Bio Explores Life of The Father of Black Harlem

We present Dr. Kevin McGruder, Vice President of Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of History at Antioch College. Dr. McGruder is the author of Philip Payton: The Father of Black Harlem, published by Columbia University Press in July 2021. The book follows the life of Philip A. Payton, Jr., who formed the Afro-American Realty Company in 1903 and branded Harlem as a place where African Americans could live and assembled investors to begin buying property in the then-predominately white neighborhoods. It is a follow-up to McGruder’s 2015 book, Race and Real Estate: Conflict and Cooperation in Harlem, 1890 to 1920, and stems from his long-held interest in community formation and urban history. 

Kevin earned a B.A. in Economics from Harvard University, an M.B.A. in Real Estate Finance from Columbia University, and a doctorate in U.S. History from the City University of New York. His interest includes community development, academic and research interests, African American and LGBTQ+ history. 

PrideIndex (PI): Good evening Dr. McGruder; how are you today?

Kevin McGruder (KM): I’m doing well. Good evening to you.

PI: It’s wonderful to have a conversation with you. I reached out to you some time to go; the timing wasn’t there. The timing is perfect now, so that’s a good thing.

KM: Definitely.

PI: First thing I will ask is about yourself. Can you tell me a little bit about your background and where you are right now?

KM: Sure. I was born in Toledo, Ohio, grew up there, went to public school, and then went to college at Harvard, graduated in 1979. I returned to Ohio, worked in nonprofit community development in Cleveland for three years. I then went to Columbia Business School, got an M.B.A. in Real Estate Finance, and graduated there in 1984. I stayed in New York; for 30 years, from 1982 until 2012. I left to take a job at Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio, teaching history. During that time, my work in New York was in housing development, both on the foundation side and then at the neighborhood level in Harlem, with the Abyssinian Development Corporation. In the mid-90s, I became increasingly active with Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD). In 1997, I became the Executive Director of GMAD until 2001. It was a time of tremendous growth because significant amounts of HIV prevention money were coming from the CDC, state, and city for community-based organizations. I decided to get my doctorate at City University of New York. after leaving GMAD. After graduating from CUNY, in 2010, I was a scholar in residence at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture for a year and then got the position in Yellow Springs. 

PI: Was it always in the cards for you to teach? 

KM: My mother told me that I wanted to be a teacher ever since I was in the third grade. (Laughs) I don’t remember that. In the late 70s, while in college, I became interested in teaching. My father was an educator; he taught in Toledo Public Schools for over 30 years. He talked me out teaching in the public school system. My father explained that there were many options out there that were not available when he started teaching in the 50s when he began his career. I put that aside until I had an opportunity to teach as an Adjunct. This was when I was working at Abyssinian Development Corporation. And that was at Baruch College part of the City University of New York system. This would have been the early 90s when I started coming back to that idea, and it was another six years or so before I decided to apply to doctoral programs in History, and when I left GMAD, they were kind of two paths. I was thinking, you’re at this organization that’s grown a lot. What’s the next step? It could lead to a career with a national organization like the Human Rights Campaign or the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. I wasn’t excited about that. I could go and get a doctorate; I was in my 40s. By that time, if I didn’t do it, I wasn’t going to. At that point, it wasn’t a hard decision.

PI: Since you’re a historian and were into real estate, would you say you were destined to write a book on Philip Payton?

KM: I’m careful about the word “destined” because there are things, I thought I was “destined” to do that didn’t turn out the way I wanted, so I am a little more humble. The experience I described earlier positioned me to understand many things that helped me do this book. The knowledge of both Harlem’s real estate market and real estate records helped. Payton lived on 131st Street in Harlem, between Lennox and Fifth Avenue. I know that block very well because, in the late 80s and early 90s, the Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem was doing a lot of development on that block. I was on that block all the time. I knew Payton’s house and ended up meeting the black man who had purchased it. He knew the history of his house. All those things positioned me to do this book. I wanted to do my dissertation topic on it, but my advisor convinced me that if I wanted to get it done, that probably wasn’t the thing to do. And she was right. As I wrote Race and Real Estate, Conflict and Cooperation in Harlem 1890 to 1920, I found a lot of information about Payton that wasn’t appropriate to have in that book. So, I had a head start in doing this book {Philip Payton: The Father of Black Harlem} once I finished Race and Real Estate, Conflict and Cooperation in Harlem 1890 to 1920.

