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

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

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

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


2015 Choice Outstanding Academic Title

Winner of the Anna Julia Cooper/CLR James Award for Outstanding Book in Africana Studies presented by the National Council for Black Studies

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.

In Whose 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.


Around 123rd Street, an enormous luxury high-rise is going up.
The people of the neighborhood have scrawled, in white paint, on
the walls of the construction site: Where will we live? For Harlem
is an exceedingly valuable chunk of real estate and the state and
the city and the real-estate interests are reclaiming the land and
urban renewalizing—or gentrifying—the niggers out of it.

—James Baldwin, “Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway?” 1986

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.” 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 a penknife, fatally wounding Thorpe. On August 15 and then the following day (the day of Thorpe’s funeral), police and white gangs wreaked havoc on black populated streets and passersby throughout the Tenderloin district. These white mobs—comprised of civilians and police officers—attacked black pedestrians from Thirty-Fourth Street to Forty-Second Street along Broadway, Seventh, and Eighth Avenues. “They [police] ran with the crowds in pursuit of their prey; they took defenseless men who ran to them for protection and threw them to the rioters, and in many cases they beat and clubbed men and women more brutally than the mob did,” noted Frank Moss, who compiled a report of the riot. Many blacks promptly armed themselves; the black elite trusting to a more pacific approach, formed the Citizens’ Protective League. The CPL requested Mayor Robert A. Van Wyck’s protection and cooperation, and he authorized the Police Board to investigate the police department. The Police Board only legitimized its officers’ actions. In each case, the state—the police, the mayor, and the police board—failed to protect black citizens’ rights. As Moss explained bluntly, “the ‘investigation’ was a palpable sham.” White civilians and the police doubly attacked the black community during the 1900 racial conflagration. None-

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