Community Politics and Grassroots Activism during the 1920s: An Interview with Shannon King

Shannon King
Shannon King

This month, I interviewed Shannon King about his new book, Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway? Community Politics and Grassroots Activism during the New Negro Era (New York University Press, 2015). Dr. King is Associate Professor of History at The College of Wooster. Born and raised in Harlem and the Bronx, he completed his B.A. and M.A. in History at North Carolina Central University and his Ph.D. in History at Binghamton University (SUNY). His research and teaching interests include African American urban and cultural history, black freedom studies, and criminal justice and carceral studies. His work has been published in the Journal of Urban History and History: Review of Books and he has been awarded a residency at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. His first book, Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway?  is the subject of this interview. He is working on a second book on race, crime, and punishment in New York City, tentatively entitled Occupied Territory: Black Protest and Punishment during the Riot Era.


9781479811274_FullKeisha N. Blain: How did you come to this topic? What inspired and/or motivated you to write about community politics and grassroots activism in Harlem during the 1920s?

Shannon King: As a teenager, I came to works on Harlem through my readings on the Harlem Renaissance–specifically the poetry and stories of Langston Hughes and David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem Was In Vogue. I did not fully appreciate or understand the scholarly aspects of Lewis’s book, but I liked the storytelling, and it made me feel important as a black boy from Harlem. As a kid, I also spent a lot time, walking along 125th Street, in Mount Morris Park (now called Marcus Garvey Park) and around Harlem generally. Since I lived on Madison Avenue, I would walk up Madison and down 125th and see and experience “Harlemworld.” There, I saw all kinds of characters: folks selling their wares on the street, street-speakers, Black Israelites, and Five Percenters. Each summer, I attended Harlem Week and the African American Day Parade. In addition, there were libraries all around Harlem, and, of course, there was the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. I had a strong sense of Harlem’s “community”— its dynamism and diversity. Consequently, when I read Gilbert Osofsky’s Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto, I felt that there was something missing. It was not until graduate school that I read Joe Trotter’s Black Milwaukee and his critique of Osofsky and his “ghettoization model.”

Blain: Tell us more about how your book reconceptualizes the New Negro era? How does it enhance much of the scholarship that has been written on this historical period?

King: In the book, I conceptualize Harlem as a political community and argue that the basis of black urban politics and the black freedom movement in New York City before and after the Great Depression stemmed from Harlemites’ efforts to establish an autonomous community and to fulfill their struggle for “community rights.” I conceptualize “community rights” as the ideals, expectations, and objectives that blacks held for Harlem. Therefore, the book expands what we might call “politics” and the people and groups that we might center as “New Negroes.” For example, in Whose Harlem, a New Negro might be a black woman leading a tenant struggle, operating a “buffet flat,” or cussing out a police officer for beating a black man on the streets.

The conceptualization of Whose Harlem derives partly from my reading of the community studies and black working-class historical scholarship in the 1990s. As a graduate student I revisited Osofsky’s Harlem, and read for the first time Joe Trotter’s Black Milwaukee, Earl Lewis’s In Their Own Interests, and others. I read a lot of the “new” labor and working-class history and found my way to Robin D. G. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe, Race Rebels, and then Tera Hunter’s essay “Domination and Resistance” and her groundbreaking monograph, To Joy My Freedom. I was like “wow!” Kelley’s and Hunter’s work and Lewis’s concept “congregation” centered black people in a way that the other scholarship had not. Their scholarship spoke to me and I could feel the authenticity of these works as I read them. They wrote about “everyday resistance” and “pleasure.” I thought to myself: “that’s what I’m talking about . . . that’s what I know.” Their scholarship reminded me of Harlem, especially my mother’s everyday acts of resistance and engagement in the politics of pleasure.

In Whose Harlem, I wanted to bring a sense of “community” and everyday politics to the New Negro era. We know a lot about the intellectual and cultural life of the “New Negro” in Harlem, and I thought that if I approached Harlem the way Kelley and Hunter approached working-class folks, then I could perhaps achieve that sensibility and authenticity that I felt as I read their work. As I was completing my dissertation, I began reading and teaching scholarship on the black freedom movement in the urban North, but I had not connected this work to my own. Martha Biondi’s To Stand and Fight, Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of an Urban Crisis, Matthew Countryman’s Up South and Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard’s Freedom North, in different ways, helped me rethink my entire project. The scholarship on the long civil rights movement and black power studies, particularly Hasan Jeffries’s conceptualization of “freedom rights” in Bloody Lowndes helped me make sense of my own work.

