Reference Entry

New York City

Martha Jane Nadell

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century

Published in print January 2009 | ISBN: 9780195167795
New York City

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On the night of 15 August 1900, New York City's Tenderloin district, in mid-Manhattan on the West Side, witnessed the outbreak of the first of a number of race riots that would punctuate the twentieth century. Two days earlier, a young African American man, whose peripatetic life began in Richmond, Virginia, had killed a white policeman who had accused the black man's young girlfriend of solicitation. The Tenderloin's African American residents, who were predominantly poor and working class, immediately began to worry about retribution; they were right to do so. On the eve of the burial of the policeman, a fight broke out between a black man and a white man, and the white population shortly set upon the African American residents and workers in the area. The policemen, who were predominantly of Irish descent, did not protect the victims; rather, they participated, even egging the rioters on. Although the riot ended by 17 August, racial tensions and violence persisted throughout the month.In response, African American residents armed themselves, purchasing guns and ammunition in large numbers. Members of the community demanded that the police and rioters be held accountable. Led by the Reverend Dr. W. H. Brooks, religious, political, and professional leaders organized the Citizen's Protective League at Saint Mark's Methodist Episcopal Church on 3 September 1900. Despite its efforts, the committee did not achieve its aims; individual police officers were either not indicted or had charges against them dismissed. The organization soon dissolved.The Population Shifts.The riot and the subsequent attempt to establish a powerful African American community organization emerged, in part, from the profound demographic shifts in New York City. The Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North and Midwest swelled the numbers of New York's African American population from 23,601 in 1890 to 60,666 in 1900 and 91,709 in 1910. Mostly southern-born, these residents initially gathered in congested neighborhoods such as the Tenderloin, which was also home to prostitutes, gamblers, and other shady characters, and San Juan Hill, which was located between Sixtieth and Sixty-fourth streets and Tenth and Eleventh avenues. These areas were home to African American churches, businesses, political clubs, and the YMCA, which served as an educational center for the community.The riot and the reaction to it exemplify a pattern for the experiences of black New Yorkers during the twentieth century: New York City's African American population would increase; migrants from the South and immigrants from the West Indies would make their homes in Harlem and other neighborhoods in the city. They would face segregation and discrimination in housing, the workforce, and schooling; and, at times, racially motivated violence. They would come together to form political, social, and religious organizations to combat racial inequities and to further causes that mitigated their conditions. Political, religious, and creative leaders would emerge. Riots, some stemming from black frustration and others stemming from interracial tension, would flare throughout the century.Throughout the first two decades of the twentieth century, African Americans settled in increasingly large numbers in Harlem rather than in the Tenderloin and San Juan Hill. Changes in Harlem's housing market, the construction of a new subway line, and the Afro-American Realty Company of Philip A. Payton Jr., formed in 1905, opened up the area to African American migrants and West Indian immigrants. By 1920, the North's largest African American community was located in New York, where the black population numbered 152,467. Of that number, 109,133 lived in Manhattan, constituting 4.8 percent of the population of that borough. African Americans faced opposition as they moved to Harlem. The Harlem Property Owners’ Improvement Organization saw the influx of African Americans as a “crisis” during the 1910s and advocated for a well-articulated boundary between white and black Harlem. The Lafayette Theatre on Seventh Avenue remained segregated until 1913. Yet, despite the cry of alarm from Harlem's white property owners and businessmen, Harlem became the center, albeit a segregated one, of African American life in New York City, where African American tenants paid high rents at higher percentages of their incomes than in other areas, where residents’ physical and economic health suffered, and where art, literature, and music would flourish.During the first two decades of the twentieth century, Brooklyn also saw an increase in its black population, which by 1920 numbered 31,912. As in the rest of New York City, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, and other public venues practiced segregation. Despite lawsuits and rulings against the most overt Jim Crow practices, the white public and press were anxious about the demographic shifts in the city. Yolanda Du Bois, the daughter of the scholar W. E. B. Du Bois, was part of a controversy involving the prom at Brooklyn's Girls’ High School. Only the intervention of her father allowed her and her five fellow black students to attend what the majority of the seventy-nine seniors wanted to be a segregated event.Where African Americans went, religious institutions followed or were formed. By 1914, three major churches—Bethel African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal, and Saint Philip's Protestant Episcopal Church—relocated to Harlem. The Reverend Dr. