The Advent of Black Harlem

Great Migration

Of the numerous issues that confronted Southern blacks at the turn of the twentieth century, three seemed the most pressing: the growing occurrences of race-driven spectacles of violence, cotton crop failures, and the onset of the Great War. Considering the tremendous flow of black migrants from the South usually for destinations North and West (barring those who migrated to other Southern cities), one begins to wonder at how the aforementioned issues affected the lives of every day persons in the South.

For answers to this inquiry, one needs look no further than the issues themselves. In these issues, there exist two major organizing themes: networks of violence and economics. On the nature of this violent spectacle, Georgia's Tifton Gazette ran an article in which its author said:

They have allowed Negroes to be lynched, five at a time, on nothing stronger than suspicion; they have allowed whole sections to be depopulated of them (notably in several north Georgia counties); they have allowed [black Americans] to be white-capped and to be whipped, and their homes burned, with only the weakest and most spasmodic efforts to apprehend or punish those guilty-when any efforts were made at all.

The "they" and "them" in the citation refer to the authorities and general society in which lynching was established as a sort of corrective for blacks who whites believed had overstepped the markers of what was socially acceptable according to the race-based caste system. Charles Chesnutt uses the term "nigger domination" in order to describe this perception in the white psyche. (Marrow of Tradition) The "weak" and "spasmodic efforts [of police] to apprehend those guilty" conveyed the principle that the South would not tolerate the slightest hint of infringement upon their domain by blacks and would impose inferiority on the bodies of blacks through physical punishment in order to emphasize this point in the North and West.


Whenever these occurrences took place, their underlying intent was not simply to send a message to those individuals accused of transgressing the unwritten Southern code, but was an intimidation tactic to black Americans throughout the nation. This cultural ritual told black Americans that their place was either behind the white man or hung from a tree. Local black newspapers like the Gazette and those more widely circulated like the Chicago Defender kept records of lynchings to keep black America abreast of its concerns as well as to advertise for safer havens.

T. Arnold Hill, the first Director of the Chicago Urban League concluded that as a result of this brutality: "Every time a lynching takes place in a community down South, you can depend on it that colored people will arrive in Chicago within two weeks." His statement alluded to the idea that these lynchings encouraged blacks to migrate in the large numbers the nation would see primarily from 1875-1915.

For statistics on lynching rates from 1882 to 1930, click here

However, since violence up through this point in American history had been a fundamental portion of Southern whites' treatment of blacks, historian David Levering Lewis offers that this migratory trend came not in response to the violence but interjects that the "real reason for the mass migration was economic." He continues saying: "The deadly blows to the South's economy from natural disasters during 1915 and 1916-drought and rain and the boll weevil-launched the evacuation." (Lewis, 21)

He goes on to add: "There was one other development without which the African-American migration would have been considerably less-the wartime decline in European immigration at the very moment when American industry needed more cheap labor." Lewis offers here a depiction of the mid-War need for labor. Because of the worldwide threat springing from Austria and reverberating the whole world over, there was a drastic halt in immigration as Lewis points out. He maintains that "In 1914, immigrants arriving from overseas numbered 1,218,480."

The next year, the figure plunged to 326,700. Three years later, it was down to 110,618." So drastic a drop-off in the supply for cheap labor created a sharp demand in its wake. To compound the issue, Lewis recounts how, at the same moment, "four million Americans were being conscripted for military service" as a result of the global pressure. The result, he concludes, manifested itself in how "From late 1915 onward, the South was full of agents recruiting labor for northern industry." (Lewis, 21)

Great Migration in Chicago

The combination of so many crises affecting this nation simultaneously was a major driving force for the migration northward. Because the seed of the nation's economic base had shifted from its agrarian roots into the shape of a more progressive, industrial outgrowth, people needed to move in order to help the country blossom fully. So from the South, these masses moved to the areas that called to them most loudly. As James Weldon Johnson described this occurrence: "These new-comers did not have to look for work; work looked for them."(Locke, 306)

Some of the most promising of these locations were the stockyards of Chicago and the automobile plants of Detroit, that employed Negroes by the thousands in a blue collar work that offered these individuals more money than they would ever have seen working a railroad in the South. Even so, in both Chicago and Detroit, and other "big industrial centers," Johnson remarks, "Negroes are engaged in gang labor." (Locke, 308)

Harlem, New York was different in that it extended the black American not only the opportunity for a monotonous industrial job, but promised community, rights and happiness in ways black Americans were not allowed elsewhere in the country. Johnson essentially argues, in his essay "Harlem Culture Capital," that Harlem was not simply a city densely populated by blacks in a shift to meet the growing demands for labor. Rather, because of the diverse types of occupations Negroes were able to conduct it was becoming increasingly self-sufficient. (Locke, 309)

This phenomenon was significant because it located black Americans physically at the center of Manhattan Island in that the "four main arteries of the city run" through its confines, but also because the advent of this new community enabled black Americans to participate in the "spirit and life of New York" as contributors. These black migrants did more than fill the growing need for labor. Rather, they recognized in Harlem the capital for becoming Americans.

