We kick off Black History Month with a nod to Philip A. Payton, Jr., a real estate visionary known as “the Father of Harlem.” Raised in Westfield, Massachusetts, Payton moved to New York City to make more of himself after an injury kept him from completing college. While he worked as a porter for a real estate company, he decided to go into real estate on his own. As more black southerners moved into the city, Payton was displeased by the tenements available to the black community. The racial divide meant that African-Americans had to pack into a handful of overcrowded neighborhoods with dilapidated buildings that lacked private restrooms and hot running water. Payton was determined to manage a tenement for colored people near the construction of the subway line in Harlem. Following a dispute, a landlord on West 134th Street agreed to rent to black people to get even with a neighboring landlord. As Payton filled the landlord’s tenement, the property values for nearby brownstones decreased and the vacancy rate increased as white people moved out of the neighborhood. Payton realized “the very prejudice that has heretofore worked against us can be turned and used to our profit” so he, along with other black investors, began purchasing real estate in Harlem to provide better housing for the community. When Payton started his real estate business in 1904, the streets of Harlem were predominantly white. By 1915, three quarters of New York’s black population lived in Harlem and it became the cultural capital of Black America in the 1920’s.
Payton demonstrated drive by continuing to pursue real estate after two failed business ventures and after all his friends continued to discourage his business ideas. His greatest success came through his third business venture when he purchased six apartment houses worth more than $1 million. He honored the black community by providing better housing options and educating other investors about using free enterprise to penalize bigotry. According to Milton Friedman, Payton believed that “the man who exercised discrimination pays a price for doing so” and he used his real estate purchases to make those discriminatory landlords forfeit income for their prejudices. Payton’s legacy inspired transformation as people’s lives were improved by his real estate power moves.