David Levering Lewis

On Harlem In The 50s:
Harlem was an exciting place in the 50s. There were nightclubs that, as a student of Columbia, you dashed off to. The community seemed very viable still. My own experience is -- one evening I spent with Daddy Grace debating the existence of God. It was a wonderful evening there on the top of his heaven, I think it was called, in high Harlem, and he was kind enough to indulge this idiot student from Columbia in this debate. But I say that to say that you really had a smorgasbord of experiences available.

On How Harlem Became A Place For African Americans:
Until 1890, if memory serves me right, the African-American population of the city was always under two percent, probably more like 1.2 percent, and in Harlem there was no presence at all in the 1890s. Harlem was the main chance for the east end of New York, for eastsiders, as that real estate boom that took place in the 1890s -- and it was a preposterous one where people bought and sold, and everything appreciated with each sale -- and eventually of course the house of cards would crumble. But it brought out of the east end of New York many, many, hundreds, and hundreds of Jewish families who had been in the pressure cooker part of the city. Harlem was a development, a developer's dream and a place where residents had more space and more amenities than ever before. The subway reached 145th street about 1904 and it seemed that Harlem's destiny was to become largely a preserve of successful ethnics relocating and arriving. Then overnight the bust took place and the over-built stock of housing became available to African Americans by landlords desperate to recoup their investment. So by 1910, the phenomenon that seems one would have thought was always aborning, accelerates with the immigration of tens of thousands of African Americans. Harlem became for African Americans everywhere the chrysalis of the new Negro, of new opportunity. And so very shortly afterwards, of course, comes what is called the "Great Migration" tied up with the war and the turning off of the spigot of European migration for a time, and the recruitment of African Americans in the South by the large industries and railroad combines to relocate into Detroit, and Cincinnati, and Philadelphia, and New York. So, though one doesn't know by what magnitude the population really increased, you see estimates ranging from 200,000 African Americans pouring into mostly Harlem from 1917 to about 1925.

On Comparing The African-American Experience To That Of Other Minorities:
To compare the African-American experience with the experience of the other ethnic Americans, I think compels you to say that the others all had much better luck. The African Americans' story is one that seems to be a repeated commitment to a scenario for success and failure. With each failure the blow is that much more traumatizing, until finally, one reaches a point where there is to some degree an internalization, skepticism, fatalism, and expectation that it isn't going to work. Certainly there are great exceptions to that, but that is one of the great dangers, it seems to me, that the African-American experience as compared to the experience of the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, in particular.

David Levering Lewis
Photo: Nick Romanenko
Lewis is the winner of nine major awards for his 1993 book W.E.B. DU BOIS: BIOGRAPHY OF A RACE (1995, Henry Holt & Company). He received his Ph.D. in modern European history from the London School of Economics and Political Science. His research and publications focus on African-American history, conceptions of race and racism, and the dynamics of European colonialism, especially in Africa. He is a professor at Rutgers University and is presently engaged in volume two of his biography of W.E.B. Du Bois.