(The Harlem Nobody Knows by Alex Haley was originally published in the June 1954 issue of Reader’s Digest. In 2007, Reader’s Digest republished the article in Alex Haley: The Man Who Traced America’s Roots.)
While diligently working for the Coast Guard, Haley learned to maintain a professional commitment to journalists in general. Those reporters who worked with him held him in the highest esteem, and spoke of him as amiable, industrious, and ever helpful. This dynamic work ethic helped Haley gain the editorship of a Coast Guard magazine, The Helmsman, begin another called The Outpost, and contribute articles to a third, The United States Coast Guard Magazine.
In December 1949, the Coast Guard recognized Haley’s unparalleled performance by promoting him to Chief Journalist, a previously nonexistent position. As the first person to hold this specialty rank he wrote speeches for officers and stories for various publications. Ever since moving to New York to take on full-time office duties, Haley had also continued to work on his own articles to sell, waking at 4:30 a.m. every morning to write before heading to the office. This too finally paid off, and during the Christmas holidays, a popular men’s magazine, Coronet, purchased three of his stories.
Over the following decade Haley balanced his role as Chief Journalist with an increasingly fruitful writing career outside of the Coast Guard. He published a first article with Reader’s Digest in 1954, The Harlem Nobody Knows, which marked his entrance to the ranks of established authors. In the following years this publication provided Haley occasional opportunities to write.
On the eve of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, Haley introduced readers around the world to a Harlem community that was thriving, proving that equal opportunity could foster the growth of successful businesses, schools and families.
The Harlem Nobody Knows
Harlem, that roughly triangular six-square-mile section of New York City where lives the largest concentration of Negroes in the world—375,000—is pointed to by critics as a sinkhole of United States capitalism. Foreign diplomats and businessman freely report that the greatest obstacle to friendship between the United States and the colored races who comprise two thirds of the world’s population is discrimination against the American Negro, seemingly typified by this overcrowded, dilapidated area.
These critics of our democracy would do well to take a closer look at the Negroes of Harlem today. Probably no community on earth has come so far so fast!
In this area where hardly a Negro owned property at the turn of this century, the collective Negro assessment in 1954 approaches $300,000,000. One bank with four branches in Harlem reports $20,700,000 in checking and savings accounts. The postmaster of New York reports $72,000,000 in postal savings in the entire city, $12,000,000 of it in Harlem.
Said an old pharmacist who moved into Harlem in 1905, “All we owned were our barbershops and beauty parlors and a few restaurants.” Today his drugstore is one of 4,300 businesses which Negroes operate in Harlem. Elsewhere in New York City they own 2,200 more.
Three years ago a radio station conducted a survey for its advertisers. “Income of the average Harlem family has tripled since 1940,” it informed them. “This community, as an annual market, represents $1,000,000,000.” . . .
Before 1900, most of the Negroes in New York City were settled in a squalid colony in the middle Fifties. Then a Negro realtor, Philip A. Payton, persuaded several Harlem landlords to fill vacancies with Negro tenants. A trickle of migration soon became a tide.
From the first, the new community was in economic trouble. At least half the population was unemployed. Having nothing but labour of their unskilled hands to sell, they suffered from poverty and discrimination. In one city count of 9,561 apprentices in the trades, only 56 were Negroes. Thousands of families managed to escape the public dole only because Harlem’s women found jobs as laundresses or household servants.
Manpower shortages created by World War I gave the new community a start. Hiring taboos relaxed, and soon Negroes worked in more than 300 occupations. Both the government and industry sent representatives into the southern states to recruit laborers. Harlem absorbed more than 100,000 southern Negroes; 25,000 others came from the British West Indies.
From churches came the first sign of financial stability. Abyssinian Baptist marketed its property in midtown and built in Harlem at a cost of $350,000. St. Philip’s Protestant Episcopal sold holdings near the site of Pennsylvania Station and hired a Negro architect to design its present brick church and parish house. Soon afterward the church purchased a row of 13 apartment houses that it yet controls.
