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
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.