In comparison with the European urban heritage, which stretches back roughly 5500 years, the American transformation from village to city was achieved in an amazingly short space of time. From the eighteenth century on, Americans experienced the painful yet rewarding metamorphosis of an agrarian nation becoming an urban industrial giant that left few of her political, economic, and social institutions untouched, be they the farm, the factory, or the family. In 1790, for example, only a little over 4 percent of the American population lived in cities; today 70 percent of Americans live in urban areas. Richard Hofstadter summed it up well: “The United States was born in the country and has moved to the city (Handlin 3).”
The rough, harsh and crowded lives of the Harlem slums and discrimination against Negroes are just a few of the many results of the urbanization of America. Negroes moved to the city, away from their farm lives, to work in factories as America industrialized. With all the Negroes and other immigrants coming to Industrialized parts of America Negro communities, such as Harlem, were formed. With the slums came discrimination for the Negro migrants. The white people, who had occupied industrial cities first, saw Negroes as lesser beings. They believed that it was okay for them to be treated unfairly due to the color of their skin. This was the belief that parents of white children wanted them to have. It was documented that children who intermingled with Negroes at some public schools saw them to be okay and decent, but the parents of these children discouraged this kind of thinking and told their children that they had had the wrong attitude towards Negroes. As a result of blacks in some public schools, many white children were sent to private schools. This was just the beginning of discrimination towards black people during the Urbanization of America.
The following quotation suggests the whites superiority over the inferior Negroes:
I have no prejudice against the colored people. I have always had colored servants and nurse girls for my children and I like them. I have never known them to be dishonest. My husband employs seven colored men and his experience has been the same as mine. I don’t care to live next door to a colored family or across the street and if they do come to this side of Raymond, I certainly will move out.
The Negroes were further discriminated due to the fact that the white people said that the value of their property would decrease if they had Negro neighbors. Neighbors in a white community would stand together in the sense that they all agreed that they would not sell their homes to a Negro for their own selfish sakes. This is another reason why Harlem slums grew and yet another example of discrimination towards the Negroes.
The creation of a Negro community within one large and solid geographic area was unique in city history. New York had never been what realtors call an “open city”, a city in which Negroes lived wherever they chose, but the former Negro sections were traditionally only a few blocks in length, often spread across the island and generally interspersed with residences of white working-class families. Harlem, however, was a Negro world unto itself. A scattered handful of “marooned white familiesstubbornly remained” in the Negro section, a Unites States census-taker recorded, but the mid-belly of Harlem was predominantly Negro by 1920 (Frazier 53).
And the ghetto rapidly expanded. Between the First World War and the Great Depression, Harlem underwent radical changes. Practically all the older white residents had moved away; the Russian Jewish and Italian sections of Harlem, founded a short generation earlier, were rapidly being depopulated; and Negro Harlem, within the space of ten years, became the most “incredible slum” in the entire city. In 1920 James Weldon Johnson was able to predict a glowing future for this Negro community: “have you ever stopped to think what the future Harlem will be?” he wrote. “It will be the greatest Negro City in the world. And what fine part of New York City has come into possession of” (Johnson 345)! By the late 1920’s, however, Harlem’s former “high-class” homes offered, in the words of a housing expert, “the best laboratory for slum clearancein the entire city.” “Harlem conditions,” a New York Times reporter concluded, are “simply deplorable”(Nail 134).
The Harlem slum was the product of a few major urban developments. One of the most important was the deluge of Negro migration to New York City then. The Negro press, now largely dependent on the migrant community for support, changed its former critical attitude of migration to one openly advocating urban settlement (Handlin 245). If one is looking for a dramatic turning point in the history of the urbanization of the Negro, a race changing from farm life to city life, it was certainly within the time period of the 1910-1920. Between this time period the Negro population of the city increased 66 percent (91,709-152,467); from 1920 to 1930, it expanded 115 percent (152,467-327,706). In the latter year less than 25 percent of New York City’s Negro population was born in New York State. There were more Negroes in the city in than the combined Negro populations of Birmingham, Memphis and St. Louis. Similar population increases occurred in urban areas throughout the country.
Negro migration drew on areas of the South that had previously sent few people to New York City. The seaboard states of the Upper south, especially Virginia and the Carolinas, continued to be the main sources of New York’s Migrant Negro population. But people from Georgia and Florida and other Deep South states, formerly under-represented, also came in greater numbers: “Harlem became the symbol of liberty and the Promised Land to Negroes everywhere,” the Reverend Dr. Powell wrote (Hanlin 245). In 1930, some 55,000 foreign-born Negroes added to the growing diversity of the city’s Negro population.