Ultimately, my book enhances extant scholarship by centering the grassroots and placing the New Negro era in the Jim Crow North within the larger context of the black freedom movement. One of the research questions, I asked when I began writing was: how do we explain the emergence of the what historian Beth Bates calls “new crowd” black activisms in the 1930s and the “black popular front” found in Biondi’s To Stand and Fight? We know some of this already from the excellent scholarship on Marcus Garvey and the UNIA, the NAACP, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the African Blood Brotherhood, and other New Negro era organizations. I situate these organizations within the context of the broader community’s responses to housing, jobs, police brutality, and leisure life. By centering community politics, I provide a local and direct picture of how black responses to these urban issues during the Progressive and Prohibition eras were related to political collaboration and protest across-ideological lines as exemplified during the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign and the 1935 Harlem Riot. Therefore, Whose Harlem demonstrates how Harlemites forged a dynamic political culture and infrastructure from which Harlemites launched a mass protest movement in the 1930s and 1940s.

ca. 1924, Manhattan, New York City, New York State, USA --- A man holding a bouquet of flowers gets a shoeshine on the sidewalk in front of a barbershop up for rent. --- Image by © E.O. Hoppé/Corbis
Shoeshine in Front of Empty Barbershop (Image by © E.O. Hoppé/Corbis)

Blain: The history of racial segregation in the United States generally centers on the Jim Crow South. While there is no denying that racial segregation dominated the South, your book highlights a crucial aspect of U.S. history that we often overlook–the role of segregation in Northern cities. Tell us more about segregation in Harlem during the 1920s. How were racial segregation practices in Harlem similar to and/or different from other Northern cities?

King: The State of New York prohibited segregation in places of public accommodations since the late nineteenth century and the NAACP fought for stronger civil rights laws before the Great Depression, so black folks lived arguably in a “post” civil rights New York. In the city, blacks quickly learned which white-owned stores would or would not serve them. Sometimes, white proprietors ignored, provided poor service to, or did not serve black customers. Within Harlem, many white businesses depended upon black patronage, especially after World War I as whites fled to other neighborhoods or boroughs of the city. But in places where blacks and whites shared the same space, blacks encountered greater segregation, especially places of leisure such as in movie theaters and restaurants bordering white sections of Harlem. Segregation as part of the lived experience of New Yorkers therefore became a site of political contestation. Harlemites’ demands for fair and equal service in Harlem and throughout the city represented a “politics of dignity” and a form of community rights that operated at the interpersonal and prosaic level, although blacks also used litigation and the courts as weapons to protect and enforce their civil rights. Residential segregation, on the other hand, not only limited blacks to Harlem but also created conditions for intra-racial class conflict—as black landlords and realtors exploited black tenants. Consequently, Harlemites understood “class” not only as workers but also as tenants, as consumers. Collectively, blacks encounters with these various forms of racial segregation informed later struggles around economic and labor rights in Harlem.

Like Chicago, Detroit, and other cities that black migrants settled in, whites used covenants and violence to enforce residential segregation. I think black Chicagoans had greater success in creating an entrepreneurial class than black Harlemites. In the labor market, segregation operated differently in New York than other cities. In Chicago and Detroit, white controlled unions, native and ethnic white racism, and large-scale and capital-intensive manufacturing provided jobs for African Americans at the very bottom rung of those cities’ manufacturing centers. Harlemites, and other black New Yorkers, on the other hand, encountered white ethnics that toiled in small-scale and labor-intensive industries rooted in white ethnic neighborhoods, so white ethnics wielded considerable control over the labor market. Consequently, black workers found it harder to break into the industrial labor force, and labored mainly in the service sector in New York City.

Blain: Chapter 4 is my favorite chapter in your book. In this chapter, you provide rich details of how Harlemites created alternative recreational spaces in response to racial segregation in public spaces and in an effort to make their neighborhood an autonomous black community. Tell us more about the significance of leisure activity in residential spaces in Harlem during the 1920s.

