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In 400 years, Harlem has transformed itself from a struggling Dutch village to a wealthy Jewish enclave to the de facto capital of Black America. In that time, famous residents like Alexander Hamilton, Oscar Hammerstein, Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes, and Duke Ellington have helped shape one of America’s most famous neighborhoods. A new book by Jonathan Gill traces the surprising and often unknown history of Harlem.
- Jonthan Gill author of "Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History from Dutch Village to Capital of Black America." He teaches American history, literature, and humanities at the Manhattan School of Music and the University of Amsterdam.
Read an Excerpt
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Mention Harlem and you most likely think jazz music, African-American literature and the Apollo Theater, but that's only part of the history of one of America's most famous neighborhoods. Four hundred years ago, explorer Henry Hudson sailed into the area and found a native population settled on an island now called Manhattan and that's where the story of modern day Harlem begins.
MS. DIANE REHMHistorian Jonathan Gill, who has written a new book, detailed Harlem's history. It's titled simply, "Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History from Dutch Village to Capital of Black America," and Jonathan Gill joins me in the studio. If you would care to join us, I look forward to hearing your questions and comments. Join us on 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to you, Jonathan. Good to have you here.
MR. JONATHAN GILLThanks for having me.
REHMI must say, this book took you 11 years to write. Why so long?
GILLThere's a lot of Harlem history. It's not just the 20th century and I have to say that it's not just a question of what's out there, the amount of sheer research that it took. I think also I needed to live with it for a long time. I guess I could have written it in five years, but I -- sometimes what I say is that, you know, there are two kinds of sculpture. One in which you start with a block of marble and you whittle it down, the other in which you start with a frame and you build up. I did both. I built the whole thing up and then I took the whole thing down.
REHMBecause you had a million words at one point.
GILLThat's right and that would have been, what, I don't know, a 2,500 word book and that's just not economical and it wouldn't be fair to readers, either. I just had to cut this down and it took as long to un-write it as it did to write it.
REHMDid you start at the beginning or did you start in the middle somewhere?
GILLI actually was all over the place the whole time. I found that if I would read a biography of Duke Ellington and then I would read a biography of George Washington and then I would read something about hip-hop music and its birth in the 1970s, I felt that that kind of -- that coming together would allow me a kind of productive friction, so I didn't start at the beginning and then end at the end. It was all mixed up the whole time.
REHMBut let us start at the beginning.
REHM1609, what did Henry Hudson find when he sailed into the area we now know as Harlem?
GILLSure. He -- well, of course, we know that he was looking for Asia. He thought that the Hudson River, which was and is not a river, by the way, which is what's called an estuary and the Indians called it the river that runs both ways. Because when the tide comes in, the river becomes salt water. When the tide comes out, it becomes fresh water.
GILLHe sailed up this estuary and he found Native Americans, who by the way had had experience with other explorers from Europe before. He wasn't attacked immediately nor did he attack immediately. He met some of them, but -- and exchanged some beads and some trinkets and he got from them beans and some food. He also invited two Native Americans onboard. They were captivated by the uniforms that Henry Hudson wore. It's like I say, fashion is really important really early in Harlem history, in fact, right at the beginning.
GILLHe then tried to kidnap these two Native Americans. They escaped and swam overboard and he continued up the Hudson River.
REHMWhy did he try to kidnap them?
GILLWell, I think it's -- it's not so pleasant to talk about it this way, but Henry Hudson and the people onboard, and all the explorers at that time, including the religious figures, didn't consider Native Americans to be human. It wasn't just a religious question. They considered these people to be some form of animal and so they were property. You could buy them or sell them or take them. These people didn't have feelings like you and I have, they did not understand family relationships that's why.
GILLAnd it was also true for the way the explorers treated African-Americans or Africans then. To split up a family of Africans, so the explorers and the slave traders thought, wouldn't be doing damage to them because they don't have those kinds of feelings. It's not very pretty to think about, but that's just the way it was and you have to look at it directly.
REHMSo when did the violence between Hudson and the Native Americans actually begin?
GILLWhen they tried to kidnap these two Native Americans, whose names we don't know, Hudson continued up the river then it became clear the Hudson River was not going to lead to Asia. He came down the river and in October of 1609, when the ship came back down, these Native Americans, who he had tried to kidnap, they were waiting for him.
GILLAnd of course, remember, we only have the accounts of Hudson and his men, which has to be biased in all kinds of ways. We only have -- and according to those accounts, the Native Americans then attacked. They had no guns, they had no canons. Hudson's ship, which by the way on the forecastle, had a plaque that said, do not attack without cause. They attacked back and six, seven, eight, perhaps nine Native Americans died. It was the first encounter, really, and it was a bloody one and the white men won.