Hundreds of individual Harlemites capitalized on steady wages and a buyers’ market to make down payments on homes. Hundreds more invested in small businesses. Spectacularly, “Pigfoot Mary” Dean, a popular Lenox Avenue vendor of pigs feet, fried chicken, and hot corn, bought for $42,000 a five-story apartment building. In one year the number of licensed Negro realtors in the city rose from three to 31.
For the most part, however, efforts of Negroes to set down tap roots in the city went unnoticed by the general public. Harlem was gaining prominence, instead, as a Mecca of Jazz. By the height of the 1920s its cabarets and dance halls swarmed with revelers nightly.
In this manner Harlem met the depression. Few communities were so hard hit. Night life had supported flourishing businesses, provided an aura of intra-racial camaraderie—and suddenly both were gone. From the war-inflated payrolls, Negroes were among the first to be fired—by the thousands. The race riots of this era made headlines around the world. But little notice was taken when the same forces—racial pride and the desperate fight for survival—were subsequently channeled in more disciplined ways to shape Harlem’s future.
For example, consider the Harlem Businessmen’s Club which was organized in 1931. One of its first acts was to circularize the slogan, “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work!” Negro employees above the level of porter had been rare in Harlem retail stores. Then the Amsterdam News, Harlem’s largest newspaper, threw its power into the campaign. The slogan produced roughly the effect of a picket line: in a few months Negro clerical and sales help were more common.
The New York Urban League prevailed upon officials of government, unions, and private industry to widen the variety of jobs opened to Negroes. Simultaneously it urged Negroes to develop new talents and skills, and it never relaxed its campaign.
In 1953, a spokesman for the powerful New York State Commission Against Discrimination said, “There is still not a job for every Negro, but more doors had been opened than there are Negroes qualified to enter.” For those who are qualified, and for countless others willing to qualify, these doors led to gratifying successes.
Amie Associates, Inc., is a family enterprise begun in 1944 by brothers William, Errol and Cyril Jones. With $1,600 and some electronics equipment, they hired a loft and solicited government contracts. By the end of World War II they had hired 75 technicians and grossed $200,000 for the design and manufacture of electronic devices for the U.S. Navy and Signal Corps, and for subcontracts from Bell Telephone and Western Electric. Now Amie Associates, Inc., is making equipment for the U.S. Army and Robinson Aviation, in addition to servicing television sets exclusively throughout the city.
In 1938 Jimmie Adams got a job as shipping clerk in a downtown camera store; in 1951 he became its manager. In 1954 Mr. Adams and two friends raised $20,000 and opened Uptown Camera Exchange on 125th Street.
Roy Mills moved from a Yonkers dairy to portering for a sports-wear firm. Today he is it national distribution manager and also has a Harlem cleaning business.
Lou Borders arrived in New York City in 1931 with 30 cents. He pressed clothes, studied at night and became the fourth Negro to join the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. In 1937 his local elected him treasurer; in 1942, president. Five years ago he bought a failing Harlem haberdashery business which is now worth $150,000.
Harlem women, too, are forging ahead as dramatically as the men. Barbara Watson, daughter of a municipal court judge, heads a downtown New York agency of nearly 200 Negro models, serving accounts for nationally advertised products.
Louise Varona, a Hunter College graduate, took over her father’s restaurant supply house when he went into bankruptcy. She resumed business with a very small amount of capital, paid off creditors and today has seven employees and two trucks, with customers in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. Last year her firm grossed $110,000.
Olivia Standford, an executive of the Young Woman’s Christian Association, and Rose Morgan, a hair stylist, in 1913 pooled $7,000 savings. They leased a fivestory Harlem brownstone house, and after four months of renovation and publicity put “Rose-Meta, House of Beauty” into a successful business. Today there is a second, larger salon, with branches in Brooklyn and Long Island. A total of 302 “Rose-Meta” personnel earn from $55 to $200 weekly.
