The End of the African American Welcome in Harlem, 1904

By Kevin McGruder

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The following is an excerpt from the author's new book.

The spring of 1904... was pivotal for African Americans then living in Harlem. Their unremarkable co-existence with white residents of Harlem was about to come to an end. As in other northern cities, in New York City what it meant to be black was changing. The increased presence of African Americans in northern cities was accompanied in most cases by growing hostility from white residents, and the hostility often resulted in policies attempting to add restrictions to the residential movement of blacks, replacing what had been more fluid, informal practices. In Harlem, the range of white responses to the Black presence demonstrated a diversity of views among white residents, as well as the importance of real estate ownership to African American community formation and permanence.

1890s Harlem had attracted the [Henry C.] Koch family to Harlem seeking business opportunities and convenient residency. A decade later, police officer John G. Taylor, and real estate broker Philip Payton had also relocated to Harlem. But Harlem was just as attractive to individuals on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, both black and white. In the 1890s families such as that of forty-five year old James Holden, an African American cook and porter, married, with two daughters, moved from Manhattan’s “Little Africa” enclave of Greenwich Village to West 135th Street in Harlem. Holden and his twelve-year old daughter were born in New York. His wife and sixteen year old daughter were born in Washington, D.C. Far from the increasingly crowded black district in midtown, in the 1890s Harlem was viewed by black and white New Yorkers as the suburb that it had been until 1873 when it was annexed into the city. The area was still sparsely developed, and while brownstones and apartment buildings lined some streets, the broad width of the north-south avenues, and the modest heights of the buildings, gave residents access to the light and air that progressive reformers were beginning to emphasize as essential for healthy urban communities.[1] Many Harlem blocks were undeveloped and still contained open fields. In moving to Harlem, the Holden family may have been seeking a more respectable neighborhood in which to raise their children. While Harlem’s white property owners sought the “respectable” class of black tenants (who they charged premium rents), black renters seeking an escape from the Little Africa or Tenderloin [midtown] neighborhoods sought this class for neighbors.[2]

By the late 1890s, the south side of West 135th Street, where the Holdens moved, between Lenox and Fifth Avenues, was almost fully developed with small apartment buildings (see Map). Only six vacant parcels of land were scattered throughout this side of the block. The north side of this block of 135th Street was quite different. Except for fifteen buildings on the eastern edge of this side of the block, the north side of West 135th Street was totally vacant. By 1900 the buildings on the south side of 135th Street were occupied by both white and black residents, usually in separate buildings, but not always. Reviewing the racial characteristics of the occupants of the twenty-two buildings on the block, (see Table), nine buildings were occupied exclusively by African Americans and ten properties were occupied by white residents. The remaining three properties were occupied by tenants from both groups.[3]….

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1897 Map of West 135th Street between Lenox (Sixth) Avenue and Fifth Ave.,
G.W. Bromley & Co., Manhattan, Section 6

Although midtown Manhattan continued to house substantial numbers of blacks, by the end of the 1890s an African American enclave, to which the Holden family had moved, was concentrated at 135th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem. The black residents of this area rented apartments owned by white investors who viewed their presence in the “Negro Colony” as a source of revenue, not unlike their presence in other black enclaves in Manhattan such as Greenwich Village or the midtown Tenderloin and San Juan Hill districts. A distinction from these earlier settlements, to which blacks gained entry as they declined, was that the Harlem district was a relatively new district. The buildings occupied by the black tenants were recently built.[4] …..

TABLE 2 . 1 Race of Residents of the South Side of 135th Street
(between Fifth and Lenox Avenues), 1900

Building Race of Number of Purchased in
address occupants households in 1903–1904 by building[a]
2 West 135th Street White 10
4 Black 9
6 White 5
8 White 4
10 White 5
12 Black 11
14 Black 8
16 African American 6 (1 white)
and white[b]
18 African American 6 (1 white)
and white
24 African American 8 (1 white)
and white
26 Black 10
30 White 10 James and Ella Thomas;
Philip Payton; Afro-
American Realty
32 White 5 James and Ella Thomas;
Philip Payton; Afro-
American Realty
34 Black 9
40 Black 10 Hudson Realty
42 Black 15 Hudson Realty
44 Black 13 Hudson Realty
46[c] Mercy Seat Baptist
48 Black 1
50 White 1
52 White 1
54 White 4
56 White 1

Source: TWELFTH CENSUS, SCHEDULE NO. 1, POPULATION, NEW YORK CITY, WARD 12, ENUMERATION DISTRICT NO. 6 17, SHEETS 7A–13B (WASHINGTON, D.C. : U.S. DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE, 1900).
[a] Households represented by the number of people recorded as the “Head” of a household on the census schedule at a particular address.
[b] Two white boarders within a household headed by an African American.
[c] Not on census.

