Harlem, the Depression Years: Leadership and Social Conditions

By Greene, Larry A. | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 31, 1993 | Go to article overview

Harlem, the Depression Years: Leadership and Social Conditions


Greene, Larry A., Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Harlem, The Depression Years: Leadership and Social Conditions

INTRODUCTION

A spirit of optimism existed among some quarters of America's black population in the 1920s with many anticipating great improvements in their condition and race relations. Black migrants from the South and Caribbean immigrants flocked to northern cities. Harlem was an especially irresistible magnet and cultural mecca to black artists and musicians. Members of the black literary and artistic elite found themselves in vogue not only with black audiences, but also with white theatergoers and white publishing houses.

No doubt this cultural phenomena coupled with socioeconomic and political improvements in the lives of southern migrants freed from apartheid, lynching, and political disenfranchisement in the American South led James Weldon Johnson to make a positive assessment of Harlem and its future prospects in Black Manhattan (1930). Gilbert Osofsky in, Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto, suggests that beneath the bright lights of Broadway and literary salons of the 1920s, the process of residential segregation and concentration in low income jobs was transforming Harlem's prospects in another more negative direction. Renaissance satirist George Schuyler in an observation more supportive of Osofsky, but which minimizes the impact of the depression on blacks, stated: "The reason why the Depression didn't have the impact on the Negroes that it had on the whites was that the Negroes had been in the Depression all the time."(2) How could such astute students of the Harlem scene disagree?

I believe the answer to the status of Harlem in the 1920s and the depression era of the 1930s lies in an analysis of socioeconomic conditions in those respective periods and the impact of the depression on Harlem's various social classes and ideologically diverse leadership. First, the depression had a very negative impact on social conditions and standard of living in Harlem beyond that which existed in the 1920s. Secondly, these conditions mobilized workers, the less conservative elements of the black middle class, intellectuals, Afro-Americans, and Afro-Caribbean blacks to pursue the more militant tactics of mass boycotts, mass Picketing, parades, and anti-eviction efforts aimed at ending discrimination and gaining control of Harlem institutions. Thirdly, the greater activist orientation of Harlem's diverse leadership was more the result of tactical radicalization rather than profound ideological transformations. The overall goals of a significant portion of Harlem leaders in the depression remained consistent with their pre-depression ideology. For example, in the boycott campaign for sales and clerical workers in white owned department stores on 125th Street, the bourgeois leadership desired the integration of blacks into the work force while nationalists had the ultimate goal of taking control of Harlem's economy, and the Communist Party (CP) sought converts to their approach of interracial working class solidarity. Even the CPs positive image rested on reformist anti-discrimination issues rather than on their revolutionary programs (e .g. Black Belt Nation plan and doctrine of Proletarian Revolution).(3) Fourthly, the ideological, class, and intra-racial ethnic diversity of Harlem which made it so fascinating, dynamic, and volatile also made cooperation between contending factions difficult, but yet possible for periods of time in the depression. Fifthly, the LaGuardia administration while compiling a liberal record on style, rhetoric, and some race issues also reflected conservatism and timidity on others.

I intend to explore these themes by surveying socioeconomic conditions in Harlem and through an analysis of the 1934 campaign for jobs in department stores on 125th Street, and the campaign for integration of Harlem Hospital.

SOCIO-ECONOMIC CONDITIONS

The depression took a tremendous toll on all Americans, but blacks suffered the most.

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