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已有 700 次阅读2023-2-2 10:49 |个人分类:US|系统分类:转帖-知识

The story of a refuge.

This is the first part of a four-part article. Read the second part.

The Journey Uptown
In one of the early months of 1914, St. James Presbyterian, a black church then occupying premises on West Fifty-first Street, in Manhattan, decided to move farther uptown, to Harlem. 
Blacks had been moving to Harlem ever since 1900, abandoning the West Side between the Twenties and the low Sixties, where they had lived for decades. 
Life on the congested and hostile middle West Side, with its overcrowded tenements and its increasing eruptions of anti-Negro feeling, had grown harder and harder for them, 
and in Harlem more and more houses were becoming available that were superior to any they had ever occupied elsewhere in Manhattan. Though by 1914 most blacks 
were moving to Harlem because they had nowhere else to go—not even to Brooklyn, where only those of a higher income could afford to live—more than a few 
were going there only because the district was becoming the fashionable place for Negroes to be. When St. James Presbyterian decided to join the migration, 
however, it was not following fashion but yielding to necessity. After observing the exodus from the West Side for more than ten years, during which other black churches 
had left for Harlem, St. James had judged the movement to be irreversible: Harlem was clearly replacing the West Side as the main black settlement in Manhattan, 
and to survive and remain useful the church, too, would have to move—to the place where a sizable number of its members were already living.

Until 1900, Harlem had been a virtually all-white neighborhood, and the blacks who began settling there at that time did not see themselves as the advance guard of a larger community. 
They encountered enough hostility and resistance from white Harlemites—though not from their new landlords, whose surplus of apartments they were filling—to discourage any such view. 
They were satisfied just to have found themselves a refuge, away from the violence and the horrid tenement conditions of the West Side. The higher rents in Harlem and the hostility
 of its white residents were prices worth paying for the chance to live in a quiet and attractive neighborhood and in apartments as nice as the ones to be found up there. However,
 if any of them were uneasy about being a part of a small and isolated black colony in white Harlem, it must have delighted them to notice that as the months passed their numbers 
were being augmented by other Negro refugees from the West Side, and that the churches, too, were joining the migration. To them, the latter development was probably the 
most heartening of all. Most blacks knew how accurately their churches could read the momentum of Negro migration. From what had occurred in the past when blacks had 
moved from one neighborhood to another, they could be sure that the churches would not be moving now unless their leaders had concluded that Harlem would be a future 
center of Manhattan’s black population.

Most white Harlemites did not readily realize this; as they watched the early stages of black migration into their district, few of them imagined what the arrival of the churches signified.
 If some whites were already selling their homes and taking flight, it was not because they thought that Harlem would one day become predominantly black. 
They simply did not wish to share their community with people whose color they disliked, whose social and racial position they considered inferior to their own, 
whose cultural habits they deplored, and whose future effect upon property values they could well predict. The majority stayed behind—for a while, at least—and they 
did what they could to resist the Negro “invasion,” as they called it; for they did not see a black takeover of their neighborhood as inevitable.

By 1900, blacks had been living in Manhattan for nearly three hundred years—since 1626, when eleven Africans were brought to the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam 
to work under conditions resembling indentured servitude. Others were brought in after 1664, when—the Dutch having surrendered to the English—New Amsterdam 
had become New York and the indentured servants had become slaves. Some of these Africans worked in the village of Harlem, and from then on a handful of their 
descendants lived in the community—few enough to be ignored by most whites except the families they served. The majority of Manhattan’s early black population 
worked first on the Dutch and later on the English holdings near the island’s southern tip, and they remained in that area until after 1827, when slavery was abolished 
in New York. Their numbers had grown, of course. In 1830, the census reported that there were thirteen thousand nine hundred and seventy-six blacks in Manhattan, 
most having been born in New York.

Early in the nineteenth century, this population began leaving the lower section of Manhattan. Moving steadily northward, they settled here and there on the island, 
a few along the East Side, the majority along the West Side. In a sense, they were not just on the move but on the run. They stayed in certain neighborhoods for 
as long as they were able to and abandoned them when one circumstance or another—pressure from incoming white groups, the expansion of commerce and industry, 
or their own desire for better housing—propelled them into new territory. Their churches sprang up along the way and then followed them wherever they went, 
or wherever it seemed that they would be settling for a while. By the eighteen-nineties, the majority of the blacks were to be found on the West Side from the Twenties 
up through the low Sixties. Their churches were there, too—including St. James Presbyterian.

The New York Presbytery, the governing body of the denomination in the city, was not wholly in favor of the St. James decision to move to Harlem. Those members of the 
Presbytery who supported the decision were opposed by a faction from the Church of the Puritans, a white congregation in Harlem, which included some owners of property
 in the district. At a meeting of the Presbytery in June of 1914, when a delegation from St. James requested a contribution of forty thousand dollars toward the cost 
(eighty-three thousand dollars) of putting up a church building on West 137th Street, delegates from the Church of the Puritans raised three objections. First, they asked,
 “Why give all that money to Negroes when white churches need it?” Second, they said that it would be unwise to invest eighty-three thousand dollars in a new building 
in Harlem, where, because of the Negroes who had already moved into the district, property values were going down. And, third, they pointed out that there were 
“already seven colored churches” in Harlem, serving “28,000 Negroes.” In effect, the Church of the Puritans was resisting any further Negro migration to Harlem.

John M. Royall, a member of the St. James delegation, replied in behalf of his church. As a real-estate man of much experience and considerable success, 
he was qualified to address the question of property values, and as an officer of St. James he knew the circumstances that had influenced its decision 
to move to Harlem. First of all, Royall told the Presbytery, incoming Negroes were not the cause of declining property values in the district. The cause, 
he said, was a great building boom that had occurred in Harlem a few years earlier. This boom had produced so many apartments that there 
were not enough white tenants to occupy them. As a result, landlords had lowered their rents in the hope of attracting white tenants, and when 
that policy failed they had had to let their apartments to Negroes—at much higher rents than they had asked of whites. Royall also noted that in 
sections of the West Side where blacks were charged steep rents property values had risen. Turning to the reason his church felt it necessary to move uptown, 
Royall said, “St. James is needed in Harlem to help absorb [its] kindred people, and to assist in the readjustment of their living to suit the new condition. 
Churches of every description, except of the Presbyterian faith, have found a home in Harlem. And St. James, being in West Fifty-first Street, 
is too far removed from her people and members to keep pace.” The opposition failed. St. James moved to West 137th Street late in 1914, 
and remained there until 1927, when it moved to its present home, on West 141st Street.

In the years before 1914, and for many years thereafter, the members of St. James Presbyterian would not have referred to themselves as “black”—”black” being a term that was not as acceptable then as it has since become. Theirs was not a mass church—members of which might not have objected to being called black—but one of several upper-class non-white congregations of Manhattan. Many of its communicants were in the professions, in small but profitable businesses, or in humble but respectable trades. A few, like John Royall, were men of means, though not by the white standards of that or any other day. Some belonged to what there was of Manhattan’s non-white élite. And the majority of its important members were light-skinned. All this was true in even larger measure of people who worshipped at St. Philip’s Protestant Episcopal, the wealthiest non-white church in the city. In 1911, when St. Philip’s bought property in Harlem, John G. Taylor, a leader of the white homeowning community uptown, used certain racial epithets to describe the Negroes who were behind the deal. This brought a reply from Hutchens C. Bishop, rector of St. Philip’s, who was behind the deal, and who himself looked so white that only Negroes knew he was not. “Mr. Taylor,” Bishop said, “did not know enough of the real progressive element among the colored people to talk seriously about them. We are willing to be judged by the testimony of Seth Low, Robert C. Ogden, John J. Delany, George R. Sheldon, Joseph H. Choate, and Jacob Schiff [all upper-class white New Yorkers], who know something of us.” A Negro businessman added, “The trouble is that our white neighbors, many of them newcomers in the country, don’t know anything about us, and have determined not to learn anything about us. They insist on taking the worst element in the race as examples of our progress, while insisting that only the best in all other races shall be used as examples of decency and progress.” Such speakers, including most of those who were not light-skinned, preferred to describe themselves as “colored.” Some, perhaps the more racially aware, leaned toward “Afro-American.” And hardly anyone really objected to “Negro”—only to the fact that most white Americans were still writing the word with a small “n.” But almost none of them—representing the élite of their race in the city—would have thought of calling themselves “black.”

Regardless of their shadings of color or their differences in social and economic position, however, most non-whites in Manhattan were trapped in a common predicament. A few upper-class white New Yorkers—the Lows, the Ogdens, the Schiffs—may have recognized a “progressive element” in the colored population, but ordinary whites made no distinctions whatever among people of Negro background. Even if they had wished to differentiate socially and intellectually among blacks, it would have been hard for them to do so—for almost all the blacks in Manhattan were herded together in squalid tenements on the West Side. In a city like Washington, D.C., Negroes of means and cultural distinction lived apart from the masses, in attractive residential enclaves of their own. In Manhattan, Negroes of all classes lived together in the tenement ghettos. Almost every contemporary observer remarked upon this fact. Mary Rankin Cranston, a white native of Georgia who was employed by the League for Social Service, in Manhattan, wrote in 1902 that “there is no good and no bad Negro section . . . all are crowded together indiscriminately, the good with the bad, the moral with the immoral.” Mary White Ovington, an upper-middle-class white Brooklynite and a social worker among black families on the West Side, said in 1905 that “their difficulty in procuring a place to live compels the colored people to dwell good and bad together.” And G. L. Collin, a white reporter, observed in 1906 that “college graduates and cut-throats are huddled in the same tenements.”

The blacks living on the middle West Side in the eighteen-nineties had moved up there from Greenwich Village—from the blocks of Canal, Mulberry, Thompson, Wooster, Sullivan, Spring, Gay, Jones, Bleecker, Macdougal, West Third, and West Tenth Streets. By 1900, only a few Negro households remained on these streets. “The ambitious Negro has moved uptown, leaving this section [the Village] largely to widowed and deserted women and degenerates,” Miss Ovington wrote around that time. “Here alone in New York I have found . . . men and women who, unsuccessful in their struggle with city life, have been left behind in these old forgotten streets.” Ambition was not the only reason that blacks had left the Village. Many had been forced out by white immigrant groups—especially the Italians. A section of the Village that had once been called Little Africa later became Little Italy. Bayrd Still was to write, in his “Mirror for Gotham,” that “the red would be seen overrunning the old Africa of Thompson Street, pushing the black of the negro rapidly uptown, against querulous but unavailing protests, occupying his home, his church, his trade and all, with merciless impartiality.”

It was then that black neighborhoods sprang up in the Tenderloin district, from the Twenties to the Fifties west of Sixth Avenue, and by 1900 the areas of greatest concentration extended as far north as Sixty-fourth Street west of Broadway. The section known as Columbus Hill, from Sixtieth to Sixty-fourth Street, came to be called San Juan Hill, since many black veterans of the Spanish-American War lived there and since racial battles were always breaking out in its streets. In the nineties, when a surprisingly large number of the faces to be seen on Seventh Avenue were black, the avenue from the Twenties to the Forties came to be called the African Broadway, and the newspapers reported that it was the main artery of Manhattan’s new Negro quarter. One such report appeared in the Tribune in October of 1895:

It is the southwestern corner of the old Tenderloin that the negroes have marked out for their own, and have already pretty completely settled. On both sides of Seventh ave., chiefly on Twenty-seventh, Twenty-eighth, Twenty-ninth, and Thirtieth sts. . . . they have taken up their abodes. . . . Nearly 10,000 of them are already there. . . .

Always and invariably on “dress parade” is the new quarter. How the most of the men support their wives and families is a mystery, for they seem to do nothing but lounge about street corners. . . . The younger women, arrayed in gowns that are wonderfully good imitations of the fashions, though heaven knows how they can afford them, walk in pairs and trios up and down Seventh Ave. . . .

