Black History in real estate: Philip A. Payton, Jr., a.k.a. "the Father of Harlem"


By Marjorie Rogers


At the end of the nineteeth century, Black residents of New York City had limited housing options. Most landlords would only rent to white tenants, and landlords who rented to Black tenants offered cramped, cluttered, dilapidating housing with no ventilation and no indoor plumbing. As more Black southerners migrated to New York City at this time, these rows of unsafe, unsanitary housing became increasingly overpopulated. One account from the time recorded nearly 5,000 residents on one city block. 

Philip A. Payton, Jr., an ambitious young man and a native of Massachusetts, moved to New York City to establish a career. He worked as a janitor in a real estate office, eventually starting a real estate company in 1900 with a partner, which failed within a few months. Supported by the seamstress work of his wife, Maggie, the couple moved uptown to Harlem, where newly built homes along a newly built subway linehad a high vacancy rate. 

Payton, Jr. continued working in real estate, and convinced several white landlords in Harlem to turn their properties over to him. This gave him the ability to fill these buildings with Black renters. For the first time in New York City’s history, Black residents had access to decent housing through Payton, Jr.'s realty business. As Payton, Jr. increasingly steered Black New Yorkers away from the tenement housing in Midtown and into Harlem brownstones, the neighborhood’s demographics shifted from predominantly white to predominantly Black. In 1914, New York City-based magazine The Outlook reported that 75% of New York City’s Black residents lived in Harlem. During the 1920s and 1930s, Harlem entered the Harlem Renaissance, a period of cultural revitalization, as a result of Harlem’s growing, thriving Black population. 

Philip A. Payton, Jr. is commonly referred to as the “Father of Harlem.” His work in real estate shaped New York City and helped inspire an American art movement.


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