‘The Father of Coloured Harlem’: The life-story of Philip A. Payton (1876–1917) tells us a lot about racial dynamics in the modern history of New York City.
The Ottoline Club met on 20th March 2018 in the Archive to hear Olly Ayers speak on “‘The Father of Coloured Harlem’: Philip Payton and the Long History of Racial Segregation in New York City”.
Those present were: Olly Ayers (Faculty of History), Charlotte Grant (Faculty of English), George Zouros (Faculty of Economics), Anthony Grayling (Master), Callum Barrell (Faculty of Politics & International Relations), Susan Steed (Faculty of Economics), Marianna Koli (Faculty of Economics), Edmund Neill (Faculty of History), Sebastian Ille (Faculty of Economics), Mike Peacey (Faculty of Economics) and David Mitchell (Faculty of Philosophy).
The life-story of Philip A. Payton (1876-1917) is one element of a book Olly is working on that will be concerned with New York City, racial protest and, closely related to both of these, three generations of the family of the current US president. A real estate agent who catered exclusively to blacks, Payton was known, in the latter part of his fairly short life and even more so in the following years, as the ‘Father of Coloured Harlem’; thus a 1930s book attributed to him a major role in making Harlem the ‘race capital’ of black America. Olly gave an outline account of how Payton’s story helps us discern some of the main forces at work in the twentieth-century history of racial segregation and racial discrimination in New York City.
In explaining what happened in Harlem, and more generally the increasingly close aligning of geographical with racial differences in the city over the first decades of the century, we should think, Olly argued, in terms of three kinds of factor. Socio-economic change is relevant, as patterns of employment and income among blacks both helped Payton’s companies make money and also, at the time of the recession of 1906-07, played a part in the collapse of one of them. Secondly, symbolism plays an important role: understanding the history of the city’s localities requires tracing out – and Olly gave some illustration of this through a close look at one of Payton’s property advertisements – why they acquired the significances they had for New Yorkers, and with what effects. The third factor, around which a good deal of the ensuing discussion flowed, is the fit between these changes and the wider political trends among black Americans.
In terms of the usual contrast between two anti-racist strategies, the ‘accommodationism’ of Booker T. Washington and the eventually prevailing ‘integrationism’ which is associated with the name of W. E. B. DuBois, Olly suggested that not just in respect of personal connections but also as regards outlook and practice Payton was closer to the accommodationists, and those who argued that progress of blacks as a group would be through the ‘racial uplift’ effected by the successes in business and the professions of a small vanguard. In the last decade of his life he took on several prominent roles in the politics of the city, though he never stood for public office. In rounding off the talk, Olly showed us a news report connected with a trip of Payton’s in 1910 to Liberia, and placed this in relation to the nationalist and separatist strands that featured in subsequent black political activism.
Two books about other cities were mentioned in the following conversation: Charlotte had recently read Ben Judah’s This Is London, and Susan a book about Milwaukee, Evicted by Matthew Desmond. Comparisons were made, and in pursuing the themes of urban redevelopment and mortgage provision in the New York setting Olly was able to talk further about the discriminatory side of racial localisation (this is one of the points at which the story of the Trump family is due to show up in his book).
Some of the nuances in what drives discrimination by neighbourhood were illustrated by Olly’s noting that in the 1930s the mortgage guarantees offered by a government that in general favoured racial integration were nevertheless provided in ways that conformed to existing lines of residential demarcation. A further topic of the discussion, prompted by a question of Edmund’s, was the far-left strand in politics in Harlem. Olly referred us to Hubert Harrison, Harlem’s most famous socialist pan-Africanist. In response to a remark of Callum’s, he said he reckoned that Payton saw no risk of conflict between enriching himself and benefiting his race, and in fact Olly was inclined to think that overall the radical goals of such as Harrison received some support from Payton’s exploits over those twenty years.