In the first half of the twentieth century, Sugar Hill was the premier Black neighborhood in New York City that stretched from 145th to 155th street and was bookended by Amsterdam Avenue to the west and Edgecombe Avenue to the east. For the Black elite, it was the most prestigious and coveted place to live in Harlem from the mid-1920s through the 1950s; the Pulitzer-Prize winning author David Levering Lewis explained it as “a citadel of stately apartment buildings and liveried doormen on a rock…” Built in 1917, 409 Edgecombe was the tallest and most exclusive apartment house—and “quite the party center” according to the prolific leftist poet Langston Hughes in his autobiography The Big Sea. As well, noted the Pan-Africanist, Black Marxist, and prodigious activist-intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, it was conveniently located “very near the bus stop at 155th street.” 409 Edgecombe is well known for housing Harlem Renaissance notables like Aaron Douglas, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People leaders like Walter White, and, as historian LaShawn Harris brilliantly conveys, the numbers banker and “militant enemy of the Harlem Police” Madame Stephanie St. Clair.
Absent from these representations is 409 Edgecombe as a site alive with Black left-wing activism, organizing, and strategizing—in other words, as a site of radical Blackness in the era spanning the Popular Front and the entrenchment of McCarthyism. It was there that organizations like the Sojourners for Truth and Justice were founded and meetings of radical organizations including the Civil Rights Congress and the Council on African Affairs were held. It was a hub of support for Benjamin J. Davis, Jr.’s City Council campaigns and Du Bois’s run for the New York seat of the U.S. Senate. Within its walls, the pathbreaking 1951 petition to the United Nations, We Charge Genocide, was drafted, edited, and revised. Undoubtedly, it abounded with discussions and debates about the content of left-wing publications from People’s Voice to Freedom. As such, this exclusive building was a space that cultivated radical Black internationalism, Black Marxism, and Black women’s militancy.
While Black liberals like Walter White and Roy Wilkins are freely evoked as residents, it is virtually unknown that the Black communist and radical journalist Marvel Cooke relocated to this “very special address” in 1932. It is likewise difficult to find mention of Ben Davis, the popular Communist Party leader who filled Adam Clayton Powell’s seat on the New York City Council in 1943. Two of the most important Black revolutionaries of the twentieth century, Louise Thompson and William Patterson, moved into the prestigious building in 1948, but unlike their fellow resident Thurgood Marshall, they are rarely highlighted. Eunice Roberta Hunton Carter is another prominent Black woman who called 409 Edgecombe home from 1939 to 1946. If she is remembered at all, it is as a socialite, as a Smith College educated prosecutor, or as Mary McLeod Bethune’s Lieutenant in the National Council of Negro Women. Her integral role in planning the Pan-African Congresses in the 1920s tends to be overlooked, as is the fact that her brother William Alphaeus Hunton, Jr., who frequented her luxurious abode, was one of the most important freedom fighters in modern history.
Moreover, when W.E.B. Du Bois is acknowledged as part of 409 Edgecombe’s historical importance, he is mentioned only as a civil rights leader or an NAACP founder, which neglects the reality that when he lived there from 1944 to 1951, he had moved precipitously to the left. During this time, he was ousted from the NAACP, had become a leader in the radical Council on African Affairs, founded the Peace Information Center (for which he was indicted as a foreign agent), and became a “two-person united front” with the equally radical Shirley Graham Du Bois.
Given the presence of these radical luminaries and the company they kept, from the interwar period through the early Cold War, 409 Edgecombe was a fecund space of mutual comradeship. The latter can be understood as the political and ethical practice of cooperative social activity based on shared values and a common conception of social transformation rooted in the eradication of white supremacy, capitalist exploitation, colonialism, imperialism, and perpetual war. Expectations and standards are set and maintained through consistent struggle, debate, organizing, and institution building. Such practice also demands courage—the willingness to place one’s self at risk for the betterment of others—to cultivate reciprocal care and concern. Additionally, mutual comradeship includes protection from and defense against state repression; dedication of time and other resources to left-wing causes; support for radical organizations, institutions, and periodicals; and the provision of jobs and income for persons whose politics have deemed them undesirable as employees. It also requires attention and responsibility to all stigmatized and oppressed groups, given their linked fates.
Louise Thompson Patterson’s praxis is emblematic of mutual comradeship. Her apartment at 409 Edgecombe Avenue was a place of political discussion, cultural creativity, and fortification against repression. It was in her home, for example, that her relationship with Beah Richards developed through the formation of the Sojourners for Truth and Justice in 1951. As Keith Gilyard writes, the two “were central to the formation of the initiating committee,” and “[w]ith Louise pacing the floor for hours and Richards fixing sentences onto the page, the dynamic duo produced ‘A call to Negro Women.’” Their efforts, along with those of Black radical women like Eslanda Robeson, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and Alice Childress, resulted in a march on Washington in September of that year. Likewise, throughout the 1940s the International Labor Defense—in which Patterson’s husband William Patterson was a leading lawyer—began to work with the families of the Scottsboro Boys, who had been convicted of rape in 1931. The ILD encouraged the families to directly participate in the struggle to free their children. When two of the mothers came to New York for the first time, they stayed with the Pattersons at 409 Edgecombe. There, they got to know, trust, and depend upon each other.
Marvel Cooke conveyed a different aspect of mutual comradeship. When she was working with the Domestic Workers Union, she was careful not to mention that she lived in the swanky building. Cooke explained:
I chose to work with the Domestic Workers Union, and one woman liked me. Her name was Daisy, and she liked me very much. She kept asking me where did I live, and I didn’t want to tell her because I didn’t want her to feel that there was any difference in our perspectives and what we were fighting for. But she was so nosy about it, so she finally said, ‘Oh, you live up on Sugar Hill!’ After a discussion, I made her understand that there was no difference in the things that I was fighting for and the things she was fighting for.
Cooke’s humility and care demonstrate the ethics of mutual comradeship insofar as she eschewed hierarchy and rejected any privilege that might alienate her from domestic workers, who she saw as her equals and sisters in struggle.
Recovering the radical aspects of 409 Edgecombe not only revives the narratives of freedom fighters whose tireless efforts, humanist ethics, and leftist politics were essential to racial and economic progress, but also challenges the epistemological McCarthyism that attempts to erase them in the first place.Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.