This Was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait, 1900-1950
Harlem exists in retrospect, in the memory of grandparents or elderly cousins, those “old-timers” ever ready with their geysers of remembered scenes. The legends of “Black Mecca” are preserved in the glossy musicals of Times Square and in texts of virtually every kind. Jervis Anderson’s cool and carefully researched This Was Harlem is a valuable primer. Strong feeling for the place has been passed down—and that is what remains. Walking its avenues in search of what was fills me with the sadness that comes from squandered intimacy. The mere presence of the Schomburg Collection is very moving, as is Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theater of Harlem, the last true jewel in the brooch.
The borders of Harlem today are hard to fix, so many of the blocks in that direction look like slum. But deep at its heart the “Negro capital of the world” has thousands detained in a sort of quarantine. No exit? The middle class is still entrenched in the Dunbar, in Graham Court, in the beaux arts houses by Stanford White. Money builds the usual moats. But the grandchildren of Strivers Row are at Dalton or Collegiate. The hostess A’Lelia Walker’s great granddaughter is more likely to fly from Radcliffe to a pied-a-terre on Central Park West than to revisit the “Dark Tower” at 80 Edgecombe Avenue, the Walker salon so famous during Harlem’s golden age.
On a blistering summer day 125th Street offers its “poem of display”—carts of bargain clothes, false gold laid out on squares of fake velvet, “freedom wigs” mounted on poles, and speakers hoisted above record shacks from which the funky anthems blare. The crowd flows, a Niagara of traffic, never breaking stride, not even at the curb where small domestic dramas are acted out. Upbeat articles and sincere documentaries routinely appear like metermen to herald rebirth. Still trucking, they say. Everything’s kopasetic and to hint otherwise is to spread slander.
Langston Hughes once gazed with longing on those mean streets from his Columbia dormitory. Since then Morningside Park has become a DMZ and new students ride in terror of emerging at the wrong 116th Street. Take the A train? The revived Cotton Club—the old one didn’t let blacks in—is ersatz Vegas. The Hotel Theresa, also once segregated, is a hive of offices and Castro’s sojourn there has sunk into the lore of its corridors. Lewis Michaux is dead, the Apollo is in another coma, but somewhere, 127th Street perhaps, Van Der Zee survives. What Harlem always was beneath the magic is starkly clear. “Ah, masqueraded Harlem…your rumor reaches me,” Lorca cried.
Harlem’s streets lead backward, into history, straight to a work such as This Was Harlem. Jervis Anderson, author of a biography of A. Philip Randolph, the imam of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids, has subtitled his book “A Cultural Portrait, 1900-1950,” which neatly defines its scope and purpose. Anderson has not written a study comparable to Gilbert Osofsky’s Harlem: The Making of A Ghetto (1966), though he has made use of many of the same sources. Osofsky’s volume is essential social commentary that traces Harlem’s development from complacent suburb to corral of an urban underclass. This Was Harlem, however, is a narrative, not a diagnosis.
Though very little has gone unhonored or been overlooked, it does seem that the fifty-year period is too broad to permit Anderson more than a summary of the complicated political and economic issues so central to Harlem’s cultural history. The past tense in the title holds the clue: Anderson lays out what was on a kind of smooth, well-paved highway, coasting through the memorable incidents and personalities. His intention is to concentrate on Harlem’s rise and heyday, which is why his history concludes at 1950, before the community was abandoned. The present is merely assumed, but reading about the artistic and intellectual activity that made Harlem unique in American life one wonders how it slid from haven to nightmare; whether it did not all along contain the seeds of decline; whether it was not always susceptible to outside destruction.
Harlem’s story began earlier than Harlem, when eleven Africans came as de facto indentured servants to Dutch settlements in 1626. The English brought slaves after 1664. Slavery was abolished in New York in 1827, leaving a large black population. Little Italy was once “Little Africa.” Greenwich Village was a black community. The squalor and neglect in these places appalled even Dickens. “By 1900, only a few Negro households remained on these streets,” Anderson writes. The city’s growth had pushed them uptown. The expansion was usually accompanied by violence against blacks. “In a sense they were not just on the move but on the run.” Manahatta, in Algonquin, means Heavenly Land.