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. located his church, Abyssinian Baptist, uptown in 1923. Father Divine, as the founder of the Peace Mission movement was known, opened a church on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn. Churches themselves often purchased property, becoming landlords for arriving African Americans.During this period, African American leaders formed political, professional, and community organizations, including the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908, a branch of the NAACP in 1910, and the Negro Society for Historical Research in 1911. New York's growing West Indian population and others gathered around the United Negro Improvement Association, founded by the West Indian Marcus Garvey in 1917. At a time of residential segregation and discriminatory labor practices, many of New York City's black population embraced Garvey's nationalistic orientation. The community also celebrated African American achievement; in 1919, it rallied around the 369th Infantry, the Harlem Hell Fighters, recipients of the French Croix de Guerre.Deterioration and Creativity.The 1920s was both a difficult and an extraordinary decade for black New Yorkers. Harlem was rapidly deteriorating. Rents were high; wages were low. The housing stock was not adequate for the large numbers of young people who were drawn to the area. The health of the area's residents was extremely poor. Infant mortality there was almost twice that of the entire city. And crime was on the rise. In response, African Americans formed new organizations and institutions such as the New York Colored Mission, the Utopia Neighborhood Club, the Circle for Negro Relief, the North Harlem Community Council, and the Harlem Tuberculosis and Health Association.Despite its extreme difficulties, 1920s Harlem was the site of a remarkable outpouring of African American creative production. In March 1924, the Harlem Renaissance was informally inaugurated at a dinner at the Civic Club. Following the event, Alain Locke edited the New Negro issue of the sociology journal Survey Graphic and the 1925 book The New Negro: An Interpretation, an anthology that included the creative work of many of the writers residing in Harlem, and also that of other intellectuals and critics. Countée Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman, Jean Toomer, and others published novels, poetry, and plays. The visual artists Aaron Douglas, Augusta Savage, James VanDerZee, and others produced paintings, murals, sculptures, and photographs. Musicians such as Eubie Blake and Duke Ellington were part of a jazz tradition that continued for decades. Magazines such as The Crisis and Opportunity reported on Harlem and the activities of its denizens.Political leaders emerged from New York's black communities during this period and later. In 1929, Charles W. Fillmore became the first black Republican district leader in New York City, while in Brooklyn, in 1931, West Indians organized the United Action Democratic Association, which held thirty-nine seats on the Kings County Democratic Committee.The Great Depression hit black New Yorkers, who by 1930 numbered 327,706 in the city as whole and 224,670 in Manhattan alone, especially hard. At the beginning of the decade, 25 percent of Harlem's African American residents were unemployed. The numbers rose throughout the following years as black workers were laid off before white workers. Many residents became homeless. Some help came in the form of private, philanthropic organizations; and finally, in 1931, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration, which provided New Yorkers with jobs. Churches, agencies, and community groups continued to provide basic relief as well. The National Urban League provided a range of aid, including food, clothing, shoes, rent money, and Thanksgiving baskets. The NAACP worked on employment discrimination, as did the Community party. A central locus of effort was fighting employment discrimination through boycotts. In 1934, the Citizen's League for Fair Play led a boycott of Blumstein's, a department store on 125th Street that did not employ black shop clerks. The “Don't Buy Where You Can't Work” campaign made little, if any, progress, especially after the New York Supreme Court declared the picketing illegal.On 19 March 1935, an altercation between a store manager at Kress's Department Store and sixteen-year-old Lino Rivera, who had stolen a penknife, led to a large-scale riot in Harlem. Many were arrested. Three were killed, and thirty were injured. Over two million dollars of damage was caused. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia convened a commission to investigate the riot. The findings pointed not only to the immediate cause, the rumor of Rivera's death, but also to the underlying reasons: poverty, segregation, job discrimination, and lack of services.More and More Segregation.Segregation during the 1930s was on the rise. Roosevelt was now the nation's president, and during his New Deal era, redlining and the shift in basic services from the older neighborhoods of northern Brooklyn to the new construction in southern Brooklyn set the stage for segregation. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a New Deal agency that shored up the housing market by preventing foreclosures and supporting banks, used race and ethnicity as central criteria in its designation of Brooklyn's neighborhoods as “desirable” or “undesirable.” Undesirable neighborhoods, most of which were in northern Brooklyn, received little if any investment; denied financial assistance, white residents fled those areas, while African American and Caribbean immigrants settled there.The end of the 1930s saw additional efforts from African Americans themselves to combat these problems. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. led the Harlem Citizen's Committee for More and Better Jobs in its efforts to have shopkeepers hire more black sales clerks. His activities led him first to the city council, where he broke the hold of white ethnic dominance of New York City politics, and later to Congress, where he became a strong advocate for desegregation. In Brooklyn in 1939, a group of Barbadian men formed the Paragon Progressive Community Assocation. By 1941, the group formed a credit union, which held accounts and offered loans to businesses and homeowners and which remained in operation for forty years. Also during that year, African Americans organized a boycott against the Fifth Avenue Bus Company and the New York Omnibus Company to protest discriminatory hiring practices.By World War II, New York's black population had increased to 458,444 and was concentrated in Harlem and northern Brooklyn. African Americans found limited work in the Brooklyn Navy Yards and in other defense industries. Although by 1941 almost 100,000 individuals worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yards, the small number of African Americans