Phillip A. Payton Paved the Way for Black Americans in Early-20th-Century Harlem
During the end of the Reconstruction Era, which was designed to unify the country, a dirty muddle of hate formed in the South fueled by the rise of White supremacist groups, Jim Crow laws, and disenfranchisement. Many Black Southerners fled to the northern states in hopes of avoiding persecution. Instead, they found squalor.
The Manhattan slums throughout Midtown were filled with African-Americans living wall-to-wall in abhorrent conditions. Landlords refused to rent to anyone but White people, leading to tens of thousands of Black Americans living only on a few blocks of real estate. An artificial city-wide housing shortage was creating an endemic for the Black people of New York.
As the problem was reaching its precipice, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company was simultaneously building the second-ever underground subway station known as the IRT Line. This modern-day wonder connected the lower side of Manhattan to 145th Street in Harlem, providing for nine miles of winding rails that connected the city from top to bottom. With this new accessibility, Phillip A. Payton Jr. saw an opportunity.
On February 27th, 1876, Phillip A. Payton was born in Westfield, Massachusetts to a hairdresser and barber. After dropping out of college, he joined his brothers learning this parents’ trade. His brothers later attended Yale, and his sister went to what would become Westfield State University. However, Payton did not see this path for himself and ended up leaving for New York to work as a barber and, later, a janitor for a real estate firm. It was there that he first got the idea to start his own real estate business.
Real Estate Activities
At the time, a social movement known as the “Harlem Renaissance” was in the preliminary stages of emerging in the NYC neighborhood. Although Payton was relatively unsuccessful with his first real estate business, the Brown and Payton Real Estate firm, he saw a fresh opportunity with the new subway line.
At the time, Harlem was a White neighborhood known for its safe streets, beautiful brownstones, and well-maintained rowhouses; it was a refuge from the police brutality occurring dozens of streets below. The area also had a vacancy issue. White landlords needed to fill these homes - and fast. That’s where Payton created a plan to steer Black Americans toward Harlem with the intention of placing people in areas near the emerging subway line. With more space and easy access to the rest of the city, it would eventually become the perfect solution.
Afro-American Realty Company
After struggling with his own poverty, Payton got his big break by taking over management of a 134th street building (historians are undecided on if this was his big break or if Payton was already flourishing as a building manager as early as 1900). Through this success, he was able to start filling buildings in Harlem with Black tenants. This led to the creation of the Afro-American Realty Company.
Founded on June 15th, 1904, Payton raised money for his real estate projects by issuing 50,000 shares at $10 each. He utilized his position as a Black man looking to help his community with blunt ads stating “...those of the race who are doing something towards trying to solve the so-called ‘Race Problem.’” His timing could not have been better thanks to the arrival of the new subway system. The company managed and even took ownership of two dozen buildings and used them to house desperate Black New Yorkers and immigrants from the rural South and Caribbean. While his enterprise saw great success for the Black community, the company over-promised on profits and was subsequently sued when they didn’t issue dividends. Many spurned stockholders won damages, essentially shutting down the company in 1908.
Phillip A. Payton Jr. Company
Failure never stopped Payton from growing the Black community in Harlem. After the Afro-American Realty Company dissolved, he went on to found the Phillip A. Payton Jr. Company and further expanded throughout Harlem and even into some parts of Long Island. In 1917, he closed his largest sale of six apartment houses to the tune of $1.5 million (approximately $30.6 million in 2021). The neighborhood he developed renamed buildings to honor prominent Black Americans in history like Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. This rebranding of the area helped to further solidify the Black community’s place in Harlem.
A month after his biggest sale, Phillip A. Payton died from liver cancer at the age of 41. After his death, John E. Nail and Henry C. Parker kept his dream alive by co-managing the Phillip A. Payton Company and, through their own projects, took on the titles of “little fathers” of Harlem.
While his life was cut short, Payton’s legacy still lives on to this day. His entrepreneurial spirit allowed Black Americans and immigrants to find suitable homes so they too could pursue their American Dream. Without him, the New York real estate landscape would be much different than the one we know and love today.
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