foundation of a decent and reasonably secure average standard of living; and no emerging Člite—artistic, professional or mercantile—can suspend itself in thin air over the abyss of a mass of unemployed stranded in an over-expensive, disease- and crime-ridden slum. It is easier to dally over black Bohemia or revel in the hardy survivals of Negro art and culture than to contemplate this dark Harlem of semi-starvation, mass exploitation and seething unrest.

But turn we must. For there is no cure or saving magic in poetry and art, an emerging generation of talent, or in international prestige and interracial recognition, for unemployment or precarious marginal employment, for high rents, high mortality rates, civic neglect, capitalistic exploitation on the one hand and radical exploitation on the other. Yet for some years now Harlem has been subject to all this deep undertow as against the surface advance of the few bright years of prosperity. Today instead of applause and publicity, Harlem needs constructive social care, fundamental community development and planning, and above all statesman-like civic handling.

Unemployed on Street
A. H. Greene for Photo League
Harlem Riot

Harlem's unemployed spend most of their time on the crowded streets

In the path of the riot on the night
of March 19, 1935

IMMEDIATELY after the March riot, Mayor La Guardia appointed a representative bi-racial Commission of Investigation, headed by an esteemed Negro citizen, Dr. Charles H. Roberts. After 21 public and 4 closed hearings conducted with strategic liberality by Arthur Garfield Hays, and nearly a year's investigation by subcommissions on Health and Hospitalization, Housing, Crime and Delinquency and Police, Schools, the Social Services and Relief Agencies, a general report has been assembled under the direction of E. Franklin Frazier, professor of sociology at Howard University, which was filed with the Mayor March 31, 1936, just a few days after the first anniversary of the riots. A preliminary section on the causes of the riot has been published, and several other sections have found their way to publication, some regrettably in garbled form.

The public awaits the full and official publication of what is, without doubt, an important document on the present state of Harlem. When published, the findings will shock the general public and all but the few social experts already familiar with the grave economic need and social adjustment in Harlem and the inadequacies of short-sighted provisions in basic civic facilities of schools, hospitals, health centers, housing control and the like, a legacy of neglect from the venal, happy-go-lucky days of Tammany-controlled city government. Now with a socially-minded city and national government the prospects of Negro Harlem—and for that matter all handicapped sections—are infinitely brighter.

But there is evidence that the present city administration is losing no time in acting to improve the Harlem situation; partly no doubt upon the specific findings and recommendations of the recent investigation, but largely from previous plans, seriously delayed by lack of capital funds or federal subsidies such as are now financing some of the major items of the reform program. Within recent months, in some cases weeks, Harlem's urgent community needs have been recognized in the reconditioning of its sorely inadequate and formerly overcrowded municipal hospital, the completion and equipment of a long delayed woman's hospital pavilion approximately doubling the bed capacity of the Harlem Hospital, the remodeling of a temporary out-patient department, and the recommendation by the Commissioner of Hospitals of a new out-patient building and of plans for a new independent hospital plant. Similarly, in the school system's 1937 budget two new school plants for Harlem have been incorporated.

On June 20, the Mayor and the Secretary of the Interior spoke at the dedication of the foundations of the new Harlem River housing project, which will afford model housing for 574 low income families with also a nursery school, community playground, model recreation and health clinic facilities—a $4,700,000 PWA project. On June 24, the Mayor drove the last foundation piling for another PWA project, the. $240,000 district health clinic for the badly congested Central Harlem section, where the incidence of tuberculosis, social disease and infant mortality is alarmingly high, and announced the appointment of an experienced Negro physician as head officer It has been announced that a stipulation had been incorporated in the contract specifications for these new public works that Negro skilled labor was to have its fair share of consideration.

Kids on Bench
Wendell McRae for N.Y. Urban League

Fortunate are the youngsters who can take advantage
of the recreational activities provided by the New York Urban League

All this indicates a new and praiseworthy civic regard for Harlem welfare, contrasting sharply with previous long-standing neglect. The Commission in complaining of present conditions is careful to make plain that the present city administration has inherited most of them and that, therefore, they are not to be laid at its door. Yet they are on its doorstep, waiting immediate attention and all possible relief. The conditions are a reproach not only to previous politically minded municipal administrations but also to the apathy and lack of public-mindedness on the part of Harlem's Negro politicians and many professional leaders who either did not know or care about the condition of the masses.

Recent improvements will make some sections of the Commission's report contrary to present fact when it appears, but few will care to cavil about that. Yet, both for the record and for the sake of comparison, the situation as the Commission found it should be known. Harlem may not be disposed to look gift horses in the mouth, though a few professional agitators may. Clearly the present administration is now aware of Harlem's objective needs and is taking steps to meet some of them. Mayor La Guardia, speaking at the housing ceremony, said: "We cannot be expected to correct in a day the mistakes and omissions of the past fifty years. But we are going places and carrying out a definite program. While the critics have been throwing stones, I have been laying bricks." But admittedly the situation is still inadequately provided for even when present plans and immediate prospects are carried out; compounding the actual need is a swelling sense of grievance over past civic neglect and proscription.

A long-range plan of civic improvements in low-cost housing, and slum clearance, in further hospital and health clinic facilities, recreation, library and adult education centers, auxiliary school agencies is imperatively necessary. And in certain city departments a clearer policy of fair play is needed, not so much with regard to the inclusion of Negroes in municipal posts—though that too is important—as in their consideration for executive and advisory appointments where they can constructively influence municipal policies and remedial measures for the Harlem constituency. One of the fatal gaps between good intentions and good performance is in this matter of local administrators, where often an executive policy officially promulgated gets short circuited into discrimination at the point of practical application. Negroes are often accused of race chauvinism in their almost fanatical insistence upon race representatives on executive boards and in councils of policy, but the principle of this vital safeguard is of manifest importance. Especially in situations of accumulated wrong and distrust, mere practical expediency requires public assurance and reassurance.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003