King: Before the 1920s, white proprietors, especially in the bars, clubs, and restaurants in majority black areas and blocks in Harlem catered to and effectively competed with black businesses for black consumers. Consequently, residential segregation and the segregation of public spaces outside of Harlem and black and white proprietors’ catering to blacks in Harlem created what I call a “black consumers’ paradise.” The so-called “Negro Mecca” was primarily practiced through consumption—especially in places of pleasure. Prohibition and slumming whites in the 1920s challenged and checked blacks’ endeavors to enjoy the pleasures of their Negro Mecca and re-segregated public spaces to privilege whites in Harlem. Thus, the segregated practices of nightspots like the Cotton Club were extended to other places of commercial amusement or blacks were simply priced out. And in places where they could go, white and black proprietors catered the music and overall ambience to whites consumers.

This chapter is central to one of the book’s main arguments: Black politics and black social movements derive from dynamics within the community. The throng of slumming whites and the various ways black and white enterprises catered to them forced many blacks to question to whom Harlem belonged. Sometimes we forget that protest and social movements are a means to “freedom.” Although whites controlled New York City, black folks, at least temporarily, felt that Harlem belonged to them, and this feeling of belonging was understood spatially and culturally. Therefore, entrepreneurial black folks, especially black women, remade their private spaces into alternative spaces for pleasure and profit and of course, they had a measure of autonomy. This chapter is one of my favorites, too. It reminds me of my mother and sister who threw rent parties in Harlem.

Of course, Harlemites enjoyed a range of pleasure activities—food, drink, gambling, dancing at rent parties, speakeasies, and buffet flat (flats where patrons could stay overnight to enjoy illicit pleasures). Leisure activity in residential spaces was significance because it allowed blacks to take back and, sometimes, remake places of “congregation” or what we now call “safe spaces,” which is, I think, akin to what black students are now demanding across the nation at predominantly white colleges and universities. In Harlem, black folks reclaimed their bodies for pleasure (and sometimes violence), endeavoring to create and listen to blues and jazz, as well as make new and rekindle old acquaintances on their own terms and in their own way.

These were also spaces where Harlemites claimed their community rights of neighborhood self-determination, specifically the right to control public and private spaces in Harlem. So residential nightspots were one expression of community rights, but criticisms of and campaigns against these was another. While some of this had to do with “respectability,” a lot of it had to do with the fact that folks were fighting at these parties, and folks often felt unsafe and protective of their children while others just needed to get some sleep because they had to go to work in the morning. I think leisure activity was also significant, because it displays the complex gendered, class, and racial dynamics within these overpriced, crowded private spaces within the context of the Negro Renaissance.

Blain: Your study nicely weaves together an array of secondary and primary sources including novels about Harlem as well as newspapers and court papers. Tell us more about the process of conducting research for the book using such a diverse array of sources and genres. What kinds of factors went into the process of deciding what to include (or not include)? What sources did you find most useful in constructing the narrative and/or capturing the voices of Harlemites during the 1920s?

King: Thank you. In the process of writing about Harlem and its community organically, I tried to follow and center black voices within the context of community politics. Although I used organizational records, such as records from the NAACP and National Urban League, I tried to center folks unaffiliated with organizations. These individuals are more difficult to find in personal papers and organizations records so the black newspapers, fiction, poetry, and court papers really helped me get a glimpse of their lived experiences. These sources, like all primary sources, must be read critically and carefully. I also reread and cited the work of scholars who do similar work. For example, I returned to Cheryl Hicks’ Talk With You Like a Woman, Khalil Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness, Davarian Baldwin’s Chicago’s New Negroes, and Victoria Wolcott’s Remaking Respectability, as well as the works of scholars who write about the long civil rights movement and freedom rights. Charles Payne’s classic, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom helped me think about the folks in Harlem before the Great Depression as “an earlier, socially invisible generation.” There has been a lot written about the arts and letters of the Harlem’s Renaissance so I tried to use well-known personalities to shed light on community politics. For example, pairing Andy Razaf‘s poem on police brutality with the activism of Hubert Harrison on the streets of Harlem directs attention to their own politics and provides a means of demonstrating how police brutality was as community-wide issue. Similarly, I used Thomas “Fats” Waller’s profile to illustrate how rent parties became spaces to highlight the interplay of black cultural politics, black entrepreneurism, and self-determination. Rather than being the center of the story, these historical figures became ways to develop the story.

