The Middle Class Revolutionaries of Edgecombe Avenue: Presentation at "When Sugar Hill Was Sweet" Conference
It is an honor to be on this panel with such distinguished scholars and public intellectuals. We are here to celebrate a great history that is threatened by gentrification and unchecked development. Neighborhoods which have a powerful role in transforming the history of our city and our nation are being changed with breakneck speed according to the vagaries of the global market place, bringing in people who don’t know about, or care much about the people who have lived there or their struggles for equal rights, citizenship, and respectful treatment. So hats off to Karen Taylor and all of those trying to insure the history of Sugar Hill is preserved and honored in film and scholarship and historical landmarks. We at the Bronx African American History Project are trying to do the same thing in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, that borough’s most important historically African American community, before the forces of development reach it with the same speed as they have transformed, and some say, undermined communities in Harlem
On this panel we will be discussing the powerful legacy of political activism in two great apartment buildings which housed so many people of African descent who achieved distinction in politics, law and the arts. That legacy, as we will see in my presentation, and I suspect in the others on the panel, was truly extraordinary. But it was by no means inevitable. The people who were living at 409 and 555 had the option of insulating themselves from the day to day struggles of the poorest Harlemites or addressing them from the distant perch of noblesse oblige. Some chose that path. But other chose to merge their fate with the Black working class and poor, and the working class of all nationalities, in ways that still challenge us today It is time to look at some of the individuals who tried to forge a Black politics that put the working class in the forefront, even while their own lives may have retained elements of comfort and security those they were fighting for found difficult to attain.
Before turning the three people I am highlighting, Louise Thompson, Marvel Cooke and Paul Robeson, I would like to venture into social geography. Unlike the row of Brownstones known as Strivers Row, 409 and 555 Edgecombe were relatively insulated from the extremes of poverty and hardship that could be found in Harlem, or the sites of protest and even violence during the political struggles of the Depression years. The most crowded block in Harlem, which was also the most crowded in the world 140-141st Street between 7th and 8th Avenue, was more than a half mile from the Edgecombe buildings. 125thStreet, where the Don’t Buy You Can’t Work movement was centered, and the Harlem Riot’s of 1935 and 1943 began, was nearly two miles away. There were no street orators on Edgecombe Avenue of the kind who were fixtures on 125th Street and Lenox avenue If you lived there, you did not have to see extreme poverty, hear the voices of nationalist and communist orators, observe large numbers of people being evicted from their buildings, watch marches and festivals and parades go past your door, or watch stores being looted and burned during riots. And though you shared the humiliation and discrimination and even threats of police and personal violence all African Americans faced whenever they were in public spaces, you had the option, once you were in your apartment, of blocking out the poverty and daily hardship that living in a racist society had imposed on most of New York’s Black population.
The three people who chose NOT to block that off, as a matter of political principle, had one thing in common. They were all members of, or had a powerful association with, the US Communist Party. The CPUSA carved out a powerful niche in the Black intelligentsia in the early Depression years by making the battle against white supremacy a central component of the struggle for economic justice, trying to expunge “white chauvinism” from every movement it had influence, taking on lynching and Jim Crow as central goals of its political organizing, and mobilizing its cadre to organize the poorest and most isolated sections of the Black population, sharecroppers, the unemployed, domestic servants and laborers, and people on the verge of eviction. It also took several controversial positions that posed a With A Brooklyn Accent: The Middle Class Revolutionaries of Edgecombe Avenue: Presentation at "When Sugar Hill Was Sweet" Conference: