The Complicated Legacy of the ‘Father of Black Harlem,’ Whose Real Estate Practices Helped Give Rise to the Harlem Renaissance and Entrenched Segregation

Kevin McGruder and the cover of his book, "Philip Payton: The Father of Black Harlem"

The first week Kevin McGruder (Ph.D. ’10, History) was in New York, he went to a lecture at Hunter College about the LGBTQ community within the Harlem Renaissance. “I was a Black gay man slowly kind of finding my own way in New York in the '80s, and learning about this community of 60 years before, where Black LGBTQ people were well-represented, got me very interested in Harlem,” he says.

McGruder recently published his second book focused on Harlem: Philip Payton, the Father of Black Harlem. (The first, Race and Real Estate: Conflict and Cooperation in Harlem, 1890-1920, grew out of his dissertation.) Payton was a trailblazer who largely created the neighborhood that drew middle- and upper-class families and the artists, writers, and intellectuals who gave rise to the Harlem Renaissance. Yet his business practices also solidified racial boundaries in Manhattan. 

By the early 20th century, a small Black community had formed around 135th Street and Lenox Avenue. In 1904, Payton bought property that blocked an effort by a white-owned company to evict residents. “What makes it complicated is that later that year, he incorporates a company, the Afro-American Realty Company, with the announcement that he's going to eradicate Negro housing discrimination in Harlem,” McGruder explains. “But he leaned into a practice of steering Black people to certain neighborhoods, and because the supply of housing for Black people was limited, he charged them higher rents.”

At the time, the main residential area available to Black renters was the Tenderloin, roughly between 23rd Street to 61st Street, Fifth Avenue to Eighth Avenue. “Payton would argue that he helped them get better housing than they ever had, so he could charge them more, even though white people previously in those same buildings were not charged that amount,” McGruder says. “By 1913 or so, Black residents of Payton's buildings are complaining that they’re being exploited in the same way that white owners had exploited them. I wanted to understand why Payton did this, when he said he was going to do something different.” 

This would have been a different book if McGruder hadn’t lived in New York from 1982 to 2012, most of those years in Harlem, he says. “I saw what was happening in Harlem in terms of gentrification, the kind of pushing out and pricing out of Black people,” he says. “There definitely is a racial component to that, and Black people living in Harlem from the ’80s onward saw the arrival of larger numbers of white people with fear, to some extent, because our world was going to change. And when I look at how white people in Harlem reacted to Payton, what they were talking about was often not race — what they were talking about is change, that the community they knew was going to change.” 

McGruder has spent most of his adult life thinking about community. He arrived in New York with a background working for nonprofit housing development in Cleveland. With a goal of finding ways to better manage nonprofits, he enrolled in Columbia University’s M.B.A. program. When he graduated, he worked for an organization that made loans to community development groups. He also joined Harlem’s historic Abyssinian Baptist Church and launched his first business: Home to Harlem, named after Claude McKay’s 1925 best-selling novel.

After getting an opportunity to teach a class at Baruch College on Black economic development, and realizing that he wanted to teach full time, he applied to the Graduate Center. Two years after getting his Ph.D., he returned to his home state of Ohio as a professor at Antioch College. Yellow Springs, where he lives, has “a very strong history of African American leadership, and I almost immediately got involved with some nonprofits here.” That includes working on the board of an affordable housing group and also volunteering for the 365 Project, which hosts walking tours that focus on the town’s Black history. 

Last month, McGruder was back in Harlem. “It has changed,” he says. Somehow, as is often the case in the city, this outcome is both expected and surprising. “Gentrification is almost the natural outcome in a real estate market that is as hot as New York’s,” McGruder says. “But in the ’80s, nobody would have would have believed that we would be saying that now about Harlem.”

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Submitted on: SEP 23, 2021

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