Refuge was found on the West Side in the decades after the Civil War. Blacks were crammed into the tenements of the Tenderloin district in the West Fifties. They paid higher rents than immigrant groups—another enduring pattern. One four-block stretch was known as “San Juan Hill” not only because of the number of black veterans of the Spanish-American War but also because “racial battles were always breaking out.” These attacks came “mostly from the Irish,” who regarded parts of the West Side as their turf. Jacob Riis in an early study noted that the Irish beat up Italians and Jews as well.
W.E.B. Du Bois observed in 1901 that many of the Tenderloin’s black residents were “country bred.” The Great Migration usually refers to the swelled ranks of black people in the city after World War I but there was a movement northward decades earlier, during the era of what C. Vann Woodward termed the “capitulation to racism,” when blacks were seeking to escape Jim Crow rule. New York loomed in the imagination as the Promised Land after Reconstruction dreams were punctured. Pharaoh king of Egypt is but a noise, the old folks used to say.
Anderson devotes several chapters to describing the Tenderloin and its near untouchables. Harlem, from this view, takes shape as a continuation rather than a radical departure. Impenetrable to outsiders—full of “confusion, noise, fierce fights”—the black side of town in Anderson’s portrait emerges as a place of struggle against and adaptation to inferior status.
The black upper class at this time dwelled apart, in Brooklyn, with its Dutch names, its scorn of new arrivals from the South, and its wish to be “as inconspicuous as possible.” The elite preferred to hire Europeans—Swedes or Poles—as servants. The chosen few also lived on West Fifty-third Street and “dressed as much as whites on Fifth Avenue.” They had their select clubs and churches, the means by which they kept to themselves so religiously that segregation seemed intended to shield them from contamination.
The black professional class then was small, the class of skilled workers not much larger. But, Anderson writes: “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”—the old song. Harper’s Weekly reported in 1900: “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.”
Tammany Hall helped to spawn “Negro Bohemia,” the Tenderloin’s district of brothels and gambling dens. Anderson calls it a “milder” version of sleazy white sections and “milder” is acceptable if he means there was less cash. “A number of the saloons were owned by leading black prizefighters,” which seems part of a tradition: boxer opens club, boxer dies broke. In one posh saloon “many blacks first heard ragtime,” which was “abhorred” by respectable families until the more sophisticated compositions of Scott Joplin were published. “Take that ragtime out of my house,” Eubie Blake’s mother once demanded.
Black musical theater was in transition, “blending some of the less primitive styles of Negro comedy with certain aspects of the Broadway musical.” The trend away from the minstrel style coincided with the coming of the all-black revue. “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,” though the “economics of black comic acting” made it prudent to retain some of the minstrel idiom—“coon,” for instance.
The stage was the most accessible form of expression and Anderson offers several biographical sketches of the men in the vanguard of the post-minstrel mood. “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….” Anderson discusses the careers of Paul Laurence Dunbar and James Weldon Johnson, who stood out because of the barrenness of the surrounding landscape.
The prominent ministers of the day provided what leadership there was, and represented a wide variety of political opinion. One minister advised his congregation to learn how to use dynamite as a form of protection. Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., of the Abyssinian Baptist Church launched a “gospel bombardment” to save the hookers waiting in “unbuttoned Mother Hubbards” to chat up the faithful as they left evening services.
The churches also helped to lead the way uptown. “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.” The familiar hostility and high rents were “prices worth paying for the chance to live in a quiet and attractive neighborhood.” Where the flock went, so did the shepherds. Blacks knew, from the past, that the churches would not move “unless their leaders had concluded that Harlem would be a future center of Manhattan’s black population.” White residents went through the usual antics of resistance, deploring the ” ‘degrading’ dances” white youths learned; blaming blacks for declining property values when the real cause was a building boom that “produced so many apartments that there were not enough whites to occupy them.”
But the move to Harlem was motivated by more than a wish for a better address. The building of Penn Station and the rush for real estate forced blacks out of the Tenderloin—“Killed by a railroad,” they said—while the construction of a subway ended Harlem’s villagelike remoteness. Another dramatic cause of the move was a police-led riot in 1900, the worst against blacks since 1863. It began with a confusing incident: a black man, defending his wife, got in a fight in the Tenderloin with a policeman who later died of his wounds. His colleagues took their revenge and incited others against blacks. Another riot erupted in San Juan Hill in 1905. Afterward, one eyewitness recalled, “Every day was moving day.” While whites lamented the Gemütlichkeit of their Harlem, black entrepreneurs practiced the high art of block busting. The “invasion” of Harlem was on and it took two decades to succeed.
