Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway?

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Today on Gotham,
historian Mason B. Williams interviews Shannon King
about his new book
Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway? Community Politics and Grassroots Activism During the New Negro Era.

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Few, if any, New York neighborhoods have been studied as intensively as Harlem, and no period in Harlem’s history has received as much attention as the Roaring Twenties. In his debut book, Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway?, the historian Shannon King shows us a less familiar, yet more representative and perhaps ultimately more telling, side of interwar Harlem. In place of the tales of towering intellectuals, brilliant artists (and their canny boosters), and “the making of a ghetto,” King shines a light on the grassroots struggles — with police, landlords, and employers — which collectively “comprised the fulcrum of Harlem’s political culture” and paved the way for the remarkable upsurge of protest politics of the 1930s and 1940s. An associate professor of history at the College of Wooster, King is also a native New Yorker, raised in Harlem and the South Bronx. A Scholars-in-Residence fellowship from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture allowed him to return to Harlem to conduct research for Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway?

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Our conversation touched upon the usefulness of the concept of “community rights” in thinking about the Black freedom struggle in the interwar North; the role of gender in shaping grassroots activism; and King’s brilliant analysis of the effect of Prohibition on Harlem’s community politics. Ultimately, King says, he wanted to give the people who waged struggles for justice in 1920s Harlem the recognition they deserved. There is no question that he has done that. And in recasting those struggles as part of a campaign for community rights, he has filled in a crucial part of the history of Black politics, both in New York and beyond.
— Mason Williams

Harlem in the 1920s is not an unfamiliar place. But you give us a wholly new view of it. What stories were you trying to correct or complicate with this book?

For a long time, historians writing about other cities had challenged Gilbert Osofsky’s ghettoization approach in Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto, but not until recently, with the exception of Irma Watkins-Owens’s Blood Relations, have historians centered Harlem’s community politics. For me, this meant considering the experiences and activism of workers and tenants; centering the impact of the jazz age and Prohibition on the black community; and concentrating on the roles of state-sanctioned violence and self-defense. In addition to correcting the “making of the ghetto” approach, I also wanted to complicate and center the roles of black intellectuals and cultural workers in Harlem as activists by using them to speak to community politics. The more familiar personalities, like Langston Hughes and W. E. B. Du Bois are found in the book, but I center the grassroots activism of Hubert Harrison and Frank Crosswaith, whom I describe as community activists, since they spoke directly to Harlem local issues.

One way of reading this book is as a history of two related key concepts: community ownership and community rights. I’d like to ask you about both of these concepts where they came from, what power they had, and how they fit with other political and social dynamics in Harlem and the city. About ownership: it strikes me that so much of community politics in 1920s Harlem involved the tension between two different notions of ownership: the sense of community ownership -- the right of the community to control its own space and the legal regime of property ownership, which often favored white property owners who were intent on profiting off of segregated markets. For that reason, I read your book as the story of a struggle against colonialism. Is that right? And how much did this struggle for community ownership in Harlem owe to older community-building projects -- dating back to the post-emancipation South and beyond?

Right. I do think the relationship between African Americans, broadly understood, and the United States might be described as “colonial.” Certainly what is “colonial” is debatable, and describing African Americans as such requires unpacking. More importantly, such an argument must be placed within the context of Indigenous Peoples’ history. Nonetheless, Harlemites understood “community” spatially and culturally, so black community politics was about self-determination and control. It is also important to note that white New Yorkers viewed and depicted black majority areas and blocks as spatially, culturally, and morally distinct from white populated areas. So it was not unusual to read white dailies describe Harlem as a “negro colony” or “little Africa.” This discourse makes sense, considering that the founding of black Harlem overlapped with the American empire and the colonization of Africa during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

This tradition of “community ownership” and black self-determination can certainly be seen in struggles to make freedom real during the Civil War and especially in the post-emancipation South. In the context of Progressive Era New York, ideas around community ownership also emerged out of black New Yorkers’ -- not unlike black Chicagoans' -- desire to build a black metropolis or “Negro Mecca.” They aspired not only to escape white violence in lower Manhattan and housing congestion, but also to establish thriving black businesses and promote political autonomy. Black educators and leaders across the nation, most prominently Booker T. Washington and his National Negro Business League, promoted these ideas of “uplift” and black entrepreneurialism. So even before World War I and the Great Migration, the New York Age, a black weekly, vigorously promoted Harlem, in some ways, as a new “homeland.”

The other key concept is community rights. This is the early golden age of “rights” in New York -- it's a very powerful concept in a number of different communities, and in the city as a whole. Historians of Harlem have generally foregrounded the concepts of “equal rights” and “civil rights.” One of the major contributions of this book is to put the concept of “community rights” at the center of the story of interwar Harlem’s political culture. Could you talk a bit about where the concept of community rights comes from — how it takes shape in Harlem, what it means to people and how it’s mobilized? And how to did idea enfold other kinds of rights claims -- individual civil rights, social rights, etc.?