there worked in the positions of lower status—as laborers, apprentices, or other unskilled workers. The armed forces and defense industries remained segregated until the threat of a march on Washington, organized by A. Philip Randolph, led President Roosevelt to issue an executive order that ended discrimination in the defense industries. Consequently, toward the end of the war, labor patterns began to shift. African Americans moved from service and unskilled work into semi-skilled areas.Racial segregation was on the rise throughout the 1940s and continued into the 1950s. Harlem remained a black community, as new construction in Manhattan was often white-only. Without opposition from LaGuardia and with support from the public works planner Robert Moses, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company constructed Stuyvesant Town, an enormous development from which blacks were excluded, in 1943. The majority of the Bronx's black population of 23,529 resided in the South Bronx. In Brooklyn, where, in 1945, the manager Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers baseball team, African American and Caribbean immigrants resided primarily in Bedford-Stuyvesant because of discriminatory lending practices. Racial tensions simmered, and, in 1943, another riot occurred in Harlem when a white police officer attempted to arrest a black woman and a black soldier. The brunt of the damage occurred on 125th Street, which sustained over $5 million in damage. Out of the riot emerged a gathering at which leaders called for a greater black presence on the Board of Education and in the police department and the end of employment discrimination and housing segregation.Although New York passed a fair housing act for new, rather than extant, housing project construction, segregation in housing and education and the problems that accompany it—unemployment, poor social services, and health problems—continued through the 1950s and 1960s, a period during which the number of black New Yorkers increased dramatically, from 747,608 in 1950 to 1,087,931 in 1960. Segregation was a particular problem. In the name of “slum clearance,” the city bulldozed large areas of housing in upper Manhattan, displacing residents who settled in recently constructed large public housing projects in the Bronx. In 1950, the South Bronx was home to 91 percent of the borough's African American and Puerto Rican population of 159,676. The numbers of black and Latino Bronx residents grew to 350,781—24.6 percent of the borough's total population—in 1960.Although black employment in municipal jobs had increased, black workers were confined to unskilled or semiskilled work that served segregated neighborhoods. African Americans were underrepresented in the private sector in most of New York's major industries, a pattern that continued through the 1980s and later.Throughout this period, community organizations agitated for social change. In 1956 Forest Neighborhood Committee promoted the Forest Houses in the South Bronx as the first desegregated public housing project in New York City. In 1958, the NAACP Schools Workshop in Brooklyn protested the continued and indeed increasing segregation in the borough's public schools.Emerging Black Political Voices.Black New Yorkers entered local politics throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The communist Benjamin Davis was elected to the city council. Hulan Jack, born in Saint Lucia, became the first black borough president of Manhattan in 1953. J. Daniel Diggs of Brooklyn joined the city council in 1957. Constance Baker Motley was the borough president of Manhattan from 1965 to 1966. Kenneth Brown was elected to the state assembly from Queens in 1965. In 1968, Shirley Chisholm, from Brooklyn, was the first African American woman elected to Congress. In 1970, Charles Rangel succeeded Adam Clayton Powell Jr. to Congress.The 1960s were a difficult time in New York City, which lost tens of thousands of jobs and witnessed white flight out of the city, often to surrounding suburbs, and the rise of antiblack sentiment; a group of white working-class New Yorkers formed the Society for the Prevention of Negroes Getting Everything (SPONGE), an organization whose activities prompted a riot in East New York, Brooklyn, in 1966, two years after a three-night riot in Harlem in which one person died, 140 were injured, and 520 were arrested.The 1960s saw the struggle for civil rights and active protests against the poor conditions in which African American and West Indian New Yorkers lived. Emerging from community organizations, black churches, and other groups, these protests addressed both local and national conditions. In 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) protested employment discrimination at the Sealtest–Sheffield Farms in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn called for black jobs at Downstate Medical Center. The labor leader A. Philip Randolph and other national civil rights leaders organized the 1963 March on Washington at the Roosevelt Hotel. The City-Wide Committee for Integrated Schools was formed in 1964 and organized a school boycott on 3 February 1964. In 1967, with the aid of U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Senator Jacob Javits, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation formed to combat poverty. In 1969, minority students, predominantly black and Puerto Rican, protested at the City University of New York, demanding open admissions for all New York City high school graduates. In 1970, the year open admissions was implemented, the numbers of black and Hispanic students tripled.West Indian immigration in this period was on an upswing, as Congress relaxed immigration laws. Large numbers of Haitians, Jamaicans, Guyanese, and others settled across the city; roughly half settled in Brooklyn, while others settled in Queens. West Indians soon organized self-help groups, founded businesses, and became politically active. The annual West Indian Day parade down Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, which began in 1969, celebrated their growing presence. Although Caribbean immigrants were employed at higher rates than native-born African Americans, they too faced discrimination. Haitians, in particular, faced difficulties; their lack of English and their poverty left them underemployed or