Harlem before World War I was steeped in the doctrine of self-reliance and uplift. Its churches and newspapers were vigilant, chastising blacks for their conduct, applauding the “better elements of the race,” and urging blacks to open businesses. But black customers were not asked to support these ventures, and Harlem paid for this in later years. Skin whiteners and hair straighteners were popular; light-skinned blacks constituted a “distinct social class,” though the black press exhorted readers of every shade to be proud. The owners of such industries were among the most influential citizens of Harlem and the queen of them all was Madame C.J. Walker, whose daughter A’Lelia became the hostess to beat the band. The tango was considered more refined than “vernacular steps” like the turkey trot or the black bottom, and “tango teas” were held as black establishments expanded services to compete with white ones. Reverend Powell declared in 1914: “The Negro race is dancing itself to death.” White society matrons were beginning to boogie to Jimmy Europe’s band and yet the general public’s failure to appreciate the ragtime opera Treemonisha broke Scott Joplin’s heart.
World War I changed the political climate of Harlem. In the debate over the war most blacks, like Du Bois, concluded that joining the fight would help bring democracy home at last. Woodrow Wilson’s bigotry was infamous; 1917 brought lynchings and riots so hideous that a huge protest, the “Silent Parade,” swarmed down Fifth Avenue. Harlem had its own regiment, and although the men, poorly equipped, marching with broomsticks, were mocked by whites in 1917, they returned as heroes—thanks to the luck of having been attached to the French instead of the US Army—with their regimental colors crowned by the Croix de Guerre. But it was business as usual: “hundreds of blacks, including soldiers,” were murdered by whites across the nation during the “Red Summer” of 1919.
As Anderson moves closer to well-documented periods of black history the limitations of the survey form become more apparent, although his powers of condensation are admirable. Anderson acknowledges the postwar mood of cynicism, despair, and defiance but can only outline the efforts of socialists like Owen Chandler and A. Philip Randolph. He sprinkles disputes between radical and conservative elements in Harlem throughout his chronology, reducing ideology to the level of fashion. He gives rather cursory treatment to Marcus Garvey and the Back to Africa movement. Anderson is free of the contentious nationalism and vehement anti-Marxism that derailed Harold Cruse’s analysis of Garvey and his opponents in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), but it is a pity that he hasn’t the room to be as thorough. He characterizes Garvey as a man ahead of his times and yet it is hard to take his word for it: Garvey was an ambitious fraud. Similarly, Anderson can only scratch the surface of the conflicts between Afro-Americans and wartime migrants from the Caribbean, between the well-heeled on Sugar Hill and the teeming poor below, and of related conflicts between high and low culture. Many contradictions gave Harlem its dynamic quality and one wishes that Anderson had risked interpreting them in greater depth.
Harlem reached its apotheosis in the 1920s. The blues, Dixieland sound, ragtime, and stride piano begat, somehow, jazz and who has not heard of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, or Fats Waller? (Anderson does not mention Ida Cox, whose brilliant blues recordings of 1923 have been recently “resurrected.”) Anderson’s description of Harlem during the Jazz Age is evocative but largely anecdotal. The songs, shows, celebrities, gut bucket rent parties, the cabarets and their mobster owners, the hooch sellers and numbers kings, the high and handsome promenading after midnight, the rich whites cruising in their Dusenbergs—these became symbols of the time “when the Negro was in vogue,” as Langston Hughes wrote in his autobiography The Big Sea (1940). Anderson conveys the spirit of the place and yet Gilbert Osofsky, who holds that “the Harlem slum of today was created in the 1920s,” cites the housing and income problems, the “intraracial antagonisms,” the movement of whites out of Manhattan, the continuing migration of blacks that caused Harlem to “spread.”
Anderson concedes that Harlem was more than an “amusement center” but he never quite answers the question he raises—what was Harlem? He admits that Harlem’s two identities—erotic utopia and aspiring community—were irreconcilable but he does not discuss the implications that “the cult of the Negro” had for the future of blacks in America. The ward politics, the overcrowding, the health problems, and the improvisations of those who just endured are outside Anderson’s design and Harlem sways on in these chapters, a feverish paradise.
