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  • Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway? Community Politics and Grassroots Activism during the New Deal Era by Shannon King
  • Erik Gellman
Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway? Community Politics and Grassroots Activism during the New Deal Era
Shannon King
New York: New York University Press, 2015
vii + 255 pp., $49.00 (cloth)

In the first three decades of the twentieth century, Harlem transformed from a white community to a "Negro Mecca" (14). In Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway? Shannon King analyzes how African Americans fought for equitable housing, jobs, leisure spaces, and policing as this Manhattan neighborhood became an epicenter of black life in the United States.

Harlem began its transformation into a black neighborhood when a 1905 real estate bubble led a few black entrepreneurs to buy white-owned real estate. Thereafter, a "real estate race war" (19) commenced in which white homeowners, through both legal and violent means, tried and failed to keep African Americans from residing in Harlem. King makes an important caveat about this transition: it succeeded on the basis of apartment rentals, not ownership of housing or commercial real estate. As such, even if Harlem increasingly felt like a "Mecca" of African American life and culture to those who moved there during the Great Migration of the 1910s, their transition was mediated by whites who reluctantly catered to them as tenants and clients.

Given the mismatch between the changing population and those who profited from it, early forms of black community-based activism emphasized housing. The tenant movement, King argues, "best exemplifies Harlemites' struggle for community rights" (93) because door-to-door organizing helped make a community out of neighbors. This tenant movement ultimately yielded a politicized network that forged a "vote black" (94) campaign to elect African American politicians. Black women were often at the forefront of these challenges to white and black landlords alike—efforts that exposed interracial and intraracial class tensions. And while the tenant organizations were only "effective at the individual level" (118), the political culture they fostered paved the way for the election of two African American Harlem assemblymen by 1928.

As Harlem's African Americans battled for better housing, they also sought access to urban leisure spaces. One of the developments in Harlem that scholars have overlooked, King explains, is how prohibition and the concomitant culture of slumming in the 1920s overtook Harlem's places of amusement, stoking the white business class's interest in "catering to the tastes of white customers" (132). This commercial development was at odds with black people's common vision for the neighborhood: Harlem as "the place where they felt most human" (17). As a reaction, some black leaders and ministers reinforced respectability to combat notions that Harlem's vices stemmed from innate black behavior. Others, meanwhile, retreated into the tenements to host rent parties and provide entertainment "on their own terms" (140).

Urban policing was another buttress for white economic interests in Harlem. Although there were no major race riots in Harlem during the 1910s and 1920s, this [End Page 125] does not mean the neighborhood was tranquil. Rather, black residents of Harlem vigilantly organized against incidents of police abuse. While some residents appealed to legal authorities, others armed themselves, especially after the World War I period when New Negro leaders such as Hubert Harrison suggested self-defense was a legitimate response to police violence. Here too, King highlights the class divide as it played out in local newspapers. As the New York Age maintained faith in the police department, the editors of the upstart Amsterdam News sought "to channel blacks' discontent into a form of participatory politics" (185).

Perhaps of greatest interest to readers of Labor, King maps out "the making of Harlem's black working class" (55). Manhattan's industrial growth was slow by comparison to other New York boroughs and especially other northern cities. As such, many blacks only found "blind alley jobs" (54) as domestics, elevator operators, and janitors. Black labor leaders such as Frank Crosswaith tried to convince unions to allow black membership on an equitable basis, but these efforts yielded few tangible results. In fact, black workers often gained employment as strikebreakers, which further undermined interracial class...


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pp. 125-126
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