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Black Business in the Gilded Age: Afro-American Realty Company

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Phillip A. Payton Jr., Afro-American Realty Company

Phillip A. Payton, Jr. (1867-1917) and his Afro-American Realty Company took advantage of the real estate “color line” in New York and helped to establish Harlem as a major cultural landmark in African-American history. Born the son of a tea merchant and barber in Westfield, Massachusetts, Payton moved to New York soon after graduating from Livingston College and took odd jobs such as department store attendant and barber, to support himself and wife, Maggie. While working as a janitor for a real estate company, Payton grew intrigued by the profession and decided to enter the business himself. He must have certainly felt the winds of change, because turn of the century New York was a destination for a significant number of black Southerners migrating to the better and higher paying jobs, and more tolerant racial climate of Northern cities. These migrants found a better clime than the South, but New York’s black citizens remained marginalized by the real estate industry, which confined them to dilapidated pockets of the city such as San Juan Hill or The Tenderloin, where they typically paid higher rents than their non-black neighbors.

Even more frustrating was the rejection of black tenants from renting or purchasing in the up-to-date neighborhoods being built in Upper Manhattan, including Harlem, which had transformed from a quiet, largely middle-class area to an extremely fashionable area for the well-to-do. Harlem of the 1890s was filled with brand-new, very modern townhouses and high-class apartments, and the real estate boom caused most to inflate the costs of these homes in hopes of turning over large profits. When the housing market collapsed in 1904, landlords were left with expensive buildings and no tenants willing to pay the high rents. However, the growing African-American community, which also included a growing wealthy middle-class, hungered for better housing, and Payton’s real estate company stepped in to fulfill this desire.

After many failures, which found Payton and his wife temporarily homeless, he then won his reputation when a wealthy white realtor conspired to eject black tenants from their homes on West 135th Street, with the object of filling the houses with white tenants and charging higher rents. Payton formed the Afro-American Realty Company to fight this tactic and other methods of pushing well-to-do blacks out of good neighborhoods, and he earned the admiration (and attention) not only of middle-class African-Americans, but of sympathetic white investors and real estate agents. Using his network of realtors and bankers, as well as influential African-Americans, Payton’s realty company began to acquire five-year leases of the Harlem homes (which landlords were eager to fill) and rented them to black tenants. By 1907, the company had obtained control of twenty new York apartment houses, valued at $690,000, and the capital stock of the company was $500,000, of which about $135,000 had been paid in. Payton used his platform to promote black-owned enterprises in New York and other cities, and organized a local black defense society to protest police brutality. He also drew together a group of black real estate agents and other businessmen, including John M. Royall, John E. Nail, and Henry C. Parker, all of whom had adapted Payton’s methods to advance black expansion in Harlem, even as his fortunes began to decline around 1908.

The Afro-American Realty Company’s success was shaken up by stockholders who doubted Payton’s high-risk speculations and his autocratic style of managing the company. In 1906, stockholders sued Payton on the grounds that he ran the company without any input from the board of directors, which made him responsible for any losses the company might accrue. Payton was also sued for fraud, since, while he claimed the company owned its properties, all were heavily mortgaged. The courts cleared Payton of any wrongdoing, but found the Afro-American Realty Company guilt of misrepresentation, and though it remained afloat for another two years, the bad press created by the lawsuit and Payton’s own speculations made obtaining credit increasingly difficult. The company failed in 1908, though other black realtors continued using Payton’s revolutionary methods of promotion and expansion. Payton formed Philip A. Payton Jr. Company that year and continued to keep his hand in the world of Harlem real estate, and in 1917, he made the biggest deal of his career when he purchased six apartment buildings valued at $1.5 million. Before he could even bask in the fruits of his labor, he died of illness in his summer home in Allenhurst, New Jersey that August.

Because of his role in opening Harlem up to African-Americans, Payton was christened the “Father of Colored Harlem.” Soon after his death, the legacy of the Afro-American Realty Company reached fruition, with the growth of Harlem into a “black mecca,” which reached its full glory during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. According to Ephemeral New York, Payton’s New York home, 13 West 131st Street, still stands.

Further Reading:
The Negro in Business by Booker T. Washington
Harlem Renaissance lives from the African American national biography by Henry Louis Gates

Black Business in the Gilded Age: C.R. Patterson Automobile Company

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Frederick Douglas PattersonBy the turn of the century, America was home to over 1,000 automobile manufacturers, including Ford, Cadillac, and General Motors. What automobile history does not record is the presence of an automobile manufacturer owned and run by an African-American family in Ohio. Charles Richard Patterson was born enslaved in 1833, and escaped nearly thirty years later to settle in Greenfield, Ohio.

It was in this town that Patterson worked as a blacksmith to a carriage maker, and within the following decade, he had married and fathered five children, and gone into partnership with J.P. Lowe, a white Greenfield-based carriage manufacturer. For the next twenty years, Patterson and Lowe developed a highly successful carriage-building business, and after buying out Lowe’s shares, Patterson incorporated the carriage business into C.R. Patterson & Sons Company to reflect his partnership with his younger son, Samuel C. Patterson.