All the business of the quarter is in the hands of others. There is hardly a negro who has even the tiniest shop or store. Germans sell them their provisions, Jews . . . sell them their clothes. The genius of trade does not seem to have taken possession of a single inhabitant of this quarter. Even the most industrious get no further than odd jobs. . . . There is . . . a colored “Four Hundred” in New York, made up of men who have not a little property. But these are not the negroes of Seventh Ave. The people . . . are poor, with only a dollar or two standing between them and starvation most of the time, every cent going as fast as it comes in. . . .

[There is a] daily promenade of gayly dressed girls and sprig young colored men. Yellow is the prime tint of the young colored girls’ clothes. The favorite dress of the young men “in style” is a glossy silk hat, patent leathers, a black suit with a sack coat of remarkable shortness, and a figured waistcoat. Paste diamonds are de rigueur.

And as the procession of young colored people passes and repasses along on the east side [of Seventh Avenue] the Hebrews across the street stand out in front of their shops and impress the “sheapness” of their goods upon everybody within earshot. The panorama never stops unrolling from eight . . . to close upon midnight.

Referring to the black precincts of the West Side, Harper’s Weekly said in January of 1897, “Amid scenes of indescribable squalor and tawdry finery, dwell the negroes, leading their lighthearted lives of pleasure, confusion, music, noise, and fierce fights that make them a terror to white neighbors and landlords alike.”

Many black residents of the Tenderloin—employed and unemployed, criminals and law-abiding, those who were “in style” and those who were not—were fairly recent migrants from the South. W. E. B. Du Bois, the black scholar and intellectual leader, described them in 1901 as “country bred.” Five years later, a black clergyman said that the majority of the newcomers from the South “were once the field or plantation hands, whence they progressed to gangs at sawmills, then to small towns for higher wages, and thence North, herded together, untouched by the civilization either of the whites or of the educated blacks.” He added, “They bring straight to the evils and temptations of New York the ignorance of the backwoods of the South.” To such migrants, the idea of New York had been irresistible. According to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s novel “The Sport of the Gods,” published in 1902, which deals with Negro life in New York in the eighteen-nineties, they “had heard of New York as a place vague and far away, a city that, like Heaven, to them had existed by faith alone. All the days of their lives they had heard about it, and it seemed to them the center of all the glory, all the wealth, and all the freedom of the world.” New York continued to excite the imagination of black migrants for many years to come.

Among the wage earners, most black women in New York were domestic workers, dressmakers, beauticians, nurses, and midwives; unskilled men worked as elevator operators, cooks, porters, doormen, housemen, hallboys, messengers, coachmen, hostlers, draymen, hackmen, housecleaners, waiters, janitors, furnacemen, and day laborers; and a smaller group of skilled workers included carpenters, masons, bricklayers, woodturners, tailors, blacksmiths, barbers, railroad firemen, plasterers, plumbers, steam fitters, shoemakers, upholsterers, goldsmiths, coopers, and harnessmakers. Among the professionals and businessmen were teachers, physicians, lawyers, preachers, musicians, actors, caterers, undertakers, restaurateurs, saloonkeepers, and small hoteliers. So it was not quite true, as the Tribune reported in 1895, that “there is hardly a negro who has even the tiniest shop or store.” Writing for the Times in November of 1901, Du Bois said that five and a half per cent of the city’s black population was in businesses of various kinds. “The Negroes have something over a million and a half dollars invested in small business enterprises,” he continued. “In the sixty-nine leading establishments $800,000 is invested. . . . Five leading caterers have $30,000, seven undertakers have $32,000, two saloons have over $50,000, and four small machine shops have $27,500 invested.”

In the hostility that blacks encountered and in the rents they were charged, they paid dearly for the refuge they had found in the Tenderloin and other parts of the West Side. The hostility came chiefly from the Irish, who viewed sections of the West Side as their turf, and who had—as Harper’s Weekly said in 1900—a “natural antipathy to the negroes.” This is not to say that other ethnic groupings were exempt from the antagonism of the Irish. “Negro, Italian, and Jew [bit] the dust with many a bruised head under the Hibernian’s stalwart fist,” Jacob Riis wrote in “The Battle with the Slum,” one of his studies of New York tenement life in the early years of this century.

On the West Side, for the most part, Negroes had their blocks and whites had theirs. The groups did coexist uneasily on a few blocks, but seldom did they share a tenement dwelling. And, however poor was the condition of the houses, blacks generally paid higher rents than any other ethnic group. In 1899, a graduate student at Columbia found that blacks occupied the worst houses in the Tenderloin and San Juan Hill districts and that they paid up to five dollars more than whites did “for the same class of rooms.” Harper’s Weekly made similar findings in December of 1900:

Property is not rented to negroes in New York until white people will no longer have it. Then rents are put up from thirty to fifty per cent, and negroes are permitted to take a street or sometimes a neighborhood. There are really not many negro sections, and all that exist are fearfully crowded. . . .

They [the landlords] charge enormous rentals for very inferior houses and tenements, which yield more when the negroes have taken possession than they did in time of seemingly greater prosperity. . . . Moreover, they make no repairs, and the property usually goes to rack and ruin. . . . As a rule. . . negroes in New York are not beholden to the property owners for anything except discomfort and extortion. . . . Housed as they are, it is wonderful that they should be as good as they are; it is wonderful that they are not all entirely worthless.

It was also surprising that in some of those wretched tenement rooms an air of graciousness managed to reign. A white visitor to one of these places found that although it was poor, bare, and squalid, it had “a certain style” and was pervaded by “an atmosphere of refinement.” According to Riis, in “How the Other Half Lives,” his most famous study of the New York tenements, “The poorest negro housekeeper’s room in New York is bright with gaily colored prints of his beloved ‘Abe Linkum,’ General Grant, President Garfield, Mrs. Cleveland, and other national celebrities, and cheery with flowers and singing birds.” And Mary White Ovington found that some of the rooms she visited were “sadly cluttered” but not “bare and ugly.” Breakfast and dinner were served with “the air of a social function.” No doubt, such tenants understood the humanizing and dignifying uses of style—or, at any rate, the necessity of putting the best foot forward.


Sections of the black Tenderloin that harbored vice and offered various forms of entertainment were known as Negro Bohemia. Here one found the saloons, wine cellars, and poolrooms; night clubs, honky-tonks, and dance halls; herb doctors, mediums, and voodoo men; brothels and gambling dens; pimps, prostitutes, and assorted hustlers. Some of what went on in the streets and behind the doors of Negro Bohemia was a milder version of what went on in parts of the white Tenderloin. And life in much of the white Tenderloin was merely a reflection of the illicit, lighthearted, fun-loving side of Manhattan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Samuel Hopkins Adams’ historical novel “Tenderloin,” based on the life of those decades, describes the New York of the eighteen-nineties as “a city of crime and gaiety,” a place that “gambled and whored blithely.” Its residents “paid uncomplaining tribute to a political overlord, who, holding no office, ruled the city by a loose tyranny of extortion and blackmail through the agency of Tammany Hall and the organized corruption of the Police Department, selling dispensations to lawbreakers who ranged from the highest to the lowest, from the powerful presidents of railway and shipping lines down to the dope-joint proprietors of Mott Street.”

On the morning of February 14, 1892, a Sunday, Charles H. Parkhurst, minister of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church, preached one of the more indignant sermons ever heard in Manhattan. In remarks that were later printed in the newspapers, Parkhurst denounced the leaders of Tammany Hall as “polluted harpies that, under the pretense of governing this city, are feeding day and night on its quivering vitals.” They were, Parkhurst said, “a lying, perjured, rum-soaked, and libidinous lot.” Continuing, he accused them of protecting the brothels and gambling dens, which, he said, flourished like the “roses in Sharon.” In official quarters of the city, Parkhurst’s remarks were not well received. Much of the response suggested that the sermon had gone beyond the call of religious duty. However that might be, Parkhurst was denounced by the police, and prominent citizens of Manhattan called for his head. The World accused him of bearing false witness. Charles Dana, of the Sun—described by contemporaries as a friend of Tammany—declared that he should be driven from his pulpit. Most serious of all, a number of clergymen quickly dissociated themselves from Parkhurst's remarks—possibly because certain churches owned property in the Tenderloin and collected munificent rents from the vice lords of the district.

But Parkhurst had certainly not invented his material. Much of it, and worse, was echoed in the novel “Tenderloin”:

Saloons kept open, morning, noon, night, and Sundays. Professional faro and roulette games were conducted behind uncurtained windows at street-level in the West Thirties. Two-dollar harlots paraded Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Peep shows flourished in Fourteenth Street. Pestilential tenements and profitable brothels paid their ground rentals to fashionable churches.

Herbert Asbury’s “The Gangs of New York,” a book published in 1928, had this to say:

Many of the worst dives with which New York was infested during these days of iniquity, and which were utilized as rendezvous by the gangs of criminals and the hordes of fallen women, were in the area between Twenty-fourth and Fortieth Streets and Fifth and Seventh Avenues, a region of such utter depravity that horrified reformers referred to it as Satan’s Circus. As late as 1885, it was estimated that at least half of the buildings in the district were devoted to some form of wickedness, while Sixth Avenue, then the wildest and gayest thoroughfare in the city, was lined with brothels, saloons and all night dance halls, and was constantly thronged by a motley crowd seeking diversion and dissipation. This area . . . was the original Tenderloin, so named by Captain, later Inspector, Alexander S. Williams. After long and unrewarded toil in outlying districts, Captain Williams was transferred to the command of the Twenty-ninth [police precinct] in 1876. A few days later a friend, meeting him on Broadway and noting his expansive smile, asked the cause of his merriment.


“Well,” said Williams, “I’ve been transferred. I’ve had nothing but chuck steak for a long time, and now I’m going to get a little of the tenderloin.”

That, then, was the world of which Negro Bohemia was a part. On the whole, however, black memoirists have not had much to say about vice and corruption in the black Tenderloin—about its dealings with Tammany Hall and the police. They have spoken mostly about the clubs, saloons, and other places of entertainment that abounded in the area. A number of the saloons were owned by leading black prizefighters of the eighteen-nineties and the early nineteen-hundreds: George Dixon’s, on Sixth Avenue between Twenty-seventh and Twenty-eighth Streets; Joe Walcott’s, on Thirty-first Street, on part of the site now occupied by Gimbels; and Joe Gans’ Little Egypt, on West Thirty-third Street. These spots were frequented by such other well-known black pugilists as Joe Jeannette, Sam Langford, Sam McVey, and Jack Johnson, and by such contemporary black jockeys as Isaac Murphy, Pike Barnes, Jimmie Winkfield, Willie Simms, Soup Perkins, Johnny Stoval, Spider Anderson, Linc Jones, and Monk Overton.

John B. Nail’s saloon, on Sixth Avenue near Twenty-eighth Street, was considered a place for gentlemen. The Sun reported in 1903 that it was “conducted with the quietness and manners of a high-class Broadway bar and billiard room.” Many of its customers came there from Brooklyn, where most of New York’s Negro élite, including Nail himself, lived. Nail, a light-skinned native of Baltimore, had migrated to New York in 1863. He was the father of John E. Nail, who became a major real-estate broker—one of the rental agents who helped transform Harlem into a black community. The senior Nail was also the father-in-law of James Weldon Johnson, who at different points in his career was a teacher, a songwriter, a poet, a novelist, a diplomat, an editorial writer for the New York Age, and a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Edmond’s, on West Twenty-eighth Street, was owned by Edmond Johnson, a man whose speech and manners were as crass as some of the worst in the Tenderloin. Eubie Blake played one of his early New York dates at Edmond’s—in 1905, when he was twenty-two years old. Decades later, when Blake was approaching his nineties, he remembered Edmond’s as “a cabaret over a stable.” Edmond’s moved to Harlem in 1910, and it was there that Ethel Waters made one of her earliest appearances in New York, as a singer and dancer.