There were, of course, civil rights struggles in Harlem. In 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded and headquartered in New York City, but many of these efforts were primarily demands for the protection of individual civil rights. So as I thought of the larger project, using a civil rights approach would not have done justice to the stories I found. Community rights, therefore, derived from my own efforts to make sense of the limits of a civil rights approach as a framework and to put my book in conversation with extant scholarship on black freedom studies, particularly post-World War II works on black movements outside the South.

I defined “community rights” as the ideals, expectations, and objectives that blacks held for Harlem. Considering blacks’ demands for fair treatment in theaters, for example, was certainly about “equal rights” or enforcing “civil rights.” At the same time, these claims to “rights” had more to do with the expectation that they would be treated fairly in a predominantly black neighborhood. In that sense, the claims to “civil rights” were a means to fulfilling the ideal, expectation, and objective of being treated with dignity in Harlem. There was, in other words, a certain kind of pragmatism to their politics, so although they demanded equal treatment in predominantly white spaces, their claims had more to do with their rights as individuals as opposed to their rights as members of a racial community.

As I was writing the book, I was trying to figure out how we might explain the relationship between black political culture in the 1920s and the mass protest oriented struggles of the 1930s and 1940s. In other words, I wondered, how do we explain the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns and other forms of civil disobedience that required cross-organizational support to pull off? Certain, this campaign is a boycott and it’s about jobs, but it is essentially a boycott that is based in the idea of community rights.

The black projectionists’ strike in 1926 against the white-owned and managed Lafayette Theater was a dress rehearsal for the boycotts for jobs in the 1930s and 1940s. The black projectionists, the New York Age, and the New York Amsterdam News (both black weeklies) and other black organizations demanded jobs in white-owned theaters and trade union recognition based on the claim that the black Harlemites made up the majority of the theaters’ patrons. While the strike failed to mobilize the entire community, as an antecedent to the later campaigns, it represented an example of cross-organizational racial solidarity and working-class consciousness-raising for jobs. It also spurred other campaigns for employment and working-class issues as the decade of the 1920s came to an end. So through thinking about community rights, I began to see how the grassroots efforts around police brutality, jobs, and housing in the 1920s were small-scaled and less developed versions of the better coordinated and mobilized campaigns in the 1930s and postwar era.

You make, to my mind, a very convincing case that we should strip Harlem of some of the “Negro Mecca” exceptionalism that attached to it in the 1920s and has survived in a variety of forms — many of the dynamics at play in Harlem were common across the urban North. So I’m curious how we should think about Harlem, and New York, as a community. What does the New York case study allow us to see? How did the distinctive features of the Harlem community (for instance, its large West Indian population) shape the particular history of this community?

I think the cultural politics and intellectual life of Harlem are so rich, so complicated, and so transformative that it still makes sense to understand Harlem as a “Negro Mecca.” I also think that we have to take seriously that New York City was cultural and commercial capital of the United States. These qualities make New York City exceptional and clearly explain why Harlem was unique as a black cultural and intellectual hub. At the same time, if we center or only historicize the “Negro Mecca” we lose sight of the majority of black people in Harlem. I really think the “exceptionalism” narrative was partly propaganda, propaganda that some black leaders like James Weldon Johnson employed to publicly challenge the criminalization and punishment of black people in the advent of the race riots. Since whites often blamed the race riots in East St. Louis in 1917 and Chicago in 1919 and elsewhere on black people, Johnson endeavored to use the absence of a riot and the cosmopolitanism of Harlem to illustrate the cultural integrity of black New York and black people generally. So I asked, what about other forms of anti-black violence? So in Harlem, we see not only police brutality but also these really interesting exchanges among black newspapers and leaders around self-defense, racial violence, and black criminality. In other words, when we looker closer, we see patterns that help us make sense of the more everyday forms of racism. We see the racism of white proprietors; we see temporary cases of solidarity among white and black tenants and even intra-racial conflict between the black tenant and black realtor.

I do think the fact that New York is a global city, as well as the nation’s epicenter of culture and capital, as mentioned above, attracted certain kinds of migrants and immigrants to the city, ensuring that it would have significant ethnic and national diversity among white and blacks. So this large population of Afro-Caribbean people, from the British and Spanish Caribbean, would bring a certain kind of cosmopolitanism to Harlem. How else do we explain the bibliophile and historian Arturo Schomburg, an Afro-Puerto Rican? From him and others, we get the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. And while my book centers the local experience of black New Yorkers, we see must always understand New York as a site of black transnational politics, like London and Paris.

Chapter four offers a highly sophisticated argument about the role of Prohibition in shaping Harlem’s political culture. I was so struck by it that I just wanted you to give our readers a glimpse of it. So: What impact did Prohibition have on community politics in Harlem?

