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Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway?

Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway?: Community Politics and Grassroots Activism during the New Negro Era

Shannon King
Copyright Date: 2015
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway?
    Book Description:

    The Harlem of the early twentieth century was more than just the stage upon which black intellectuals, poets and novelists, and painters and jazz musicians created the New Negro Renaissance. It was also a community of working people and black institutions who combated the daily and structural manifestations of racial, class, and gender inequality within Harlem and across the city.

    New Negro activists, such as Hubert Harrison and Frank Crosswaith, challenged local forms of economic and racial inequality. Insurgent stay-at-home black mothers took negligent landlords to court, complaining to magistrates about the absence of hot water and heat in their apartment buildings. Black men and women, propelling dishes, bricks, and other makeshift weapons from their apartment windows and their rooftops, retaliated against hostile policemen harassing blacks on the streets of Harlem. From the turn of the twentieth century to the Great Depression, black Harlemites mobilized around local issues-such as high rents, jobs, leisure, and police brutality-to make their neighborhood an autonomous black community.

    InWhose Harlem Is This, Anyway?, Shannon King argues that Harlemite's mobilization for community rights raised the black community's racial consciousness and established Harlem's political culture. By the end of the 1920s, Harlem had experienced a labor strike, a tenant campaign for affordable rents, and its first race riot. These public forms of protest and discontent represented the dress rehearsal for black mass mobilization in the 1930s and 1940s. By studying blacks' investment in community politics, King makes visible the hidden stirrings of a social movement deeply invested in a Black Harlem.

    eISBN: 978-1-4798-6691-5
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    In the summer of 1900, a race riot in the Tenderloin district of New York City set the tone for the relationships among blacks, whites, and the police in Harlem and the city at large for the remainder of the twentieth century. On August 12, at Forty-First Street and Eighth Avenue, police officer Robert J. Thorpe, in civilian clothes, attempted to arrest May Enoch, a black woman, he believed to be “soliciting.”¹ Arthur Harris, her common-law husband, ran to her aid, unaware that the white aggressor was a policeman. Officer Thorpe struck Harris with a club, and Harris retaliated with...

  5. 1 The Making of the Negro Mecca: Harlem and the Struggle for Community Rights
    (pp. 13-52)

    Throughout the 1920s, black leaders in New York City and across the nation debated the cultural and intellectual significance of Harlem. As the largest urban black neighborhood in the North, ensconced in the most cosmopolitan and diverse city in the nation, Harlem, opined James Weldon Johnson, was “a city within a city, the greatest Negro city in the world.”¹ Similarly, George Edmund Haynes, cofounder of the National Urban League, envisioned Harlem as an exemplar of interracial comity. In 1921, Haynes contends, “the cosmopolitan atmosphere [of New York City] knows less of color prejudice than probably any other city in the...

  6. 2 “Not to Save the Union but to ‘Free the Slaves’”: Black Labor Activism and Community Politics during the New Negro Era
    (pp. 53-92)

    In theHarlem: Mecca of the New Negroissue of theSurvey Graphicmagazine in 1925, James Weldon Johnson noted nostalgically that during World War I, as a result of a shortage of industrial labor and a decrease in immigration from Europe, black “new-comers did not have to look for work; work looked for them, and at wages of which they had never even dreamed.” In the throes of violence home and abroad, the Great Migration from the South significantly altered race relations in the North and the South. Johnson’s comments capture black leaders’ and black migrants’ optimism about securing...

  7. 3 “Colored People Have Few Places to Which They Can Move”: Tenants, Landlords, and Community Mobilization
    (pp. 93-120)

    In 1928 black communist Richard B. Moore asserted, “Negro workers are set upon at the point of consumption by rent hogs and landlord sharks who take advantage of their segregated situation.”¹ As the leader of the Harlem Tenants League (HTL), Moore charged that white and black landlords exploited black tenants both as a class and a race. Moore, the HTL, and various neighborhood tenant organizations during the 1920s pinpointed landlords and realtors, black and white, as responsible for the housing crisis in Harlem. Less than two decades before, blacks had bestowed praise upon trailblazing black realtors as they opened up...

  8. 4 “Maintaining ‘a High Class of Respectability’ in Negro Neighborhoods”: Contestation and Congregation in Harlem’s Geography of Vice and Leisure during the Prohibition era
    (pp. 121-152)

    In 1914, theNew York Agedeclared, “Harlem is infested with too many saloons for the good of the 40,000 Negroes in that section.” Troubled by the abuse of alcohol that made “you fight your mother,” the black weekly targeted the preponderance of white-owned saloons and their unchallenged hold upon black patronage, lamenting that “the bulk of the profits go to the white saloonkeeper and the barrelhouse owner.” TheAgeargued, furthermore, that buffet flats, or flats where patrons could stay overnight to enjoy illicit pleasures, grew out of the saloons and barrelhouses. The black weekly hoped to mobilize respectable...

  9. 5 “Demand the Dismissal of Policemen Who Abuse the Privileges of Their Uniform”: Racial Violence, Police Brutality, and Self-Protection
    (pp. 153-186)

    The string of race riots punctuating black America during the World War I era and throughout the 1920s somehow missed Harlem. Globally known as the cultural and intellectual center of black America, Harlem had an aura of putative racial tranquility. James Weldon Johnson, proclaiming the exceptionalism of Harlem, claimed that there were no race riots in Harlem because blacks were incorporated into the city’s body politic. Accordingly, he explained, blacks in Harlem do not remain “merely ‘Harlem Negroes’; astonishingly soon they become New Yorkers.”¹ He christened New York City and Harlem as urban sites of modernity, where migrants actualized their...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 187-190)

    On March 19, 1935, Lino Rivera stole a penknife from the Kress Store on 125th Street, and an employee seized him. Rivera tried to break away and bit his captor, who called the manager. As the ambulance arrived for the employee, a hearse coincidently pulled up behind the store. Immediately, a rumor spread that the Rivera was dead. He was not. Hours later, two local groups arrived with pamphlets, gave speeches, and carried signs protesting yet another case of police brutality.¹ Once again, Harlem exploded. In the aftermath of the riot, Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia promised Harlemites that he would...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 191-230)
    (pp. 231-246)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 247-254)
    (pp. 255-255)