Two blocks west of “Rose-Meta” is the Carver Federal Savings and Loan Association, an enterprise that many residents of the community view with a proud and proprietary air.
At the end of World War II, a group of Harlem business and professional people set out to establish the fist Negro bank in New York State. For several years they visited homes, churches and civic assemblies, explaining the project and what it would mean for Harlem. Then they solicited pledges of deposit. Within three months after the bank opened in 1948, its tellers took in $200,000.
In December 1953, the Carver bank marked its fifth anniversary, with savings accounts totaling $3,000,000 and distributed $200,000 in Yule Club checks, doubling the amount of 1952.
A special 1953 survey reveals that 8 percent of Harlem families have incomes about $5,000 a year. 21 percent of American families in general earn this much. In Harlem in 15 percent earn $5,000 or less, about paralleling the national average. More than 60 percent if
Harlem’s appalling housing conditions have been shouted about in sensational exposes during World War II one of Harlem’s blocks was found actually accommodating 3,781 people. At this density the population of the United States could live in one half the acreage of Greater New York City.
Slowly, however, the situation was improving. Since Harlem River Houses project was completed in 1937 a total of eight federal, state, and city projects have been occupied or are under construction. Altogether they represent 12,859 apartments, Riverton, Metropolitan Life, Insurance Company’s private development, raised the number to 14,127.
At this writing private investors have city authorization and Federal Housing Authority aid to clear 24 slum acres and build two housing projects, “Harlem” and “North Harlem,” to contain approximately 1,100 apartments each. These will cost nearly $30,000,000 and will raise to more than 14,000 the number of Harlem families able to move into new homes in the space of 20 years.
It is safe to forecast that many of the social corrosions which plague Harlem will dwindle with its congestion, which tends to nurture them. Gangs, delinquency, and addiction already are under the steady attack of a wealth of guidance and corrective agencies.
Exemplary among these, and one of the largest, is Manhattanville Neighborhood Center, Inc., which functions in a teeming, multiracial area of West Harlem. (Of the 436,000 people in Harlem, 61,000 are non-Negroes.) In the center headquarters, 51 professional and student social workers conduct adult and youth forums, supervise athletics and recreation, and teach arts, crafts, and dramatics. About 10,000 families are in the area served by this agency, whose chairman of the board of directors is Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, noted clergyman and author.
Public schools continue the pattern of progress for Harlem, whose ratio of slum backgrounds is only one of many staggering problems. Public School No. 133, for instance, serves an area of so many pupils that classes must be held in shifts. Yet it manages the distinction of being among the top five elementary schools in the city. (Relief is in sight: the New York City capital budget for 1954 provides for the building of a new school six blocks away at a total estimated cost of $2,730,000.) Over-all, more Harlem youths are enrolled in high schools throughout the city than at any point in history and 10 times as many as 1940 are in college.
Harlem now contains nearly 400 churches, including missions, whose total replacement value has been estimated at $2l,000.000. Their role remains the same—a bedrock and potently progressive force. Commented a young attorney: “Once our churches prepared you to die; now, they help you to live.”
Julius J. Adams is the executive editor of Harlem’s oldest newspaper, the New York Age. “Man for man, as a community, we are ready to be compared with other communities,” he said. “What we need is a crusade of public relations. Harlem’s biggest trouble now is that in too many minds the Negro remains a stereotype.”
But minds are changing, fast. On New Year’s Day 1954, Hulan Edwin Jack, a Harlem Negro, was sworn into office as president of New York City’s Borough of Manhattan—the center of metropolitan business and industry, the richest island in the world. In a cornucopia of races, where Negroes are outnumbered five to one, this man, who already had risen from stock boy to vice-president of a manufacturing firm, was elected with the votes of 215,000 of his fellow citizens.
It happened in New York City, in America, in 50 years. ~ Alex Haley.
(The Harlem Nobody Knows by Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It was originally published in the June 1954 issue of Reader’s Digest. © 1954, 2007 The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)