Barron Wilkins’ café—another that moved to Harlem in later years—was called Little Savoy, and was situated on West Thirty-fifth Street. The black musician Noble Sissle said of it in the nineteen-forties:

From the stories the boys tell me, Barron Wilkins’ place up to about 1908 was the most important spot where Negro musicians got acquainted with the wealthy New York clientele, who became the first patrons of their music. Barron, a big, jovial personality with a heart as large as his rotund figure, was one of the greatest benefactors the Negro musician had in New York. He had a great love and respect for talented artists. Although the exclusive clientele, coming to his café to hear the Negroes sing and play, at first came on slumming expeditions, soon they found themselves regular patrons of the interesting entertainment that his unique array of talent afforded, not only by Barron’s regular entertainers but by the new Southland Troubadours who came daily to New York from all over America. . . . Barron’s became so popular because this wise operator kept his floor an open floor. Anyone who had anything to offer worth while could always get up and do a number. . . . There was no dancing by the guests. The entertainers worked the tables. Sometimes they sang twenty choruses to a song. . . . It was his fabulous spot that sparked off the renaissance of the Negro musician in New York City.


In “The Sport of the Gods,” Paul Laurence Dunbar describes the “Banner Club,” a popular night spot in Negro Bohemia:

It drew its pupils from every class of people and from every part of the country. . . . Parasites came there to find victims, politicians for votes, reporters for news, and artists of all kinds for color and inspiration. . . .

The Banner was only one of a kind. It stood to the stranger and the man and woman without connections for the whole social life. It was a substitute . . . to many youths for the home life which is so lacking among certain classes in New York. . . .

Here the rounders congregated, or came and spent the hours until it was time to go forth to bout or assignation. Here too came sometimes the curious who wanted to see something of the other side of life. . . .

Of course, the place was a social cesspool, generating a poisonous miasma and reeking with the stench of decayed and rotten moralities.

Cooper and Ransom’s wine and billiard saloon, on Sixth Avenue, admitted only blacks of “the better class.” When it opened, in February of 1883, the Globe, then the leading Negro journal of the city (it was later renamed the Age), reported, “The ‘spread’ was truly fine . . . bountiful and artistic in the extreme. . . . The first floor is the saloon proper and is devoted to the dispensation of liquid refreshments and the amusements of the knights of the cue. . . . The second floor is a reading and card room, besides two private rooms for small parties of gentlemen. All the rooms on this floor are elegantly frescoed and richly papered, the floors being covered with rich Brussels.”

Perhaps the best-known of all the clubs in Negro Bohemia was Ike Hines’, on West Twenty-seventh Street. James Weldon Johnson’s novel “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,” published in 1912, contains this description of the club:

The floor of the parlor was carpeted . . . the windows were draped with lace curtains, and the walls were literally covered with photographs or lithographs of every colored man in America who had ever “done anything.” There were pictures of Frederick Douglass and of Peter Jackson [one of the better black heavyweight boxers of the time], of all the lesser lights of the prizefighting ring, of all the famous jockeys and the stage celebrities, down to the newest song and dance team. . . . In the back room there was a piano, and tables were placed round the wall. The floor was bare and the center was left vacant for singers, dancers and others who entertained the patrons. . . . There was no open bar because the place had no liquor license. . . . The front room on the next floor was a sort of private party room; a back room . . . was devoted to the use of new and ambitious performers. In this room song and dance teams practiced their steps, acrobatic teams practiced their tumbles, and many other kinds of “acts” rehearsed their “turns.”. . .

No gambling was allowed, and the conduct of the place was surprisingly orderly. It was, in short, a center of colored Bohemians and sports. Here the great prizefighters were wont to come, the famous jockeys, the noted minstrels, whose names and faces were familiar on every bill-board in the country; and these drew a multitude of those who love to dwell in the shadow of greatness. . . . There was at the place almost every night one or two parties of white people, men and women, who were out sightseeing, or slumming. They generally came in cabs; some of them would stay . . . until morning. There was also another set of white people who came frequently; it was made up of variety performers and others who delineated “darky characters;” they came to get their imitations first-hand from the Negro entertainers they saw there.


It was at Ike Hines’ that many blacks first heard ragtime piano music, which was, according to James Weldon Johnson, “just growing to be a rage” in New York. The main character of Johnson’s novel (who narrates some of the author’s own early experiences in Manhattan) recalls hearing his first ragtime pianist at Hines’ place:

The stout man at the piano began to run his fingers up and down the keyboard. This he did in a manner which indicated that he was master of a good deal of technique. Then he began to play; and such playing! I stopped talking to listen. It was music of a kind I had never heard before. It was music that demanded physical response, patting of the feet, drumming of the fingers, or nodding of the head in time with the beat. The barbaric harmonies, the audacious resolutions, often consisting of an abrupt jump from one key to another, the intricate rhythms in which the accents fell in the most unexpected places, but in which the beat was never lost, produced a most curious effect. And, too, the player—the dexterity of his left hand in making rapid octave runs and jumps was little short of marvellous; and with his right hand he frequently swept half the keyboard with clean-cut chromatics which he fitted in so nicely as never to fail to arouse in his listeners a sort of pleasant surprise at the accomplishment of the feat.

Ragtime music, Johnson’s novel goes on to say, was “originated in the questionable resorts about Memphis and St. Louis by Negro piano-players who knew no more of the theory of music than they did of the theory of the universe, but were guided by natural musical instinct and talent.” Continuing its account of early ragtime, the book also says, “It made its way to Chicago, where it was popular some time before it reached New York. These players often improvised crude and, at times, vulgar words to fit the melodies. This was the beginning of the rag-time song.” But for some time—until the more sophisticated compositions of men like James Scott and Scott Joplin began to be published—most respectable families, black and white, abhorred ragtime music. “Take that ragtime out of my house,” Eubie Blake’s mother, a devout member of a church in Baltimore, once ordered her young son when she heard him playing his piano lessons in syncopated rhythm. If some families regarded ragtime as obscene, it was because of its origins in brothels and because of its crude and vulgar lyrics. John Stark, who was a music publisher in the early nineteen-hundreds—and probably the most important promoter of classic ragtime music—once used these words to describe some of the cruder compositions: “Many of them are unfit to be seen on your piano or to be sung to your friends.”

White reformers and clergymen described the dives and fleshpots of the Tenderloin as Satan’s Circus. Black preachers may not have used that term in condemning the worst features of Negro Bohemia, but they could hardly have thought it inappropriate. One of them later said that when he looked at the black Tenderloin he saw “human derelicts,” “moral shipwreck,” “degeneracy and vice,” “ravening wolves,” and “spiritual decay,” and that, as a result, he felt called by “the command of Jesus Christ to set a light in a dark place, make an oasis in a desert, and to let a stream of living water flow through this valley of Baca.” The speaker was Reverdy C. Ransom, pastor of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal congregation, on West Twenty-fifth Street. Part of what Ransom felt called upon to do was to launch a campaign against prostitution—a campaign that is reminiscent in some respects of a personal crusade that William Gladstone once conducted in Victorian London. In the evenings, after Parliament adjourned, the Prime Minister (when he was not the leader of the Opposition) often took to the streets, detaining prostitutes and urging them to forsake their occupation. Those who seemed at all responsive to his entreaties were invited home for tea with Mrs. Gladstone. “Nevertheless,” writes the English historian J. H. Plumb, “what was at work was Gladstone’s powerful sexual nature: through these quaint methods of sublimation . . . he was able to take his lust and live his life of dedicated respectability . . . a respectable Dr. Jekyll and a sexy Mr. Hyde.” Despite what is commonly rumored about preachers, there is no evidence to suggest that Ransom cultivated a similar duality of moral and personal style, yet there is something subtly or playfully erotic in an account he later gave of a meeting with one of the prostitutes he wished to save:


En route to the Mission one night I saw approaching me a comely young colored woman, spoke to her pleasantly, as I did to all. She returned the greeting. I extended my hand, she took it and said, “Anything doing tonight?” I said, “Do you know who I am?” She said, “No.” I said, “I am pastor Ransom . . .” she started to withdraw her hand, I told her “No, I want to tell you something. I am acquainted with many of you girls, I know how sickness and trouble often overtake you; now, if you ever get sick or in trouble and do not know what to do, or where to go, either come or send for me and then there will be something doing.”

Prostitution in Negro Bohemia was one of the first problems that confronted Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., when, in 1908, he arrived in Manhattan to assume the ministry of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, which was then on Fortieth Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. Powell, who had recently resigned the pastorate of a church in New Haven, later reported how shocked he was to find that his new church was situated in “the most notorious red-light district in New York City.” When services ended on Sunday evenings, prostitutes standing across the street “in unbuttoned Mother Hubbards” brazenly solicited worshippers as they streamed out of the Abyssinian church. Enlisting the aid of the police, Powell launched a “gospel bombardment” in the vicinity of his church—a campaign that made his path among the unrepentant sinners exceedingly perilous. “My son Adam was a little chap, and I often kept him at my side as a mascot,” Powell wrote later in his autobiography, “Against the Tide.” “This proved very unfair to him. When the crusade was at its height and both men and women were being sent to jail, I was leading my mascot along the sidewalk. One of the women had filled a paper flour bag with waste . . . and, standing on the roof, she aimed it at our heads. It missed its mark but struck the sidewalk near Adam’s feet and ruined his little white suit.” Powell’s church remained on West Fortieth Street until the early nineteen-twenties, when, somewhat later than most, it joined the black migration to Harlem. By then, much of the black Tenderloin, including the activities of Negro Bohemia, had moved uptown as well.

In 1899, one observer describing aspects of Negro church life in Manhattan took note of “the Southern type of revival meetings” and worshippers who “groan, shout, perspire, and encourage the preacher to do his worst.” This was clearly a reference to the storefront churches. There were not so many of them on the West Side, however—not nearly as many as were later to spring up in Harlem. The majority of the black churches on the West Side were of the traditional sort. As Miss Ovington wrote, in reference to such congregations, “Strangers who visit colored churches to be amused by the vociferations of the preacher and the responses of the congregation will be disappointed in New York. Others, however, who attend desiring to understand the religious teaching of the thoughtful Negro find much of interest. They hear sermons marked by great eloquence.”

One of the most eloquent of these preachers was Reverdy Ransom, of the Bethel church. A man with fair skin, reddish hair, and a face that was often as stern as a schoolmaster’s, Ransom was both a minister and one of the radical Negro activists of his time. He was born in Ohio during the Civil War and educated at Wilberforce University, in Ohio, in 1924; he became a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was once regarded as the most racially militant of all black religious organizations in America. In the pulpit and on secular platforms, Ransom displayed the militant traditions of his church as well as the extemporaneous power and fluency of nineteenth-century oratory. Part of a speech he once delivered in praise of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison has been widely quoted as an example of his eloquence and fierce advocacy of Negro rights:

What kind of Negroes do the American people want? Do they want a voteless Negro in a republic founded upon universal suffrage? Do they want a Negro who shall not be permitted to participate in the government which he must support with his treasure and defend with his blood? Do they want a Negro who shall consent to be set apart as forming a distinct industrial class, permitted to rise no higher than the level of serfs or peasants? Do they want a Negro who shall accept an inferior social position, not as a degradation, but as the just operation of the laws of caste based on color? What kind of Negro do the American people want? Taught by the Declaration of Independence, sustained by the Constitution of the United States, this nation can no more resist the advancing tread of the hosts of the oncoming blacks than it can bind the stars or halt the resistless motion of the tide.