The black weeklies were the most useful. Since I read them on microfilm, I felt like I was more connected to the stories as they developed from week to week. Reading the unrelated stories and sometimes an entire issue of a newspaper, I felt like I got a sense of the rhythm of the news reportage in Harlem—so much so I would sometimes get lost in the stories, and laugh out loud as I followed the drama and gossip in some of the papers.

harlem2Blain: In your final chapter, you discuss racial violence and police brutality in Harlem. What parallels would you draw between policing in Harlem during the 1920s and modern American police practices in Black communities? How might an understanding of this earlier history inform and/or enrich contemporary discussions about racial violence and black responses to police brutality?

King: The police practices of today are not significantly different than in the 1920s sans their militarized outfit and the various ways policing facilitates mass incarceration. Indeed, the feeling that we live in an occupied territory that many of us feel is continuous with the past. Of course, back then there were fewer black (and Latinx) police officers as we have now in New York City, for example. However, black police officers in the 1920s, as they do now, harassed and brutalized Harlemites.

Much like any arena of politics, I think this earlier history can help us to understand the difference between representation and power. Since the early twentieth century, black New Yorkers had demanded the hiring of more black police officers because they believed black police officers would treat blacks fairly and protect them from black and white criminals. This did not work in the 1920s and it does not work today. Black police officers follow orders from above and are socialized and disciplined within the ranks of the police department. I think the fact that there are considerable parallels between the past and present means that we need to have a historically minded vigilance regarding social change. For significant change to happen, it must include a sustained network of local, regional, and national activist-oriented organizations, empowered civilian boards, and the creativity to reimagine and then create a legal system that consistently makes police officers accountable for their criminal acts against black people.

I also think we need a better understanding of black freedom studies outside the South. My book is a part of this scholarship, and it needs a wider readership than students in Ph.D. programs. Oftentimes, when we try to conceptualize or define contemporary racism, we call it “structural” or “institutional” racism. And this form of racism, according to some, emerged after the Civil Rights Movement–that is, after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Yet we forget that black America outside the South was “post-civil rights” for the past one hundred years or so. Therefore, black folks outside the South have been dealing with “institutionalized racism” long before the eradication of Jim Crow in the South. Therefore, we need to interrogate how black folks outside the South have been dealing with institutionalized racism into our analysis of these neoliberal forms of institutionalized racism. To ignore this scholarship, I think, makes racism a southern problem rather than a national problem. As Malcolm X warned, “as long as you are South of the Canadian border you are South.” While there are undoubtedly comparisons to be made between the Black Lives Matter Movement and the Civil Rights Movement (particularly, the southern phase of that movement), if we consider the conditions of anti-black violence and racism in the present, there are a lot of parallels to be drawn to black experiences outside the South during the early twentieth century and post-World War II America.

In the aftermath of the Harlem Riot of 1935, black activists tethered policing and crime with economics, culture and politics and this is what I think the BLM movement is doing when they connect their activism to the labor movement and when they critically engage the Democratic Party. However, I do think we need to be wary (and #staywoke) of party politics. Party politics should, I think, always been considered a means to an end (freedom). For example, after grassroots and organization-led black protests following the 1935 riot, Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia commissioned a report to investigate the cause of the riot, which, like the Ferguson Report, spotlighted state-sanctioned exploitation. LaGuardia buried the report. The black press uncovered the report, and the New York Amsterdam News published it. However, New York City never implemented any of the recommendations during the 193os–and they have yet to do so.

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Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain, a Guggenheim and Carnegie Fellow, is Professor of Africana Studies and History at Brown University. She is the author of several books—most recently of the National Book Critics Circle Award finalist Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America (Beacon Press, 2021) and Wake Up America: Black Women on the Future of Democracy (W.W. Norton, 2024). Follow her on Twitter @KeishaBlain.

Comments on “Community Politics and Grassroots Activism during the 1920s: An Interview with Shannon King

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    What an amazing interview. Wow I learned so much. I can’t wait to read your book Professor King. I just loved how you situated your work within the context of the broader literature and utilized important concepts and ideas like “community rights” and “congregation” for your own analysis of Harlem. I came away from this interview with a deep sense of how you navigated the research process and figured things out as you went along. What a beautiful intellectual journey. We need more conversations like this. Thank you both for a wonderful exchange.

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    This was a fascinating read. I want to get the book right now!
    I especially love how King details how he explores Harlem from the bottom up, through the everyday life of the community. The arts and entertainment of the Harlem Renaissance is important, but it’s also important to understand how black Americans navigated just living in that time. Sometimes the focus on entertainment can obscure the oppression and the resistance to oppression.

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