So much has been written by and about the literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance that the period is suffering from a kind of Bloomsbury overkill. (Lo, in the Advocate, an article by Eric Farber entitled “Tain’t Nobody’s Business: Homosexuality in Harlem in the 1920s” [May, 13, 1982] appeared, proving there is always another closet to pry open.) Anderson’s discussion of the works of the group that styled itself the “New Negroes” is acute, if brief. For more than the introductory, however, one must turn to sources such as David Levering Lewis’s detailed study When the Negro Was in Vogue (1981). Anderson views the New Negroes as an “irreverent bunch” who represented a break with the values of the old black middle class. They were more interested in the masses as subject matter and their aesthetic expressed the growing political militancy since the war. He judges Rudolph Fisher the most gifted—(Zora Neale Hurston did her best work after leaving Harlem)—and Fisher’s wry, deft stories have been too long neglected. However, Countee Cullen’s wan imitations of Keats do not support Anderson’s claim for his being the “finest pure lyricist among the New Negro poets.” He is rather hard on H.L. Mencken who sometimes went too far in his sarcasms about the Jazz Age. But Mencken’s letters to black journalists like George Schuyler show that he was more progressive than many of the Negro Awakening’s white patrons.
After the stock market crashed the party uptown died a slow death, although the excitement continued for a while: Ella and Billie stepped into the spotlight during the early years of the Depression. Harlem “sassiety” carried on. But the worsening unemployment and overcrowding are only in the background of Anderson’s account of Harlem during the Thirties. He concentrates on the effects hard times had on serious black theater, reports the battles that made Joe Louis a symbol of vindication. More of the Depression is present in the chapter on the relief projects of the established churches. Evangelists, not surprisingly, began to flourish; men like George Becton—“If Jesus were alive, he would dress like me”—and Father Divine. The hardships took their toll and Harlem exploded with its first riot in 1935, which Anderson covers in only a few paragraphs.
The shift from the Depression to the Forties is abrupt in This Was Harlem: time, for the way things were, was running out. World War II again confronted blacks with the dilemma of fighting abroad “in defense of freedoms that were denied them at home.” The situation was aggravated by segregation in the armed forces, and the exclusion of black workers from munitions factories. Blacks also resented fighting for colonial powers. In 1943, people went on the rampage again because, as James Baldwin wrote later, “Harlem needed something to smash.” Anderson sees the old pluck surviving in the hep cats and jitterbug, big bands swinging at the Savoy Ballroom, the sort of dances Maya Dehn captured with her stationary camera in The Spirit Moves, a hit of last spring’s Berlin Film Festival.
Toward the end of Anderson’s wistful narrative there is a litany of the important personages who died, as if the passing of a generation of stalwart politicians, ministers, and artists accounted for Harlem’s decline. Anderson asserts that by the time Bill “Bojangles” Robinson died in 1949 Harlem was no longer the symbol of opportunity and security for blacks in America—without explaining how this happened. Anderson writes of the charm of upper Seventh Avenue without speculating on the reasons for the disappearance of its congeniality. He seems to have succumbed to a kind of nostalgia for Harlem’s glamour and zip, content to display the artifacts of his excavations with a minimum of commentary. He views certain customs of urban black life not in the context of the pathology of deprivation but as strategies for survival. But too often This Was Harlem reads like an inventory of the culture that thrived both in spite of and because of the economic and social conditions. The disappearance by 1950 of the old guard is not a persuasive end to Anderson’s history, however convenient: Du Bois died in 1963 (far from home) and men like Randolph and Roy Wilkins lived on long afterward. Anderson’s work is not only mostly about their generation but also, inadvertently, about a particular class and the drama of upward mobility.
If the faithful were dying off and if blacks no longer felt that “Harlem was where they belonged,” then perhaps Anderson means for us to conclude that integration, the chance to live and work elsewhere, was as much a factor in Harlem’s deterioration. In the decades after 1950 the economic boom and civil rights occupied blacks. Harlem had Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.; Leroi Jones left bohemia and founded a black arts theater; and even the far reaches of Riverside Drive where Ralph Ellison took up residence were considered part of the uptown community.
In his recent study, The Harder We Run: Black Workers since the Civil War,* William H. Harris points out factors in this time of “increased mobility and technological change” that may account for the decline of Harlem. One of the new demands on the work force was that it be reduced. Black workers, generally no more than “semi-skilled,” were the first to suffer. Unemployment among blacks “increased twice as fast” as it did for whites.