REHMJump forward to 1643 when Peter Stuyvesant comes onto the scene.
GILLRight, well, between -- Peter Stuyvesant comes on the scene actually a little bit later in the 1650s. He's the one who actually founds Harlem. Harlem's technical founding is actually 1658, so we just passed the 350 year anniversary, but that doesn't mean that it was nothing before then. The first settlers come to Harlem, private settlers, coming to farm uptown Manhattan, in 1637 and this was just two, three, four, five people and they -- it's interesting because the very first letter that's written by the very first Dutch settlers on Manhattan written back to the West India Company says that, there are great lands uptown that are perfect for farming.
REHMWell, who did they encounter when they got there?
GILLOne of the reasons that these lands were good for farming is because Native Americans had already been farming there. It's sort of a -- you know, if you walk up Lennox Avenue today, you'll find that the grand churches used to be synagogues. Everything in Harlem used to be something else, except when, I guess, the Native Americans first arrived. So when the first Dutch -- and they weren't actually Dutch they were French by way of the Netherlands, so they were called Valonians.
GILLWhen they first arrived there, they found that there were Native Americans already living there on the banks of the Harlem River. These were not permanent settlements, they were temporary settlements, hunting and fishing villages, and relations were not good from the very beginning.
REHMSo what happened when they got there?
GILLThe history of the relations between the Europeans and the Native Americans from the beginning was -- well, you know, I always say that the Dutch were, they didn't come to Manhattan for the same reason that settlers came to Massachusetts or to Virginia. These weren't for religious reasons. They came for the money. And in a strange way, money is a great leveler. The Native Americans were really good traders and they learned how to trade with each other long before they learned how to trade with the Europeans.
GILLSo at the same time as there were business transactions going on, there was also violence, there was also dispossession, kidnapping and all kinds of -- those kinds of interactions as well. It's not a pretty scene and because the Dutch didn't consider these people to be human, I don't like to talk about this too much, but, you know, sexual violence, torture, all kinds of things like that went on all the time and it was something that the women and children were invited to watch with pleasure.
REHMJonathan Gill, he teaches American history, literature and humanities at the Manhattan School of Music and the University of Amsterdam. I gather you currently live in Amsterdam. That's kind of coming full circle, isn't it? Why was the name New Harlem chosen?
GILLI think I know more about this than anyone on the planet and that's probably because there's almost nothing to know (laugh). No one really knows why it happened. In many cases, look, there's a -- Brooklyn was named after the Dutch town of Brogelin (sp?), New Amsterdam was named after Amsterdam. Why was New Harlem named after Harlem? In general, Brogelin became Brooklyn because there were people from Brogelin who settled in Brooklyn.
GILLSame thing with Amsterdam, but there was no one from Harlem who settled New Harlem. There might have been other reasons. One other reason, there was a map maker named Harlem, maybe that's why it was. But the other thing was that you have to remember that the distance between Amsterdam and Harlem in Europe is the same physical distance as downtown Manhattan and uptown Manhattan, you know, six miles or something like that. So there's a sense of being of a center and a periphery.
GILLAlso when the Spanish occupied Harlem in the 17th century as part of the 100 Years War, the natives of Harlem in Europe were -- put up an incredibly strong resistance and they defeated the Spaniards. There was this idea that if you wanted to settle uptown in the 1630s, you better be prepared for violence, for difficult conditions. They would need the strength of Harlemites and that -- they would need the bravery of the people who lived in Harlem against the Spanish.
REHMSo how much land did they have there in Harlem when they came?
GILLThe village of Harlem was really only a few streets on the East River and that was only after the first farm houses were built and the first plantations were built, so you're talking from 110th Street to 125th Street. You could walk across the early plantations in just a few minutes. You could walk from river to river, so it's really just one, two, three, four farms. It wasn't that much territory. Of course, uptown Manhattan was totally wild and in some places, it still is totally wild and Native Americans remained in uptown Manhattan living there for another 100 years to come.
REHMNow, did those settlers live in relative peace with the Native Americans who had settled farther up?
GILLSometimes it was peaceful, sometimes it wasn't. One of the things that you realize is that if you're vulnerable, living in this marginal community in the middle of the wilds, you'd better have good relationships with your neighbors.
GILLDowntowners didn't really understand that and so downtown could declare war against the Native Americans, but the first people who would be attacked would be the uptowners. And that's what happened over and over again. And it's interesting, the first people -- because the Dutch were not really that interested in exploring Native American culture or Native American religion or Native American language, the first people who were the intermediaries between Native Americans and the Dutch were children.
GILLThe children could learn the Native American languages much more quickly and they perhaps weren't afraid of these strange people with the strange skin color and strange dress and strange customs. These were the first intermediaries. In addition to the children, also the Africans, enslaved and freed Africans, were also intermediaries sometimes.
