Before Harlem: The Black Experience in New York City before World War I

Before Harlem: The Black Experience in New York City before World War I

Before Harlem: The Black Experience in New York City before World War I

Before Harlem: The Black Experience in New York City before World War I


In the years between 1880 and 1915, New York City and its environs underwent a tremendous demographic transformation with the arrival of millions of European immigrants, native whites from the rural countryside, and people of African descent from both the American South and the Caribbean. While all groups faced challenges in their adjustment to the city, hardening racial prejudices set the black experience apart from that of other newcomers. Through encounters with each other, blacks and whites, both together and in opposition, forged the contours of race relations that would affect the city for decades to come.

Before Harlem reveals how black migrants and immigrants to New York entered a world far less welcoming than the one they had expected to find. White police officers, urban reformers, and neighbors faced off in a hostile environment that threatened black families in multiple ways. Unlike European immigrants, who typically struggled with low-paying jobs but who often saw their children move up the economic ladder, black people had limited employment opportunities that left them with almost no prospects of upward mobility. Their poverty and the vagaries of a restrictive job market forced unprecedented numbers of black women into the labor force, fundamentally affecting child-rearing practices and marital relationships.

Despite hostile conditions, black people nevertheless claimed New York City as their own. Within their neighborhoods and their churches, their night clubs and their fraternal organizations, they forged discrete ethnic, regional, and religious communities. Diverse in their backgrounds, languages, and customs, black New Yorkers cultivated connections to others similar to themselves, forming organizations, support networks, and bonds of friendship with former strangers. In doing so, Marcy S. Sacks argues, they established a dynamic world that eventually sparked the Harlem Renaissance. By the 1920s, Harlem had become both a tragedy and a triumph--undeniably a ghetto replete with problems of poverty, overcrowding, and crime, but also a refuge and a haven, a physical place whose very name became legendary.


In 1902, James Weldon Johnson left his Jacksonville, Florida, home and his steady job as a school principal to settle in New York City. Neither his decision to leave the South nor his choice of destinations came unexpectedly. He had already made a number of trips to New York, the first in 1884 when he was still a boy. From his earliest encounter with Manhattan, Johnson loved the city and its “cosmopolitanism.” “It would not have taken a psychologist to understand that I was born to be a New Yorker,” he admitted in his autobiography. He felt a strong emotional connection to New York and often heard his parents “talk … about the city much in the manner that exiles or emigrants talk about the homeland.”

On his first visit, Johnson saw New York through the eyes of a child. He loved the ferryboats, was awed by the crowds and noise, and admired the “biggity” boys. He thrilled at the chance to cross the East River from his aunt and uncle’s Brooklyn home and spend the day wandering through Lord and Taylor’s. One of his sojourns to Manhattan struck him with particular meaning as he recalled his experience nearly a half century later. He reminisced about a time when his uncle took him on an excursion “far up toward Harlem, a region then inhabited largely by squatters and goats.” Johnson perhaps exaggerated Harlem’s emptiness; in the 1880s it housed a genteel community of upper-class white elites— Manhattan’s first residential suburb. Still, the contrast with the Harlem of the 1930s, when Johnson published his autobiography, could hardly have been more dramatic. In the intervening period between Johnson’s first visit and the time he wrote his memoirs, Harlem had become a neighborhood transformed, housing 50,000 black residents in 1914 and nearly 165,000 by 1930.

Johnson noted that he had few black playmates during his childhood stay, not especially surprising in 1884, when the black population of Manhattan was just over twenty thousand and scattered throughout the city. Only about ten thousand black people lived in Brooklyn, where Johnson spent most of his time. Despite the shortage of friends, Johnson remembered that T. Thomas Fortune, another Florida native who had recently settled in New York, often spent time at Johnson’s aunt’s . . .

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