Philip Payton Jr.: The Crusading Capitalist Who Outwitted New York’s Racist Landlords

Philip Payton Jr. was a turn of the century
real estate agent famous for outwitting his adversaries, and posting his red initials to every building
under his control. He enabled generations of black New Yorkers
to inhabit prime areas of Manhattan, with modern homes, nearby parks, and free
from racial violence. Payton was a crusading capitalist, who believed that the free-market was the
key to combating racial segregation. His approach was “to make the color line costly.” In 1900, the year he entered the real estate
business, blacks were relegated to a handful of overcrowded
neighborhoods, with substandard housing, and plagued by racial
violence. “The fight that I am making has got to be
made sooner or later,” Payton wrote, “and I see no better time than now.” One of his first opportunities came in 1905
on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, when according to one account two property
owners got into a dispute on an all-white block. One of them retaliated by inviting blacks
to move in to her two buildings. Whites fled, resulting in vacant apartments
on the block. Payton saw this as a business opportunity
to buy buildings at a discount and sway more property owners to accept blacks
as tenants: Why would landlords “keep their apartments
empty thereby losing much money in rent,” he later wrote, “when there is an applicant
for it, and no other objection can be raised to him other than that he has a black face?” So he and a team of investors started leasing and buying up properties on
West 99th street at a discount, one after another. Eventually, every building on the block was
renting to blacks. “The very prejudice which has heretofore
worked against us can be turned and used to our profit,” Payton
wrote. Located in a prime area of Manhattan that
bordered Central Park, West 99th and 98th Streets became home to
a black community that thrived until the mid-1950s, when the government bulldozed these two blocks
to make way for a slum clearance project. A hundred and thirteen years after Payton
first de-segregated West 99th Street, the former residents of this community still
hold annual reunions, honoring the neighborhood where they were
born and raised. Payton’s use of market forces to combat segregation had an even bigger impact a couple miles uptown. Known as the father of Harlem, more than any
other figure, he was responsible for the formation of what would become the cultural capital
of Black America. It all started on West 135th Street, when,
according to one account, another dispute between two building owners
made it possible for blacks to start moving in. But in this case, bigoted white real estate
interests weren’t going to give in without a fight. Enter the Hudson Realty Company, with a board of directors that at one time
included the co-founder of Bloomingdales department store, a former U.S. Ambassador, and his older brother. The company wanted to restore racial purity
on the block, and in 1904 it purchased four all-black buildings,
ordering everyone living there to get out. So Payton and his investors hit back. They got title to two buildings a few doors
down and this time told the white people living there to move out. Then they invited the dispossessed black tenants
from up the block to take their place. Hudson Realty offered to buy Payton out, but
he refused, so the company gave up and pulled out altogether. Within a few years, black tenants inhabited
almost every building on West 135th. “Race prejudice is a luxury,” Payton wrote, “and like all luxuries can be made very expensive
in New York City.” But as Harlem’s black community grew, white property owners tried to contain it
by forming real estate associations governed by racial covenants that restricted
landlords from selling or renting to blacks. Again Payton struck back, this time by reminding landlords that participating
in racial covenants meant foregoing potential income, because blacks typically paid more in rent. As he wrote in a 1908 ad, “If that Colored Tenement of yours is not
paying you better than anything else you own, SOMETHING IS WRONG.” With landlords choosing profit over prejudice,
over time, the racial covenants unraveled. In 1912, building owner Reginald Schenck told
the New York Times that he rented his brownstone on 130th Street
to blacks because “I can get more from negroes than from white
tenants.” The same year, Anna Lieb sold her building
on 136th to a black family in violation of the racial
covenant on the grounds that she had “a right to sell
to any person she saw fit.” In 1913, a widowed landlord on 137th was sued
by her next door neighbor for welcoming blacks to her building. Before the judge could issue a injunction,
the neighbor dropped the case and joined her. A hundred years since Payton’s death, there
are no monuments honoring him, or even a plaque on his former home. Yet black Harlem might not exist if it weren’t
this visionary realtor who saw that in a free market bigots can be
forced to pay a price for their prejudice by making the color line costly.

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