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The growth in developed areas of Harlem coincided with an increase in the black presence in Upper Manhattan. From 1890 to 1900 the African American population in Manhattan grew by forty-one percent from 25,674 to 36,246. Behind these numbers was the growing exodus of blacks from southern states. Seeking to escape racial violence, declining economic opportunities, and legalized segregation, African Americans moved to northern cities like New York in increasing numbers.[5]

Although the racial ideology of black criminality influenced the perceptions of whites toward blacks, the profit motive was also an equally powerful factor in determining how blacks would be treated by whites. A few years after the 1900 riot [in which whites attacked blacks in midtown following the stabbing of an undercover police officer by a black man], as Harlem land values increased with the first subway line nearing completion in 1904, the black residents, once sought as renters in Harlem, became the targets of an organized removal effort by some white Harlem property owners. The black residents of West 135th Street were discussed … in the May 2nd edition of the New York Herald:

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There is nothing but trouble in a section of Harlem where a community of negroes that has grown rapidly in a few years, is being made to disintegrate and “move on,” through the concerted action of landlords. One hundred families will be on the move to-day, and six hundred other families are perilously near eviction.[6]

Some owners of properties [led by the Hudson Realty Company] on West 135th Street and nearby streets to the south had decided to exercise their… prerogative of not renewing leases. The Herald article suggested that the first black inhabitants of the area had arrived some twelve years prior, and were quiet, “wealthy parlor car attendants.” The article noted that the motive behind the evictions was a reduction in rents in the area that attracted a more “objectionable” element of the race as evidenced by “the frequent presence of the police and the patrol wagon.” The article also suggested that a rent increase “which the parlor car porters could pay, but their colored inferiors could not,” had previously been used as a strategy to remove the undesirable tenants. According to The Herald, the owners’ target was the “colored inferiors,” but the “wealthy railroad porters” were also caught in the net of the eviction effort.[7]

The black residents of West 135th Street decided to challenge this effort to oust them. An article in the May 2nd edition of the New York Times described an “indignation meeting” of the previous evening held at the Mercy Seat Baptist Church at 46 West 135th Street by “colored residents of 134th and 135th Streets, between Lenox and Madison Avenues.” Attendees at the meeting complained of a “systematic campaign” to force them from the neighborhood, noting that landlords had indicated that the black residents were “noisy and disorderly, an accusation which was denounced at last night’s meeting as without foundation.” Homing in on the reason for the dispossession strategy, the article noted that Mercy Seat Baptist’s pastor, Reverend Norman Epps observed that “The prospective opening of the subway has enhanced the desirability of the locality, and so… the very landlords who had once invited the negro tenants are now trying to drive them out.” The language of reform was being used to veil the owners’ interest in gaining unrestrained access to property that they anticipated would dramatically increase in value. No mention was made of eviction efforts targeting white tenants in the same area.[8]

Three days later, on May 5th, James C. Thomas, an African American undertaker and his wife, purchased 30 and 32 West 135th Street from Charles and Katie Kroehle providing them with a payment of $100 and assuming mortgages of $30,000 (in 1900 these two buildings had been occupied exclusively by white tenants). A week later, on May 12th, Mercy Seat Baptist Church purchased lots at 45 and 47 West 134th Street for $16,000 from August and Mena Ruff. August Ruff was a builder who lived at 54 West 120th Street. The source of Mercy Seat’s funds for the purchase cannot be determined. The sales agreement for the Ruffs’ lots included a covenant or promise that the first building constructed on the property would be a church for Mercy Street Baptist. On the same day, the Reverend Charles Satchell Morris, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, an African American congregation then located on West 40th Street, transferred to Abyssinian, a building located at 61 West 134th Street that he had purchased eight months earlier in September of 1903. The church agreed to assume the payments on mortgages totaling $25,000 on the properties. On June 29th Thomas sold a half-interest in his properties at 30 and 32 West 135th Street to African American real estate broker Philip A. Payton, Jr. A month later Thomas sold the other half-interest to Payton. The cost to Payton for the two buildings was $200 and the assumption of a first mortgage of $30,000 and a second mortgage of $3,500.[12]

