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Sun, 02.27.1876

Phillip Payton Jr., Harlem Realtor born

Phillip Payton Jr.

*Philip A. Payton Jr. was born on this date in 1876.  He was a Black real estate entrepreneur. 

Philip A. Payton Jr. was born in Westfield, Massachusetts. He was the second of four children, one girl, and three boys. His father was a barber, and his mother a hairdresser. His father insisted that the children learn a trade and trained him in the family profession twice a week after school. Payton claimed to be a full-fledged barber by the age of fifteen.  Dr. Joseph Charles Price, the founder of Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina, was Payton's father's friend, and Payton attended the institution and graduated from the institute in 1899.

The effects of an injury persisted for most of the following year. His siblings each had a more complete education. His sister graduated from the state normal school (later Westfield State College), and his brothers attended Yale University. Payton worked in the family barbershop until April 1899, when he left for New York City against the wishes of both parents. There, he worked as a department store picture and weighing machine attendant at $6 per week, a barber at $5–6 per week, and finally, as a porter in a real estate office at $8 per week. While working as a porter, he thought of going into the real estate business independently.  

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Blacks were migrating up north from the American South due to disenfranchisement and the Jim Crow laws. White supremacists formed hate groups and cast crimes against many Black families during that time. Also, these were still times when blacks worked as low-paid sharecroppers. All these factored into the mass Northward movement of Blacks during this time. Many of those chose to move into the New York City neighborhood of Harlem, which resulted in the social movement known as the Harlem Renaissance.  

Payton first got into the real-estate business as a janitor, but after seeing how the business operated, he decided he wanted to create his firm. Payton and a partner opened the Brown and Payton real estate firm in October 1900. In June 1901, Payton was married. The business was unsuccessful, and Brown left in the spring of 1901. Payton continued the business alone while his wife sewed to support them.  At the low point, in April and May 1901, the Paytons were evicted from an apartment house he had been managing for being unable to pay their rent. Soon after this, though, business improved.

Payton took charge of more houses and began to deal in real estate for himself and others until he made thousands of dollars per month.  “I knew that if I made one good sale, I could make enough to keep me going for a year. I came so near making a good sale so many times that I knew I was bound to hit it before long”— Philip A. Payton Jr., quoted in The Negro in Business Sources differ on what Payton's first break was. Several cite an interview in 1911 or 1912 with the New York Age in which Payton recalled:  “I was a real estate agent, making a specialty in management of colored tenement property for nearly a year before I succeeded in getting a colored tenement to manage. My first opportunity came from a dispute between two landlords on West 134th Street. To 'get even one of them turned his house over to me to fill with colored tenants. I was successful in renting and managing this house; after a time, I was able to induce other landlords to ... give me their houses to manage.” The New York Times states that by 1900, Payton was already managing several buildings housing Blacks.  Yet other sources write that Payton's first success came when he approached the manager of an apartment house on West 133rd Street, which tenants were fleeing because a murder had been committed there, and persuaded him to have the chance to fill it with Black families. 

On June 15, 1904, with the help of other affluent Blacks, Payton chartered the Afro-American Realty Company, issuing 50,000 shares at $10 each. Payton's business partner was a mortician named James C. Thomas. Along with Thomas, Payton formed the Afro-American Real Estate Company. He appealed to black investors specifically, both to their social justice and profit motives, with an ad stating: "Today is the time to buy if you want to be numbered among those of the race who are doing something toward trying to solve the so-called 'Race Problem.'" His prospectus claimed: "The very prejudice that has heretofore worked against us can be turned and used to our profit."  In 1905, the Hudson Realty Company, a white-owned real estate company, bought a tract of land on West 135th Street near Lenox Avenue, in the heart of Harlem, for residential development. To make the development property more attractive to prospective builders, it also bought three neighboring tenement buildings from Afro-American Realty, evicted their black tenants, and replaced them with white tenants. Hudson's builders agreed only to rent their properties to whites. In response, the Afro-American Realty Company bought two adjacent apartment houses, evicted their white tenants, and moved in the blacks evicted by Hudson. Eventually, Hudson sold the original three buildings back to the Afro-American at a large loss.

The incident augmented Payton's reputation and drew investors to his company. The New York Times called the moves by Hudson and Afro-American Realty a "Real Estate Race War."  The Afro-American Realty Company bought and leased property in Harlem neighborhoods that had never until then been "invaded" by black tenants, occasioning near panic among neighboring owners.  In July 1906, the New York Herald wrote:  “An untoward circumstance has been injected into the private dwelling market in the vicinity of 133rd and 134th Streets. During the last three years, the flats in 134th between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, which were occupied entirely by white folks, have been captured for occupation by a Negro population. Its presence has also lent many colors to conditions on 133rd and 135th Streets between Lenox and Seventh Avenues.  One Hundred and Thirty-third Street still shows some signs of resistance to the blending of colors in that street, but between Lenox and Seventh, Avenues has practically succumbed to the ingress of colored tenants. Nearly all the old dwellings on 134th Street to midway in the block west from Seventh Avenue are occupied by colored tenants, and real estate brokers predict that it is only a matter of time before the entire block to Eighth Avenue will be a stronghold of the Negro population.” — "Negroes Move into Harlem," New York Herald, December 24, 1905.  White residents were outraged; one sign advertising for colored tenants for a formerly white building was burned to local praise.  

The Afro-American Realty Company grew to $1 million in assets with annual rent receipts of $114,000.  It was not as successful as some stockholders had anticipated, though. In October 1906, 35 brought a lawsuit, charging that the prospectus was fraudulent and overstated the company holdings when it was issued.  Payton was arrested on civil fraud charges in January 1907, and the courts ruled in favor of the plaintiffs for investments, damages, and legal costs, later that year. The company issued its first and only dividend in June 1907 but never recovered from the negative publicity effects of the lawsuit and the depression of 1907, stopping operations in 1908. Payton continued to buy and manage Harlem real estate for Black tenants, founding the Philip A. Payton Jr. Company, known for its PAP logo.  He even ventured outside the city to Long Island.  John E. Nail and Henry G. Parker, former directors of the Afro-American Realty Company, founded their own company, Nail & Parker Real Estate, in 1907; it eventually became one of the most successful in New York.  

By 1914, The Outlook wrote that three-quarters of the black population of New York City, including all Blacks of prominence, lived in Harlem; it called Payton "the father of his Negro community." The success of Payton's enterprise could be seen in the neighborhood of 13 West 131st Street, the house he had bought for himself and his wife Maggie in 1903. The street was white in 1900; by the 1915 New York State census, the block was almost completely populated by Blacks.  Payton closed his largest deal in July 1917, selling six apartment houses for about $1.5 million, the largest sale of housing for Blacks to that time. The buildings were renamed after prominent Blacks in the Americas: Crispus Attucks, Toussaint L'Ouverture, Phyllis Wheatley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Frederick Douglass, and Booker T. Washington. The Black population in Harlem had reached 50,000 or even 70,000. 

Phillip Payton known as the "Father of Harlem," died of liver cancer a month later, on August 1917, at his country house in Allenhurst, New Jersey; he was 41. His younger brother Edward S. Payton, who had served as vice-president of Afro-American Realty, had passed even earlier, in 1912, at 30.  The Philip A. Payton Jr. Company survived after him, managing numerous African American apartments until 1922. The Philip A. Payton Jr Company was co-managed by John E. Nail and Henry C. Parker, who became known as the "little fathers" of Negro Harlem. They worked to fulfill Payton’s dream of making this Harlem neighborhood a political and cultural capital for African Americans in the area.  

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