Moving Minds and Mountains: African Americans in New York City from 1919 to 1945

Article excerpt

Cities are exciting, ever changing places that are inherently restless and perpetually in motion. They thrive from being, as Lewis Mumford observed, in a constant "state of dynamic tension and interaction." Urban dynamism promotes the opportunity, diversity, growth and prosperity that define the American Dream. It is precisely because cities are not static that they are places of possibility, none more so than New York, the city that never sleeps. As the poet Langston Hughes understood, "New York is truly the dream city, city of towers near God, city of hopes and visions." (1)

The African American experience in New York from 1919 to 1945 provides perspective on the "'dynamic tensions" of the American city and the hopes so central to the American Dream. It encompasses various forms of movement including the physical movement uptown, the cultural movement of the Harlem Renaissance, the social protest movement of Marcus Garvey and the jobs protest movement led by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. finally, the violence of the 1935 and 1943 riots expose the paradoxes of movement--of progress contrasted with stagnation, of dreams dashed by frustration.

Together, these developments reflect the complexity of urban life--the inherent conflict between the politicians and the people, majorities and minorities, dreams and realities. They demonstrate the power of art, activism and anger to shape and reshape the city. They expose the core of what jazz musicians of this period labeled the Big Apple--a city that was shiny on the outside but could be quite rotten on the inside. Most importantly, they capture the creativity, persistence and resilience of urbanites determined to be, in the words of W. E. B. Du Bois, "both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face." (2)

Since being brought to New Amsterdam as slaves by the Dutch West India Company in the 1620s, African Americans were central to the development of the colony and the state. They were farmers and artisans, builders and cooks, soldiers and journalists, politicians and reformers, teachers and preachers. Against great odds, they strived, struggled and survived, forever seeking what Du Bois called, "a mountain path to Canaan." Before and after New York State emancipation in 1827, African Americans met adversity by promoting community on the one hand and protesting against discrimination on the other hand. (3)

Protest was necessitated by prejudice, a legacy of New York's deep involvement in slavery and the slave trade. The violent recriminations of the Negro Conspiracy of 1741 followed by the vicious attacks of whites against blacks in the anti-abolition riots of 1834, the Draft Riots of 1863, the race riots of 1900, 1905 and 1910 framed a long, sorry history of abuse. As African Americans were pushed out of jobs and neighborhoods by successive waves of European immigrants, they moved up Manhattan Island from the Battery to Greenwich Village to the overcrowded, tension filled West Side neighborhoods of Hell's Kitchen, the Tenderloin and San Juan Hill. (4)

At the same time, African Americans mobilized to address and articulate their grievances. Black New Yorkers played a significant role in the Underground Railroad and the abolition movement. While challenging discrimination in the courts, they established Freedom's Journal, the first early nineteenth century African American newspaper, and the New York Age, the foremost late nineteenth century African American newspaper. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed in 1910 followed by the National Urban League in 1911. Together with the work of smaller organizations and local churches, these efforts helped build community, develop leaders, and nurture activism. (5)

In the early twentieth century, migration further uptown signaled a new phase of African American history in Gotham. …