REHMJonathan Gill, he's author of the new book titled, "Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History from Dutch Village to Capital of Black America."
REHMAnd as we talk about Jonathan Gill's new book titled, "Harlem," let's jump forward now to 1776 when George Washington meets Alexander Hamilton. Why don't you read for us from that portion?
GILLSure. I'd like to set it up just for a little bit, if I could. You have to remember that the Revolutionary War was in terrible shape, from the American point of view, in the early months of the war. And in September of 1776, the American troops under the command of George Washington, they had lost a terrible battle at Brooklyn Heights. They retreated to Manhattan, they retreated up Manhattan Island where they lost a terrible battle at Kips Bay. They continued retreating uptown and George Washington settled the troops in what's now called Harlem Heights. It's just above the 125th street near what's now the City College campus and that's where they were in the rain in the dark and they were about to lose the war even before it had started. And so this is the scene in which George Washington meets Alexander Hamilton. I'll just read. It'll take two minutes or so, if that's okay.
GILL"George Washington couldn't sleep. It was dark. In order to ease his mind, he decided to examine the state of his fortifications. As he picked his way through the camp, he saw that most of his exhausted and demoralized men had fallen asleep in the wet meadows. One particular division, however, caught his eye. Even after a disastrous day, in the dead of night in the rain, these men worked with a distinctive alertness, efficiency, commitment and courage that Washington just couldn't ignore. He inquired after their commanding officer and he was directed to a red-haired youth who had led them uptown, the last few hours of it in the dark, lugging their six-pound cannons and who was now helping them to fortify their positions.
GILLIt was Alexander Hamilton and it would be the decisive encounter in the lives of both men. Washington reached out his hand and met the man who would become his brains in war and in politics. Hamilton was made the man who would make him a man. While Washington met Hamilton, the enemy was asleep at McGowan's pass a few blocks south, but the enemy was up early the next morning advancing north to confront Washington at Harlem. They hardly expected to be drawn into a fight.
GILLThe American General, Thomas Knowlton, a Bunker Hill hero, anxious to redeem the disgraceful conduct of his men earlier in the day, now led a reconnaissance mission with 120 of his Connecticut rangers, reinforced by Hamilton's cannons on the heights. The British opened fire at what's now 106th street and Riverside Drive and forced Milton's men to retreat north to today's Columbia University campus. Milton's men fell back as planned, knowing that Washington had flanking forces ready.
GILLThe British, thinking they were capping off their third victory in a month, engaged with Milton's rangers along the western flank. At 11:00 in the morning, a British bugler, thinking they were about to win the day by overcoming Milton's men, sounded the traditional signal of the end of a fox chase. It was a move that was meant to humiliate the American enemy. It had just the opposite effect. Washington's troops now descended from Harlem Heights and attacked the British frontally while the Americans who had mustered at Harlem's church marched along to the enemy's eastern flank. They had now pinned down the British from the north, east and west. And Washington's men forced their adversaries into a bloody retreat through a buckwheat field on what is now the campus of Barnard College.
GILLBy late afternoon, they had been driven back to what is now West 106th Street, where Washington ordered his men to disengage, knowing their English reinforcements would soon arrive. The cowards of Kips Bay had become the heroes of Harlem. It was a small victory in terms of territory. Washington called is a brisk little skirmish, but it was an important one in other ways. It was George Washington's first American victory. The battle of Harlem Heights was also one of the first examples of American cunning and familiarity with terrain overcoming brute British force. The Americans had numbered only 2,000. Many of them had no guns, many of them had no shoes, compared to about 5,000 well-armed, well-fed and properly clothed British troops.
GILLThe Americans counted dozens of casualties, including several high ranking officers. In contrast, the British lost only 14 men, none of them of significant rank. Still, this important psychological victory was a turning point in the war. After their earlier humiliations, the Battle of Harlem Heights, which allowed a ragtag band of volunteers to hold onto the northern half of Manhattan, gave them all confidence. George Washington was a man who lacked the capacity to exaggerate. Still he wrote, this little advantage has inspired our troops prodigiously. They find it only requires resolution and good officers to make an enemy give way. Washington now knew that even a poorly trained and equipped force could hold its own against British regulars if they used their knowledge of local conditions and acted boldly.
GILLIn Harlem, for the first time in his career, maybe for the first time in his life, Washington abandoned his defensive tactics and assumed the role of a daring tactician. This officer would humiliate one of the greatest military powers in history and it began in Harlem."
REHMJonathan Gill reading from his new book titled, "Harlem." Do join us, 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to email@example.com. And then Harlem became known for its gorgeous green space.
