THE color line must be drawn through the tenements to give the picture its proper shading. The landlord does the drawing, does it with an absence of pretense, a frankness of despotism, that is nothing if not brutal. The Czar of all the Russias is not more absolute upon his own soil than the New York landlord in his dealings with colored tenants. Where he permits them to live, they go; where he shuts the door, stay out. By his grace they exist at all in certain localities; his ukase banishes them from others. He accepts the responsibility, when laid at his door, with unruffled complacency. It is business, he will tell you. And it is. He makes the prejudice in which he traffics pay him well, and that, as he thinks
|it quite superfluou s to tell you, is what he is there for. That his pencil does not make quite as black a mark as it did, that the hand that wields it does not bear down as hard as only a short half dozen years ago, is the hopeful sign of an awakening public conscience under the stress of which the line shows signs of wavering. But for this the landlord deserves no credit. It has come, is coming about despite him. The line may not be wholly effaced while the name of the
negro, alone among the world's races, is spelled with
a small n. Natu ral selection will have more or less
to do beyond a doubt in every age with dividing the
races; only so, it may be, can they work out together
their highest destiny. But with the despotism that deliberately
assigns to the defenseless Black the lowest leve l for
the purpose of robbing him there that has nothing to
do. Of such slavery, different only in degree from the
other kind that held him as a chattel, to be sold or
bartered at the will of his master, this century, if
signs fail not, will see the end in New York.
Ever since the war New York has been receiving the
overflow of colored population from the Southern cities.
In the last decade this migration has grown to such
proportions that it is estimated that our Blacks have
quite doubled in number since the Tenth Census. Whether
the exchange has been of advantage to the negro may
well be questioned. Trades of which he had practical
control in his Southern home are not open to him here.
I know that it may be answered that there is no industri
al proscription of color; that it is a matter of choice.
Perhaps so. At all events he does not choose then.
How many colored carpenters or masons has anyone seen
at work in New York? In the South there are enough
of them and, if the testimony of the most intelligent
of their people is worth anything, plenty of them
have come here. As a matter of fact the colored man
takes in New York, without a struggle, the lower level
of menial service for which his past traditions and
natural love of ease perhaps as ye t fit him best.
Even the colored barber is rapidly getting to be a
thing of the past. Along shore, at any unskilled labor,
he works unmolested; but he does not appear to prefer the job. His sphere thus defined, he naturally takes
his stand among the poor, and in the homes of the
poor. Until very recent times--the years since a change
was wrought can be counted on the fingers of one hand--
he was practically restricted in the choice of a home
to a narrow section on the West Side, that nevertheless
had a so cial top and bottom to it--the top in the
tenements on the line of Seventh Avenue as far north
as Thirty-second Street, where he was allowed to occupy
the houses of unsavory reputation which the police
had cleared and for which decent white tenants could
not be found; the bottom in the vile rookeries of
Thompson Street and South Fifth Avenue, the old "Africa"
that is now fast becoming a modern Italy. To-day there
are black colonies in Yorkville and Morrisania. The
encroachment of business and the Italian below, and
the swelling of the population above, have been the
chief agents in working out his second emancipation,
a very real one, for with his cutting loose from the
old tenements there has come a distinct and gratifying
improvement in the tenant, that argues louder than
theories or speeches the influence of vile surroundings
in debasing the man. The colored citizen whom this
year's census man found in his Ninety-ninth Street
"flat" is a very different individual from
the "nigger" his predecessor count ed in
the black-and-tan slums of Thompson and Sullivan Streets.
There is no more clean and orderly community in New
York than the new settlement of colored people that
is growing up on the East Side from Yorkville to Harlem.
Cleanliness is the characteristic of the negro in
his new surroundings, as it was his virtue in the
old. In this respect he is immensely the superior
of the lowest of the whites, the Italians and the
Polish Jews, below whom he has been classed in the
past in the tenant scale. Nevertheless, he has always
had to pay higher rents than even these for the poorest
and most stinted rooms. The exceptions I have come
across, in which the rents, though high, have seemed
more nearly on a level with what was asked for the
same number and size of rooms in the average tenement,
were in the case of tumble-down rookeries in which
no one else would live, and were always coupled with
the condition that the landlord should "make
no repairs." It can r eadily be seen, that his
profits were scarcely curtailed by his "humanity."
The reason advanced for this systematic robbery is
that white people will not live in the same house
with colored tenants, or even in a house recently
occupied by negroes, and tha t consequently its selling
value is injured. The prejudice undoubtedly exists,
but it is not lessened by the house agents, who have
set up the maxim "once a colored house, always
a colored house."
There is method in the maxim, as shown by an inquiry
made last year by the Real Estate Record.
