Cora and her husband, Edwin, had lived on Chauncey Street since 1896. That year they joined a northward migration of approximately forty thousand blacks who fled the growing horrors of southern life. Post-Civil War Reconstruction had collapsed, toppled by white supremacists. Negroes had lost most of the rights they'd gained, and segregation was flaring. Hundreds of lynchings had occurred—each a symbolic warning of what might happen to Negroes who stepped out of line, or even to those who didn't. In contrast, the northern cities—New York, Chicago, Detroit—seemed like oases of safety and opportunity.

A small percentage of the newly settled black families were considered special. This was the "black bourgeoisie," a prosperous middle class of teachers, doctors, businessmen, and others of education and grooming. They or their elders had descended from "favored slaves"—privileged blacks who, by virtue of their brains or their sexual allure to their masters, had worked in the house, not in the field. During the decade-long heyday of Reconstruction, they'd used their cachet to start businesses and gain social standing. Now, in the North, they were helping pave the way for a new Negro image—one that challenged every cliché of black women as household help, black men as shiftless loafers. The Negro aristocracy tended to shun anyone who embodied a past they wanted to bury. "Uppity" became a popular word to describe ambitious blacks.

Respectability was their gospel, and they upheld it at all costs. Actress Jane White, whose father, Walter White, became the executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1931, recalled the code of behavior dictated by the black bourgeoisie. "You didn't laugh too loud," she said. "You didn't go out in messy clothes, you were always polished and ironed; you learned how to speak well, and with a modulated voice. It was a tight cage you were in."

The Whites lived at 409 Edgecombe Avenue, the most prestigious address in Harlem. At fourteen stories, it towered above the rest of Sugar Hill, a gold-ring neighborhood for the Negro elite. Residents through the years included NAACP cofounder and preeminent activist W.E.B. Du Bois; Jimmie Lunceford, one of Harlem's star bandleaders; and Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who worked for the NAACP before becoming the Supreme Court's first black justice. In the 1940s, Marshall often dropped by the White apartment for poker nights. "There would be hootin' and hollerin' and drinkin'," said Jane, "and they would let their hair down, and Thurgood talked one way amongst them. When he argued in court he talked another way. One may laugh, but it's rather sad." In public, she said, "you couldn't be what you were."

Many in the black bourgeoisie wound up emulating the values and even the looks of middle-class whites. From the 1920s through the 1960s, magazines for black readers advertised lye-based skin-lightening creams and hair-straightening treatments. "'Lighter is brighter'—that was an actual expression then," said Gene Davis, who produced dozens of black cultural documentaries before his death in 2007. "The social structure in the black community until recently was based on how light you were. And the lighter you were, the more acceptable you were." The notion that "black is beautiful" did not appear until the civil rights movement, when African roots were flaunted, not hidden, and the Negro slave ancestry celebrated for its strength.


Next Story