You know Jay-Z and Biggie, Cardi and Nicki, Chris Rock and Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson and Al Sharpton, but can you recall any of the following influential black New Yorkers?
ELIZABETH JENNINGS GRAHAM
Elizabeth Jennings Graham was the OG Rosa Parks of the mid-1800s. Before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama, Jennings Graham refused to exit a Manhattan streetcar whose driver deemed that she and her friend weren’t respectable enough to be his passengers. The conductor and a police officer dragged Jennings Graham out of the streetcar, but little did they know that they were messing with a black women with connections. New York’s powerful nineteenth-century black middle class community took on Jennings Graham’s cause, supporting her as she sued the 3rd Avenue Railroad Company. The court ruled in favor of Jennings Graham in 1854, declaring that black people—as long as they were “sober, well behaved, and free from disease”— had to be allowed on the streetcars. Jennings Graham’s accomplishments don’t end there: she also went on to start the first kindergarten for black children.
PHILIP A. PAYTON, JR.
Ever wondered how Harlem became the “capital of black America”? Philip A. Payton, Jr., aka “The Father of Harlem,” has a lot to do with it. At the turn of the twentieth century, Harlem was a small Jewish and Italian neighborhood that was about to get its first subway line. In anticipation of this transit connection, real estate developers started building like crazy, speculating that (white) people would move in droves to the upper Manhattan neighborhood. To their bewilderment, most of the nice, new brownstones and apartments they built sat empty, as did their wallets. Enter Payton, who saw the developers’ miscalculation as a business opportunity for himself and a chance for better housing options to open up to black New Yorkers. Payton made deals with the developers to let him manage the vacant buildings and also bought a few buildings himself and began renting them to black folk eager for quality housing. Despite resistance from white property owners, more and more black people started moving on up into Harlem, and by the 1920s the neighborhood was known as “black mecca.”
Out all the names on this list, you’re likely to be most familiar with Shirley Chisholm’s. But I’ll be the first to admit, even though her name was familiar to me (because it’s on government buildings and a state park and numerous murals, etc.), I still was fuzzy on the details of her accomplishments. It turns out, Shirley Chisholm was a boss. She went from being a nursery school teacher to being the first black Congresswoman in the House of Representatives to then becoming the first woman and black person to run for president. Although her presidential campaign didn’t get far, it doesn’t detract from Chisholm’s lifetime of working for the advancement of women and people of color. Her campaign slogan (and title of her autobiography), “Unbought and Unbossed” is something all politicians should live by.
On the third Monday of every January, as you remember Dr. King’s impact on the Civil Rights Movement, give some gratitude to Howard Bennett, the Harlem community leader who worked to make this holiday possible. Immediately following King’s funeral in 1968, Bennett and other organizers decided that King needed to be honored with a national holiday. Within two years, Bennett’s National Citizens Committee for a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday had gathered six million signatures from people who also supported the idea. But because of intense opposition, it took thirteen more years before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day became a reality in 1983. Unfortunately, Bennett, having passed away in 1981, wasn’t around to see his work pay off, but there is a playground on West 136th Street in Harlem that bears his name.
GRANVILLE T. WOODS
Granville T. Woods was an invention-making machine. Over the course of his relatively short life, he patented more than 60 inventions, with most of them geared towards creating safer, more efficient transportation. It’s unsurprising that the man nicknamed “Black Edison” would eventually gain the attention of Thomas Edison, although their encounters were not always pleasant. Edison made claims that he was entitled to Woods’ patent for the “multiplex telegraph” since he had once made a similar device; however, Woods proved twice his independence in the creation of this invention. Finally recognizing Woods’ brilliance, Edison later offered him a job at the Edison Company, but Woods turned him down, preferring to work with Woods Electric Co., the company he started with his brother.
LILLIAN HARRIS DEAN (PIG FOOT MARY)
These days, if you want iconic Harlem food, you head over to Sylvia’s, but in the early twentieth century the go-to spot in Harlem was Pig Foot Mary’s food cart on the corner of West 135th Street. Pig Foot Mary, whose real name was Lillian Dean Harris, sold Southern comfort food such as pigs feet, hog maws, and chitlins to the thousands of black people who, like her, had migrated from the South to NYC. Her food became so renowned that her clientele expanded beyond Southern migrants to anyone who was curious to see what all the fuss was over. It’s not just the tasty food that has made Pig Foot Mary a legend: she was a remarkable businesswoman who turned her initial five dollar investment into $375,000 by the time she died in 1929. In today’s dollars, that would be 154 and 5.5 million dollars, respectively. The kicker? Mary was illiterate. As Regina Abraham, the author of “Pig Foot Mary: The Saga of Lillian Harris” told the New York Times, “She couldn’t read or write, but she could sure count her money.”
How many of these influential black New Yorkers did you already know of? Who else would you want to add to this list? Let me know in the comment section.
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