The Underground Railroad Coalition recently announced a major effort to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the New York State constitutional provision that ended slavery in the State on July 4, 1827.
The emancipation provision in the New York State Constitution of 1799 provided for the gradual elimination of slavery in New York, but it did not end the widespread legal race discrimination in the state. The most glaring example of this was the New York State Constitution of 1821, which eliminated property qualifications to vote for white men, but denied black men owning less than $250 worth of property the right to vote.
This had the effect of disenfranchising the overwhelming majority of African American men and remained in effect until the enactment of the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1870, despite the vigorous efforts of New York black leaders like Henry Highland Garnet.
In the first decade of the 20th century, however, through a surprising turn of events, the situation would begin to change, especially with regard to housing. The man who would largely be responsible for this change was not a spiritual leader or orator like Frederick Douglas or Henry Highland Garnet, but a young real estate man named Philip Payton, who most people have never heard of.
Payton created the Afro-American Realty Company, and formed an alliance with certain Jewish landowners to create modern Black Harlem.
Philip Payton In Hell’s Kitchen
Payton came to New York City in 1899 in his early 20s from Westfield, Massachusetts. To his parents chagrin he dropped out of college and began work as a real estate agent in a company dealing with black tenants, mostly in Hell’s Kitchen. After taking a course in 1902 sponsored by an affiliate of Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League he quit his job with the real estate company to strike out on his own as a realtor for African Americans.
Payton noted that in the northern part of Harlem, around 135th Street and Lenox Avenue, there were many vacant and near vacant buildings whose rents were not much higher than the tenements in Hell’s Kitchen. The problem was that African Americans were restricted from living there by racial discrimination – none of the real estate owners would rent to them.
The Jewish community in the city of New York was facing a similar problem, in that they were restricted from living in many areas of the city, particularly in the Bronx and Queens. This problem worsened in 1879 when Joseph Seligman, a leading Jewish financier an businessman in the city, along with his family, were denied admission to the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga Springs because they were Jewish. Although Seligman bitterly protested this policy, the owners of the Grand Hotel insisted they had the right to exclude any minority they chose and discrimination in housing and accommodations accelerated throughout the State.
Ironically, one of the areas of the city where Jews were allowed to live, was Harlem. Although Jews were excluded from Harlem at first, economic pressures were such, and Jews were white, so that homes were sold wealthy Jewish owners. By 1890, Harlem was home to the second largest Jewish community in the city and the fourth largest in the country, many of whose residents were upper class Jews seeking refuge from the crowding of the Lower East Side.
There was some sympathy for the position of the black community, especially among Jews recently arrived from Russia, but many upper class Jewish people in Harlem believed that allowing African Americans into their neighborhood would decrease their property values. Others worried that not going along with their white neighbors would encourage an already rising antisemitism and might jeopardize their own privileges.
The Afro-American Realty Company
As Payton would later tell it, one day a landlord on 134th street (presumably having difficulty filling their buildings) was fighting with another and threatened to rent his building to African-Americans. This landlord offered Payton a lease on his building if he could fill it. Payton found black tenants who would sublease apartments in the building from him at rents that were comparable to those in Hell’s Kitchen.
Payton soon filled the building in what had seemed to Harlem landlords a difficult market, and others began contacting him. In a short time Payton had several buildings under his management and his real estate business was prospering.
One day he was approached by a representative of the Hudson Realty Company which offered to buy out his leases for an extremely high price. He was delighted for a time, but soon learned that the Hudson Realty Company was the agent for the Owners’ Protective Association of Harlem, bent on evicting his new black residents. The Owners’ Protective Association of Harlem sought deed and lease covenants on buildings in Harlem stating that they could not be rented or sold to African-Americans.
One company that didn’t go along was the real estate firm Kassel and Goldberg, which agreed to sell Payton its buildings. Virtually nothing is known today about Kassel and Goldberg. They may have believed that by the black community breaking racial covenants in Harlem, similar restrictions against Jews in other parts of the City would fall. They may have just done it for the money. Whatever their motives, the result was that the Owners’ Protective Association of Harlem failed in its attempt to keep African Americans off the block and ultimately sold the buildings back to Payton at a loss.
Payton also appealed for help to the city’s black business community, dominated by members of the National Negro Business League, and consisting of the city’s leading black businessmen. Many of the members of the League were older men who had come to New York from the South, and worried that confronting the white establishment by moving blacks into one of the city’s more elite suburbs risked a violent reaction, which might include physical attacks and lynchings.
Payton argued that conditions in New York City, with its various ethnic groups, were different. He argued that the time to take a stand to fight the discrimination that had kept them in the slums of Hell’s Kitchen was now, and the place for their future was Harlem. The Jewish people that lived there, he argued, were more afraid of being lynched themselves than attacking black residents. He also pointed to those who will willing to support their efforts in recognition hat it was in their interests to end the restrictions.
Payton formed a new company, the Afro-American Realty Company, which was capitalized with more than $500,000, contributed by the leading black businessmen in the city. The corporations directors issued a prospectus seeking contributions from African Americans – it stated that the Company intended to practice “race economics” to attack racial barriers. African-Americans who could responded to the call, and the Company ultimately had a capitalization of more than $1 million, making it one of the largest black-owned enterprise in the country at the time.
Backed by the full weight of black business community, the Afro-American Realty Company (Payton was its chief executive) began buying buildings in Harlem, sometimes through white agents. A New York Times article of December 8, 1904 entitled “Race War Breaks Out in Harlem Real Estate” and another on December 17, 1905 “Race War Started In Harlem” both described its operations and the consternation that its activities brought to many white Harlem residents.
It’s estimated that within three years it owned more than 25 buildings and had more than 1,500 tenants under management. The 1907 report of the National Negro Business League extensively covered the Afro-American Realty Company and noted that Payton was one of the most prominent black businessmen in the nation.
In 1908, however, the Afro American Realty Company ran into trouble. There was a recession in New York real estate, and the company became over extended financially and facing default on its obligations. It failed, and the many blacks who had invested with such high hopes lost their money. White lenders repossessed its properties and there were lawsuits accusing Payton of mismanagement and fraud.
The Rise of Black Harlem
The Afro-American Realty Company was not a complete failure however. As a result of its efforts, the seemingly insurmountable walls of racial discrimination in housing had been breached and there was no turning back.
Payton’s efforts to settle African-Americans in Harlem were continued by other black realtors such as John E. Nail and Henry G. Park, former directors of the Afro-American Realty Company and affiliated with wealthier black churches such as St. Philip’s Episcopal Church and the Abyssinian Baptist Church. In 1911 a row of previously all white residences on 135th Street was purchased for a very high price by one of these churches (the so-called “million dollar houses”). With this purchase, the Harlem Protective Owners Association collapsed. The area north of 125th Street quickly became a predominantly black community.
Payton subsequently continued in business, operating under the name Philip A. Payton & Co., and in 1917 closed on a $1.5 million deal for six apartment houses. The buildings were renamed after black heroes Crispus Attucks, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Phyllis Wheatley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Frederick Douglass, and Booker T. Washington. Payton died several weeks later of cancer at the age of 41.
By then, the black population of Harlem exceeded 50,000.
During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s the neighborhood would become the unquestioned intellectual and political capital of Black America. Philip Payton, however, would be largely forgotten. There remains no monument, plaque or other recognition of him, in Harlem or elsewhere. There is also no plaque marking the “million dollar houses” on 135th street, the purchase of which was so critical in the defeat of the efforts of the Owners’ Protective Association of Harlem.
Portrait of Philip A. Payton Jr. circa 1914.