PI: How did you become interested in this particular topic?

KM: Payton’s name comes up in most Harlem histories. It’s usually a paragraph or two. However, there are no business records. He didn’t have children; his brother and sister didn’t have children, so there were no descendants to talk to. I really wanted to understand what he did and how he did it. Looking at the period covered by the Race and Real Estate book, which focuses on the time that he was living, that really gave me a better understanding of what was happening. So, when I came into this one, I could really focus on his role in that. And I was curious because when he created the Afro-American Realty company in 1904, he said he was going to eradicate racial segregation in housing, but he ended up reinforcing it. I wanted to understand why he didn’t stay true to his vision. And I think, in writing the book, I come up with a pretty thorough understanding of how he ended up doing something different.

PI: Because Payton did not have any descendants to reach out to, how did you fill in that void?

KM: Philip Payton raised his niece and nephew. They were the pre-teenage children of his wife’s sister Julia. Julia’s husband was still living, but for some reason, the children Duke and Bessie were sent to live with the Paytons. When Bessie got married, the wedding was held at Paytons’ apartment. I’ve been in touch with Bessie’s grandson. He lives outside of Philadelphia. He grew up with his grandmother, so he knew a lot about her, but he did not know much about Payton.

Payton and his wife were separated at the time of his death in 1917. Payton’s oldest sister, Susan, and her husband, William Wortham, managed the Philip A Payton Company. The Afro-American Realty Company, which Payton ran, lasted for about five years. The Philip A Payton Company continued into the 40s. I think there’s some chance that there may be records with the Wortham side of the family, but they didn’t have children either. Wortham is a common name in North Carolina. I wrote letters to many people with that name but never got a response. The grandson of Bessie was the only person I was able to talk to.

PI: Believe it or not, it isn’t that unusual for the lack of detailed records regarding African American historical figures. 

KM: You’re absolutely right. 

PI: The lives of some historical figures were widely written about, while others who played an important role were barely covered. 

KM: What made a book possible with Payton is that he was a master of the media. He used the newspapers to his advantage. He and his wife entertained a lot at their home. That information was often covered in the newspaper, including the food menus and guest list. He really understood the importance of presenting a prosperous image because he was selling the stock for his company. It was possible to see what he was doing by looking in the newspaper. His donation to a children’s charity was right there. He was well known in Harlem and made things happen. A few times, he was interviewed in the newspaper, allowing me to give him a voice. 

He was also good friends with Emmett Jay Scott, Booker T. Washington’s right-hand man. Booker T. Washington has extensive papers at the Library of Congress, so there are letters about Payton. They used carbon copies of letters written and retained copies of letters received, so I could see what Payton’s stationery looked like. Emmett Scott’s papers are at Morgan State, and there are some letters between him and Payton, so I could flesh out some things in that way.

PI: How did Mr. Payton come to be known as The Father of Black Harlem? Who gave him that title? 

KM: He died of liver cancer, and people didn’t know he was sick. It was a shot to Harlem. Although he had probably been ill for several months and hiding it. At Payton’s funeral, the pastor gives his eulogy; that’s what he calls him. I don’t know if people were calling Payton that during his life or not. He is called The Father of Black Harlem because he had the vision for Harlem as a place where Black people would live in large numbers, when it was a relatively new urban community. The brownstones were built in the 1880s and 1890s, so by 1903, they still were relatively new.