Working Mothers had little time to care for their children. Youngsters “with keys tied around their necks on a ribbon” wandered around the streets until families came home at night. Substantial portions were products of broken home, families without a male head. One Harlem school principal testified that 699 of his 1,600 pupils came from families whose fathers were not living at home. Nor did the majority of Harlem schoolchildren ever have time to accustom themselves to the regularity of school life; many families were rootless. Three-fourths of all the Negro pupils registered in one Harlem school, for example, transferred to some other before the end of one school year; some schools actually experienced a 100 percent turnover. Pupils from the South were seriously deficient in educational training: “They are at times 14 to 15 years of age and have not the schooling of boys of eight,” a Harlem principal wrote. “We cannot give a boy back seven years of wasted life” (Robbins 215). The typical Harlem school of the 1900’s had double and sometime triple sessions. The “usual class size” was forty to fifty and conditions were generally “immensely over-crowded”: “The school plant as a whole is old, shabby, and far from modern” (Theobald 89). In some schools 25 percent and more of the children were overage or considered retarded.
Negro children in Harlem often led disrupted and harsh lives from the earliest years of their existence: “Testimony has been given before us as to the moral conditions among children, even of tender age which is not to be adequately described by the word horrifying” (McClenahan 311). These conditions were obviously reflected in high rates of juvenile crime but more subtly, and worst of all, in loss of respect for oneself and for life in general. Harlem youngsters developed a sense of subcordination , of insecurity of lack of self-confidence and self-respect, the inability…to stand on their own feet and face the world with open eyes and feel that they’ve a good as right as anyone.
This then was the horror of slum life, the Harlem tragedy of the 1900’s. “Court and police precinct records show,” a municipal agency maintained, “that in arrests, convictions, misdemeanants, felons, female police problems and juvenile delinquencies, these areas are in the lead.” It was no wonder that narcotics addiction became a serious problem then and that Harlem became “the center of the retail dope traffic of New York”; nor that local violence and hatred for the police were continually reported in the press (LaGaurdia 93). The majority of Harlemites even during normal times lived “close to the subsistence level” (Boyer 123). Many were “under fire” of charitable agencies in the period of relatively full employment. Those who needed money quickly and had not other recourse were forced to turn to loan sharks, Negro and white, who charged 30 to 40 percent interest: Harlem “has been infested by a lot of loan sharks,” a municipal magistrate who dealt with such cases stated (McClenahan 324). In one form or another the sorrow and economic deprivation of the Depression had come to Harlem in the 1900’s. “The reason why the Depression didn’t have the impact on the Negroes that it had on the whites, was that the Negroes had been in the Depression all the time” (Schuyler 259).
Since the 1900’s, things have changed for Negroes in America thanks to people like W.E.B. DuBois, Mary White Ovington, just to name a few, and organizations like the NAACP. DuBois strongly believed that at the basis of the racial problem was ignorance. So DuBoise sought to educate all of those unaware of the problems that race prejudice caused. One of his first studies, “The Philadelphia Negro,” in which he personally interviewed two thousand people helped uncover the truth of the black condition. He used this as a tool in the battle against race prejudice. He also helped form the NAACP. Formed on Abraham Lincoln’s 100th birthday on February 12, 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is an organization founded by such people as W.E.B. DuBois and Mary White Ovington who believed that racial equality should be given not earned. The rights that the NAACP fought for were a legal judicial system, the right to vote, equal employment, schooling, and equal opportunity. Unlike one of their main targets for legal prosecution, the Ku Klux Klan, the NAACP believed in solving their disputes through the court system. Another task that the NAACP was set upon completing was the education of all on the problems and barriers that race prejudice creates. By publishing a monthly magazine NAACP helped enlighten hundreds of thousands of people about race prejudice. This periodical included stories about the problems that blacks faced in everyday life. With the new found knowledge the people were more motivated to act as a community; instead of hide as one. The NAACP did not only help create a community of blacks willing to battle for the rights they were born with, it helped bring down those who advocated the concept of segregation and racial superiority. With the help of strong, influential leaders like DuBois and Ovington and organizations like the NAACP Negroes have earned the rights they have today.