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  • Serving New York’s Black City
  • Ernestine Rose

It is in the community life of a great city that the library has its most challenging opportunity. The more homogeneous such a life the greater is the opportunity of becoming part of it, since all currents flow together, drawing one into the common whirl of experience while conflicting currents of thought and habit keep one tossing about on the surface.

One of the most interesting and least-known of such communities is New York’s black city, extending approximately from Eighth Avenue to the Harlem River and from 130th to 150th Streets. Picture to yourselves a great town of some 150,000 black people, with a few alien whites as scattered shop-keepers, and old residents, clinging to their homes. This city has its own churches, its theaters, its newspapers, its clubs and social life. There are three churches, each with a parish numbering more than two thousand, in Harlem and at least thirty others, varying in size. The Sunday School of Mother Zion Church has a membership roll of seven hundred, and an average attendance of five hundred. All denominations, from Baptist to Episcopalian, are represented; there are a large Catholic parish, several Jewish churches, and a number of Eastern and African sects.

The theaters have their own colored actors, and increasingly one sees posters featuring colored artists. There are colored Y. M. C. A. and Y. W. C. A., the latter with an entire resident apartment house. In “Liberty Hall,” Harlem’s town hall, of a Sunday, immense mass meetings are held. Does white New York know what is discussed there? Harlem supports six colored newspapers recognized as representing negro thought, as well as a number of lesser sheets. This negro world is swarming with clubs, societies, organizations of sorts, for the support of religious or political movements, as for instance, the Bahai faith, or Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” propaganda, as likewise for the mutual betterment or advancement of members.

What gives all this point is the fact that these activities are sponsored and managed, to a large extent, by colored people. The offices of the Urban League are filled by negroes, although both races are represented on the national board of directors. The colored branches of the Y.M.C.A. and the Y.W.C.A. are managed [End Page 107] entirely by colored people. The newspaper editors are negroes, and represent negro thought exclusively. The clergy are negroes, except in the case of the Catholic parish. On the corner of 135th Street and Lenox Avenue a bank has just been erected, which is financed by colored capital, and is under colored control. A large new theater also financed by negro funds is being erected. The reading world knows of Marcus Garvey and his Black Star steamship line. Increasingly, real estate is coming under black control. Even the police and fire stations have colored men on their forces, although the city-managed activities within the district are the most reluctant in succumbing to the inevitable tide. Until a few months ago the library had no colored assistants. Of the three public schools in this community two have colored teachers, one has fourteen on a teaching force of sixty-one, the other has only one. In this school, which faces the library on 135th Street, the registration is something over twenty-one hundred, of whom two thousand are colored. The community has also its literary and artistic life. Several artists of real worth work in Harlem, and there is a large music school, the colored director of which has given recitals at Carnegie Hall.

All this seems to spell homogeneity. Yet though this great group is held together by the tie of color, and by the same bond is separated from its white neighbors, within itself it is crossed and divided by many conflicting lines of thought, belief and hope.

The most deeply-cut is that of nationality. Nearly half this population is foreign, from the British or Spanish West Indies or South America. From the British West Indies comes an educated, thinking and ambitious group, inter-penetrated by white blood, unused to the color line...