The city where I live, New York, has always had an uneasy relationship to Black history. Manhattan, originally a Dutch trading post in the Triangle Trade, was the importer of some of the first slaves in American history. These slaves were brought in to work the farms that lined the Hudson, to work as domestic slaves in the mansions of lower Manhattan and to work in the busy shipping yards of North America’s premiere port city. Of course the north, with colder climate and poorer soil was no competition for the south in agriculture and therefore became focused on industrial concerns. These industries did not require the intense manual labor of 19th century agriculture and therefore did not require slaves, which led to New York City’s early liberation from the peculiar institution and freed the economies of the north to thrive in ways with which the south could not hope to compete. New York evolved as the consummate melting pot very early in its history. The British and Dutch came to an uneasy compromise to share the city and immigrants flooded to Manhattan from every corner of Europe-first Ireland and Germany and later nations further east. Intermingled in this intaglio was the free African American population.
Black history in America, of course does not belong to New York, but instead extends throughout this country. The plantations of the Tidewater in Virginia or the cotton fields of Mississippi deprived millions of African Americans of their original sense of culture and language from Africa. Blacks lost their names, customs and language. These vital elements to cultural identity were replaced by white names, the English language and Christianity. African Americans, however, did not simply accept the culture of their masters and oppressors-they morphed it into something new, something that was their own. In the fields of toil and misery was born African American culture. Slaves, freedmen and free born blacks spoke English with their own accents and invented their own slang-a practice still evident today. They intermingled the mother tongue with African, French and Spanish creating Creole and Patois dialects. African Americans took austere Christian hymns and transformed them into living, pulsing songs imbued with hope and suffering. These chants of the field, hymns expressing sorrow or celebrating faith in God and deliverance were the forerunners of Blues and eventually Rock N’ Roll. Black cuisine took the poorest food ingredients, like pork ribs, animal innards and cheap vegetables and blended them in unique ways to create fantastic soul food dishes that modern people pay top dollar to eat. As a people orphaned from their African heritage, under the worst possible circumstances, African Americans were able to create a new culture distinct from their African ancestors and their white American oppressors.
After the Civil War many freedmen stayed in the South as sharecroppers, earning a meager survival in the midst of a hostile white population. The outcome of the war gave blacks their freedom-nothing else- and soon the iron clamp of Jim Crow Laws settled into place to reestablish to old social order of white supremacy. In the decades following the war it was to escape this oppression and seek new economic opportunity that African Americans travelled to the north. These African American nomads brought with them their homespun culture and an optimism that they could make a successful life for themselves in cities like New York. One common misconception, however, is that the north, because it did not have as many slaves and outlawed the practice early in American history, was a safe haven for African Americans. Certainly not having to face the horrors of slavery, Jim Crow Laws and the Klu Klux Klan was an improvement but northerners were no less racist and intolerant of blacks. Before the war fugitive slaves were frequently captured in northern cities and returned to the south. Despite the noble efforts of abolitionists and manumission societies the northern population was largely unsympathetic to the plight of slaves. During the Civil War many blacks were lynched during the draft riots by groups of angry young men who did not want to fight for the freedom of African Americans. During the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century racism persisted and New York City was the scene of race riots just like Detroit or Watts. Manhattan’s neighborhoods, historically self-segregated by nationality, ethnicity and religion have spent much of their time at war with one another. Blacks could not live where they wanted in New York City but could instead live in small clusters where they faced the incessant threat of racial violence.
Nonetheless, New York City’s African American population managed to band together into one of the most vibrant black communities in the United States. Harlem was originally founded by the Dutch as a separate colony from the rest of Manhattan. Between lower Manhattan and Harlem-a thing difficult to imagine today-was a wilderness of forest and marshland filled with Native Americans and social outcasts. During the colonial era blacks often lived and buried their dead in this wilderness. Harlem, separated geographically from the rest of the city has always maintained its independence. Over the decades different ethnic groups have laid claim to Harlem: Irishmen, Jews and finally African Americans. Blacks were often denied accommodations in every other part of New York City but due to a series of real estate crashes at the turn of the 20th century, landlords were at a loss to find white renters in Harlem. Black real estate entrepreneur, Philip Payton Jr. stepped in bringing thousands of blacks to settle in Harlem, thus establishing the predominantly black demographic for which Harlem is historically known.
In 1900 Harlem was a very picturesque historic and well developed neighborhood. In the past many luxurious brownstone buildings had been constructed for the neighborhood’s former white populations. It was in these swanky homes that Harlem’s newest residents came to live. It is these structures that give Harlem its peculiar beauty. Today a walk around Harlem will reveal many old, elegant and quite historic buildings remaining from the 19th century standing next to grim utilitarian structures with fanciful spray paint murals and tag art on the sides. During the 1920’s Harlem was the place to be. Southern blues musicians and northern jazz masters like Duke Ellington or Billie Holiday came together to reinvent music in the smoky clubs and speakeasies of uptown Manhattan. Places like the Cotton Club and Savoy Ballroom were cauldrons of energy and culture that were so popular that even the city’s white population would venture uptown for music, dancing and illicit drinking. 1934 Harlem’s most famous structure, the Apollo Theatre opened for business in a former burlesque house. The theatre has showcased some of the most famous African American entertainers in history. Recently thousands of admirers turned out to view the body of James Brown, who was laid out at the Apollo. Black heroes like Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson were given massive celebrations from the appreciative Harlem Population. Unfortunately it was also during the Harlem Renaissance and its aftermath that crime, poverty and drugs began to stalk Harlem, dragging the neighborhood into the squalor that it would endure during the next seventy years. Harlem today is one of the most historic places in New York City. The name of Harlem’s principle streets and avenues-Malcolm X Boulevard, Martin Luther King Boulevard and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard-all attest to this corner of Manhattan’s importance to African Americans.
Harlem has undergone something of a new Renaissance in the past 15 years. Determined city planners and real estate developers have invested millions of dollars to develop commercial property along 125th street and tourists are beginning to venture uptown. While these trends have brought new money into Harlem, there is a more alarming tendency. Harlem is at last undergoing a process of gentrification-something that has been underway for decades elsewhere in New York. The demand for luxury properties has brought developers uptown to buy up the land and buildings in Harlem. Rising property values have in turned forced out much of the lower and middle income families, who cannot afford to pay the property taxes or rents on these new buildings. New York City is losing much of its historic cultural identity to gentrification. Of course Harlem has always been subject to change throughout its history and different groups have always come and gone, but once, north of 110th street, there existed the most dynamic black community in American history. No matter what happens to Harlem in the future, this fact must always be remembered.