McGruder, Kevin. Philip Payton: The Father of Black Harlem. New York: Columbia University Press, 2021.
Reviewed by Carla DuBose-Simons
In his latest work, Philip Payton: The Father of Black Harlem, Kevin McGruder continues to explore the processes by which Harlem became the “Culture Capital” for African Americans. This book, which follows his first book, Race and Real Estate Conflict and Cooperation in Harlem, 1890-1920 (2017), delves more deeply into the professional and personal life of Philip Payton, one of the primary real estate developers responsible for opening up Harlem for Black settlement. McGruder explains that Payton initially saw the real estate industry as a means of eradicating segregation and discrimination in housing, which could ultimately lead to greater racial equity. Payton’s real estate maneuvers garnered him the posthumous moniker the “Father of Colored Harlem.” McGruder, however, argues that Payton’s mission was sometimes at odds with his company’s economic viability, a reality that led to some of Peyton’s biggest professional struggles.
According to McGruder, Payton’s middle-class upbringing afforded him access to education and networking opportunities unavailable to many other Blacks at the time. At the age of twenty-three, Payton followed in the footsteps of his parents (themselves businesspeople) and moved to New York City to become an entrepreneur. Payton assembled an impressive list of partners and directors and opened the Afro-American Realty Company (AARC) in 1902. Payton and the AARC purchased properties from White owners and resold those properties to Black buyers or rented to Black tenants. In 1904 demand for apartments in Harlem increased, prompting some landlords to evict their Black tenants in favor of more “respectable” Whites. Payton’s real estate company sprang into action, acquiring properties and selling them to Black buyers, preventing the wholesale ousting of Black residents. McGruder explains that the AARC was a race enterprise, “a business owned by black people designed to serve black customers”(64). The AARC under Payton’s leadership began to evict White residents from buildings it had acquired. McGruder notes that while the actions of Payton in 1906 opened housing in Harlem to Black residents, it seemed to mark a shift in Payton’s initial vision of integrated buildings—the segregation of the neighborhood accelerated. Many White property owners, fearing the AARCs efforts would cause property values in the area to decline, began to enter restrictive covenants prohibiting any property owner from leasing or selling property to African Americans. Those efforts were unsuccessful. Payton’s real estate successes in Harlem attracted other Black realtors, who replicated his tactics. This resulted in Harlem becoming Blacker.
In this biography, McGruder masterfully sets the stage for understanding Payton in the larger context of local, national, and sometimes international history. He expertly employs newspapers, literature, and other historical works to provide the framework within which we can understand Payton’s actions. Conversely, McGruder uses Payton’s life story to provide insight into the lived experiences of New York’s Black elites, explaining how social networks begat business partnerships as well as economic and educational opportunities for the well connected. Some critics of the work may note that there are gaps in the narrative of Payton’s life, a fact that McGruder acknowledges in the book himself. This was largely due to a lack of sources and gaps in the historical record. The author effectively addresses these lacunae through interpolation. Based on the sources and context that are available, McGruder paints conjectural portraits of Payton at points in his life when the archive fails to do so.
McGruder’s book is a must read for anyone interested in the evolution of the Harlem community, the history of residential segregation and integration, or urban real estate practices. The book contributes to the growing body of historical literature exploring the connections between Black leaders in the North and South as they attempted to find successful ways to “uplift the race.” Perhaps most importantly, it provides the reader an opportunity to reflect on the origins of Black Harlem at a time when the neighborhood continues to change as a result of gentrification.
Dr. Carla J DuBose-Simons is an Instructor of History in the Humanities Department—teaching American and African American history. Dr. DuBose completed her PhD in History at the CUNY Graduate Center and her Bachelors of Arts at New York University. Her research interests include Twentieth-Century American History, New York City History, and African American History. She is the Assistant Editor of University of California Press’s Ethnic Studies Review and recently organized and co-chaired the inaugural Teaching History Writing Conference. Dr DuBose advises the Black Student Union and loves to engage with the students on campus.
Featured image (at top): Mr. and Mrs. Philip Payton and their home at 131st Street, Harlem, ca. 1907. Illustration from Chapter XIX, “Philip A. Payton, Jr., and the Afro-American Realty Company,” The Negro in Business, Booker T. Washington (1907). Wikimedia Commons.