Harris notes that migration from the South after World War II far exceeded anything previous and that this intensified competition for a dwindling number of jobs. Racism made it impossible for blacks to compete with whites. Industry moved with whites to the suburbs. Those blacks who could get out of decaying urban areas did so, and these were the skilled, the educated, who gave Harlem its high gloss. Closing plants not only left a large number of blacks out of work but left them in a place where there was no work to be found.
Friday night at ten o’clock the garage doors are pulled down over the shops along 125th Street, revealing murals painted in a sort of local Zhdanovism. Near the spanking, plate doors of the Freedom National Bank, the fast-food joints are open and so are the bars where what goes on goes on softly behind the glow of pink, blue, green neon. “Positively no dust smoking. Positively no guns. Positively no loitering in the restroom. Positively everyone will be searched.” The armada of churches is quiet for the moment, the storefront dwellings of the Holy Spirit as well as the flagships guarding the Hausmann-like boulevards. Brilliant mosaics of broken glass form under the amber lamps.
Blight has made Harlem monotonous in appearance. The tower of the State Office Building sticks out like a goofy insertion from, say, Brasilia. Not far away a blue Palladian façade waits, vulnerable. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Boulevard, Lenox Avenue, 135th Street—they have a grim sameness. Many structures are husks, their windows like the sockets of skulls. No graffiti, at least not the kind found downtown among New Wave enclaves. On one lonely wall is “Support the Freedom Fighters,” but it comes like a blast from the past—and it was part of the past before the paint dried.
Harlem once stood for experience, for the possibilities in an evening, and though some swear Harlem can still jump, Connie’s Inn, Pod’s and Jerry’s, the old Small’s Paradise are long gone. Music moved to Fifty-second Street ages ago and be-hop scared away old jazz enthusiasts. I wondered about 133rd Street, once called “Jungle Alley” there were so many clubs elbow to elbow. “I’d rather you tried to walk on water, sonny,” a veteran replied. The sidewalks, this warm Friday, are deserted.
Harlem is a password for danger and not the “danger” of the exotic. A reputation for style was annihilated by images of poverty and drugs. Eighth Avenue starting at 110th Street and some of the tenements leaning toward St. Nicholas Avenue were nervous bazaars for heroin with brand names like Circle B, Sure Shot, Three Hearts Ready to Kill, and Blue Magic. The glassine packets were slipped through peepholes by children too young to be prosecuted. Much of the dope on the streets is “stepped on,” cut with quinine, and a junkie scratching his flesh off, those whom the Darwinism of using has not taken away, is not the person the tourist fears. The working addict is a new phenomenon, the one who holds down a job to support the white monkey on his back. He wants no trouble, especially not with the police parked here and there just to slow the trafficking at dawn or dusk.
No, the citizens who cause the heart of the visitor to falter are the youths. Here they come, five of them, slapping five and armed with third-world briefcases, those radios turned up to gospel level. They have nothing and they are bombarded every day by sexy pictures of the stuff they do not have. The schoolyards are cages. Where are they going? To the teenybopper disco “Harlem World” or Forty-second Street? I’d rather pass out on the Bowery than on Fifth Avenue across the “border.” It takes a lot of faith to swallow the rations of optimism about Harlem’s comeback.
James Baldwin once complained of observers coming to Harlem with their cultural passports—or did he say spiritual checkbooks?—and rightly so. The outsider cannot penetrate the shell because he cannot speak the language, leaving aside the debate over deep structure zero copula, the absence of indefinite articles, the invariant “be,” and the existential “it.” Van Vechten knew his audience when he appended to Nigger Heaven (1926) a glossary of terms. (“August ham” was watermelon, “unsheik” meant divorce.) Mezz Mezzrow learned it all by the time he cast passages of Really the Blues (1946)in jive.
Harlem’s depressed state is no shock, given the economic condition of the whole Eastern seaboard. The end of Harlem is very much like the passing of Second Avenue downtown as a center of Yiddish culture. It is over and there is nothing left but to remember. Jazz meant more than the music. Without it The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises would not have been written. Debussy’s adaptation of the cakewalk; Milhaud’s, Hindemith’s, Stravinsky’s, and Kurt Weill’s use of jazz motifs; certain Ufa and Soviet films—Harlem exported its tempo, its attitude, and helped make Manhattan the capital of the twentieth century.
Oxford University Press, 1982↩
Oxford University Press, 1982↩