If you want the truth, Black History Month has never moved me all that much. My culturally conscious family raised me with enough knowledge of black history that to some extent, every month was Black History Month for me. So when the official version arrives every year, I take an unconventional approach to observing. I try to emphasize little-known stories from the history of the African Diaspora in which its people, far from succumbing to victimhood, fought back against oppression without relying on white majorities or authorities in power.
The example I most recently encountered was in journalist Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’ 2011 book Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America. Hers is nearly the first telling of how an African-American entrepreneur pursued both profit and justice by making unprecedented moves to establish a foothold for blacks in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem more than a century ago. It’s the kind of story that, by its very telling, could revitalize Black History Month as an institution.
Harlem has been known as the de facto cultural capital of black America for so long that many Americans would probably be surprised to learn that it was once “an upscale, whites-only neighborhood.”
Before the turn of the twentieth century, Harlem was as resistant to African-American habitation as any other white urban enclave in those days. Moreover, the areas of the city where blacks lived uneasily alongside working-class whites were beset by racial violence, such as the Tenderloin District race riot of 1900. But self-made black real-estate broker Philip A. Payton, Jr., was determined to acquire a safe space in the city for his community.
Having already made his way as a successful buyer and manager of properties in New York City, Payton raised investment capital from the African-American elite of the era to found the Afro-American Realty Company in 1904. In seeking support from affluent blacks, Payton appealed to their desires both to make a buck and to serve the black community’s interests. The company’s prospectus proclaimed: “The very prejudice that has heretofore worked against us can be turned and used to our profit.” Use it to black folks’ profit, he did.
After Afro-American Realty quietly began leasing landlords’ small Harlem houses to black tenants, the white-owned Hudson Realty Company purchased nearby land for residential development. Unfortunately, habitation by blacks was thought to depress a property’s value, since white customers were typically loath to live near them. So after buying up three nearby apartment buildings from Payton’s firm, Hudson Realty evicted the buildings’ black tenants, replaced them with white ones, and inked racially restrictive contracts requiring willing developers to rent their properties exclusively to whites.
Given the endemic — and murderous — racial prejudice of the time, the gumption that Payton showed in his response to Hudson’s maneuver is awe-inspiring. His Afro-American Realty Company promptly bought two adjacent apartment houses, evicted their white tenants (many of whom preferred packing their bags to renting from blacks) and threw open their doors to the very black tenants whom Hudson had expelled. Eventually, Hudson Realty threw in the towel, selling the original three buildings back to Payton’s company at huge losses. This incident effectively opened up the floodgates to an influx of black residents, which the New York Herald considered an “untoward circumstance.” That migration — and a slow-but-sure white exodus — eventually made Harlem into the African-American cultural mecca that it has been for the better part of a century.