GILLAfter the war of 1812, the New York's industrial revolution kicked in, but New York streets, its utilities, the water, the fire service, the -- it just wasn't up to snuff. And downtown became, especially because of water conditions, a terribly dangerous place. There were terrible epidemics of scarlet fever, yellow fever, cholera almost every year. If you were rich, you would leave downtown Manhattan and go somewhere else from July through, really, October. There were hundreds of people dying each year in a small community because of these disease because the water quality was so bad. And so they would go up to Harlem, clean, green Harlem.
REHMAnd tell us about Eliza Jumel.
GILLShe's one of the greatest characters in the book.
REHMYeah, she really is.
GILLShe's fascinating. It's one of the things that I wanted to do in the book was to reclaim and redeem characters we don't really associate with Harlem or with American History. Eliza Jumel was born in Rhode Island. We don’t know what name she had, we don't what she did, we don't know where her family came from. She was probably an actress. Remember that in the 18th century, to be an actress was one step removed from being a prostitute or a courtesan, as they might say. She apparently -- or so she boasted, had affairs with all the founding fathers. She was accused because of that of being a spy.
GILLShe ended up marrying up and marrying a man who built her a home in Harlem. The Morris-Jumel Mansion still exists. You can still visit it today. You can stand in the rooms where slaves lived and worked. You can't do that so much in Manhattan. That's one thing you can do. She ended up, well, maybe murdering her husband? We're not really sure. She ended up marrying Aaron Burr, the former vice-president of the United States, who also ended up living in Harlem, who had murdered Alexander Hamilton years before.
REHMAfter he -- I was about to say, after he had killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel.
GILLIn a duel, in the very same spot where Alexander Hamilton's son, Philip, had also died in a duel two years earlier.
REHMWhere did her money come from?
GILLIt came from other people (laugh).
GILLLike, her husband, Stephen Morris, was a wine importer and so that's how he made his money. And she made, you know, regular trips to Europe and she also invested very wisely in Manhattan real estate. And she was probably the first female American millionaire and she survived long after both of her husbands, well into the 19th century.
REHMIs it true that she may have become the model for Miss Havisham in Dicken's, "Great Expectations?"
GILLWho knows. I mean, it's a question of dates. Of course, Dickens did make at least one extended trip to the United States and traveled all around. He wrote a book about it, so it's possible that did happen. I don't know. Maybe it's just that there's a -- in both British and American culture, there's this sort of imaginative figure of this eccentric, older, unmarried, wealthy woman. That's what I tend to think. It's nice to think that she's Miss Havisham in, "Great Expectations," but I don't think it really is.
REHMSo even to this day, Harlem, politics, two words that really go together. Talk about the political machine known as the Tweed Ring.
GILLThe Tweed Ring, people associate it -- you know, because of the Martin Scorsese film a few years ago, "Gangs of New York," they've associated it with downtown New York City. That's where most New Yorkers lived back then. You have to remember also that if you want to understand 19th century politics, that the political parties weren't the same as they are now. In the early 19th century, there were no Republicans. There were Democrats and Federalists and some other parties as well. The Democrats in the 19th century, to use the words liberal and conservative don't also quite make the same sense because the Democrats were, for example, not anti-slavery in New York City. They wanted to secede from the Union during the Civil War.
GILLEven at the same time, they controlled everything. If you wanted to have political power in New York City in the mid 19th century, you had to go Democrat. It's why most immigrants, for example, who were, you know, dispossessed and poor and in many cases the victims of racism and intolerance, religious and otherwise, they were all Democrats. The Democrats were the only game in town. All the members of the Tweed Ring also owned land uptown. And it's fascinating to follow the Tweed Ring, which came in the 1860s, 1870s, was brought about by probably the most popular American artist of the 19th century named Thomas Nast, himself a German immigrant, a cartoonist.
GILLHe lived in Harlem. His neighbors were members of the Tweed Ring and he took on a crusade after the Civil War to bring the Tweed Ring down. The Tweed Ring...
GILL...named after Boss Tweed, who was the -- who was -- who took over -- Aaron Burr, another Harlemite and vice-president of the United States had begun the organization called Tammany Hall. Tammany Hall and the Tweed Ring were synonymous basically by the mid 19th century. At any rate, you know, it's interesting, 'cause I know the guest you had on earlier talking about how corruption in the Middle East has stimulated so much outrage among the -- what's happening in the Middle East was nothing compared to what's happened in terms of corruption in New York City. The Tweed Ring owned everything. The Tweed Ring even owned the printing houses that printed the investigative reports about corruption in New York City.
GILLEvery street that got opened up, a piece of every brick that got laid, a piece of every new building's furnace that was being maintained, it all went back to the Tweed Ring.
REHMMoney went back.
GILLExactly. And this really outraged Thomas Nast, who was a Lincoln Republican. And through his crusade, through cartoons, was able to bring down the Tweed Ring almost single handedly.