In order to enumerate how the center for Negro life found itself in Harlem, a locale that had previously been populated by Dutch, Irish and Jewish settlers, one must first understand how it became possible for so many black residents to own so much of Harlem. (Locke, 301) Around 1900, the make up of Harlem's architectural structure, particularly with respect to housing, was the product of developers who overbuilt with "large new-law apartment houses" before New York's public transportation could develop to service the area. As a result, this overbuilt area was grossly under-populated. (Locke, 303)

A colored real estate agent named Philip A. Payton negotiated with several landlords to begin renting some of the vacancies to colored residents and was successful in providing housing for a few colored residents east of Lenox Avenue. This boundary would prove the fault-line that would determine when the occupation of blacks is Harlem had reached an intolerably high level for the white owners and residents in the area. Through the continued work of Payton and others like him, the movement of colored occupation spread quickly west of Lenox and alerted the attention of previously incognizant white realtors and residents. (Locke, 303)

Upon discovering this tendency, white realtors banded together to form allegiances not to rent to black patrons. Through the formation of the Hudson Realty Company, these individuals conspired to buy all the property in Harlem and to evict its black tenants. Payton countered to form the Afro-American Realty Company who sole purpose was to rent to black tenants. As black Harlem's expansion west of Lenox continued, pressure from white owners and realtors rose to meet the movement, conspiring with financial institutions to neither lend nor renew mortgages to black patrons in Harlem.

Payton and others countered to buy up property in Harlem, evict its white residents and to fill these dwellings with black Americans. As time progressed, Johnson relates, white America felt the flourishing of blacks in Harlem amounted to a sort of invasion, and were incited to flee from this perceived encroachment. Johnson described that "the presence of one colored family in a block, no matter how well bred and orderly, was sufficient to precipitate a flight." (Locke, 304)

Rush hour between 135th and Lenox Avenue
Image of Harlem at rush hour between 135th Street and Lenox Avenue

As a result, house after house on Harlem blocks were deserted by whites for brighter horizons. When this phenomenon was compounded by the outbreak of World War I, Harlem was ripe for occupation as scores of labor agents poured into the South. The previous decade and a half saw Harlem develop as a vibrant Negro community before the labor shortages and crop failures pushed black Americans from the South. As a result, it's autonomy, air of prosperity and spontaneity made it the most alluring place for blacks at this time.

Additionally, Harlem guaranteed "its Negro citizens their fundamental rights of American citizenship and protect[ed] them in the exercise of those rights." He concludes that as a result of this protection "In return the Negro loves New York and is proud of it, and contributes in his way to its success." (Locke, 311) The result of this great social capital was that black Americans from Seattle to Los Angeles, from the South and cities in the North, West Indians and many Africans visited or relocated completely to Harlem.

Again, while the move from the South was primarily economic, the allure of Harlem was that it presented blacks the opportunity to be recognized as American. Johnson conveyed this sentiment in the title and content of his essay "Harlem Culture Capital." The very words "Culture" and "Capital" invoke images first of organic growth, art and refinement and second, money, focus and other resources. Through seeking to discuss what "culture capital" Harlem possesses, Johnson suggests that the resources Harlem cultivated over time were endowed with the primary tools for answering the Negro question that Dubois delineates: "What was to be done with the Negroes?"

To close his essay, Johnson describes Harlem as a "more than a Negro community" but a "large scale laboratory experiment for the race problem." (Locke, 311) Since Johnson conveys that Harlem at this time was the foremost example of success, refinement and socio-economic resources, it follows that the logical follow-up to this experiment would be to conduct test cases of this hypothesis in all US cities. This opportunity would enable blacks to invest in the project called America on a wider scale and on equal footing; the end of which, Johnson believed, would be the full acceptance of blacks into American society.

In order to accurately articulate the mood of this moment socially, artistically and spiritually, it is necessary first to take a look at the general state of black affairs at the onset of the twentieth century.

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Locke and The New Negro Set the Stage: The Advent of Black Harlem Buckets or Books: Washington-Dubois Debate Jazz or Junk: Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes NAACP or UNIA: Garvey and Johnson Responsibility and Discernment: Religion in Harlem Finale! Curtain Call

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New Negro | Set The Stage | Buckets or Books? | Jazz or Junk? | NAACP or UNIA? | Church Leaders | Finale! | Curtain Call