In May of 1899, when news arrived of a recent lynching in the Deep South, Ransom delivered one of his aggressive sermons at the St. John’s A.M.E. Church in Cleveland. His “utterances were sensational in the extreme,” a correspondent for the New York Tribune wired his paper. Ransom, the reporter said, “advised the negroes to become skilled in the handling of dynamite and use it when attacked, for the protection of their homes and lives.” It is hardly surprising that in 1905 Ransom was one of the progressive Negro Americans who joined W. E. B. Du Bois in forming the Niagara Movement, the nucleus of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which was founded four years later.

Perhaps the only aspect of Ransom’s ministry that his fellow-clergymen deplored was his insistence upon serving as friend and spiritual adviser to black actors and musicians, for in the eyes of the respectable Negro clergy of those days there was no more immoral style of life than that of the musical stage. But, as Ransom explained, it troubled him that no effort was made to welcome the actors and musicians to the church, especially since “most of these people came from Christian homes, many of them were even the children of clergymen, most of them had been brought up in the atmosphere of the Negro churches in the communities from which they came.”


Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., who would have had little trouble passing for white and was tall, well built, and handsome, made a most impressive appearance—especially in a cutaway coat, which, from photographs, he seems to have favored on Sundays. He was born in 1865, in Franklin County, Virginia, and he spent part of his boyhood in Kanawha County, West Virginia, and part of his early twenties in Rendville, Ohio. He subsequently moved to Washington, D.C., intending to study law at Howard University—an ambition that did not last. He soon entered the Wayland Theological Seminary (now part of Virginia Union University), in Washington; studied later at the Yale Divinity School; and was ordained by Wayland in 1892. After ministering to congregations in Philadelphia and New Haven, he arrived in New York in 1908 to become pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church. The congregation had been founded a hundred years earlier on Worth Street (then called Anthony Street), in downtown Manhattan. Subsequently, keeping pace with the northward passage of the black population, it had moved to Thompson Street and Waverly Place before settling on West Fortieth. Under Powell’s leadership—first on West Fortieth Street and then on West 138th Street, in Harlem—Abyssinian Baptist became the largest and richest Negro Baptist congregation in the world. And after 1937, when Powell resigned in favor of his son and namesake, the Abyssinian pulpit became the most politically outspoken in America.

As rector of St. Philip’s Protestant Episcopal Church from 1886 to 1933, Hutchens C. Bishop led what was generally claimed—especially by its own members—to be the richest and most prominent of all black congregations. St. Philip’s was organized in 1818 as an offshoot of Trinity Church, in downtown Manhattan, and more Negroes of means and education worshipped there than at any other church in the city. St. Philip’s “drew some of the most outstanding persons of the race to its membership,” one of its publications noted. “In the early days on Mulberry Street and again on Twenty-fifth Street [where it was situated until 1910, when it moved to Harlem], some of the most eminent men of New York were to be found on the Vestry. . . . These men . . . were the ‘big wigs’ of New York. They were brilliant men too. . . . Eyewitnesses tell us that it was not unusual on a Sunday morning, during the reading of the Lessons, to see members of the Vestry seated in the front pews with their Greek Testaments in their hands.” Bishop was a native of Baltimore and a graduate of the General Theological Seminary of New York. He was bald, light-skinned, and mild-mannered, and he is remembered in a journal of the church for his “wisdom and administrative genius.”

In appearance and style, George Sims, the pastor of Union Baptist Church, on West Sixty-third Street, was a rough diamond compared with the more refined and prominent ministers on the West Side. Unlike them, he had not inherited the church he led but had founded it himself. A tall, rugged-looking man who could not be mistaken for anything but a black, Sims resembled one of those tough, brawling heavyweight prizefighters of bareknuckle days. If his knuckles were not callused, his palms must have been, for, born in Cumberland, Virginia, in 1871, he had spent a number of his early years working on farms and railroads. But he had been brought up in a religious home, and upon coming to New York he studied informally for the ministry. He was ordained in 1898, and later that year he organized the Union Baptist Church. Although it eventually became one of the major Negro churches in Manhattan, its first services were held in one of the little storefronts in the San Juan Hill district; its early members were recent migrants from the South; and Sims’ first sermons were about as blunt as he himself looked. Miss Ovington wrote of Sims’ preaching: “When he talked of Christ from his pulpit, Jesus became alive, a workman, a carpenter who took off his apron and went out to answer the call to preach. . . . There was much shouting, much noisy getting of religion.”

Other major black churches on the West Side in the first decade of this century included Mother A. M. E. Zion, on West Eighty-ninth Street; St. Cyprian’s Episcopal (with a large West Indian membership), in the San Juan Hill district; and Mount Olivet Baptist, St. Benedict the Moor (Catholic and interracial), and St. Mark’s Methodist Episcopal, all on West Fifty-third Street. Before Powell and Ransom arrived in New York, William H. Brooks, the pastor of St. Mark’s, had been the city’s most politically active black minister. In 1906, The Colored American, a leading Negro magazine of the time, described Brooks as “the most influential . . . the ablest, of the Afro-American clergy of New York City.”

The élite among the black clergymen and professionals lived or led their social lives mostly in the environs of Fifty-third Street between Sixth and Eighth Avenues. Ransom called this area “the principal place of resort of our group.” Of the black settlements in Manhattan, the West Fifty-third Street district was the most attractive and most culturally stylish. The tenements there were not as crowded or as unsightly as those farther down in the Tenderloin. Moreover, quite a few blacks lived in private dwellings of their own. The Y.M.C.A., the Y.W.C.A., and some of the major churches were in the area. It was where the more successful actors and musicians lived or gathered. Its social and political clubs were dominated by blacks of old New York family backgrounds or by the more educated migrants from other sections of the country. And its small boarding houses, hotels, and restaurants were more respectable than those in other parts of the Tenderloin. James Weldon Johnson, who lived on West Fifty-third Street in the early years of the century, wrote that before some of these places opened “there was scarcely a decent restaurant in New York in which Negroes could eat,” and that “the sight offered at these hotels, of crowds of well-dressed colored men and women lounging and chatting in the parlors, loitering over their coffee and cigarettes while they talked or listened to the music, was unprecedented.” Fifty-third Street, the Evening Telegram said in 1906, “is to the Negro colonies what Fifth Avenue is to white society.”

Among the culturally distinguished blacks who frequented the better parlors and dining rooms of West Fifty-third Street was Theodore Drury, founder and director of Manhattan’s only Negro opera company. A black contemporary described Drury as “picturesque” and as cultivating “a foreign air.” Each year, Drury’s company presented a one-night season of grand opera, usually at the Lexington Opera House, on East Fifty-eighth Street, and of one performance, in May of 1906, the Times said, “A good part of the audience was colored, too, and the boxes were filled by the leaders of New York’s colored society.” One of these leaders said later, however, that although the operas were great social events and financial successes, “none of us . . . took them too seriously.”

Harry Burleigh, a prominent singer, composer, and arranger of Negro spirituals, was another member of the cultivated set that lounged and chatted in the clubs and hotel restaurants of West Fifty-third Street. A graduate of the National Conservatory, in New York City, where he had studied under Antonín Dvořák, Burleigh was one of the few Negro musicians on the West Side with classical training. And he was the only black in the choirs of Manhattan’s Temple Emanu-El and St. George’s Episcopal Church.

The blacks on Fifty-third Street dressed much as whites on Fifth Avenue. The men wore frock coats, vests, and wide-bottom trousers. Their shirts, fastened with studs, had detachable stiff collars and cuffs, made of linen, celluloid, cotton, or paper. Heavy watch chains dangled across their vests. Straw hats were commonly worn in summer, and derbies (or “high dicers”) in winter. They carried walking sticks and wore high boots polished with Bixby’s Best Blacking. The women were turned out in heavy-bosomed box blouses and full skirts that covered their ankles. They almost never smoked—at least in public. The older men preferred pipes and cigars, while the younger ones liked cigarettes, and smoked such popular brands as Virginia Brights, Sweet Caporal, and Richmond Straight Cut. Those who kept up with serious periodicals would have read such white journals as The North American Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Weekly, The National Police Gazette, Town Topics, and Leslie’s Weekly, and such black ones as The Colored American, The Christian Recorder, and The Voice of the Negro.

The Society of the Sons of New York, which had its clubhouse on West Fifty-third Street, was a resort of the black upper crust. The Tribune noted in 1892 that it was “the ambition of every respectable colored man in this city” to belong to the Society. But to become a member a colored man not only had to be respectable, and more, but also had to have been born and bred in New York. (If, occasionally, a non-New Yorker was considered for associate membership, it was because he could furnish proof that he was “a citizen in good standing in the United States.”) The black New Yorkers who formed the Society were probably uniting socially against newcomers to the city, especially those from the South—a group whose public influence and importance had been steadily growing. By 1900, most Negro preachers, businessmen, actors, musicians, lawyers, doctors, and political figures in New York had been born either in the South or in other parts of the country, and it rankled native New Yorkers to find themselves steadily being overshadowed or outshone by a group they had once regarded as cultural inferiors. Miss Ovington wrote in 1911, “The taint of slavery was far removed from these people, who looked with scorn upon arrivals from the South. . . . These old New York colored families, sometimes bearing historic Dutch and English names, have diminished in size and importance. . . . And into the city has come a continual stream of Southerners and more recently West Indians, some among them educated, ambitious men and women, full of the energy and determination of the immigrant who means to attain to prominence in his new home. These newcomers occupy many of the pulpits, are admitted to the bar, practice medicine, and become leaders in politics, and their wives are quite ready to take a prominent part in the social world.”


The Society’s founders were related historically to the earliest group of New York’s black well-to-do, the majority of whose survivors were living in Brooklyn at the end of the eighteen-hundreds and during the early years of the nineteen-hundreds. Speaking mainly of this group, the Times said, in July of 1895, “It will be news to many white persons to learn that many negro men own and occupy brownstone dwellings in fashionable neighborhoods, employ white servants, and ride in their own carriages behind horses driven by liveried coachmen. Some not only own the houses they live in but also houses tenanted by rich white families, and there are negro men in New York whose wealth is well along toward the million-dollar mark. . . . In selecting servants, negro people seem to prefer Swedes and Poles though some hire Southerners of their own race.”

In February of 1903, the Tribune told the story of a white woman, brought up in the South, who “found it necessary to call upon a colored woman on a matter of business.” When she rang and “an uncommonly good-looking white girl came to the door,” an exchange took place:

“I must have the wrong number,” the caller said. “I wanted to see Mrs. So-and-So, and she’s a colored woman.”

“This is where she lives,” the girl said. “Won’t you come in?”

“But how do you happen to be here?”

“I’m her maid.”

“But you are a white person, are you not?”

“Of course, but what has that got to do with it?”

The Tribune went on to say, “The girl knew nothing of the color line; she was the daughter of German parents; she had to work. If a colored woman paid her good wages and treated her well, what possible reason could there be for not keeping the position?”

Socially, however, members of this old Negro upper class kept virtually to themselves—ignored by whites of similar position and cut off from less exalted members of their own race. The saloonkeeper John B. Nail, who had a “wide acquaintance among colored men of wealth and of high social position,” gave this account to the Sun in January of 1903:

You must remember that the object of the wealthy and educated colored man is to be as inconspicuous as possible, so far as white people are concerned. He doesn’t want to spend his hours in being reminded of the fact that the great mass of his fellow-citizens despise him on account of his color. He wants to forget that as much as he can.

When he seeks society he cannot do it as a white man with the same income. There are no restaurants like Delmonico’s or Sherry’s for him. . . . There are not enough wealthy colored families to keep such a place going on the scale they would demand. So they do their entertaining at home. They spend more money on their home life, their dinners, and their parties than white men of the same income would, because they have no place to spend it outside.