By the 1890s, C.R. Patterson & Sons had become a very prosperous firm, which built 28 types of horse-drawn vehicles at $120 to $150 each, and employed approximately 10-15 employees. “C.R. Patterson’s doctor’s buggy was its most popular item and the firm’s vehicles were distributed throughout the South and the Midwest United States.”

1918 Patterson-Greenfield adEldest son Frederick Douglas Patterson became the first African-American to graduate from the local high school and upon entering Ohio State University, the first African-American to play on the college’s football team. He withdrew from OSU to teach in Kentucky, but news of his brother’s illness prompted his return to Ohio in 1897. After Samuel’s premature death in 1899, Frederick took a greater leadership role in the company, and by the time of his father’s death in 1910, Frederick surmised that the automobile would supersede the popularity of the carriage.

Some sources claim Patterson Automobile Company began manufacturing motorcars as early as 1902, but the first Patterson-Greenfield car rolled off the line in September 1915. According to advertisements, the vehicle was available as either a two-door touring car or a four-door roadster and featured a 30hp Continental 4-cylinder engine, a full floating rear axle, cantilever springs, electric starting and lighting and a split windshield for ventilation and cost $850.

Many contemporary accounts considered the Patterson car to be more sophisticated than the Ford Model T, but the small firm of C. R. Patterson could never have matched Ford’s manufacturing machine. Nonetheless, despite its small scale, the firm built an estimated 30 vehicles between 1915 and 1918, which were primarily sold to local and regional customers.

1923 Greenfield Bus adHowever, with the rapid transformation of the car from a rich man’s plaything to a mass-produced vehicle to be enjoyed even by the middle-classes, small automobile companies like Patterson-Greenfield felt the crunch of competition from the much larger corporations. Frederick responded by switching the company’s focus to the manufacture of truck, bus, and other utility vehicle bodies for General Motors, Ford, etc.

Reorganized as the Greenfield Bus Body Company in 1920, the subsequent decade killed any momentum to be had, and the death of Frederick D. Patterson in 1932 and the Great Depression delivered a fatal blow to the company before it finally closed in 1939. Unfortunately, there are no extant Patterson-Greenfield cars in existence (as of yet!), but enough material about the company and the family survives to keep their story alive and inspiring!

Resources Used:
First Black Autos by Henry May
The C. R. Patterson and Sons Company: Black Pioneers in the Vehicle Building Industry, 1865 -1939 by Christopher Nelson
Pictures and more information available at Coach Built

Black Business in the Gilded Age: Coleman Manufacturing Company

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Warren C. ColemanThe Gilded Age not only witnessed an unprecedented boom in technological advances and the businesses created by a rapidly globalizing economy, but the amazing growth of equally advanced professions within the African-American community. Whether it be the manufacture of hair products and beauty schools, the opening of colleges and universities, or the founding of a life insurance company, African-Americans defied commonly-held assumptions about their intelligence, work ethic, and ingenuity—particularly within less than fifty years after emancipation.

A definite stroke of shrewdness was the establishment of Coleman Manufacturing Company, which was formed in Concord, North Carolina in 1897 as the first and only cotton mill owned and operated entirely by blacks. Under slavery, blacks had been the primary source of labor for the cotton industry, but after the collapse of slavery and Reconstruction, and the sharp rise in immigration, cotton mills of the “New South” began to turn to cheap immigrant labor to the near exclusion of black hands. African-Americans continued to labor in cotton fields—mostly as sharecroppers—but the more lucrative positions in factories eluded their grasp, particularly when immigrants began to emulate the attitudes towards blacks held by their poor white co-workers and refused to work with and alongside black factory workers. With these barriers in mind, North Carolina businessman Warren C. Coleman exhorted with fellow black Southerners to support his plan to build a cotton mill owned, operated, and run strictly by blacks:

Coleman Mfg Board of Directors

Please allow me to call the attention of the public to the fact that a movement is on foot to erect a cotton mill at Concord to be operated by colored labor. The colored citizens of the United States have had no opportunity to utilize their talents along this line. Since North Carolina has fairly and justly won for herself in the Centennial at the World Fair at Chicago and at the Atlanta Exposition the honored name of being “the foremost of the States,” she will further evidence the fact if she is the first to have a cotton mill to be operated principally by the colored people. We are proud of the spirit and energy of the white people in encouraging and assisting the enterprise and will our colored people not catch the spark of the new industrial life and take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity to engage in the enterprise that will prove to the world our ability as operatives in the mills thereby solving the great problem “can the Negroes be employed in cotton mills to any advantage”? And now that the opportunity is before us, experience alone will determine the question and it behooves us to better ourselves and do something, and as one man . . . [make] the effort that is to win for us a name and place us before the world as industrious and enterprising citizens…

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