REHMYou talked about a strong Jewish population early on in Harlem.
GILLYeah, there was -- after the Revolution of 1848 in Germany, many of what we would know as liberal or progressive Germans came to the United States and many of them settled uptown. Oscar Hammerstein II, who was of Rogers and Hammerstein, his father, Oscar Hammerstein I, was probably the first great real estate magnate uptown.
REHMEstablishing a wonderful theater.
GILLHe invented Harlem as a district of entertainment. It's interesting because the founding chart of Harlem in 1658 states that Harlem will be a place of business and of leisure and which you still have today.
GILLOscar Hammerstein the Second's father really invented Harlem and 125th Street as an entertainment district. After the pogroms of 1881 in Poland and the violence against Jewish communities that spread throughout Eastern Europe, you begin to have the mass Jewish immigration to the United States and many of them ended up uptown. These are the families of the writer Henry Roth, of the composure Richard Rogers, of George Gershwin, of the Marx Brothers and on and on. So you really had two Jewish Harlems. And in my original version, the million-word manuscript, there was the chapter just on German Jews in Harlem and just on Eastern European Jews in Harlem.
GILLAnd true to the way Harlem has always been, relations between these two groups were not good. It's like in the 1920s with native born African-Americans and West Indian African-Americans or today between native born African-Americans and African immigrants, relations in an economically marginal community where there's a lot of pressure, of course people are gonna have conflicts with each other.
REHMIsaac in St. Louis wants to know, "How long was the carriage ride from downtown Manhattan to Harlem?"
GILLAlexander Hamilton used to commute two hours each way. This is going to be in the early -- or the late 19th century, 1790s. He died in 1804, so it took two hours each way. Remember, there were no paved roads...
GILL...so this was going to be a carriage ride. When the first trains came uptown in the 1830s and '40s, these were horse-drawn trains, but they went along tracks and this made the ride less than an hour.
REHMJonathan Gill and the book we're talking about is titled, "Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History from Dutch Village to Capital of Black America." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones now. First to Birmingham, Ala. Good morning, Ramey, you're on the air.
RAMEYGood morning, Diane. How are you?
RAMEYI just want to make a quick correction to your guest just in the sense of being politically correct. You don't want to use the term West Indian African-Americans. That's going to put a match to a keg of dynamite. They're actually Caribbean Americans. That's what they prefer to be called (laugh), but your point about entertainment in Harlem, the Cotton Club probably set the model for discrimination against black women. Black women, or women of color, were not allowed to work in the Cotton Club unless they were very fair-skinned. Dark-skinned or chocolate women were not allowed to work there.
RAMEYAnd that became the model, I would suggest, for what goes on today in the media in television commercials, advertising, whatever. And I'm surprised there's not been a Civil Rights investigation that some of the black activists have not spoken out against it. Ever since the Cotton Club opened, there's been a bias against dark-skinned black women.
REHMInteresting. Would you agree?
GILLFirst, I want to -- first, I want to thank you for your original correction. It's interesting the way we talk about race and ethnicity and religion in America it's always an ongoing -- I don't want to call it an issue, it's an ongoing area of knowledge and I'm always interested in finding new ways of talking about different kinds of groups, especially groups if they can describe themselves. You know, so I don't -- I don't try to say Indian, try to say Native American. And this is something I've never heard before and I thank you for making that correction. That's going to allow me to speak more respectfully in the future and that's good.
GILLNumber two, with the Cotton Club, you're absolutely right. The Cotton Club you couldn't -- first of all, it was a segregated club in the sense that if you were black, you couldn't go there as a patron. The stage was modeled after an old plantation, so you had these red and white checked tables, you had pictures of -- and, excuse me, I'm just going to say the way it was. You know, there was a mural of the smiling darkies, the slaves on the plantation. There were actual pictures of cotton plants and people -- and slaves picking them. And of course, you had what were then called the café ole chorines. You were not allowed to be a dancer there, as you say, unless you had a certain particular kind of skin color. What they said was -- it's just chilling, but it's still alive today, if you were darker than a brown paper bag, than you couldn't become one of these café ole chorines.
GILLYou're absolutely right. And by the way, in the basement of the Apollo Theater was a jazz club where Jimmy Durante, the famous American actor, was the piano player and there was -- I guess I won't say the n-word on the air, if that's okay, but there was no n-word people allowed. There was a sign at the door that said that. So racism, black/white racism, but also discrimination even within the different black communities uptown was a fact of life. You know, Marcus Garvey got into terrible arguments with people, as did many of the later black nationalist groups, over what real African pure blood meant.
GILLBut you're absolutely right to say that racial discrimination didn't really leave the entertainment industry in Harlem until the 1930s, 1940s, but, of course, in terms of imagery, it's still alive today.