You must remember that in this generation all the sons of wealthy colored men go to college and there are hundreds of college graduates among them. Some send their sons to the English universities where, of course, there is no prejudice against the negro at all. That isn't always a healthy experiment because it unfits a young man for his life here and makes home miserable for him.

A great many go to Howard University at Washington. Quite a number go to Oberlin, and there is a scattering . . . at Harvard and Yale.


The girls go to any of the Northern women’s colleges. They come back here with the same social desires and tastes that you find in white young folks of similar training. But they are barred. They are classed with the most degraded and brutal element of their race.

The result is the only one that . . . could be expected. Colored families of high class keep their family and social affairs out of sight of the rest of the world, white and black, as much as they can. They visit one another and keep a very strict and careful line drawn about themselves and try to make their standards as high as they can.

White servants? Why, of course. They are obliged to have white servants. Negro servants in a high-class colored family are practically an impossibility.

If there is one thing the negro of the servant class doesn’t know it is that the color of his skin doesn’t make him the equal of his master. You know what a fresh colored servant is in a white family? Just imagine the hell that would be raised by a fresh colored servant in a colored family. . . . The thing is impossible. So they get foreigners, who have not the prejudices against our race existing here.

If the male members of such families spent an occasional social evening in Manhattan, it was to visit Nail’s saloon, or to fraternize with their own kind in the clubhouse of the Society of the Sons of New York. They were less impressed by the rest of society on and around West Fifty-third Street.

West Fifty-third Street was predominantly a social and residential center for Negro stage personalities, including musicians, and what the solid old families of Brooklyn would have called cultural parvenus. There seem to have been two classes of actors and musicians: those who worked mainly in rathskellers and cheap vaudeville houses, and those connected with the more highly regarded forms of Negro musical comedy. However, the Sun made no distinction between the groups when, in 1903, it said about the West Fifty-third Street district: “The neighborhood is full of theatrical boarding houses . . . with their scandals, their romances, and their literary discussions. . . . In no other quarter of New York can there be found such elaboration of manners and of the picturesque combination of colors in dress as are to be found in the boarding house parlors.” Nor was any distinction made by a contemporary Negro observer who, in commenting on aspects of manners on West Fifty-third Street, stated that “hordes of the newly rich had heard that good eating was a mark of civilized living, and they interpreted good eating in terms of bulk, and packed away enormous feeds washed down with amazing quantities of champagne and fine liquors.”

At any rate, the successful and talented from the world of music and the stage gathered frequently in the restaurants of the Maceo and Marshall Hotels, converted brownstones on West Fifty-third, though fewer of them went to the Maceo, which advertised itself as the “headquarters of clergy and businessmen.” It was the Marshall that was the headquarters of the actors and the musicians. Its restaurant and private dining rooms were noted for Creole sauces and Maryland fried chicken. There were also other special Southern dishes, probably for the Negro railroad men who stayed at the Marshall when they stopped over in New York. On Sunday evenings, when an orchestra played, dinner in the Marshall's restaurant was by reservation only. Some of the actors and musicians lived at the hotel, and others had rooms nearby, but the Marshall was where they all gathered to eat, drink, talk, and try out ideas for their work. One of them later recalled that they spent many hours there discussing “the manner and means of raising the status of the Negro as a writer, composer, and performer in the New York theatre and world of music.” The Marshall, he said, was “the radiant point of the forces that cleared the way for the Negro on the New York stage.”

It may therefore be said that the Marshall helped shape the Negro musical theatre that developed and flourished in Manhattan during the late eighteen-nineties and early nineteen-hundreds. This was a transitional theatre, blending some of the less primitive styles of Negro comedy with certain aspects of the Broadway musical. Some of its leading creators were products of the old minstrel stage, known for its grotesque and ludicrous portrayals of “darky” characters. Up to the early eighteen-nineties, almost all Negro entertainers had been minstrels. Although the mode of comedy that was shaped in Manhattan represented a break with the minstrel tradition, the break was not a clean one—perhaps it could not have been—and some of the worst habits of the minstrel past were clearly observable in the new black theatre. Here, from George Walker, one of the reformed comedians and later a member, with Bert Williams, of the comedy team of Williams and Walker, is an account of what had happened to the black minstrels: “Black-faced white comedians used to make themselves look as ridiculous as they could when portraying a ‘darky’ character. In their make-up they always had tremendously big red lips, and their costumes were frightfully exaggerated. The one fatal result of this to the colored performers was that they imitated the white performers in their make-up as ‘darkies.’ Nothing seemed more absurd than to see a colored man making himself ridiculous in order to portray himself.”

It was men like Walker who, not wanting to look so ridiculous, began, especially in Manhattan, to introduce a new quality into Negro comedy. This was not immediately or consistently noticeable, however. Many of the black comedians, including Walker, still looked and sounded almost as silly as they had in the past. A few still relied heavily on the grotesque minstrel grins that were so pleasing to whites. And words like “coon”—a mainstay of the minstrel idiom—still cropped up in their songs and skits. But this continuation of minstrel mannerisms was, for the most part, superficial, and served chiefly as a protective convenience. It was necessary to the economics of black comic acting, for whites, who made up the bulk of the audiences, were not ready to accept any sudden break with the gestures of Negro comedy they had become accustomed to. Behind the protective façade of what these new comedians were doing, however, a quiet revolution was going on. The entertainers had started to be themselves rather than the darkies invented by whites. They had begun to impose their own interpretation on Negro material, to portray characters and situations in which blacks could recognize their own conduct and folkways—and at which most of them (though certainly not the Negro middle class) could laugh without undue embarrassment. Whether or not whites were aware of this subtle change in the work of black comedians, they were now laughing more honestly than in the past, for they were enjoying material that blacks themselves found genuinely amusing.

The gradual emergence of a post-minstrel style in Negro comedy coincided with a new development in theatre—the arrival on the New York stage of musical-comedy revues that were written, produced, acted, and directed by all-black companies. These were among the most popular shows in Manhattan in the eighteen-nineties and early nineteen-hundreds, and the stars of the Negro musical stage were among the celebrated personalities of New York’s theatrical life. A black journalist wrote in 1903, “At no time have colored stage folk been accorded such consideration and loyal support from show managers, the press, and the general public.”

One of the older comedy stars was a Kentuckian named Ernest Hogan. A brilliant performer, Hogan was best known for his role in “The Oyster Man,” a musical revue. He had been a minstrel for most of his career, however, and found it more difficult than his slightly younger colleagues in Manhattan to sever his attachment to the past. In the late eighteen-nineties, he wrote a song entitled “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” which managed to offend even those blacks who were laughing wildly at the work of the post-minstrel comedians. Hogan seemed unable to understand the unfavorable reaction to his composition until it was explained to him that his song was immensely popular among whites only because its title confirmed a view they commonly expressed about blacks. Hogan was shocked by this, and is said to have spent the remaining years of his life regretting his most successful attempt at songwriting.

Bob Cole and the Johnson brothers—James Weldon and J. Rosamond—led an all-black ensemble, the Cole and Johnson company, but were more widely known as one of the best songwriting teams of that period. As a lyricist, playwright, actor, director, stage manager, and dancer, Cole was the most versatile member of the partnership; James Weldon Johnson, a graduate of Atlanta University, was the best educated; and J. Rosamond, who had studied at the New England Conservatory, had the soundest musical training. In the sphere of songwriting, these men pushed the movement away from minstrelsy a step farther. They wrote romantic numbers mostly, refuting one of the popular notions of the time—that Negro artists and performers were deficient in the “finer” sentiments. “We want to clean up the caricature,” J. Rosamond Johnson explained to a Broadway music publisher. And Jack Burton, a historian of Tin Pan Alley, wrote, “Rosamond Johnson’s songs set a new pattern for syncopated Negro music. His whimsical comedy numbers made no reference to crap-shooting, chicken-stealing, and razor-wielding, the favorite themes of most Negro tunesmiths at the turn of the century. In his romantic songs, he presented dark-skinned but blue-blooded Romeos and Juliets in a tropical setting far removed from the Mississippi River backdrop against which kinky-haired wenches and shiftless roustabouts had danced for years in the afterpiece of innumerable minstrel shows.” Among such songs were “My Castle on the Nile,” “Since You Went Away,” “Come Out Dinah on the Green,” “The Congo Love Song,” “The Maiden with the Dreamy Eyes,” “Tell Me, Dusky Maiden,” and—perhaps the most popular—“Under the Bamboo Tree.” Some of these compositions enjoyed a vogue beyond the world of Negro theatre. They became popular hits on Broadway, where they were sung by such stars as May Irwin, Lillian Russell, Anna Held, Fay Templeton, and Marie Cahill. In New York and London, “Under the Bamboo Tree” was one of the best-known tunes of the early years of the century.

Will Marion Cook, whose “Rain Song” enjoyed moderate popularity around that time, was not the songwriting success or the Broadway celebrity that Cole and the Johnson brothers were. He was brusque, insulting, and short-tempered, and resented the fact that race prejudice confined him to the world of Negro music. He could never have got along smoothly with the publishers of Tin Pan Alley. But then songwriting was not his main occupation. He was primarily a composer-arranger and a conductor—“the most original genius among all the Negro musicians,” James Weldon Johnson called him. Cook, who came from Washington, D.C.—his father was a lawyer and his mother was a college teacher—had been trained as a classical musician. After attending the conservatory at Oberlin College, he had gone to Berlin, where he studied the violin under Joseph Joachim and music theory at the Hochschule. He then came to New York, with ambitions for a career on the concert stage, only to discover that the city was not yet ready for classical musicians of his color. Turning his back on the classical tradition, Cook later became something of a chauvinist in the matter of Negro music. By the time James Weldon Johnson made his acquaintance, around 1900, Cook “had thrown all these [classical] standards over,” Johnson recalled. “He believed that the Negro in music and on the stage ought to be a Negro, a genuine Negro; he declared that the Negro should eschew ‘white’ patterns, and not employ his efforts in doing what ‘the white artist could always do as well, generally better.’ ”


Cook did not confine himself entirely to popular music, however. He was somewhat like “the caged bird” of which a contemporary Negro poet had written:

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough aswing.

Cook would do what circumstances had obliged him to do, but he would not let it be forgotten that it was to the strains of another, “higher” form of music that he had been trained to fly. After listening to an evening of Cook’s popular compositions, a white New Yorker wrote, “I am told that Mr. Cook declares that the next score he writes shall begin with ten minutes of serious music. If the audience doesn’t like it, they can come in late, but for ten minutes he will do something worthy of his genius.”

The poet who knew “why the caged bird beats his wing”—and also, in a later line, why he “sings”—was Paul Laurence Dunbar, the sweetest singer among the black poets of his generation, and, as it happened, a friend and colleague of Cook’s. In 1898, they had collaborated—music by Cook and lyrics by Dunbar—on “Clorindy, The Origin of the Cake-Walk,” one of the musical-comedy hits of the period. Dunbar often shared the company of the actors and musicians at the Marshall Hotel, and he enjoyed contributing the lyrics for some of their shows. He was not, however, one of the professionals of the Negro stage. Around 1900, he was the most highly regarded black writer in America—less for his novels and short stories than for his poems. His position as a poet had been established in 1896, when his book “Lyrics of Lowly Life” appeared, with an introduction by William Dean Howells. “What struck me in reading Mr. Dunbar’s poetry,” Howells wrote, “was what had already struck his friends . . . here was the first instance of an American negro who had evinced innate distinction in literature. . . . Dunbar was the only man of pure African blood and of American civilization to feel the negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically . . . his brilliant and unique achievement was to have studied the American negro objectively, and to have represented him as he found him to be, with humor, with sympathy, and yet with what the reader must instinctively feel to be entire truthfulness.”