in low-paying jobs.By 1970, when the city's total black population numbered 1,668,000, Bedford-Stuyvesant and its surrounding neighborhoods, including Brownsville, Bushwick, and East New York, were home to the largest concentration of black New Yorkers, 656,194, accounting for almost 40 percent of New York City's black population and approximately 25 percent of the borough's total population. Brownsville, in Brooklyn, was characteristic of urban decline during the period. The area's residents suffered from poverty-level wages and unemployment. Many subsisted on public assistance or participated in an underground economy. The blackout in the summer of 1977 decimated neighboring Bushwick. Riots and fires destroyed much of the area's retail section; after the blackout, many stores remained shuttered for years.In national discourse, the South Bronx came to symbolize the crisis in urban life. In 1970, 674,453 blacks and Puerto Ricans resided in the Bronx, making up 45.8 percent of the total population. By 1980, the number had grown to 745,099, accounting for 63.7 percent of the borough's residents. In the Bronx alone, 300 companies, with employees numbering more than 10,000, left the Bronx or went out of business. Welfare was on the upswing during the period; approximately 25 percent of the population received welfare in 1960, while 39 percent received it in 1984. Crime rose precipitously, as the high cost of living, including high public transportation fees and a high sales tax, further propelled residents toward poverty. But it was not only the social underpinnings of the Bronx that had failed; its physical landscape was under assault throughout this period. Many buildings were demolished to make way for public housing and an expressway; landlords and residents abandoned many other buildings. Some burned to the ground as low-cost fire insurance became available. And in New York City's fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s, the city chose to reduce even the most basic of services.Efforts were under way to halt the decline of the South Bronx during the 1980s, when the black population of the city reached 1,695,000. The city and borough governments and community development and private corporations worked to rebuild the area. In 1987, the city, led by Mayor Ed Koch, began to rehabilitate abandoned housing and erect new construction. The New York City Housing Partnership constructed affordable housing through the 1980s and into the 1990s, not only in the South Bronx but also in other areas. The South Bronx Churches, an organization whose membership consisted of many African American churches, launched an affordable housing program called Nehemiah Homes. Other community organizations addressed the social problems—drugs, unemployment, crime—that had dominated the borough by offering a variety of programs to help residents in crisis.The Economy Shifts.The South Bronx's revitalization occurred at the same time as New York City's burgeoning economic recovery, which was marked by a shift from manufacturing to an economy based more in technology. Black New Yorkers, whose educational opportunities had lagged behind those of white New Yorkers, were often unable to get jobs in companies characterized by technology; black unemployment remained double that of white New Yorkers. African Americans clustered in municipal jobs, as the private sector proved less than hospitable. The city became the largest employer of New York's African American population, who accounted for one-third of New York City's employees even as they were severely underrepresented in the police and fire departments. The borough of Queens drew many of these workers, who formed a black middle class with a median income which by 1990 was higher than that of whites in the same neighborhoods.Although many African Americans made economic progress, in the 1980s the city's poor black population remained riven by crime and drugs. The crack epidemic, along with the AIDS crisis, hit poor black communities hard. A series of racial conflicts dominated the term of New York's first African American mayor, David Dinkins, who was elected in 1989. In 1991, three days of riots broke out in the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn, as tensions between the Jewish and black communities erupted. Racial conflicts continued throughout the 1990s. Abner Louima, a black security guard in Brooklyn, was subject to extraordinarily violent police brutality in 1997. In 1999, police officers in the Bronx killed an unarmed African immigrant named Amadou Diallo, an event that sparked outrage. Black leaders and members of the community including Dinkins and Rangel engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who had cut off thousands of New Yorkers from welfare and had fired many black political appointees, saw his approval rate among black New Yorkers plummet to 7 percent in 2000 from 42 percent in 1997.By 2000, New York City's black population numbered 2,128,188, accounting for almost 27 percent of the total population. The majority resided in Brooklyn, though the Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens were home to large populations. The landscape for these black New Yorkers looked different from that of earlier decades. The 2003 blackout shut down the city, but it did not precipitate the riots similar to those that tore apart Bushwick in 1977. The shooting of the unarmed Sean Bell by the Queens police in 2006 and the subsequent acquittal of the police in 2008 did not produce the violent reaction that earlier cases had. Segregated areas, such as Harlem and Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, became increasingly attractive to gentrifiers, who were often white and middle class. As newcomers “discovered” segregated black neighborhoods, which lacked decent basic services and infrastructure, they brought with them changes in services, retail areas, and schools. Yet they also drove up the cost of housing, often displacing many long-term residents who could not afford the increasing rents. Decades after the housing restrictions and redlining that produced segregation, Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant may become integrated, at least for a time.

Reference Entry.  4006 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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