Harlem was never the largest black community, except for a very short period of time. Today Harlem is clearly not the largest black community in the City of New York. Jamaica, Queens, and Bedford-Stuyvesant are much larger in terms of population. But in the imagination of black people throughout the world, and of people throughout the world, regardless of race and culture and ethnicity, Harlem is a site of black urbanism, it's a site of black culture, it's a site of imagination, it's magical terrain, where anything is possible and all kinds of creativity can be, and has been, produced.
By 1914, roughly 50,000 African Americans of the 60,000 who lived in Manhattan were living in Harlem. By 1923, the number of blacks in Harlem was about 150,000; by 1930, well over 225,000. Harlem had become the largest black urban center in the world.
Why did African Americans come to Harlem? Same reasons that whites clustered to Harlem: they were looking for space, looking for more commodious homes. But for African Americans, they were looking in part for sites where they could establish cultural institutions and construct notions of community that were spaces that they could call their own.
And so churches, which had long been established in New York City, such as Abyssinian Baptist Church, relocated to Harlem. Others followed suit in the nineteen-teens and -twenties. So by the early 1920s, after World War I, there were a series of cultural institutions, of churches, civic associations, theater groups, clustered all around West 135th, and increasingly 125th, even though the business community at 125th was not controlled at all by African Americans. And there were many establishments, especially nightclubs, where African Americans were excluded as patrons. Nevertheless, the community had become thoroughly identified with African American people. And so with this critical mass of Negroes living in the largest city of the United States, you began to see the growth of political associations drawing their energy from newly arrived blacks coming from the West Indies and from the Deep South.
One such movement was, of course, Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. The famous August 1920 Negro march down West 135th Street and 125th, where you had over 25,000 Negroes in the black, red, and the green regalia of Garvey, was a striking sign of the arrival of black political power here in this city, whether white folk knew it or not.
One of the most delightful things about the political culture of Harlem is that Harlem has a very long tradition of public discourse that rivals the Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park—no joke. On 135th Street and on 125th and on Lenox Avenue, on the weekends, especially on a very warm afternoon, you will find speakers at corners getting on ladders or on soapboxes, and articulating political agendas, talking about everything from the need for African Americans to go back to Africa, to the need to do for self and join Minister Muhammad's Temple No. 7 in Harlem, represented at one point by Malcolm X, at a later point by Lewis Farrakhan. So that political discourse, that public discussion of the soapbox speaker, that goes back nearly a century, back to Hubert H. Harrison, the black socialist, black nationalist, public orator. I believe that it was Harrison who established this tradition in Harlem, and then Garvey and A. Philip Randolph, and others. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. added to the tradition, and it still continues today.
Malcolm X with students at Barnard in 1965. The image appeared that year in the Barnard yearbook.
Columbia University Archives-Columbiana Library
So there is in Harlem a kind of connection between politics and public performance that perhaps is unequaled anywhere in the United States, possibly even the world, where everyone expects a good show. And you tend to get politicians who are larger than life, certainly a cut from the figure of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. down to Al Sharpton, from the sublime to frankly the ridiculous. You get public spokespersons, public advocates, who speak to the issues that impact people's lives within a community, but do so in a way that is charismatic, that is dynamic, that is articulate, and that the voice is an instrument not just for articulation but for mobilization. And it is a site where the community also reconstructs itself and reconnects with its own orality, with its own oral tradition. And that is unique, I think, and distinctive in Harlem, perhaps more than any other urban community or urban center in the United States.
How do we explain this relatively small neighborhood producing this extraordinary body of leadership?
One of the reasons, I think, is that Harlem has the good fortune of being in New York City, on the island of Manhattan. And it is the premiere black community in the island of Manhattan, and consequently, despite its relative small size after the 1960s—compared to, say, Jamaica, Queens, or Bedford-Stuyvesant, it is politically pivotal to the power structure of the city. And because New York is the largest city in the United States, Harlem's weight is disproportionate to its size. So this is really one explanation, and I think it's probably a fairly good one.
If you trace from 1945 to 1990, the black political leadership of New York State, and to a lesser extent the nation, and you look at Adam Clayton Powell Jr.; Charles Rangel—the decisive role that he has played for the last quarter century, more than that, thirty years, plus in Congress; Malcolm X; Calvin Butts, the head of the Abyssinian Baptist Church; a whole host of local leaders; David Dinkins, the first black mayor, the only black elected to the mayoral position in New York City; what you see is a tradition of effective leadership that comes from being able to broker and build coalitions between blacks and whites, and in particular, I think, between the black and the Jewish communities of Manhattan.
There's a long tradition of interracial, interreligious coalition building—kind of a coalition of outsiders, struggling for power, in a city that had a power structure that largely kept us out—and being able to build coalitions of outsiders and to speak effectively to diverse groups—Jewish, Latino, gay and lesbian, in the Village and Chelsea. That kind of political acumen, a political culture that allows representatives to reach out to broad constituencies, that's a tradition that a political culture that has a long history in Harlem, that came about not by accident but by geography and by the accident of being in Manhattan, where that kind of skill was central in building power.
And so a Harlemite is a person who can navigate cultural difference with the blink of an eye, far more so than most people, regardless of race, anyplace else in the country. To be identified with Harlem is to be identified with a degree of political and cultural sophistication and the ability to negotiate difference in ways that allow one's interest to move forward, to move ahead. That was the pedigree of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Malcolm X in their own ways, and that tradition still lives on today.