While the May 1904 newspaper articles suggested that white Harlem property owners were united in their efforts to oust blacks from 135th Street, the sales transactions noted above tell a much more complex story. The flurry of leases and purchases by African Americans that took place before and after the May eviction notices could not have taken place without the cooperation of the white owners of the properties as well as others involved in real estate investing. Financing the purchase of tenement buildings in the 1890s and first decade of the 1900s was not done by most mainstream banks. The buildings that routinely cost between $20,000 and $40,000 ($400,000 to $800,000 in 2012 dollars) were viewed as high risk gambles, both because of the variations in construction quality, and the transient nature of the lower income tenants who typically occupied the buildings. Banks rarely provided financing for these buildings, particularly to borrowers with modest incomes and limited social contacts. The sellers of the properties, wealthy individuals, or the estates of the wealthy individuals would have been the likely lenders for the African American purchasers of the buildings in the 135th Street area.[13]

When James Thomas purchased 30 and 32 West 135th Street from Charles and Katie Kroehle on May 5, 1904, he paid one hundred dollars and agreed to assume the payments on mortgages totaling $30,000 that were already on the property. The Kroehle’s had purchased the buildings only three weeks earlier on April 20th from Isaac Helfer, who had purchased the property six days earlier on April 14th from George and Jennie Currier. George Currier had owned the property since the early 1890s. The quick series of sales on the two tenement buildings suggests speculative activity connected with the increased desirability of the 135th Street area. Unfortunately there are several gaps in the record that cloud the specific terms of the transactions….

…[T]he white people involved in these transactions had German ancestry in common. Cornice maker Louis Partzschefeld, who leased his property to Mercy Seat Baptist Church, and his wife were born in Germany. They had both arrived in the U.S. in the early 1880s. Their son, Louis, Jr. attended German-American Felix Adler’s Ethical Culture School, which in 1904 moved into a new building at Central Park West near 59th Street, and was noted for its innovative curriculum of hands-on education.[14] August and Mena Ruff, who sold property to Mercy Seat Baptist were also both born in Germany. August Ruff, who had arrived in the United States in 1867, was an officer in a New York City German American singing society, Schwaebischer Saengerbund. Active in Democratic politics, the wedding of his daughter was later described in The New York Times suggesting that he was successful in his business as a builder. [15] Charles Kroehle and his wife, who purchased property that they soon re-sold to James Thomas, were born in New York, but their parents were born in Germany. Like August Ruff, Kroehle was an officer of a German American singing society, New-York Maennerchor. The debut tea for his daughter was also noted in the New York Times.[16]

These middle class German American households headed by craftsmen succeeded a generation that in the nineteenth century had supported “equal rights for all, regardless of color, religion, nationality or sex.”[17] Responding to the oppressive conditions in their country, and influenced by revolutionary democratic ideology in Europe, some had supported Germany’s failed 1848 revolution, and afterward fled to the United States. After arriving in America some of these Germans became vocal anti-slavery advocates. But all Germans were not of this mind. Nineteenth century New York also had a large German American population that identified with the pro-slavery wing of the Democratic Party. The Staats-Zeitung, the German newspaper controlled by New York’s mercantile elite, and read by German mechanics and laborers, referred to its press competitors that advocated abolition as Niggerblätter (nigger sheets).[18]