It proved agents to be practically unanimous in the
endorsement of the negro as a clean, orderly, and
"profitable" tenant. Here is the testimony
of one of the largest real estate firms in the city:
"We would rather have negro tenants in our poorest
class of tenements than the lower grades of foreign
white people. We find the former cleaner than the
latter, and they do not des troy the property so much.
We also get higher prices. We have a tenement on Nineteenth
Street, where we get $10 for two rooms which we could
not get more than $7.50 for from white tenants previously.
We have a four-story tenement on our books on Thirty-third
Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, with four
rooms per floor--a parlor, two bedrooms, and a kitchen.
We get $20 for the first floor, $24 for the second,
$23 for the third and $20 for the fourth, in all $87
or $1,044 per annum. The size of the building is only
21+55." Another firm declared that in a specified
instance they had saved fifteen to twenty per cent
on the gross rentals since they changed their white
tenants for colored ones. Still another gave the following
case of a front and rear tenement that had formerly
been occupied by tenants of a "low European type,"
who had been turned out on account of filthy habits
and poor pay. The negroes proved cleaner, better,
and steadier tenants. Instead, however, of having
their rents reduced in co nsequence, the comparison
stood as follows:
| Rents under White Tenants.
|| Rents under Colored Tenants.
| Per month.
|| Per month.
|| 1st floor (store, etc.)
|| 1st floor (store, etc.)
| 2d "
|| 2d "
| 3d "
|| 3d "
| 4th " (and rear)
|| 4th "
|| 2d "
|| 2d "
| 3d "
|| 3d "
| 4th " (see front)
|| 4th "
| Rear house
|| 1st "
|| Rear house
|| 1st "
| 2d "
|| 2d "
| 3d "
|| 3d "
| 4th "
|| 4th "
|An increased rental of $17 per month, or $204 a year,
and an advance of nearly thirteen and one-half per
cent. On the gross rental "in favor" of
the colored tenant. Profitable, surely!
I have quoted these cases at length in order to let
in light on the quality of this landlord despotism
that has purposely confused the public mind, and for
its own selfish ends is propping up a waning prejudice.
It will be cause for congratulation if indeed its
time has come at last. Within a year, I am told by
one of the most intelligent and best informed of our
colored citizens, there has been evidence, simultaneous
with the colored hegira from the low downtown tenements,
of a movement toward less exorbitant rents. I cannot
pass from this subject without adding a leaf from
my own experience that deserves a place in this record,
though, for the credit of humanity, I hope as an extreme
case. It was last Christmas that I had occasion to
visit the home of an old colored woman in Sixteenth
Street, as the almoner of generous friends out of
town who wished me to buy her a Christmas dinner.
The old woman lived in a wretched shanty, occupying
two mean, dilapidated rooms at the top of a so rt
of hen-ladder that went by the name of stairs. For
these she paid ten dollars a month out of her hard-earned
wages as a scrubwoman. I did not find her in and,
being informed that she was "at the agent's,"
went around to hunt her up. The agent's wife appeared,
to report that Ann was out. Being in a hurry it occurred
to me that I might save time by making her employer
the purveyor of my friend's bounty, and proposed to
entrust the money, two dollars, to her to be expended
for Old Ann's benefit. She fell in with the suggestion
at once, and confided to me in the fullness of her
heart that she liked the plan, inasmuch as "I
generally find her a Christmas dinner myself, and
this money--she owes Mr. --- (her husband, the agent)
a lot of rent." Needless to state that there
was a change of programme then and there, and that
Ann was saved from the sort of Christmas cheer that
woman's charity would have spread before her. When
I had the old soul comfortably installed in her own
den, with a chicken and "fixin's" a nd a
bright fire in her stove, I asked her how much she
owed of her rent. Her answer was that she did not
really owe anything, her month not being quite up,
but that the amount yet unpaid was--two dollars!
Poverty, abuse, and injustice alike the negro accepts
with imperturbable cheerfulness. His philosophy is
of the kind that has no room for repining. Whether
he lives in an Eighth Ward barrack or in a tenement
with a brown-stone front and pretensions to the title
of "flat," he looks at the sunny side of
life and enjoys it. He loves fine clothes and good
living a good deal more than he does a bank account.
The proverbial rainy day it would be rank ingratitude,
from his point of view, to look for when the sun shines
unclouded in a clear sky. His home surroundings, except
when he is utterly depraved, reflect his blithesome
temper. The poorest negro housekeeper's room in New
York is bright with gaily-colored prints of his beloved
"Abe Linkum," General Grant, President Garfield,
Mrs. Cleveland, and other national celebrities, and
cheery with flowers and singing birds. In the art
of putting the best foot foremost, of disguising his
poverty by making a little go a long way, our negro
has no equal. When a fair share of prosperity is his,
he knows how to make life and home very pleasant to
those about him. Pianos and parlor furniture abound
in the uptown homes of colored tenants and give them
a very prosperous air. But even where the wolf how
ls at the door, he makes a bold and gorgeous front.