By threatening the autonomy of black social and cultural life, Prohibition called into question the verity of the “Negro Mecca.” Prohibition also exposed the significant degree to which Harlem’s reputation was dependent on the policing of black women’s bodies. The “Negro Mecca” was based on the idea of black autonomy, particularly in the area of property ownership, residential and commercial. Before Prohibition, white proprietors generally catered to the needs of black patrons, especially as the neighborhood’s residential population shifted from white to black. So black Harlemites enjoyed a certain kind of privilege in some of the districts’ places of “public amusement,” since both white and black proprietors competed for their patronage. This black consumerism, however, masked the vulnerability of Harlem’s black propertied classes. Part of the historical claim made here is, the relative privileging of black consumers nurtured a “politics of dignity.” This meant that for the first two decades or so, black New Yorkers enjoyed a level of safety, security, and especially dignity within predominantly black spaces.

Prohibition, however, exposed this vulnerability and the fleeting power of black consumerism, as both black and white proprietors began to cater to slumming whites crowded Harlem’s nightspots. I argue that this represented a certain kind of re-segregation and privatization of Harlem commercialized entertainment. Prohibition forced black Harlemites to ask: Whose Harlem is it, anyway? They had nowhere to go. In this context, tenement-based commercialized entertainment took on more significance. Black patrons were often unwelcome in the nightclubs that now catered to whites or they simply could not afford them. Thus places of respectable domesticity became sites of pleasure, yet they were also places that empowered blacks to reclaim Harlem as their own. So, despite the relative powerlessness of the black propertied classes and black consumers, they, not unlike others participating in the informal economy, creatively used their homes as places of cultural and adult entertainment. So I use rent parties, socials tenants threw to defray their rent costs, to illustrate not only the economic costs of residential segregation and exploitative landlords (Chapter three), but also the multiple ways Harlem partygoers and Harlem stride pianists, for example, recreated new spaces for the development of a cultural-political consciousness that centered and legitimated black pleasure and authentic black cultural production. This, to me, was as “political” as the conventional forms of politics -- housing, labor, and police brutality -- that I center throughout the book.

At the same time, this commercialized pleasure in private spaces also precipitated an interracial anti-vice campaign that mainly targeted black women.

I’m not sure most people — even many historians — have fully appreciated the degree to which the urban reform movements of the interwar period were driven by women. There’s tons and tons of great historical research on women’s activism, but for whatever reason it doesn’t seem to have been fully integrated into the more synthetic narratives of the period. Women are often at the center of your account — particularly in the case of tenant organizing. What should historians make of the role of gender in shaping Harlem’s political culture?

Let me build on the previous question. In chapter four, gender, race, and racism help explain how white and black reformers effectively mobilized Harlem tenants, the police, and anti-vice associations to rid the district of vice activity. Rather than assess prostitution as an economic problem as white reformers had regarding white women during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Committee of Fourteen, a white anti-vice association, the New York Urban League, and alike associations labeled black women criminals and prodded the police to surveil them. These acts reinforced racist and sexist stereotypes of black women and sanctioned police violence against them at the very moment that white reformers viewed poor white women, including those involved in sex work, as redeemable. That’s one approach to understanding the role of gender in Harlem’s political culture.

In the case of housing, I tried to illustrate how black women first in 1916 and later during post-World War I housing crisis used their sacred and secular associations to organize tenants in their own and nearby buildings. In doing so, black women in Harlem created networks that they activated for political purposes. Here, Harlem’s political culture, led by black women as grassroots activists, emerged from within the neighborhood not only from the World War I experience or black radicals. This, I think, is similar to what we see regarding the origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 after Rose Parks was arrested. The Women Political Council, led by Jo Ann Robinson, first waged a one-day boycott, which became — through the efforts of black churches, black tax-cab drivers, and many other black institutions and enterprises — a yearlong boycott. Thus I think understanding gender, particularly the roles of black women in neighborhood institutions helps us make sense of not only Harlem’s political culture but also black political culture in general.

Like a lot of great works of New York history, this is a deeply personal book you write that in many ways it’s an autobiography as well as a work of scholarship. What is your personal connection to Harlem, and how do you think your relationship with the community shaped the way you wrote its history?

I’m a New Yorker raised in Harlem and the South Bronx. I grew up in Harlem during the 1970s and 1980s, and that Harlem was like neither the one David Levering Lewis described in When Harlem Was in Vogue nor Osofsky’s Harlem. As I considered these works and others, I definitely got a better understanding of my own Harlem: I saw a semblance Lewis’s robust black culture and Osofsky’s “ghetto.” But I still thought something was missing. Then I remembered my next-door neighbor’s stories of her battles with our landlord in “rent court,” the police harassment my friends and I experienced on the streets of Harlem, and the rent parties that my mother threw during hard economic times. I tried to produce a bottom-up political and social history, a grassroots history that reflected those memories and realities. And I tried to create a fuller and more complex picture of Harlem, a more candid but sincere picture that the people that make-up that history and waged those struggles deserve.


Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway? has been awarded the Anna Julia Cooper/CLR James Book Award by the National Council for Black Studies. Our congratulations to Professor King on this well-deserved honor.