Dunbar was not a resident of New York. He lived in Washington, D.C., but since the life of Manhattan seems to have fascinated him—and since his publishers were there—he made frequent and prolonged visits to the city. He liked dropping in on the night spots of Negro Bohemia and mingling with the stage folk who gathered at the Marshall Hotel. His popularity is captured in a description by a friend who had watched Dunbar’s arrival at a social affair on the West Side in 1899. Acquaintances rushed up to greet him, strangers looked on and exchanged “awed whispers,” but “it did not appear that celebrity had puffed him up; he did not meet the homage that was being shown him with anything but friendly and hearty response.” There was certainly reason for Dunbar to be lionized in the social and cultural circles of the West Side. Manhattan’s black community was full of religious leaders, theatre personalities, musicians and composers, and businessmen and other professionals, but it possessed no poet or novelist of distinction. Dunbar was all that it could claim, even if he did not belong to the city. James Weldon Johnson later became a notable poet and novelist, but up to the early nineteen-hundreds he had published almost nothing of merit, unless it was the few songs he had written as a member of the Cole and Johnson partnership. What literary life went on in the black community of Manhattan was a life not of writing but of reading—of discussing the authors of the day, with special attention to those who were deemed “morally elevating.” These discussions were to be heard at Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A. gatherings, in parlors and clubs, and in the forums and lyceums of the major churches. It seems odd that no serious black writing had yet emerged in a city that gave such an impetus to black theatrical and musical expression and was already well on the way to becoming one of the main Northern arenas for progressive black intellectuals.

Two of Dunbar’s acquaintances on the West Side were Bert Williams and George Walker, who were stage partners. As actors and entertainers, Williams and Walker were probably the principal leaders of the movement away from minstrelsy and toward a more acceptable form of Negro comedy. They had met and teamed up in San Francisco and had moved to New York in 1896, advertising themselves as the “Two Real Coons.” To be sure, this—especially to sensitive blacks—was an unfortunate description. Yet it contained a measure of historical accuracy, racial dissent, and theatrical opportunism, as Walker explained in an article he wrote for The Theatre Magazine in 1906:

In those days [just before he and Williams came to New York] black-faced white comedians were numerous and very popular. They billed themselves “coons.” Bert and I watched the white “coons,” and were often much amused at seeing white men with black cork on their faces trying to imitate black folks. Nothing about these white men’s actions was natural, and therefore nothing was as interesting as if black performers had been dancing and singing their own songs in their own way. . . .


We thought that as there seemed to be a great demand for black faces on the stage, we would do all we could to get what we felt belonged to us by the laws of nature. . . . As white men with black faces were billing themselves “coons,” Williams and Walker would do well to bill themselves the “Two Real Coons,” and so we did. . . . As the “Two Real Coons,” we made our first hit in New York, while playing at Koster and Bial’s.

They went on to produce and act in their own musical revues, and New Yorkers of all races flocked to such of their shows as “Sons of Ham,” “In Dahomey,” “Bandana Land,” and “In Abyssinia”—productions that made Williams and Walker the most acclaimed Negro comic actors of the day.

Even as comic partnerships go, Bert Williams and George Walker were a most dissimilar couple, seeming to have nothing in common but their racial background and a love for the work they did together. Walker was an American, born in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1873, and Williams a West Indian, born in Antigua in 1874. Walker was black-skinned and of medium height and build, and—to judge from his photographs—seemed always to be grinning. He was not handsome, but his face had an expression of mischievous charm and energy that women must have found appealing. Williams was light-skinned, tall, broad-shouldered, and handsome. His face, even when he smiled, had a controlled, introspective quality. Offstage, his manners and bearing were correct and elegant. He seems to have read widely. One source states that Mark Twain was his favorite author, and that his library contained works by Darwin, Paine, Wilde, Schopenhauer, Voltaire, Kant, and Goethe. Walker, of whose literary interests there is no record, was an agile dancer and an effervescent performer, who always appeared in the role of the clever and intelligent partner. Williams played the slovenly, lazy, dull-witted, and slow-footed half of the team. Most of his movements onstage, in walking or in dancing, suggested a character who was severely deficient in intelligence and had seldom encountered anything in life but failure. And most of the sounds he made, talking or singing, were droll, melancholy, and wistful, expressing a yearning for the good fortune that seemed to attend every household but his own. Walker, who wore expensive, custom-made clothes, onstage and off, was called “dapper,” and is said to have dressed “always a point or two above the height of fashion.” According to Ann Charters, who has written a biography of Williams, Walker “greatly preferred that his suits, shirts, and cravats were the only ones of their kind, and he began to get a reputation as a dandy both on and off the stage.” She adds:

As a friend said, he was a “man just born for clothes.” He spent more hours with his tailor than he spent with his wife. Suits were made for him by the dozen, and he always had four or five fittings before he was satisfied with the way they looked. He bought the latest style and nothing but the best of everything, particularly addicted to light colored suits, big soft handkerchiefs . . . in his jacket pocket, high white collars, large silk patterned ties, and bright roses or carnations pinned carefully in his buttonhole. He dressed to please himself and impress the public—and help him win the favors of pretty young showgirls.

Offstage, Williams dressed conservatively and carried himself with an understated Edwardian dignity. James Weldon Johnson saw him as “highly intelligent and with a certain reserve which at times exhibited itself as downright snobbishness.” Williams’ wife, Lottie, was a pretty and demure-looking Chicago showgirl, who retired from the stage after their wedding. Walker’s wife, Ada Overton, was a native New Yorker and a singer and dancer in the Williams and Walker company. She had a statuesque figure, dressed as fashionably as her husband, danced almost as well, and was the brightest black female star of the period.

“In Dahomey,” which opened at the New York Theatre in February of 1903, was one of the first Negro comedy revues to appear on Broadway. The show introduced Williams and Walker to the largest and most critical audience that the two had yet entertained. “The way we’ve aimed for Broadway and just missed it in the past seven years would make you cry,” Williams said when “In Dahomey” opened. “I used to be tempted to beg for a fifteen-dollar job in a chorus just for one week so as to be able to say I’d been on Broadway once.” Now they had finally made it, and, as the critic for the Tribune said, had “vindicated their right to appear on Broadway.” Touching on a quality in Williams’ work that had already made him a star in the cheaper houses, the critic wrote, “Williams is the . . . butt, the abused one. He manifests . . . a pathetic knowledge that something is wrong somewhere with the eternal scheme of things. He sang a song with the sad refrain ‘I’m a good, substantial, full-fledged, real first-class Jonah Man,’ which was re-demanded a dozen times; and those who had come to scoff were loudest in their applause.”


Of Williams’ songs, the one that he made most famous—and that contributed heavily to his own fame—was “Nobody.” But none of his songs was more expressive of the character he frequently portrayed, or of the sombre and plaintive style of his work, than “I’m a Jonah Man”:

My hard luck started when I was born

Leas’ so the old folks say.

Dat same hard luck been my bes’ fren’

Up to dis very day.

When I was young my mamma’s fren’s—to find a name they tried.

They named me after papa and the same day papa died.

For I’m a Jonah, I’m a Jonah man.

My family for many years would look on me

And then shed tears.

Why am I dis Jonah

I sho’ can’t understand

But I’m a good substantial full-fledged

Real first-class Jonah man.

“He was very melancholy about it,” the Tribune’s critic said. “He was totally unaware why anybody should laugh. His very dance at the end was the angular illustration of woe.”

Williams and Walker made the cakewalk—an ebullient strut—one of the most popular dances in Manhattan. At the height of its fashion, it was danced with enthusiasm throughout the city, and with no more enthusiasm than in white New York society, where one of its leading exponents was William K. Vanderbilt. Cakewalk contests were held regularly at Madison Square Garden, and the winners received grand pianos, gold and silver watches, gold-headed canes, and some more modest prizes. In 1895, when Billy Farrell and his wife, both blacks, won the world’s cakewalk championship at the Garden, a hundred and eight couples competed, and the judges were Vanderbilt, Mayor William L. Strong, and James J. Corbett. “There were a lot of theatrical people in the walk as well as those colored society cakewalkers,” Farrell recalled almost forty years later. “The first time around, these society walkers made us look pretty small. But the second time around we did a lot of new stuff, like me kneeling and tying my wife’s shoelace without missing a beat. We walked from ten until four the next morning.” The prizes, delivered the following day, were three sets of furniture, four pianos, two dozen silk hats, and “miles of stockings.”

Though people had been strutting the cakewalk in New York before Williams and Walker arrived in the city, the dance became the rage it did only after the two men began including it in their musical shows. For this development, most of the credit must surely belong to George Walker and his wife, Ada. George was the great dancer of the team, and Ada was only slightly less accomplished. She once said that “there was sunshine in the hearts” of those who danced the cakewalk, and that the dancers had to show they were “interested and happy.” In the Williams and Walker company, only George and Ada—nimble of foot and bubbly of spirit—were qualified to meet those demands. A man like Williams could scarcely have contributed much, or anything, to the popularity of the cakewalk—Bert of the lugubrious face and the slow, awkward, and woeful dancing feet. If he had any sunshine in his heart, only his friends and family saw any evidence of it. Onstage, it seldom broke through the overcast of his face, the melancholy of his voice, and the other inclemencies of his style.

The Williams and Walker partnership ended in 1909, when Walker, suffering from what was then an incurable illness—syphilis—retired from the stage. In 1910, Williams joined the Ziegfeld Follies. And there, over the next nine years (he died in 1922), he became even more celebrated than he had been before, and confirmed his position as one of the great comic performers in the history of the American stage. W. C. Fields, who appeared regularly with the Follies, said later that Williams was “the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew.”

By 1910, when Bert Williams joined the Ziegfeld Follies, Negroes had been moving to Harlem for about a decade, and the district was well on the way to becoming the new center of Manhattan’s black population. During that decade, industrial development and racial violence began forcing many blacks to abandon their dwellings on the West Side, and the first of these two circumstances was described in the Herald in 1903:

With the advent of the Pennsylvania’s big station and tunnel in the heart of the old Tenderloin, that famous landmark of vice and blackmail passes into history. “Killed by a railroad” should be its epitaph. . . . Dives disappear before derrick and stone masons. Politicans and boodlers vanish before the headlight of the railroad. . . . In March, 1900, the directors of the Pennsylvania road authorized an increase of $100,000,000 of stock. . . . No hint of the company’s real purpose was then disclosed—to acquire the Long Island Railroad, to tunnel under the two rivers and the big city and to erect a monumental station near Herald Square. In December of the following year the Pennsylvania purchased several parcels of property in Thirty-third Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. That was the beginning of the mad rush for property in the neighborhood. Next came the final struggle for all the real estate left, which ended early this spring in the complete acquisition by the company of the valuable territory between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, Thirty-first and Thirty-third Streets.


During this mad rush for industrial property, many tenements occupied by blacks were bought up and later demolished.

In the summer of 1900, there occurred the second major event that contributed to the exodus of blacks from the middle West Side. On the night of August 15th, long-simmering racial tensions erupted into the most violent attack on Negroes that New York had seen since the draft riots of 1863—when scores of black families had fled Manhattan and taken up residence in Brooklyn. In the early years of the nineteenth century, Hell’s Kitchen, where the rioting broke out in 1900, had been one of the more tranquil neighborhoods of the city. Dutch settlers had called it Bloemendael, the Vale of Flowers. But this changed drastically, as Richard O’Connor has written in his book “Hell’s Kitchen”:

With the coming of the Civil War, with vast migrations from Europe and rapid industrialization, the countrified charm of the section vanished forever, and its streets were invaded by jerry-built rows of tenements, grog-shops, slaughterhouses, railroad yards, warehouses, gas reservoirs. Gangs of hoodlums battled police for supremacy in its streets. Riots and disorders were fomented along its noisome thoroughfares.

