The New York real estate landscape may not have been what we know today without Philip A. Payton Jr. Known as “the real estate magnate who turned Harlem into a black mecca,” Payton provided African Americans in New York City the opportunity to live in quality housing in the northern Manhattan community of Harlem. The real estate broker, property manager and owner saw an opportunity to transform Harlem at the turn of the early twentieth century when the iconic Black neighborhood was predominantly white.
Born on February 27, 1876, in Westfield, Massachusetts, Payton, the eldest of four children, later moved to New York after dropping out of high school. He first worked as a barber, handyman and as a porter in a real estate office. While working there, he got the idea of going into the real estate business on his own. During this period, many Blacks fled racism in the South to the northern states in hopes of staying free of persecution and rebuilding their lives. However, they didn’t meet anything better. African Americans will come to live in poor conditions in Manhattan slums throughout Midtown as landlords were not willing to rent to Black people.
Amid these challenges, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company started building a subway station known as the IRT Line connecting the lower side of Manhattan to 145th Street in Harlem. Real estate developers soon began building apartment houses close to the IRT Line. Payton realized that there was an opportunity for his fellow African Americans in these developments. His first real estate business, the Brown and Payton Real Estate firm, had not been successful but he knew he would make it the second time with the construction of the new subway line.
Harlem had at this moment become a white neighborhood famed for its amazing brownstone row houses as more African Americans continued to move to New York seeking better opportunities. But Harlem had vacancy issues as African Americans were restricted from living there by racial discrimination. Payton was able to sway some White landlords to accept Blacks as tenants to fill these homes. His aim was to place people in areas near the emerging subway line, with easy access to the rest of the city.
Taking over the management of a 134th street building, Payton was able to start filling buildings in Harlem with Black tenants. Soon, others started contacting him and he came to have several buildings under his management. That led to the creation of the Afro-American Realty Company. His real estate business was incorporated in 1904 with authorization to issue 50,000 shares of stock at $10 per share. Author Gilbert Osofsky said the company stated that it would “buy, sell, rent, lease, and sub-lease, all kinds of buildings, houses … lots; and other … real estate in the city of New York….”
The CE Shop writes that Payton’s “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.” Despite achieving success for the African-American community, the CE Shop reports that Payton’s company over-promised on profits and was in the process sued when it did not issue dividends. “Many spurned stockholders won damages, essentially shutting down the company in 1908,” the outlet adds.
Payton went on to found the Philip A. Payton Jr. Company, and he continued to own and manage buildings in Harlem. But on August 29, 1917, a month after his biggest sale, the real estate broker, property manager and owner died at the age of 41. His sister’s husband continued to manage the Philip A. Payton Jr. Co. until the early 1940s.
Payton, who became known as the “father of Black Harlem”, may not have lived long, but his legacy in working to put an end to housing discrimination will never be forgotten. Actually, at the time of his death, African-American residents and businesses had occupied a substantial area of Harlem leading to the emergence of the Harlem Renaissance, the 20th-century movement that elevated Black culture and image.