REHMYou do believe it's still alive today.
GILLJust look at the -- I mean, things have really changed a lot. Someone like Lauren Hill with the kind of image that she projects -- who, by the way, was my student at Columbia, she's really changed the repertoire of imagery that's available to black entertainers. Not just to women, but also men. So of course, issues of skin color, they're still with us. Will they always be with us? Who knows. Maybe my book will make a tiny little change.
REHMJonathan Gill and the book is titled, "Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History from Dutch Village to Capital of Black America." We'll take just a short break and be right back.
REHMAnd we'll open the phones again. Let's go now to Tony in Daytona Beach, Fla. Good morning, you're on the air.
TONYYes, good morning. I just wanted to say that I -- I grew up in the Bronx, N.Y. my whole life and Harlem's as a black capital, as your caller -- I mean, your guest said, is no longer such a thing. It's so gentrified now a days, that all of the mom and pop shops that used to be there, A.J. Lefter's and British Walkers (word?) and, you know, what have you, have been replaced with big names and, you know, Starbucks and (word?) and it is no longer a black capital. It is a -- it's really a mixed genre now a days (unintelligible)...
GILLI wonder if in the future if there will be such a thing as a black capital, if it's all going to be in cyberspace now. Or I just walked across 125th street the night before -- or yesterday and it's just shocking to see the changes. Change is always really scary, but changes that are going to displace vulnerable people, that's especially chilling and Harlem is the -- you're absolutely right, Harlem is also the most under-landmarked neighborhood in New York City. This is just pure racism. It's got the most beautiful housing stock, I think, in the city because of this benign neglect and you can just rip stuff down and it doesn't -- build new condos and -- look, change, it's the watchword of Harlem. In its music and its literature, you can't stop it, but can you manage it?
REHMAfter the comments during the last portion of the program, Jerry in Long Island, N.Y. writes that she had friends who were prejudice within her own family if one was darker than another and she didn't understand that.
GILLThis is, sad to say, just such a purely -- it's such an American phenomena, it's part of who we all are. Arthur Miller, the great American playwright who was Jewish on both sides, going all the way back, when his own children were born, Arthur Miller's father, the first question he asked was not, how's the mother? Or, are they healthy? The first question he asked was, are they dark? These are Jewish people that as white people, the fear was that these children would have dark hair and maybe, like, dark skin, I mean, I guess. The idea that you wouldn't be able to pass as a Gentile if you didn't have blond hair.
GILLSo it's not just within the African-American community, you also have -- you know, we haven't said anything about the massive Italian-American community in Harlem, where you also had the people who'd come from Sicily were considered darker, therefore, less, I don't know, civilized or -- than the people who came from Northern Italy. It's also -- you know the problems that the census still has in categorizing Dominicans. Are these people African descent? Yes. Are these Latinos? Yes. It's hard to make something it's nonsense make sense.
REHMDo you think there's another city in the country that compares to Harlem in that sense, with this huge influx of people of all religions, backgrounds? I mean, I grew up here in Washington, D.C. amidst Jewish people, Greeks, Armenians, Arabs, Italians. It was a wonderful mix and surely that happened a lot around the country.
GILLI mean, I'm not what the call an American Exceptionalist. I don't think America has a divine role in the world to come, but I am a Harlem Exceptionalist. I do think it's -- but you know what? To tell you the truth, you can't name a single community where you have working class neighborhoods, people who live next to each other. I mean, it's not just New Orleans, it's not just Chicago, I think every city in this country, that's our way. And if you listen to people's stories, there's -- I don't know, it was always much worse and better than we think.
REHMBut of course, Harlem did have a culture of music. Talk about how that evolved.
GILLApparently, there was a 125-year-old slave named Charlie who, in the 17th century, would provide entertainment, dancing and music, for the Dutch and the English settlers. Music in Harlem goes way, way back. It's a shame that we just can't know what kind of music it was back then. But you know that the first Harlem Symphony Orchestras, the first German (word?), male choirs, they go back to the immediate Civil War period, so you had lots of institutionalized music. This would be classical music or church music in the immediate post-Civil War period.
GILLYou know, the very first blues record that was ever made was called, "The Harlem Blues." That was the original version of it and it was produced and created in Harlem. It wasn't produced and created in the Mississippi Delta or in New Orleans. Blues, of course, is a rural phenomenon of the Southern United States, but in terms of its institutionalization, formalization, that's a Harlem phenomenon. The Broadway musical, it comes from Harlem.
REHMEdward in Hanover, N.H. asks about the Harlem Boys Choir founded in 1965 and the Girls Choir of Harlem founded in 1988. He wants to know whether your guest's book discusses their relevance to the community.