Most of the black communities in the Midtown area were run down. Blacks never had new housing, and his marketing of Harlem opened that up for black people. There have been black people in Harlem since the 1600s, but their numbers were small, and through Payton’s efforts, the number of blacks began to grow. There was increasing hostility from white residents, but some cooperated and worked with Payton. Black people would not have lived there if whites had not sold them homes or rented to them. That’s what I meant in the previous book about cooperation. I believe blacks could have eventually moved to Harlem anyway, but not as early as they did. If blacks hadn’t been there at that time, it could have delayed the Harlem Renaissance or been called something else. 

The Negro Renaissance of the 1920s was happening in Chicago, Detroit, Washington DC, and other cities. Maybe one of those places could have been identified with the renaissance name, but because you have this large black community in Harlem by the 1920s, that’s really the center of it. I would argue Payton had a lot to do with the Harlem Renaissance by the time of his death. There are plenty of black competitors, other black people in the real estate business, some bigger than him at his death. He was the first to do it visibly in terms of marketing Harlem for black people.

PI: Are there any markers of historical places named for Payton in Harlem?

KM: No, there aren’t any. Somebody recently asked me if his house was renovated. It was maybe about 10 years ago. It looks pretty much like it did when he lived there. It’s now, I think, three or four apartments. It’s a row house or townhouse. And somebody also mentioned that there should be a plaque on it. I’m not sure who owns it now, but there should be something. And that’s something that I think I should be looking into even as I’m talking to you.

PI: I know that you have in your possession the FIRE! Press. Do you have plans to write any other books on other historical figures? And so, when?

KM: Apart from the FIRE! Press, I’m working on beginning research on another biography. A Harlem Renaissance writer named Rudolph John Chauncey Fisher, born in 1897 and died in 1934. He grew up in Providence, RI, and went to Brown University and Howard Medical School. Fisher wrote two novels and about a dozen short stories; his works appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and McClure’s. He was pretty prolific of the Harlem Renaissance writers. Fisher was in the circle of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston; however, not as well-known today. I think it is because he died so young. He was a physician and writer. I interviewed his widow in the 1990s and recently reconnected with his granddaughter.  

FIRE! Press came to me through my friendship with Tom Wirth, who was friends with Richard Bruce Nugent. Fire! was the 1926 journal of the younger set of Harlem Renaissance writers, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Bruce Nugent and, Wallace Thurman. Tom met Richard Bruce Nugent, who was the last remaining of them in the 1980s. There was only one issue Fire! It was critically well-received. Nugent had an original copy of Fire! that he gave to Tom, a collector. Tom passed away in 2014. When Tom met Richard Bruce Nugent, he suggested that they publish a replica edition of that journal. Tom created Fire! Press to do that. I met Tom in the 1990s when I had a retail store on 125th street called Home to Harlem. I sold books and other items celebrating Harlem. We remained friends; he came to Antioch at one point to do a lecture for our literature class. He told me that he wanted me to carry on Fire! Press if he passed away before I did. I’ve been kind of in a caretaker role, but I’m beginning to think about growth. I’m also involved with Other Countries writer’s collective that got started in the 80s. It still has a writing workshop that meets the second Saturday of each month virtually. Other Countries published three anthologies, but they’re out of print now. I’m working through Fire! Press to get them back in print over the upcoming months. We’ll see what other project ideas come about through Fire! Press.

PI: What does the future hold for you? 

KM: I’ve got the Fisher Project. There are a couple other projects. I have an article that I have been rewriting for years about Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in their campaigns against homosexuals in Harlem. Powell Sr.’s campaign was in 1929. Powell Jr. wrote an Ebony Magazine article in 1951. I want to get that out and done and then get it into a journal. There are several projects that I’m working on related to where I am now; Yellow Springs has a rich African American history that’s different from other places because you have black ownership of property in the late 1800s. There was black leadership in the 1940s; although the town was maybe 30% black at its height, now it’s about 12% black. There’s a project I’m working on now looking at actually the development where I live, called Omar Circle. It was developed by a black man named Omar Robinson in the 50s and 60s. I really want to delve into the financing and what he did, how he did it, and what it was like for people who moved here at that time because some of them still live here. That could possibly lead to looking at other Black enclaves like this across the country.