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Prohibition: A Case Study of Progressive Reform
Harlem Rent Parties

The following excerpt is from a document written by WPA writer Frank Boyd. The source is from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. To what does Boyd attribute the origins of the so-called "rent parties"? Why did the rent parties die out?

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The history of the Harlem house-rent party dates back as far as the World War. To understand what gave such an impetus and community wide significance to this institution, it is necessary to get a picture of living conditions as they were in Harlem at that time.

During the early nineteen twenties it is estimated that more than 200,000 Negroes migrated to Harlem: West Indians, Africans and American Negroes from the cotton fields and cane brakes of the Deep South. They were all segregated in a small section of Manhattan about fifty blocks long and seven or eight blocks wide; an area teeming with life and activity. Housing experts have estimated that, sometimes, as many as five to seven thousand people have been known to live in a single block.

Needless to say, living conditions under such circumstances were anything but wholesome and pleasant. It was a typical slum and tenement area little different from many others in New York except for the fact that in Harlem rents were higher; always fact, since the great war-time migratory influx of colored labor. Despite these exhorbitant rents, apartments and furnished rooms, however dingy; were in great demand. Harlem property owners, for the most part Jews, began to live in comparative ease on the fantastic profits yielded by their antiquated dwellings. Before Negroes inhabited them, they could be let for virtually a song. Afterwards, however, they brought handsome incomes. The tenants, by hook or crook, managed to barely scrape together the rents. In turn they stuck their roomers for enough profit to yield themselves a meagre living.

A four or five room apartment was (and still is) often crowded to capacity with roomers. In many instances, two entire families occupy space intended for only one. When bedtime comes, there is the feverish activity of moving furniture about, making down cots or preparing floor-space as sleeping quarters. The same practice of overcrowding is followed by owners or lesees of private houses. Large rooms are converted into two or three small ones by the simple process of stragetically placing beaverboard partitions. These same cubby holes are rented at the price of full sized rooms. In many houses, dining and living rooms are transformed into bed rooms soon after, if not before, midnight. Even "shift-sleeping" is not unknown in many places. During the night, a day-worker uses the room and soon after dawn a night-worker moves in. Seldom does the bed have an opportunity to get cold. . . .

Negroes constitute the bulk of the Harlem population, however, and have (as was aforementioned) since the War. At that time, there was a great demand for cheap industrial labor. Strongbacked, physically capable Negroes from the South were the answer to this demand. They came North in droves, beginning what turned out to be the greatest migration of Negroes in the history of the United States. The good news about jobs spread like wildfire throughout the Southlands. There was money, good money, to be made in the North, especially New York. New York; the wonder, the magic city. The name alone implied glamour and adventure. It was a picture to definitely catch the fancy of restless, over-worked sharecroppers and farmhands. And so, it was on to New York, the mecca of the New Negro, the modern Promised Land. . . .

With the sudden influx of so many Negroes, who apparently instinctively headed for Harlem, property that had been a white elephant on the hands of many landlors immediately took an upward swing. The majority of landlords were delighted but those white property owners who made their homes in Harlem were panic-stricken. At first, there were only rumblings of protest against this unwanted dark invasion but as the tide of color continued to rise, threatening to completely envelop the caucasion brethen, they quickly abandoned their fight and fled to more remote parts; Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Westchester. As soon as one or two Negro families moved into a block, the whites began moving out. Then the rents were raised. In spite of this, Negroes continued to pour in until there was a solid mass of color in every direction.

Harlemites soon discovered that meeting these doubled, and sometimes tripled, rents was not so easy. They began to think of someway to meet their ever increasing deficits. Someone evidently got the idea of having a few friends in as paying party guests a few days before the landlord's scheduled monthly visit. It was a happy; timely thought. The guests had a good time and entered wholeheartedly into the spirit of the party. Besides, it cost each individual very little, probably much less than he would have spent in some public amusement place. Besides, it was a cheap way to help a friend in need. It was such a good, easy way out of one's difficulties that others decided to make use of it. Thus was the Harlem rent-party born. . . .

Saturday night became the gala night in Harlem. Some partied even ran well into Sunday morning, calling a halt only after seven or eight o'clock. Parties were eventually held on other nights also. Thursday particularly became a favorite in view of the fact that "sleep in" domestic workers had a day off and were free to kick up their heels without restraint. Not that any other week-day offered Saturday any serious competition. It always retained its popularity because of its all round convenience as a party day. To begin with, the majority of working class Negroes, maids, porters, elevator operators and the like, were paid on Saturday and, more important than that, were not required to report to work on Sunday. Saturday, therefore, became the logical night to "pitch" and "carry on", which these pleasure-hungry children did with abandon. . . .

The party givers were fully aware of the conditions under which the majority of these boys and girls lived and decided to commercialize on it as much as possible. They began advertising their get-togethers on little business cards that were naive attempts at poetic jingles . . . . They were careful, however, to give these cards to only the "right" people. Prohibition was still in effect and the police were more diligent about raiding questionable apartments than they were about known "gin"mills" that flourished on almost every corner. . . .

With the advent of Repeal [of Prohibition in 1933], the rent-party went out, became definitely a thing of the past. It was too dangerous to try to sell whiskey after it became legal. With its passing went one of the most colorful eras that Harlem has ever known.
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View the entire document from which this excerpt was taken from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.