GILLThere's so much, that I really couldn't -- I would love to write a whole book about the Harlem Boys Choir which, you know, then became a school and in recent years has fallen on such hard times. But what I would do is I would put the Harlem Boys Choir and the Girls Choir in a separate category. You know, maybe we'll talk later about the Charter School's movement in -- Jeffrey Canada, who started the Harlem Children's Zone, tells people, you know what? You cannot wait for Superman to come in here and save your children. We gotta do it ourselves.
GILLAnd there's a long strain of Harlemites doing it for themselves, creating their own not only economic institutions, but also culture institutions. Newspapers, book publishing houses, museums, stores and the Harlem Boys and the Girls Choirs are evidence of this. You also have the various dance troupes that come out of Harlem. So that's what I would say their relevance is. These are Harlemites doing for Harlem and that may be healthier in the long run, as long as audiences can come from everywhere.
REHMHere's an e-mail from Mary Kay who says, "My research shows two ancestors, Jean Bellevue married to Hester Casier C-A-S-I-E-R, who arrived in around 1660. Have you encountered these names in your research?"
GILLI haven't seen those two names, but I think the best -- if it's 1660, the best thing to do is to go to what's called the New Netherland Project that's done out of the State University of New York at Albany and you can go on the internet. And so from that link, you can go -- you can find all kinds of things. I mean, one of the interesting things about doing this book was that while I was writing this book, the internet happened (laugh). You know, if I wanted to find out the names of individual settlers, I would have to go to some musty library up in Albany.
REHMThat's great. Yeah.
GILLNow, I can go click, click, click, click and I can find out the names of every single settler, the name of the boat, how many children they brought with them, what their trade was, what they were...
GILL...just in a few clicks. It's extraordinary. I don't know if someone could write this book in 20 years 'cause there'd be too much information. Those two names, I haven't seen. The fact that they're both -- they both seem to be French names, there weren't that many French people who came to Harlem or came to Manhattan in that era, but again, many of the people who came through, many people came to Harlem came from France through the city of Leiden in the Netherlands and then came to Harlem, (foreign language). So there are lots, as an example, there're lots of French names.
REHMAll right. To Miami, Fla. Good morning, Leah, you're on the air.
LEAHGood morning. Thank you. I took a course with Dr. Bacha (sp?) here at the F.I.U. on the Harlem Renaissance. I enjoyed it thoroughly and I wanted -- I know it's such a broad subject, but specifically if he would comment on the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Ralph Ellison, for example.
GILLI had the unbelievable honor and pleasure to actually meet Ralph Ellison just a few years before he died. And it's fascinating. Ralph Ellison's a great example. You know, the writers that we associate with the Harlem Renaissance, none of them came from Harlem, not even one of them. The first character that we know in Harlem as a broadly know cultural figure, who was actually born and raised in Harlem, that would be, say, Fats Waller, the musician from the '20s and 1930s. Langston Hughes came from the Midwest via Mexico. County Colin (sp?) was born elsewhere, but actually did grow up in Harlem.
GILL(word?) Hurston came from Florida, James Olden Johnson came from Florida. What I (word?) summarize think is that we might be better off thinking of the Harlem Renaissance as an immigrant movement. So many of them came from Washington, D.C. Hardly anyone came -- you have to remember if you were, say, 30 in 1930, that meant you were born in 1900. There were very few African-Americans in Harlem in 1900.
GILLThere were some, but when does, you know, when does a community -- when does it get big enough to produce writers, sculptors. Augusta Savage, the sculptor -- sculptoress, she came from Florida, so -- and Ralph Olson came from the Midwest and, you know, he's really, he's kinda my guide through Harlem just because he came from elsewhere and had such a fine idea of what -- when racial segregation could produce something positive and when it would be negative. And he's really my north star still.
REHMInteresting. Thanks for calling, Leah. So what role did Harlem play in the Civil Rights Movement?
GILLThat's another one of the things that I discovered when I writing this book, that we tend to see the Civil Rights Movement, and it wasn't that long ago, as a Southern phenomenon. In fact, Martin Luther King learned about nonviolence from Bayard Rustin. I mean, how many listeners know Bayard Rustin the way they should know him? This was a black, gay Quaker from Philadelphia (laugh) who taught the whole Civil Rights Movement -- he was called the American Socrates, who taught them all about nonviolence -- Gandhian nonviolence.
GILLSo the Civil Rights Movement the 1963 March on Washington, which, by the way, was called The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice. We sometimes forget, it wasn't just about Civil Rights, it was also about economic conditions. That was planned by Bayard Rustin on 125th Street. The Civil Rights, you know -- it's the bigger picture is we tend to think that it was bad in the South and it was good in the North. It's not true. There was slavery in the North. The conditions in the North were sometimes much worse than the conditions in the South. Just because it was an urban community with a large population of Abolitionists or of anti-racists didn't mean things were always better. And so the Civil Rights Movement really belonged to everyone, it just wasn't, you know, church men from Atlanta.
