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Before Harlem

The Black Experience in New York City Before World War I

By Marcy S. Sacks

Publication Year: 2011

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.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Politics and Culture in Modern America


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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p. 4-4

Copyright Page

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p. 5-5

Dedication Page

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p. v-v

Table of Contents

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pp. 8-9

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pp. 1-8

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 Man ...

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1: The Most Fatally Fascinating Thing in America

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pp. 9-38

When James Weldon Johnson relocated to New York City in 1902, he joined a growing wave of southern black men and women moving to northern cities. The fall of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow legislation in the South helped precipitate a sharp increase in the number of southern black people seeking friendlier environs in the North. While ...

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2: Purged of the Vicious Classes

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pp. 39-71

On the evening of August 12, 1900, Arthur]. Harris left the room he rented from Annie Johnson at 241 West Forty-first Street to buy cigars and pass some time at McBride's Saloon, located on the corner of Forty first Street and Eighth Avenue. New York City was in the midst of an excruciating heat wave, and temperatures that day reached higher than ...

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3: To Check the Menacing Black Hordes

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pp. 72-106

Of all forms of prejudice evident in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century, few proved more enduring than the color line imposed on the housing market. Until real estate agent Philip Payton opened Harlem to black residents, most black people living in New York City faced near-squalor living conditions. "Hedged in by prejudice," ...

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4: Jobs Are Just Chances

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pp. 107-136

Frederick Challenor left his home in Barbados at the turn of the twentieth century, bound for New York City. Like most immigrants, he expected to find greater opportunities in his adopted home than in the one he had left behind. In 1907, he married Aletha Dowridge, a fellow ...

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5: The Anxiety of Keeping the Home Together

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pp. 137-169

The everyday struggle for economic survival wrought havoc on black people individually and collectively. Poverty exacted its toll in the number of lives lost to disease, undernourishment, poor health care, and dangerous jobs. Its price was paid in mental anguish, the separation of ...

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6: Negro Metropolis

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pp. 170-196

In the face of pressing poverty and deteriorating race relations, black New Yorkers nevertheless found ways to create community within overcrowded tenements and to assert their claim to the city. Despite tremendous mobility even after arrival in the metropolis, black people ...


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pp. 197-219


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pp. 221-228

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pp. 229-231

I find it remarkable and humbling to take stock of the many people who have supported me and this project over the years, and I welcome the opportunity to publicly acknowledge them. I owe a deep debt to Nick Salvatore, of Cornell University, who first introduced me to the notion ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812203356
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812239614

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Politics and Culture in Modern America