Harlem after the Great Depression

In 1925 James Weldon proclaimed that Harlem was "the greatest Negro city in the world [which] occupies one of the most beautiful and healthful sections of the city"(1). Less than a decade later, Beverly Smith complained in the Dunbar News that the "average white New Yorker... thinks of [Harlem] as a region of prosperous nightclubs, of happy-go-lucky Negroes dancing all night to jazz music and living during the day by taking in each other's policy numbers... The fact is that this community of 220,000 Negroes is the poorest, the unhealthiest, the unhappiest and the most crowded single large section of New York City"(2).


Putting Weldon's description right next to Smith's makes it seem like Harlem experienced a sharp decline at the end of the 1920s. Was this accurate, in which case both of them would be right, or was Harlem's history more nuanced and complicated during these years? Answering this requires to understand how Harlem was affected by the Great Depression.


The War that Wadleigh Students Imagined, Rodrigo Mayorga
In 1937, Margaret Bourke-White shot this picture in Louisville, Kentucky. The picture became a symbol of the Great Depression, their lasting effects and how they impacted African Americans differently than Whites across the country.

The Great Depression touched all of the United States, but some communities were more affected than others. Harlem was one of these. Racist labor practices explain why African Americans were more likely to be unemployed during the Depression: according to historian Cheryl Greenberg, in 1930, 1 in 10 individuals in the U.S. employed population were left without work. In the same year the numbers were 1 in 6 in New York City and 1 in 4 within Harlem's African American population (3). Consequently, living conditions in Harlem declined severely in the first years of the Depression. Providing some relief became part of the work of community organizations and churches. The Abyssinian Baptist Church and its pastor Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., for example, played a key role in feeding and clothing Harlem's poor. A group of church leaders - under the direction of Reverend Shelton Hale Bishop - were also responsible for organizing the Harlem Cooperating Committee on Relief and Unemployment, which started to function in 1930.


The Complete Report of Mayor LaGuardia's Commission on the Harlem Riot of March 19, 1935
The Complete Report of Mayor La Guardia's Commission on the Harlem Riot of March 19, 1935 ended up being so controversial that LaGuardia decided not to make it public. Nonetheless, a copy of it was leaked and published in The Amsterdam News on July 18, 1936.
The 136-pages document reported in detail about the housing, educational, health and security conditions experienced by African Americans in Harlem. It concluded that the "first and more fundamental problem of the Negro citizen of Harlem is the economic problem" (p.122) and that racial discrimination in employment was the key social factor keeping "the Negro worker in the ranks of unskilled laborers and a state of perpetual dependency" (p.123).



Some things changed both in the U.S. and in Harlem after 1933. That year Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the 32nd president of the United States and Fiorello La Guardia was elected as the new Mayor of New York City. New Deal policies were implemented throughout the country and the city. They did not make problems disappear but the policies they championed established that the government was responsible for providing relief.


This shift was central for the process of politicization that Harlem would experience in the following years. Historians may disagree on how long it took for this help to be effective, but the consensus is that the New Deal 'freed' social organizations from the energy-consuming work of providing relief to those affected by the Depression (4). Political activity was certainly not new in Harlem, but government-provided relief allowed community leaders to focus more on the long-running campaign for employment opportunity for African Americans. The Don't Buy Where You Can't Work campaign employed a series of strategies - like pickets and boycotts - and became a strong example of the new forms of political organization that had started to appear in post-Depression Harlem. Success at increasing local black employment took more than a decade, but by 1944, most of salespeople in Harlem were African American (5).


Tensions in Harlem also manifested in more violent ways. On March 19, 1935, rumors that a young boy had been badly beaten by the police after shoplifting a penknife at a store on 125th street ignited a riot that ended up with 5 deaths and more than $500,000 in property damage (6). The riot led Mayor La Guardia to appoint an investigative team to research and study the structural issues that had caused it.


In spite of all of this, Harlem remained a place of artistic and cultural productivity. Harlem was still being presented to the rest of the U.S. and the world as a joyful place, filled with music and parties. This silent film from the U.K. producer British Pathé is a great example of the way in which many imagined Harlem and explains Beverly Smith’s irritation in The Dunbar News. The tensions and contradictions would not stop but were heightened once the U.S. entered World War II.




 1. James Weldon Johnson, "The Making of Harlem" in Alain Locke, ed., Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro, Survey Graphic, 1925,635.
 2. Quoted in Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, Or Does It Explode? Black Harlem in the Great Depression (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 45
 3. Ibíd., 42.
 4. Ibíd., 63-64, 94. For the discussion about relief's effectiveness see Tom Harbison, "'A Serious Pedagogical Situation': Diverging School Reforms priorities in Depression-Era Harlem" (unpublished draft).
 5. Greenberg, Or Does it Explode?, 137.
 6. Harbison, "'A Serious Pedagogical Situation'", 17.
Local and Global Tensions
Harlem after the Great Depression