The amount of "style" displayed on fine
Sundays on Sixth and Seventh Avenues by colored holiday-makers
would turn a pessimist black with wrath. The negro's
great ambition is to rise in the social scale t o
which his color has made him a stranger and an outsider,
and he is quite willing to accept the shadow for the
substance where that is the best he can get. The claw-hammer
coat and white tie of a waiter in a first-class summer
hotel, with the chance of t aking his ease in six
months of winter, are to him the next best thing to
mingling with the white quality he serves, on equal
terms. His festive gatherings, pre-eminently his cake-walks,
at which a sugared and frosted cake is the proud prize
of the couple with the most aristocratic step and
carriage, are comic mixtures of elaborate ceremonial
and the joyous abandon of the natural man. With all
his ludicrous incongruities, his sensuality and his
lack of moral accountability, his superstition and
other faul ts that are the effect of temperament and
of centuries of slavery, he has his eminently good
points. He is loyal to the backbone, proud of being
an American and of his new-found citizenship. He is
at least as easily moulded for good as for evil. His
churches are crowded to the doors on Sunday nights
when the colored colony turns out to worship. His
people own church property in this city upon which
they have paid half a million dollars out of the depth
of their poverty, with comparatively little assistanc
e from their white brethren. He is both willing and
anxious to learn, and his intellectual status is distinctly
improving. If his emotions are not very deeply rooted,
they are at least sincere while they last, and until
the tempter gets the upper hand aga in.
Of all the temptations that beset him, the one that
troubles him and the police most is his passion for
gambling. The game of policy is a kind of unlawful
penny lottery specially adapted to his means, but
patronized extensively by poor white players as well.
It is the meanest of swindles, but reaps for its backers
rich fortunes wherever colored people congregate.
Between the fortune-teller and the policy shop, closely
allied frauds always, the wages of many a hard day's
work are wa sted by the negro; but the loss causes
him few regrets. Penniless, but with undaunted faith
in his ultimate "luck," he looks forward
to the time when he shall once more be able to take
a hand at "beating policy." When periodically
the negro's lucky number s, 4-11-44, come out on the
slips of the alleged daily drawings, that are supposed
to be held insome far-off Western town, intense excitement
reigns in Thompson Street and along the Avenue, where
someone is always the winner. An immense impetus is
given t hen to the bogus business that has no existence
outside of the cigar stores and candy shops where
it hides from the law, save in some cunning Bowery
"broker's" back office, where the slips
are printed and the "winnings" apportioned
daily with due regard to the backer's interests.
It is a question whether "Africa" has been
improved by the advent of the Italian, with the tramp
from the Mulberry Street Bend in his train. The moral
turpitude of Thompson Street has been notorious for
years, and the mingling of the three elements does
Dot seem to have wrought any change for the better.
The border-land where the white and black races meet
in common debauch, the aptly-named black-and-tan saloon,
has never been debatable ground from a moral standpoint.
It has always been the worst of the desperately bad.
Than this commingling of the utterly depraved of both
sexes, white and black, on such ground, there can
be no greater abomination. Usually it is some foul
cellar dive, perhaps run by the political "leader"
of the district, who is "in with" the police.
In any event it gathers to itself all the lawbreakers
and all the human wrecks within reach. When a fight
breaks out during the dance a dozen razors are handy
in as many boot-legs, and there is always a job for
the s urgeon and the ambulance. The black "tough"
is as handy with the razor in a fight as his peaceably
inclined brother is with it in pursuit of his honest
trade. As the Chinaman hides his knife in his sleeve
and the Italian his stiletto in the bosom, so the
negro goes to the ball with a razor in his boot-leg,
and on occasion does as much execution with it as
both of the others together. More than three-fourths
of the business the police have with the col ored
people in New York arises in the black-and-tan district,
now no longer fairly representative of their color.
I have touched briefly upon such facts in the negro's
life as may serve to throw light on the social condition
of his people in New York. If, when the account is
made up between the races, it shall be claimed that
he falls short of the result to be expected from twenty-five
years of freedom, it may be well to turn to the other
side of the ledger and see how much of the blame is
borne by the prejudice and greed that have kept him
from rising under a burden of responsibility to which
he could hardly be equal.. And in this view he may
be seen to have advanced much farther and faster than
before suspected, and to promise, after all, with
fair treatment, quite as well as the rest of us, his
white-skinned fellow-citizens, had any right to expect.
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