Harlem Slums As A Result Of The

Urbanization Of America Essay, Research Paper

In comparison with the European urban heritage,

which stretches back roughly 5500 years, the American transformation from

village to city was achieved in an amazingly short space of time.

From the eighteenth century on, Americans experienced the painful yet rewarding

metamorphosis of an agrarian nation becoming an urban industrial giant

that left few of her political, economic, and social institutions untouched,

be they the farm, the factory, or the family. In 1790, for example,

only a little over 4 percent of the American population lived in cities;

today 70 percent of Americans live in urban areas. Richard Hofstadter

summed it up well: “The United States was born in the country and

has moved to the city (Handlin 3).”

The rough, harsh and crowded lives of the

Harlem slums and discrimination against Negroes are just a few of the many

results of the urbanization of America. Negroes moved to the city, away

from their farm lives, to work in factories as America industrialized.

With all the Negroes and other immigrants coming to Industrialized parts

of America Negro communities, such as Harlem, were formed. With the

slums came discrimination for the Negro migrants. The white people,

who had occupied industrial cities first, saw Negroes as lesser beings.

They believed that it was okay for them to be treated unfairly due to the

color of their skin. This was the belief that parents of white children

wanted them to have. It was documented that children who intermingled

with Negroes at some public schools saw them to be okay and decent, but

the parents of these children discouraged this kind of thinking and told

their children that they had had the wrong attitude towards Negroes.

As a result of blacks in some public schools, many white children were

sent to private schools. This was just the beginning of discrimination

towards black people during the Urbanization of America.

The following quotation suggests the whites

superiority over the inferior Negroes:

I have no prejudice against the colored

people. I have always had colored servants and nurse girls for my

children and I like them. I have never known them to be dishonest.

My husband employs seven colored men and his experience has been the same

as mine. I don’t care to live next door to a colored family or across

the street and if they do come to this side of Raymond, I certainly will

move out.

The Negroes were further discriminated

due to the fact that the white people said that the value of their property

would decrease if they had Negro neighbors. Neighbors in a white

community would stand together in the sense that they all agreed that they

would not sell their homes to a Negro for their own selfish sakes.

This is another reason why Harlem slums grew and yet another example of

discrimination towards the Negroes.

The creation of a Negro community within

one large and solid geographic area was unique in city history. New

York had never been what realtors call an “open city”, a city in which

Negroes lived wherever they chose, but the former Negro sections were traditionally

only a few blocks in length, often spread across the island and generally

interspersed with residences of white working-class families. Harlem,

however, was a Negro world unto itself. A scattered handful of “marooned

white families?stubbornly remained” in the Negro section, a Unites States

census-taker recorded, but the mid-belly of Harlem was predominantly Negro

by 1920 (Frazier 53).

And the ghetto rapidly expanded.

Between the First World War and the Great Depression, Harlem underwent

radical changes. Practically all the older white residents had moved

away; the Russian Jewish and Italian sections of Harlem, founded a short

generation earlier, were rapidly being depopulated; and Negro Harlem, within

the space of ten years, became the most “incredible slum” in the entire

city. In 1920 James Weldon Johnson was able to predict a glowing

future for this Negro community: “have you ever stopped to think

what the future Harlem will be?” he wrote. “It will be the greatest

Negro City in the world. And what fine part of New York City has

come into possession of” (Johnson 345)! By the late 1920’s,

however, Harlem’s former “high-class” homes offered, in the words of a

housing expert, “the best laboratory for slum clearance?in the entire city.”

“Harlem conditions,” a New York Times reporter concluded, are “simply deplorable”(Nail


The Harlem slum was the product of a few

major urban developments. One of the most important was the deluge

of Negro migration to New York City then. The Negro press, now largely

dependent on the migrant community for support, changed its former critical

attitude of migration to one openly advocating urban settlement (Handlin

245). If one is looking for a dramatic turning point in the history

of the urbanization of the Negro, a race changing from farm life to city

life, it was certainly within the time period of the 1910-1920. Between

this time period the Negro population of the city increased 66 percent

(91,709-152,467); from 1920 to 1930, it expanded 115 percent (152,467-327,706).

In the latter year less than 25 percent of New York City’s Negro population

was born in New York State. There were more Negroes in the city in

than the combined Negro populations of Birmingham, Memphis and St. Louis.

Similar population increases occurred in urban areas throughout the country.

Negro migration drew on areas of the South

that had previously sent few people to New York City. The seaboard

states of the Upper south, especially Virginia and the Carolinas, continued

to be the main sources of New York’s Migrant Negro population. But

people from Georgia and Florida and other Deep South states, formerly under-represented,

also came in greater numbers: “Harlem became the symbol of liberty

and the Promised Land to Negroes everywhere,” the Reverend Dr. Powell wrote

(Hanlin 245). In 1930, some 55,000 foreign-born Negroes added to

the growing diversity of the city’s Negro population.

