Editorial: Do you know about Philip A. Payton, Jr., The Father of Harlem?

By Doni Glover, Publisher
Harlem Business Journal

Greetings! We appreciate your patience with us as we meticulously present the beginnings of what we pray becomes a fine institution: HarlemBusinessJournal.com (HBJ). Our aim is simple: To inform and inspire business owners in Harlem … and ultimately beyond.

But first, we must pay homage to the “Father of Harlem”, Philip A. Payton, Jr (February 27, 1876 – August 1917). The second of four children, his father was a barber and his mother was a hairdresser. By the tender age of 23, he left his dad’s business and moved to New York City.

A graduate of Livingstone College in Salisbury, South Carolina, Payton went from being a department store attendant to a barber to a porter. It was during his time as a porter that he got the idea of going into real estate. So, he took a job as a janitor in a real estate office. His interest was piqued, and although he didn’t get the Yale degree like his two brothers (his sister also earned a degree from what would become Westfield State University), because he had the audacity and the boldness to follow entrepreneurship, he was duly rewarded for his efforts.

By October 1900, he and his partner formed the Brown and Payton real estate firm. By 1901, Payton had gotten married, but his business partner quit on him. Legend has it that things got so bad, the Payton’s dog and cat died – partially due to starvation.

However, Payton had an unrelenting drive and an undaunting determination to succeed. His tenacity would be noted in Booker T. Washington’s book, “The Negro in Business”.

Described by the NYTimes as the “real estate magnate who turned Harlem into a black mecca”, Payton would eventually gain control of more and more houses. One thing became increasingly obvious to Payton; Black people were not able to afford the rents in Harlem. Black Southerners were flocking to the city in droves – all in search of opportunities – but White landlords were not renting to them. Further, Blacks faced racial hostility from police.

In any event, Payton saw this conundrum as an opportunity. So, while his wife, Maggie, held the family down with her sewing skills, Payton was able to focus on the business at hand. Because of their teamwork, Payton was able to thrive while many Blacks were struggling.

A new subway line was being built from Lower Manhattan to 145th Street. This area became Payton’s target. He realized that if he could provide housing opportunities for the Blacks, he’d become a hit. So, when a housing dispute happened between two White landlords, and he was able to get one of his first opportunities to manage a property, success was inevitable. Payton was on to something.

By 1904, he established the Afro-American Realty Company.  He issued “50,000 shares shares at $10 each.” As more Blacks came in, more Whites left. Slowly but surely, Harlem was changing. And Payton was way ahead of the curve. Between 134th and 135th, Payton was ‘the man’!

Now, Payton still had to deal with challenges, including a nasty news media. For example, the NY Times dubbed such efforts to provide housing for Blacks as the “Negro invasion”.

In July 1906, the New York Herald wrote:

“An untoward circumstance has been injected into the private dwelling market in the vicinity of 133rd and 134th Streets. During the last three years the flats in 134th between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, that were occupied entirely by white folks, have been captured for occupation by a Negro population. Its presence there has tended also to lend much color to conditions in 133rd and 135th Streets between Lenox and Seventh Avenues.”

Payton did not let this deter him. He proceeded anyway and prosperously so.

According to Walks of New York, “By 1913 there were 50,000-70,000 African Americans making Harlem their home.  In the 1920s, the neighborhood reached it zenith when Black artists, writers and musicians converged there, producing extraordinary works of the Harlem Renaissance.  Payton’s pioneering fight to erase the color line not only transformed NYC – he enhanced American culture.”

New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/obituaries/philip-a-payton-jr-overlooked.html

Walks Of New York, Philip A. Payton: the Father of Harlem

Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_A._Payton_Jr.

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