REHMAnd course, one of the major figures, Adam Clayton Powell.
GILLNow, there's a character who was also not born in Harlem, but I don't know, is he maybe the most Harlemesque of them all? He's -- you know, I have this theory that Harlem somehow produces, somehow it breeds saints and sinners and I think that Adam Clayton Powell, Junior, he was both (laugh). That his career ended in total disgrace. The seat that Charles Rangel now occupies and the troubles that he'd now in, it's the seat that Adam Clayton Powell, Junior occupied and Adam Clayton Powell, Junior had some of the very same, let's just say, issues that Charlie Rangel is having now.
GILLAnd so we tend to forget that in the 1930s, Adam Clayton Powell, Junior, whose father was Adam Clayton Powell, Senior, was the most significant African-American Christian leader in the country, that in the 1930s, Adam Clayton Powell, Junior led numerous boycotts, protests, marches on 125th Street. You think, huh? Why is there a need, in black Harlem, for protests on 125th Street? It's because there were virtually no black owned stores on 125th Street. And the caller before talked about the Cotton Club.
GILLMany businesses wouldn't hire dark-skinned black women or they would only hire them as -- or hire African-Americans in menial jobs. They were not allowed in sales positions 'cause that would've meant helping a woman to try on a dress and you -- people wouldn't want -- a white shopper would not have wanted a black woman, light-skinned or dark-skinned, to help her -- to touch the clothing that she was going to wear. This happened well into the 1930s. He's an extraordinary, unbelievable figure.
REHMJonathan Gill, the book is titled, "Harlem," and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And of course, you've got one other extraordinarily significant resident there now, at least his offices, former President Bill Clinton.
GILLYeah, Bill Clinton has offices on 125th Street and I think a year ago, the lease came up and there was a question of, will he stay or will he go? And he decided to stay. As we all know, he was known -- it's always struck me as very odd that he was called the first black president, even though we all understand that he was loved by African-Americans. I never say that 'cause it just sounds too weird to me. But he's very much beloved uptown, not simply because the policies that he undertook when he was president, but because he gets out there on the street and he's very approachable. And his whole manners -- I mean, is it because he comes from that South that his whole manner of dealing with African-American communities it's just more natural and easy going.
GILLBut certainly, his move to Harlem after his two terms in the White House was an enormous vote of confidence for 125th Street. If he could do it, anyone could do it. maybe that wasn't a good thing if it meant that The Body Shop and Starbucks and Old Navy and all the big chain stores, but that's just the way it is.
REHMTo Baltimore, Md. Good morning, Margo.
MARGOGood morning, Diane. It's exciting to hear that your guest has so much enthusiasm for this subject.
REHMYes he does.
MARGOI can't wait to get the book. My mother's claim to fame was that she was born in Harlem and my grandmother talked all the time about going to the clubs. They lived there until my grandfather passed away and at that point, they moved over to the Jersey side. But as a child, it was, you know, a family trip to go up and see the -- you know, the neighborhood where my mother had been born and go past where all the clubs were. My mother talked about when she was the teenager going out to the Cotton Club and on dates and it was really an exciting time for her. And as I say, I can't wait to get the book and learn more.
MARGOAs I age, I realize that our own education, people -- I'm from the Northeast and it's something that was really lacking, growing up, learning about the area in which we actually live.
GILLIt's so touching to me to hear people from all over the -- I mean, I don't talk to people all over the country so much. To hear people from all over the country claiming Harlem and it's one of the things that I really wanted to push, is that it belongs to all of us. Not just because of white and black and Jew and Italian, Latino were there, but even if your ethnic group never belonged there, if you like the way James Brown dances, then Harlem belongs to you, too.
REHMAnd finally, Jeffrey in Chevy Chase says, "Aren't we witnessing a great loss of an important cultural area and many of the icons in other places which has made Harlem what it is? Shouldn't there be more of an effort to preserve some of the culture and originality of this important place. Many Starbucks, other fast food places popping up, many disappearing because of who wants to make a fast buck?"
GILLYou have to remember that everything -- pick your part of Harlem history that you love. Someone was there before that. Someone was pushed out or moved out or something got destroyed or ripped down. You know, the Apollo Theater was something else before it was the Apollo Theater. No matter what you do, in order to make something good, it has to be something before that. And it's a question of, as like I said before, managing the change. So change is going to come and the question is, who's going to get hurt?
REHMJonathan Gill, the book is titled, "Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History from Dutch Village to Capital of Black America." Thank you for your work. Congratulations.
REHMThanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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