Commentary Magazine

This Was Harlem, by Jervis Anderson


This was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait 1900-1950.
by Jervis Anderson.
Farrar Straus & Giroux. 390 pp. $17.95.

Within memory, the section of upper Manhattan known for the past twenty years as a depressing, forbidding slum was a vibrant and self-confident community. Harlem was the place where black achievers in business and the arts came to test their mettle and enjoy their success. In a time of racial exclusion, both economic and social, this was the place that best represented the aspirations of American blacks—including their desire for the recognition and respect of white society. Harlem was, as Adam Clayton Powell put it, “the symbol of liberty and the Promised Land to Negroes everywhere.”

What happened? The question underlies Jervis Anderson’s social and cultural history, which he brings to an end with the 1940’s. But the book in fact touches only lightly on the causes of social decay. Anderson is concerned to recapture rather than to explain the past. To this end he proceeds by quoting extensively from observers of the early Harlem, whatever their prejudices, and he illustrates his story by means of enumeration and the accumulation of detail. Thus he offers lists of the black journalists of the early part of the century, among whom was James Weldon Johnson; he gives us the names of the great performers, black and white, who appeared at the Savoy ballroom starting in 1926—Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey; he lists the inhabitants of Harlem’s two privileged social enclaves, Strivers Row and Sugar Hill, including the tenants of 409 Edgecombe Avenue in Sugar Hill—W.E.B. DuBois, Roy Wilkins, Josh White, and Thurgood Marshall among them.



Harlem grew into a black community largely because of developments in the real-estate market. The old San Juan Hill and Tenderloin districts on Manhattan’s West Side, where blacks lived before the turn of the century, were partly torn down and partly made prohibitively expensive by the building of Pennsylvania Station in 1903. At about the same time, because of over-building above 110th Street, the northern boundary of Central Park, developers finally became willing to rent to blacks. The first to relocate moved into a relatively narrow area between 130th and 140th Streets. Eventually Harlem extended to nearly the width of Manhattan, and from 110th to 155th Streets.

Many had left the Tenderloin area to escape the vice and crime notoriously associated with it. These people formed a conservative, bourgeois nexus for the new community. Within a few years their churches followed them northward, institutionalizing what amounted to a positive rage for respectability. Eventually, however, Harlem came to include not only families but also the colorful, raucous, and sometimes sinister elements that had made up the old downtown “Negro Bohemia.” The result was a transmission of the old district’s distinctive mixture of poverty and high style—a combination that could be found in one and the same individual depending on whether the time was midweek or weekend.

From early on, then, the evolution of Harlem involved a contrast and struggle between two styles of life. Although memoirists and historians tend to concentrate on the high life, Anderson has not neglected the everyday. By 1919, according to one recollection he quotes, “there were Negroes in every conceivable profession, business, and trade.” These included doctors, lawyers, dentists, druggists, journalists, florists, beauty-parlor operators, and the real-estate agents who had made settlement possible in the first place. Peculiar to this community was its large body of clergymen, including an oversupply of storefront fanatics and fakes, and its many civil-rights workers—then called “race leaders.”



Perhaps more than anything else, it was the visible evidence that a community could be run by blacks that made Harlem a center of hope and pride. In the arts this pride took the form of ethnically distinct techniques that soon became universally influential. Ragtime music introduced a special kind of intricate syncopation to music, and also led the way out of the racial self-denigration of the prevailing minstrel-derived entertainments. Ragtime swept both black and white society. Ultimately, as Anderson shows, it became, along with jazz, a leading influence in the 1920’s breakdown of rigid moralities.

Harlem and Greenwich Village were two world-renowned outposts of personal and social freedom. The Village, one may say, offered a place to live and work in a bohemian or unconventional manner. There was an unusual degree of economic and class integration there, and couples could more easily live together out of wedlock, or in homosexual liaison. Harlem, on the other hand, offered temporary, gestural freedoms. Here blacks and whites mingled freely and danced with one another. And here, for those who came for the entertainment, the sexual daring—which included ambiguously naughty lyrics and transvestite performers—enacted the age’s idea of sexual liberation.

Anderson does not scant the racial exclusions that persisted despite the symbolic integration of Harlem night life. In fact, he explicitly links the history of Harlem to racial practices. It was a race riot in San Juan Hill that spurred the first West Siders to move to Harlem, and postwar race riots in 1919 gave emerging civil-rights advocates a greater militancy. The proletarian-protest strain in the writings of the Harlem Renaissance also seems to have been influenced by the riots of 1919. Yet it must be repeated that for all the justified resentment against white society, the defining spirit of Harlem remained a positive one. Memoirists recalled “a wonderful vivacity and excitement,” sustained by “a self-esteem, an enormous self-assuredness, an enormous optimism.” Harlemites were, in the words of a black preacher, “blessed or cursed with a wonderful optimism.”



It all started to come apart in the 30’s. In 1930 half of Harlem’s population of 200,000 was on relief. Riots in 1935 and 1943 poisoned the atmosphere and made visitors fearful of traveling uptown. In accounting for the community’s decline, Anderson lists the deaths of prominent community leaders by 1940, and the dispersal of a significant portion of the middle class by 1950. Yet the dispersal, at least, was a product of success, not failure. It does not seem true to say that Harlem declined mainly because of the Depression and racial bitterness.

There had always been hard times for the area’s large population of the poor, as Anderson shows. Furthermore, at least one riot—after the fabulously popular Joe Louis defeated Max Schmeling for the heavyweight title in 1938—grew not out of a spirit of protest but of celebration. The great riot of 1943 came at a time of improved economic conditions, spurred to a great extent by the opening of war-plant jobs in 1941.

The decline of Harlem seems to have proceeded from social more than from economic causes. There had always been a steady in-migration of rural Southerners and West Indians, but when a comparable out-migration of the successful got under way, the community was left without leadership. A further loss of social control came about with the decline in community institutions all over America. In Harlem these institutions had been particularly crucial. The middle class there, calling itself “the better element of the race,” had stood for more than respectability and repression. Church congregations—as long as they remained influential and relatively well supported with money—organized charities, as did the many fraternal and civic organizations: black Masons, Pythians, Odd-fellows, Elks, YM, and YWCA’s, the NAACP, the National Urban League, and local Democratic and Republican clubs. Equally important, perhaps, these groups were responsible for social rituals ranging from casual promenading to elaborate weddings and funerals (Anderson lists the famous ones) that expressed a sense of solidarity and continuity. The loss of all this, as Jervis Anderson’s charming and elegantly written account makes one acutely aware, was a terrible shame.

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