Working Mothers had little time to care

for their children. Youngsters “with keys tied around their necks

on a ribbon” wandered around the streets until families came home at night.

Substantial portions were products of broken home, families without a male

head. One Harlem school principal testified that 699 of his 1,600

pupils came from families whose fathers were not living at home.

Nor did the majority of Harlem schoolchildren ever have time to accustom

themselves to the regularity of school life; many families were rootless.

Three-fourths of all the Negro pupils registered in one Harlem school,

for example, transferred to some other before the end of one school year;

some schools actually experienced a 100 percent turnover. Pupils

from the South were seriously deficient in educational training:

“They are at times 14 to 15 years of age and have not the schooling of

boys of eight,” a Harlem principal wrote. “We cannot give a boy back

seven years of wasted life” (Robbins 215). The typical Harlem school

of the 1900’s had double and sometime triple sessions. The “usual

class size” was forty to fifty and conditions were generally “immensely

over-crowded”: “The school plant as a whole is old, shabby, and far

from modern” (Theobald 89). In some schools 25 percent and more of

the children were overage or considered retarded.

Negro children in Harlem often led disrupted

and harsh lives from the earliest years of their existence: “Testimony

has been given before us as to the moral conditions among children, even

of tender age which is not to be adequately described by the word horrifying”

(McClenahan 311). These conditions were obviously reflected in high

rates of juvenile crime but more subtly, and worst of all, in loss of respect

for oneself and for life in general. Harlem youngsters developed

a sense of subcordination , of insecurity of lack of self-confidence and

self-respect, the inability…to stand on their own feet and face the world

with open eyes and feel that they’ve a good as right as anyone.

This then was the horror of slum life,

the Harlem tragedy of the 1900’s. “Court and police precinct records

show,” a municipal agency maintained, “that in arrests, convictions, misdemeanants,

felons, female police problems and juvenile delinquencies, these areas

are in the lead.” It was no wonder that narcotics addiction became

a serious problem then and that Harlem became “the center of the retail

dope traffic of New York”; nor that local violence and hatred for the police

were continually reported in the press (LaGaurdia 93). The majority

of Harlemites even during normal times lived “close to the subsistence

level” (Boyer 123). Many were “under fire” of charitable agencies

in the period of relatively full employment. Those who needed money

quickly and had not other recourse were forced to turn to loan sharks,

Negro and white, who charged 30 to 40 percent interest: Harlem “has been

infested by a lot of loan sharks,” a municipal magistrate who dealt with

such cases stated (McClenahan 324). In one form or another the sorrow

and economic deprivation of the Depression had come to Harlem in the 1900’s.

“The reason why the Depression didn’t have the impact on the Negroes that

it had on the whites, was that the Negroes had been in the Depression all

the time” (Schuyler 259).

Since the 1900’s, things have changed for

Negroes in America thanks to people like W.E.B. DuBois, Mary White Ovington,

just to name a few, and organizations like the NAACP. DuBois strongly

believed that at the basis of the racial problem was ignorance. So DuBoise

sought to educate all of those unaware of the problems that race prejudice

caused. One of his first studies, “The Philadelphia Negro,” in which he

personally interviewed two thousand people helped uncover the truth of

the black condition. He used this as a tool in the battle against race

prejudice. He also helped form the NAACP. Formed on Abraham Lincoln’s 100th

birthday on February 12, 1909, the National Association for the Advancement

of Colored People (NAACP) is an organization founded by such people as

W.E.B. DuBois and Mary White Ovington who believed that racial equality

should be given not earned. The rights that the NAACP fought for were a

legal judicial system, the right to vote, equal employment, schooling,

and equal opportunity. Unlike one of their main targets for legal prosecution,

the Ku Klux Klan, the NAACP believed in solving their disputes through

the court system. Another task that the NAACP was set upon completing was

the education of all on the problems and barriers that race prejudice creates.

By publishing a monthly magazine NAACP helped enlighten hundreds of thousands

of people about race prejudice. This periodical included stories about

the problems that blacks faced in everyday life. With the new found knowledge

the people were more motivated to act as a community; instead of hide as

one. The NAACP did not only help create a community of blacks willing to

battle for the rights they were born with, it helped bring down those who

advocated the concept of segregation and racial superiority. With

the help of strong, influential leaders like DuBois and Ovington and organizations

like the NAACP Negroes have earned the rights they have today.


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