New York Values #29 - Confederate Flags

I spent this week in my hometown, and while I love many things about it, I’m also saddened by how backwards it sometimes feels. The area where I’m from has a complicated history due to its changing hands 72 times during the Civil War. Confederate flags have always flown proudly on people’s driveways and huge decals plaster the back windows of many pickups (can you guys see through those?). Plenty of people who live there are against this, but those who aren’t feel comfortable showcasing their “pride” using these symbols because they can claim it’s tied to their/the area’s history (but only part of its history because IT KEPT CHANGING HANDS; my family has been there longer and none of us fly it; Robert E. Lee was against flying the flag after the war; shut. up.).

Obviously I have problems with seeing so many of these flags in VA. Far weirder, however, is how many I see in places North of the Mason-Dixon line. People have this idea that the South is super backwards and racist, but in our current climate it’s more rural versus urban than North versus South. A lot of Southern states happen to have more land mass with fewer major cities, but their large cities are generally liberal. I’m in no way denying there are parts of the deep South where racism is more ferocious than in, say, rural Maine, but Maine DOES have a truly terrible Republican Senator named Susan Collins, so let’s not act all high and mighty here. 

But I digress…

I’ve seen Confederate flags upstate. I’ve seen them in every state I drive through to get home: Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia (despite the fact that ALL of these were in the Union). But I have never, ever seen a Confederate flag anywhere in NYC. In six years, I’ve seen all kinds of flags and signs posted in people’s windows, but never that one. I know there must be some around; it actually became AP news in 2017 when a LES resident decided to fly one from his apartment window. But if you don’t want a protest outside your residence, you just don’t do it. Because you know what it stands for and what you’re doing, and will be called out on it in a way you won’t outside of the city. 

NYC isn’t perfect. There is certainly racial tension, perceived or otherwise, between black and Latin communities and the police. There is gang violence, some along racial lines. Gentrification is a major issue, predominantly pushing people of color out of neighborhoods as more affluent whites move in. But as small a thing as a lack of this flag may seem, it’s big to me. It IS a symbol of hate, treason, and failure (guys, they lost), and no one, especially no one with African American ancestry, should be forced to see it flown proudly in their daily life. 

Since, let’s not kid ourselves, this flag is used today as a symbol of white supremacy (come at me with that states’ rights bullshit), I decided to look up the specifics of when black New Yorkers were able to vote, when slavery was abolished here, and the history of black property ownership. This led to my discovery of Philip A. Payton, Jr, “father of Harlem,” and the Afro-American Realty Company, the city’s first brokerage committed to securing housing for its black residents, who were often rejected by white landlords/owners for the color of their skin (ohh, life before equal housing laws).

Technically, slavery was abolished in New York in 1827, and NYC became one of the biggest pre-Civil War concentrations of free blacks. But whiteys gonna white, and they used language in the 1777 constitution to restrict voting to those who owned a certain amount of property. Naturally, because of institutionalized barriers to land ownership for free black men, and the illegality of owning property as a slave, far more white men qualified under these conditions. (And, lest we forget, no women of any race were allowed to vote.) Non-white men did not get their equal voting rights until 1870 due to the Fifteenth Amendment (see how the North isn’t reaaaaaalllllllyyyyy so different and everyone is awful and racist?). 

During this same period, extreme violence in the Jim Crow-era South led to a mass migration North. By 1900, NYC had become a major destination for those persecuted in the Southern states. Philip A. Payton, Jr., who had moved from MA to NYC to seek his fortune, was working in a real estate office as a janitor. He must have been crazy, like me, because he saw the way the business worked and thought “Yeah, that’s what I want to do.” Unfortunately, his first firm, Brown and Payton, founded in 1900, was unsuccessful, and his business partner jumped ship in 1901. He kept going despite losing both a cat and a dog to hunger (actually) and being evicted with his wife from an apartment when they couldn’t make rent. But he kept plugging along, and eventually started to earn thousands of dollars a month. Although accounts vary, this big break seems to be due to his working for tenement landlords, filling their buildings (mostly with black tenants) and earning their trust. 

By 1904 he was a wealthy man, and with 8 other affluent black businessmen he founded the Afro-American Realty Company. Their first order of business was to buy up two tenement buildings in Harlem, evict the white residents, and replace them with the black residents who had just been evicted from the neighboring white-owned tenements. Eventually the three tenement buildings that had evicted said black tenants were also purchased by the AARC, and this whole incident brought more clout and notoriety to his company, which soon grew to have a rent roll of $120,000/yr and was valued at over a million dollars.

In 1908, after a lawsuit shuttered that business, Payton continued to buy and manage Harlem real estate for black tenants, founding the Philip A. Payton Company. In 1917 he completed his biggest sales transaction, purchasing six apartments for black New Yorkers in an area that, two decades before, had been entirely white. He died later that year from liver cancer, but the company survived him until 1922, and his legacy turning Harlem into a major hub of African American culture exists to this day.

See? I managed to turn this into something interesting and relevant to NYC real estate AND bitch about racism AND defend the American South. Hope you enjoy it half as much as I enjoyed writing it!