By 1900, Hell’s Kitchen had become probably the most warlike area in all of Manhattan, and from most accounts it was the police who led that year’s attack on the blacks. One account, “Story of the Riot,” was written by Frank Moss:

On August 12 . . . a Negro named Arthur Harris was with his wife at 41st Street and 8th Avenue. He says that he left her to buy a cigar, and when he returned he found her in the grasp of a man in citizen’s dress. This man was a police officer named Robert J. Thorpe, who had arrested her, as he claimed, for “soliciting.” Harris says that he did not know Thorpe was an officer, and that he attempted to rescue his wife. The policeman struck Harris with his club, and Harris retaliated with his penknife, inflicting a mortal wound and then ran away. Thorpe was attached to the 20th precinct and was much liked by his comrades. Policemen thronged his home; and his funeral . . . was attended by Chief Devery, Inspector Thompson and other officials. . . .

During the day of the funeral there were rumors of coming trouble . . . those colored people who have illicit dealings with the police . . . seeing the signs of coming trouble, closed their places and kept off the streets. . . . Several officers told informants of mine that they were going to punish the Negroes that night. There are numerous gangs of rowdies in the district who are hostile to Negroes and friendly with the unofficial powers that are now potent in police affairs. There was an understanding between the forces that night that resulted in the holding of the streets for hours by crowds of roughs who raced up and down Broadway, 7th, and 8th Avenues, and the side streets from 34th to 42nd streets—in pursuit of Negroes, and were not attacked by the police except in one or two cases where they invaded Broadway hotels hunting for colored men.

The unanimous testimony of the newspaper reports was that the mob could have been broken and destroyed immediately and with little difficulty . . . policemen stood by and made no effort to protect the Negroes who were assailed. They ran with the crowds in pursuit of their prey; they took defenseless men who ran to them for protection and threw them to the rioters, and in many cases they beat and clubbed men and women more brutally than the mob did. They were absolutely unrestrained by their superior officers. It was the night sticks of the police that sent a stream of bleeding colored men to the hospital. . . . Men who were taken to the station house. . . were beaten by policemen without mercy.


White reaction to the event was mixed. The Tribune, expressing an opinion that was shared by most newspapers in Manhattan—though not all—said, “These assaults . . . on negroes in our streets were utterly inexcusable and outrageous. . . . The police of Southern cities have seldom if ever behaved worse than the police of New York behaved. . . . The universal feeling of respectable society is that the city has been disgraced.” Yet a writer for Harper’s Weekly commented, “I heard many native Americans, even New Englanders, say after the riot that they would have been glad if many of the negroes had been killed.” In the wake of the riot, most Negroes, knowing themselves to be outnumbered and endangered, and fearing a recurrence of the attacks, maintained a self-protective silence. Some began looking for homes elsewhere, and others began to arm themselves. One woman declared, “Let every Negro get a permit to carry a revolver. . . . Don’t you get caught again. Have your houses made ready to afford protection from the fury of the mob.” This view was not shared by the city’s recognized black leaders, most of whom counselled calm. By calling, professional position, and cultural attitude, these were not the sort of men to demand militant retaliation. They were successful businessmen, ministers, lawyers, and doctors, and they leaned to milder forms of civic protest. A few days after the riot, the Reverend William H. Brooks, pastor of St. Mark’s, on West Fifty-third Street, addressed his congregation, “This is a conservative church and the pastor is a conservative man. Neither church nor pastor wishes any notoriety, and we hate sensationalism next to sin. . . . Not one finger must be raised in retaliation. . . . We must fight by due process of law.” In what he said, Brooks may have been encouraged by some of the favorable newspaper comments he had read, for he went on to point out that the New York press had “stood for law against lawlessness, humanity as opposed to inhumanity, justice as opposed to injustice, and right as opposed to might.” In a letter to Mayor Robert Van Wyck, Brooks therefore said, “We ask for no money consideration. . . . The rights of citizenship we value above money. We ask for the conviction and removal from the force of those officers whom we are able to prove guilty. . . . We feel keenly our position, and again appeal to you for common justice.”

But on this occasion Brooks’ faith in due process was badly misplaced. James Weldon Johnson later reported: “An investigation was held in which colored citizens who testified to having been beaten by the police were themselves treated as persons accused of crime. . . . The investigation turned out to be a sham and a whitewash.” By 1905, when a race riot broke out in the San Juan Hill district, blacks were fleeing the West Side in increasing numbers. Now, as one eyewitness reported, “every day was moving day.” A few of the families were finding places to live in the West Nineties, but most of them—their belongings packed in horse-drawn vans and wagons—were making their way to Harlem.

The Harlem that the blacks were entering had a white working-class population—people of various European nationalities. But, especially west of Lenox Avenue, Harlem was one of the chief upper-middle-class districts of Manhattan. Streets and avenues were lined with fine brownstones and splendid apartment houses. Here and there stood a luxurious mansion. Frederic Birmingham, who grew up in white Harlem during the nineteen-twenties, recalled in a 1960 memoir that poorer residents often found themselves “tiptoeing up some of the shaded streets and looking with wide eyes on the mansion of some merchant prince or beer baron, its handsome lawns covered with sportive cast-iron animals, its own stables right on the property and possibly a ‘gazebo’ made out of cedar logs and covered with wisteria and honeysuckle.” Of pre-black Harlem, Gilbert Osofsky, a historian of the community, added:

The people attracted to this “residential heaven” were . . . older and wealthier New Yorkers—“people of taste and wealth.” Few neighborhoods in the entire city at the turn of the century had so disproportionate a number of native Americans or immigrants from Great Britain, Ireland and Germany, including German Jews, living in it. . . . Many late-nineteenth-century Harlemites were born in downtown Manhattan or immigrated to America in the years 1830-1850, and subsequently moved to the community after 1870. . . . The homes of municipal and federal judges, mayors, local politicos . . . prominent businessmen and state politicians . . . were scattered throughout Harlem. Their children attended Grammar School 68, “referred to as the ‘Silk Stocking School’ of the City” because its “pupils were practically all from American families, and . . . more or less prosperous people.” . . . A young Jewish boy moved to Harlem from the Lower East Side in the first decade of the twentieth century and recalled seeing rich German Jews, “Uptown Jews,” strutting down Seventh Avenue in top hats, black coats and canes.

And Lloyd Morris, in his “Incredible New York,” gives this sketch of life in the “impeccably respectable, conservative, and prosperous” Harlem of the late nineteenth century:

On pleasant summer evenings, you saw families sitting out on their stoops, and children playing in streets seldom disturbed by traffic. You surmised that the aroma of well-cooked meals saturated the low brownstone dwellings. You could be sure that every parlor displayed an aspidistra, a “suite” of mahogany-stained furniture upholstered in velveteen, an upright piano and gilt-framed chromos and engravings on the walls. Upstairs, the principal bedroom would have a gleaming, knobby brass double bed, with cover and “pillow-shams” of crochet lace over a lining of pink or blue sateen. In these homes, pinochle was played and pyrography cultivated as a genteel art. As you walked past them you heard the strumming of mandolins and banjos, the tinkle of a piano and youthful voices singing. . . . Harlem, once a village, rejoiced in its “small-town” atmosphere. Like Brooklyn, it proudly exalted the domestic virtues, the pieties of religion, the authority of convention. It went to see sultry actresses like Fanny Davenport and Olga Nethersole when they brought French plays to the Harlem Opera House—an occasional shock was pleasant. . . . But in real life Harlem wanted nothing to do with loose morals. It distrusted . . . flamboyance . . . ostentatious luxury.


Seventh Avenue, with its theatres and other showplaces, was already a boulevard of high style and fashion—though in later years blacks were to heighten the style and bring something of their own bravura to the fashion. But the main thoroughfare of business and entertainment was West 125th Street. Here one found the Harlem Opera House, Hurtig & Seamon’s Music Hall (where Sophie Tucker and Fanny Brice sometimes appeared), the New Orpheum Theatre, and cinema houses like Proctor’s, the Victoria, and the Orient. Here, too, were the big department stores, the banks, insurance companies, jewelry stores, bakeries, beaneries, and hash houses. The wealthier families dined out at Pabst’s Restaurant. And the intersection of Seventh Avenue and 125th Street—white Harlem’s equivalent of Union Square—was where the stepladder suffragettes, Socialists, and Henry George single-taxers made the more radical speeches of the day.

Though white Harlem “wanted nothing to do with loose morals,” it had been unable to keep out gambling dens, saloons, poolrooms, beer gardens, burlesque houses, and dance halls. And in 1911 the Harlem Home News, quoting a prominent white member of the community, called attention to some “degrading” dances that had made their appearance uptown:

I wonder . . . if the parents know that the “nigger” dance is a sort of double “hootchie kootchie” in which hugging and squeezing and suggestive motions play a prominent part?

The “turkey trot” or “shivver” . . . is a kind of hopping dance in which the bodies are kept shivering in a senseless manner.

The “grizzly bear” is a shuffle in which the dancers allow their limbs to come in contact with each other in a way that shocks respectable women and makes decent men’s blood boil with rage.

Worse, the young white people in Harlem were to be seen dancing these steps not only on weeknights but on Sunday evenings as well, The Home News did not say where these dances had originated or how the white sons and daughters of Harlem had come to be doing them but such dances had probably made their way up from the Negro West Side, because by 1911 blacks from that part of Manhattan had been settling—and therefore dancing—in Harlem for more than ten years.

In December of 1905, the Herald took note of an “untoward circumstance” that had been “injected into the private-dwelling market in the vicinity of 133rd and 134th Streets.” Flats “that were occupied entirely by white folks have been captured for occupancy by a Negro population.” There were still a few white residents on 133rd Street between Lenox Avenue and Seventh Avenue, but nearly all of 134th between those avenues had been taken over by blacks. Further, real-estate brokers were predicting that it was “only a matter of time” before the blocks between Seventh and Eighth Avenues became “a stronghold of the Negro population.” The cause of this “colored influx,” the Herald said, “is inexplicable.”

There were at least two causes, and neither was inexplicable, at least to the Negro refugees who were virtually being driven out of the middle West Side, and to the white landlords of Harlem who saw them as a godsend—who were welcoming them with vacant apartments, if not exactly with open arms. Perhaps it was the landlords’ side of the story that the Herald did not know. Up until the late eighteen-nineties, not all the blocks in the vicinity of Lenox Avenue above 125th Street had been fully built up. As a result, white tenants may have found that section of Harlem less desirable than the area farther to the west, in the direction of Seventh and Eighth Avenues. Besides, while the blocks in that area were within easy walking distance of the Eighth Avenue Elevated train, the Lenox Avenue neighborhood offered no similar transportation facilities. This circumstance began to change around 1900, when it was announced that a subway tunnel was about to be built along Lenox Avenue. What followed has been explained by Gilbert Osofsky: “Speculators who intended to make astronomic profits when the subway was completed bought the marshes, garbage dumps, and lots left unimproved or undeveloped in the 1870’s and 1880’s. Between 1898 and 1904, the year that the Lenox Avenue line opened at One Hundred and Forty-fifth Street, ‘practically all the vacant land in Harlem’ was 'built over.’ ” And more houses were built in the environs of Lenox Avenue than there were white tenants to occupy them.

In addressing the New York Presbytery in 1914, John M. Royall, the black realty man and officer of St. James Presbyterian Church, had given a lengthier and more colorful account of how the Lenox Avenue subway affected the future of housing and land values in Harlem:

The great subway proposition . . . filled the people’s minds and permeated the air. Real-estate operators and speculators conjured with imagination of becoming millionaires, bought freely in the west Harlem district, in and about the proposed subway stations. . . .

Men bought property on thirty- and sixty-days contracts, and sold their contracts, not their property, for they never owned it, and made substantial profits. I have known buyers to pay $38,000 and $75,000 for tenements which showed a gross income of only $2,600 and $5,000 per year. On they went; buying, buying; giving no heed to the fact that old staid Knickerbocker property owners were standing still looking on, not investing, but puzzled to their very souls as to what the final results would be.

This unhealthy speculative condition continued until owners commenced to figure the income from these newly acquired properties, when, lo! they began to realize all that glittered was not gold. Straightaway, these new owners, one and all, commenced saying to their brokers, who up to this time had been like Moses leading buyers into Canaan, “I don't mind buying if you can get Esau under contract to purchase before the deal is closed.” With the brokers thus cornered, the market awoke from a drugged and drunken stupor, struck amidships like the famous Titanic, reeled, tottered, and solemnly settled beneath a sea of depreciated values. . . .


Shrewd real-estate operators and cunning lawyers brought into existence many reckless bond and mortgage companies, which really loaned more money on property than the entire value of same. . . .

Is there any wonder, then, that this day of reckoning between assets and liabilities haunts the west Harlem district owners like a spectre, and fills [their] midnight dreams with terror? . . .

Facing financial destruction, the new property owners commenced to consult Moses (their brokers) and their cunning lawyers for help out of the difficulty. These two gentlemen (the broker and the lawyer) soon struck upon the bright idea of capitalizing race prejudice, and enticed the new owners, whose only alternative was to sell, to enter an alliance—a conspiracy to put colored tenants in their property, and thereby force their wealthier neighbors to buy from them. And, on the other hand, a certain class of buyers, whose only conscience was money, were urged into the use of the same methods, placing colored people in property so that they might buy other parcels adjoining. . . .

Innocently enough, the colored tenants, looking for better accommodations, flocked to Harlem and filled houses as fast as they were opened to them. This worked decidedly to the advantage of the property owners, enabling a great number of them either to dispose of their property or to get a healthier and more lucrative return from rents paid by colored tenants. . . .

Do you know that tenements in the west Harlem district are showing a much larger return to owners than they formerly brought when occupied by white tenants? Do you know the property is more fully rented? Do you know that there is not today three per cent of vacancies in all the tenement properties occupied by colored people in Harlem?

Royall knew. By 1914, he was one of several Negro brokers who had induced white landlords “to put colored tenants in their property.” The first and most prominent of these black brokers was Philip A. Payton, Jr.—the pioneer among Negro realty men in Manhattan, and, as he came to be called, the father of black Harlem. Payton, born in Westfield, Massachusetts, in 1876, came to New York in 1899—to what he saw as “the city of cities.” For some time, however, he did not find New York to be the city he had imagined—what poor blacks from the South had seen, in the words of Paul Laurence Dunbar, as “the center of all the glory, all the wealth, and all the freedom of the world.” Though Payton was a college-educated man—a graduate of Livingston College, in North Carolina—the only jobs he was able to find in Manhattan were as a barber, a slot-machine attendant in a department store, and a porter in an apartment building. Around 1900, Payton’s job as a porter—in which he probably saw some of the worst sides of Negro tenement life in Manhattan—gave him an idea that changed his life. Since there seemed to be no black real-estate agents in the city, why shouldn’t he become an agent himself and help blacks to find better housing? His thought happened to occur at a time when blacks on the West Side were under pressure—when they were beginning to feel a desperate need for new living space, and when, because of overbuilding in Harlem, this space was becoming available uptown. Payton’s first few attempts to establish and maintain a real-estate agency—in the Tenderloin and in downtown Manhattan—were failures. His offices closed down almost as soon as he had opened them. “The hardships I suffered and the funny experiences I underwent while establishing myself as a real-estate man in New York would fill a book in which a reader could shed a few tears and secure many a good laugh,” he said later. “Besides being dispossessed three times and once evicted for non-payment of rent, I have walked from Nassau Street to Harlem on more than one occasion for want of a nickel.” It might have been at the end of a long walk to Harlem that Payton approached one of the hard-pressed white landlords and offered himself as a broker for Negro tenants. As he recalled later, a dispute had broken out between two landlords of adjoining houses, and “to get even, one of them turned his house over to me to fill with colored tenants.” He went on, “I was successful in renting and managing this house and after a time I was able to induce other landlords to . . . give me their houses to manage.”


In 1903, Payton, along with several other Negroes of means and position, organized the Afro-American Realty Company, with headquarters in downtown Manhattan—probably the largest enterprise of its kind that has ever been owned and run by blacks in New York. A year after it was founded, the Tribune carried this report:

With offices rivalling in richness of decoration those of many Wall Street bankers, and with $500,000 capitalization, the Afro-American Realty Company yesterday began business as a corporation. . . . It will lease, buy and build flats and apartments for rental to negroes in the boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn, and its avowed object is to make it possible for a negro to live anywhere he desires, if he has the money to pay the rent.

The corporation got its start about a year ago in the attempt of one of the well known realty companies of this city to oust the negro tenants of One-hundred-and-thirty-fifth st. between Fifth and Lenox Avenues the object being to make it a “white” street and raise rentals. Wealthy negroes who were interested in real estate resented this attempt, got together, and after vainly trying to get leaseholds on property in that street, bought outright two flat houses tenanted by whites, dispossessed them and rented the flats to negroes who had been put out of the other houses.

For about five years, the Afro-American Realty Company, under Payton’s management, helped to swell the influx of blacks into Harlem. In 1908, the company failed, and thereafter Payton returned to his own real-estate business on West 134th Street.

Inspired by Payton’s example (his income, too, no doubt), other Negro real-estate men—John M. Royall, Watt Terry, John E. Nail, and Henry C. Parker—opened firms of their own. The firm of Nail & Parker became the most successful in the history of black Harlem, obtaining more houses for Negroes and therefore contributing more heavily to the black movement into the district than any of the other real-estate enterprises. James Weldon Johnson has left this account of how white Harlemites reacted to the growing black migration into their community:

In the eyes of the whites who were antagonistic, the whole movement took on the aspect of an “invasion”—an invasion of both their economic and their social rights. They felt that Negroes as neighbors not only lowered the values of their property, but also lowered their social status. . . . Their conduct could be compared to that of a community in the Middle Ages fleeing before an epidemic of the black plague. . . . The presence of a single colored family in a block, regardless of the fact that they might be well-bred people, with sufficient means to buy their new home, was a signal for precipitate flight. The stampeded whites actually deserted house after house and block after block.

But not all whites were ready to abandon their old district. “The Negro invasion . . . must be vigilantly fought, fought until it is permanently checked, or the invaders will slowly but surely drive the whites out of Harlem,” said the Harlem Home News in July of 1911. “We now warn owners of property . . . that the invaders are clamoring for admission right at their doors and that they must wake up and get busy before it is too late to repel the black hordes that stand ready to destroy the homes and scatter the fortunes of the whites living and doing business in the very heart of Harlem. . . . The negro must have some place to live, but why must he always drive the white man out of his home in order to find a home for himself? Isn’t there any other way of providing homes for the colored man?”


In the view of John G. Taylor, the president of the Harlem Property Owners’ Protective Association, there was another way. He had suggested some months earlier that Negroes “should buy large tracts of unimproved land near the city and there build up colonies of their own,” for “that would be better for all concerned, and movements of that kind would be given unlimited financial support.” Of course, no one seriously believed that any such movement would ever come about. White Harlem was stuck with the black migration, and—short of establishing separate black “homelands”—the community would have to find a way either to live with the newcomers or to keep more of them from coming in.

The latter course was the one favored by property owners, block associations, civic committees, churches, newspapers, and business organizations. Plans were made to evict black tenants from buildings they already occupied. Certain groups looked into the possibility of passing laws to prevent blacks from owning or renting property in Harlem. Banks were petitioned to cut off loans to black homeowners and to white speculators who sold or rented to Negroes. Taylor urged the white tenants and homeowners on 136th Street to build a “dead line” between themselves and the black newcomers—in other words, to erect “a twenty-four-foot fence in the backyards.” This was to be more than a screen protecting the eyes of unfriendly neighbors from one another. It was also to be a white boundary, beyond which the black invaders were not to pass. According to one newspaper, white homeowners “signed an agreement not to sell to Negroes for the next fifteen years,” and “The document . . . even limits the number of colored servants each signer should have.”

Though the lines of resistance could hardly have been more carefully and firmly drawn, there were white property owners and speculators who had no desire to join or honor such lines. They were not stirred by appeals to racial solidarity and civic unity. Their feelings were chiefly monetary, and since it was customary for Negroes to be charged higher rents and purchase prices, they knew that big profits were to be made from the inflow of blacks. When Caroline Morolath, the owner of a house on West 137th Street, rented to blacks, she was sued by Rafael Greenbaum, who owned a house next door. Greenbaum asked ten thousand dollars in damages, on the ground that Mrs. Morolath, by renting to blacks, had made it impossible for him to rent or sell to whites.

Taylor called people like Mrs. Morolath “white renegades,” but they were not shamed or intimidated by the description. They intended to proceed by their own lights, according to their own interests. They went right on selling and renting to blacks, and, as a result, in helping their own pockets, they also helped to make housing conditions for Negroes in New York more decent and livable than at any time in the past.

But, though it may not have seemed so at the time, the back of the resistance had been virtually broken in March of 1911. Whites apparently did not realize it, for they went on fighting for several years after. But blacks must surely have sensed it. Some of their churches had already followed them into Harlem, and it was in March of 1911 that St. Philip’s Protestant Episcopal, the richest and best-known of all their churches, decisively entered the lists. A year earlier, it had moved into a new building on West 133rd Street, and now it bought, for more than a million dollars, a row of apartment buildings on the north side of West 135th Street, occupying almost the entire block from Lenox Avenue to Seventh. As the emergence of the year’s first crocus announces that spring is on its way, so did the arrival of so important a church as St. Philip’s signify that Harlem was sure to be the next major settlement of blacks in Manhattan. When St. Philip’s bought the row of apartment houses on 135th Street, the Age said, “The deal pulled off by this progressive pair [the real-estate agents Nail and Parker] . . . involving the huge sum of $1,000,070, not only puts the firm at the very front, but influences the life of the colored people of New York as nothing of the kind has done in many a long year. It puts on the books of St. Philip’s Church, the wealthiest colored church corporation in the country, the best property owned by colored people in Manhattan or in any other borough, and it opens up to colored tenantry the best houses that they have ever had to live in.”

Taylor did not believe that the St. Philip’s deal would seriously affect the future of white residence in Harlem. The chances were, he said, that the Negroes would “not stay long in the new apartments.” He and others did not see “how colored people can possibly afford to pay the rents the new owners will have to charge to make the investment pay.” Besides, he added, “we understand there is $400,000 in mortgages on the property, $160,000 of which will be due in the next eight months, and if the program to keep colored people in the apartments is carried out, we fail to see where the church is going to borrow the money.” Nor was Taylor alone in feeling that the black migration into Harlem could still be checked, or, at any rate, that it should be. In 1912, a letter to the Times—probably from a white Harlem resident—said, “Can nothing be done to put a restriction on the invasion of the Negro into Harlem? At one time it was a comfort and a pleasure to ride on the Sixth and Ninth Avenue elevated, but that is a thing of the past. Now you invariably have a colored person sitting either beside you or in front of you. . . . There is an enormous colony of them around 135th Street and Lenox Avenue, and they are coming closer all the time. . . . Why cannot we have Jim Crow cars for these people?”

But John Royall was one of the blacks who knew in 1911 that the battle for Harlem was virtually over. That is why he could say so confidently to the New York Presbytery in 1914, “Are you aware of the fact that Negroes are buying property in Harlem? Has anyone told you that the colored people have purchased about ten per cent of the tenements in which they live? And . . . about forty per cent of all the private houses occupied by them? . . . The colored people are in Harlem to stay.”








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