Constrained but not contained: Patterns of everyday life and the limits of segregation in 1920s Harlem

Stephen Robertson’s article, “Constrained but not contained: Patterns of everyday life and the limits of segregation in 1920s Harlem,” has appeared in The Ghetto in Global History: 1500 to the Present, edited by Wendy Z. Goldman and Joe William Trotter, Jr. (Routledge, 2017). The article is based on the presentation he gave to the Sawyer Seminar at Carnegie Mellon University in April 2015.

For a copy of the “accepted manuscript,” the final version of the article before copy-editing and production, click here.

ABSTRACT

In 1966, in the first major historical study of twentieth-century Harlem, Gilbert Osofsky told the story of the neighborhood in the 1920s as the making of a ghetto.  What he described was the emergence of a large, segregated community, and the transformation of the area it occupied into a slum from which black residents could not escape. The demographic evidence of segregated housing is clear, but offers at best only a partial picture of the nature of the neighborhood.  To determine if a neighborhood is a place apart also requires evidence of where residents went when they left their homes and who spent time in the neighborhood. Using the digital mapping tools offered by Digital Harlem as a means of combining fragmentary evidence from a wide range of sources and visualizing the spatial dimensions of everyday life, this chapter reveals patterns of everyday life that show the permeability of black Harlem’s borders in the 1920s. Residents left to work and play, and whites entered to work and visit a range of institutions and patronize various forms of commercialized leisure. Residents experienced white economic and government power and violence in their daily lives, even as they created a range of places and institutions apart from whites. If not contained, black life in 1920s Harlem was constrained, neither entirely separate from whites nor free of their authority. As a result, Harlem in the 1920s was too racially variegated and contested a place to be labeled a ghetto.

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