The New Negro and New York Politics, 1898-1933

Article excerpt

On January 1, 1898, New York City was reborn. No longer did it consist solely of the island of Manhattan; at the stroke of midnight that heralded the New Year, the city incorporated its twin city of Brooklyn, as well as the Bronx, Staten Island, and the Long Island community of Queens. This enlarged metropolis became known as Greater New York. And the political changes were just beginning.

That same month, a group of disaffected black Republicans, who felt that the city's Republican organization had been taking black votes for granted, and who had thus voted for the Democratic mayoral candidate the year before, formed the first local Democratic organization run by blacks, an association named the United Colored Democracy. This represented, some thirty years after the end of the Civil War, the beginnings of a political emancipation for blacks in what was now the second largest city in the world. (2)

Ironically, it was emancipation from the legacy of the Great Emancipator himself, Abraham Lincoln. During the late nineteenth century, black professional and intellectual elites in most American cities were Republican. After all, Lincoln had been a Republican, and it had been the Republicans who had gotten the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments added to the Constitution, which officially ended slavery, and guaranteed civil rights (including the right to vote) to those who were recently freed. In fact, Republican efforts to encourage black voting and office holding had led to the election of the first blacks in the Senate and House of Representatives. Yet, these developments did not deter New York City's Democratic organization, popularly known as Tammany Hall, from recruiting working-class blacks into its own fold. Since the 1860s, Tammany had become famously successful in forging a political machine by cultivating poor Irish immigrant voters (and equally infamous for the corruption of its boss, William M. Tweed). By 1886 Tammany was enlisting (often forcibly) the services of black saloon keepers and hotel owners as party leaders. (3) In the coming decades Tammany's biggest challenge would be to overcome the growing sentiment among blacks of all classes that to vote against the party of emancipation was racial treason. (4)

Not that either party was interested in making blacks full members of their political families. New York Republican county leaders, such as Lemuel Eli Quegg, took black loyalties to the party for granted and rejected blacks seeking appointments as assistant district attorneys or coroners. And when blacks responded to this by forming the United Colored Democracy in 1898, the Democrats segregated the UCD from its mainstream organization. Instead of having local representation from each predominantly black district, (as was the case for other ethnic neighborhoods) the city's black Democrats, wherever they might be throughout the city, were all lumped together under a single designated representative, who was himself subject to the direction of the white Tammany leadership rather than to the will of the voters. This separate and unequal situation was hardly a reward for the courageous blacks who endured scorn from their peers for daring to desert the Republicans. Moreover, as Harlem historian Gilbert Osofsky observes, this arrangement prevented the Democratic Party from organizing at the grassroots level among Manhattan blacks, and taking full advantage of the political opening the Republicans had given them. At the dawn of the new century, blacks tragically found that their subordinate status in so much else of New York society extended to their role in major party politics as well. (5) But that was about to change. Those initial efforts at political independence would have a cumulative effect, as leaders in both parties emerged who would show just how important it was to both cultivate and reward the black vote.

The first of these black leaders, perhaps the founder of black political leadership in New York City, was ironically born in Ohio. …