A generation later, the actions of Partzschefeld, the Kroehles and the Ruffs, in assisting blacks to buy properties in Harlem, illustrated that a different, possibly anti-racist ideology was still alive. The belief in black inferiority held by many Americans in the early 1900s had been transmitted over generations. Some new arrivals quickly adopted these beliefs as part of their process to Americanize themselves, but others held different understandings of the status of African Americans. Various German ideologies had ample potential to grow in New York City. In 1900 thirty-seven percent of New York’s population of 3.4 million people were foreign born. German-born New Yorkers were the most populous of this group at 322,343, (9.5% of the total population). Russian-born residents were a distant second at 155,102, (4.5%) followed by Italian born at 145,433 (4.2%). Many German Americans lived in the lower Manhattan neighborhood of Kleindeutchland (Little Germany) but as they prospered they moved to various neighborhoods of the city including Harlem. This substantial population of people of German descent had developed German language newspapers, and social groups that provided the German sellers of Harlem properties with a social group that extended beyond Harlem. They were therefore less susceptible to pressure from other Harlem property owners who may not have approved of their transactions with blacks.[19]

The New York newspaper accounts of the 1904 eviction efforts in Harlem illustrated that under some circumstances class distinctions among black New Yorkers were acknowledged by whites. The reference to the welcome received by “wealthy” African American railway porters in Harlem in the 1880s and 1890s versus the twentieth century African American “undesirables,” who attracted attention from the police because of their riotous behavior, indicate that in describing the eviction the writer acknowledged class differences among African Americans. While the leaders of the eviction movement sought to portray all blacks as undesirable, the other property owners who chose to lease, sell or lend to African Americans in 1904 were also making distinctions among African Americans. It is highly unlikely that they would have entered into what were standard sales arrangements for properties they owned if they had not believed that the African Americans with whom they were doing business were both trustworthy as well as financially capable of honoring their agreements. Black purchasers such James Thomas, owner of a midtown undertaking establishment was of a similar economic class as the stable owners Charles and Katie Kroehle from whom they purchased property…

…[For African Americans in Harlem the] shift from a community of transient renters to one of owners with a long-term financial stake in the community, represented a shift in social class as well. While the “wealthy” porters may have been in the vanguard of black residency in the 135th Street area in the 1890s, the group of black business owners and professionals that sought to ensure a black presence in Harlem was near the top of the black economic ladder as it was available to black New Yorkers in 1904. Some white property owners would respond to their effort with another strategy to keep African Americans out of Harlem, or at least to contain them to the area of their 1904 victory over eviction.


Kevin McGruder is Assistant Professor of History at Antioch College. He holds a Ph.D. from The Graduate Center, CUNY, and an M.B.A. in Real Estate Finance from Columbia University.


[1] Charity Organization Society of the City of New York, Tenement House Committee, Housing Reform in New York City: A Report of the Tenement House Committee of the Charity Organization Society of the City of New York 1911, 1912, 1913, (New York: M.B. Brown Printing & Binding Co., 1914) 4.

[2] Twelfth Census of the United States, Schedule No. 1-Population, Enumeration District 617, Sheets 7A-13A; Trow’s Directory of New York City, 1895, 1896, 1897, 1898, 1899,1900; Osofsky, p. 11; Lucille Genevieve Lomax, “A Social History of the Negro Population Living in the Section of New York City known as Greenwich Village” (M.A. thesis, Columbia University, 1930), Table 3b; Frederick M. Binder, David M Reimers, All Nations Under Heaven: An Ethnic and Racial History of New York City (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013) 158.

[3] Twelfth Census of the United States, Schedule No. 1- Population, New York City Enumeration District 614, 7A-13B, Department of Commerce and Labor, Bureau of the Census, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office) 1900.

[4] Vital Statistics, Twelfth Census of the United States, Census Bulletin No. 88, “Population by Sex, General Nativity, and Color, by Groups of States and Territories, 1900, Washington: U.S. Census Bureau, 1901, 9.

[5]John S. Billings, M.D., “Population of New York, June 1, 1890, By Wards and Sanitary Districts,” in Vital Statistics of New York City and Brooklyn Covering Six Years Ending May 31, 1890 (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Interior, Census Office) pp.230-233; “Population by Sex, General Nativity, and Color By Groups of States and Territories: 1900, Twelfth Census of the United States: 1900- Population, Department of Commerce and Labor, Bureau of the Census, No. 88, 9 ; W.E. B. Dubois; The Black North, (New York: Arno Press, 1901, 1969), 1-18.

[6] “Negro Families Must ‘Move On’ New York Herald, May 2, 1904, 6; the article incorrectly names the pastor as “N.S. Betts” rather than N.S. Epps.

[7] Ibid.

[8]“Harlem Negro Colony to Fight Evictions,” New York Times, May 2, 1904, 5.

[9] Hood, 91-112.

[10] $100 in 1904 was the equivalent of $2,402.57 in 2007 dollars using the Consumer Price Index, http://www.measuringworth.com/calculators/uscompare/result.php/.

[11] Manhattan Conveyances, Section 6, Liber 88, 183, New York City Register; Trow’s General Directory of the Boroughs of Manhattan and Bronx, City of New York, 1097 ; Thirteen Census of the U.S.- Population, New York City Enumeration District, 536, Sheet 4A.

[12] Twelfth Census, E.D. 851, Sheet 15B; Conveyances, Section 6, Liber 86, 346-347,Liber 86, 382-383, Liber 84, 379-380, Liber 87, 432-343, Liber 90, 388-389, New York City Register; Twelfth Census of the United States, Schedule No. 1- Population, New York City, Enumeration District 851, Sheet 15, 1900.

[13] Jared N. Day, Urban Castles: Tenement Housing and Landlord Activism in New York City, 1890-1943, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 32-50.

[14] Thirteenth Census of the United States: 1910- Population, New York City, Enumeration District 536, Sheet 4A, (Washington, D.C.: Department of Commerce and Labor, Bureau of the Census), information on the year that the Kroehle’s arrived in the U.S. was not included in the Census report; “Ethical Culture Fieldston School,” http://www.ecfs.org ; Ethical Culture School Record, (New York: The Society for Ethical Culture, 1918), 78.

[15] Twelfth Census of the United States, Schedule No. 1- Population, New York City, Enumeration District, 851, Sheet 15, (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Census, 1900); “Society,” New York Times, January 16, 1910, X2; “Tammany Hall Delegates,” New York Times, September 27, 1897, 2.

[16] Thirteenth Census of the United States: 1910- Population, (Washington, D.C.: Department of Commerce, Labor Bureau of the Census, 1910), New York City Enumeration District, 1146, Sheet, 4B; “A Feast of German Song,” New York Times, April 21, 1895, 16.

[17] Bruce Levine, “The Migration of Ideology and the Contested Meaning of Freedom: German Americans in the Mid-Nineteenth Century”, German Historical Institute, Occasional Paper No. 7, 1992, 13.

[18] Leroy Hopkins, “’Black Prussians:’ Germany and African American Education from James W.C. Pennington to Angela Davis,” in Crosscurrents: African Americans, Africa, and Germany in the Modern World, ed. D. McBride, L. Hopkins, C. Berkshire-Belay (Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell & Brewer, 1998), 68-70; Bruce Levine, “Against All Slavery Whether White or Black,” in Crosscurrents, 56-60.

[19] “The Ethical Culture Fieldston School,” http://www.ecfs.org, Twelfth Census of the United States, New York, Statistics of Population, Table 35, “Foreign Born Population, Distributed According to Country of Birth,” (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Census, 1900), 800-03; Stanley Nadel, Little Germany: Ethnicity, Religion, and Class in New York City, 1845-80, (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 9-35.

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Rev. Epps’ analysis was accurate. The development of a subway system had been a matter of discussion in New York for many years. When construction started in 1900, Harlem property owners began to look forward to the benefits the community would experience after the announced 1904 subway opening. With a subway stop at the corner of 135th Street and Lenox Avenue, the western end of the 135th Street block, the adjacent properties then occupied by small walkup tenements and rowhouses were ideally located for more intensive use. The owners of the buildings were interested in obtaining higher rents from the existing buildings or constructing larger buildings to respond to the demand of residential and commercial tenants to be near the new subway stop.[9]

On May 2nd African American resistance moved beyond words. Mercy Seat Baptist Church, which had hosted the indignation meeting on the previous evening, signed a five year lease for 46 West 135th Street, the site of the meeting. The monthly rent was $100.00, and the lease gave the church the option to purchase the building at a price of $16,000 “at any time during the term of this lease, with the appurtenances.” [10] The lessor was Louis Partzschefeld a metal worker who lived at 4 West 136th Street. The lease was for a five year term. [11]