I wasn’t born in Harlem. The truth is, most of us weren’t.
My life began in rural Mississippi, in a small town with rickety homes made from mismatched wooden beams, that line disheveled dirt roads. I was born in a truly unremarkable country basin, in the bedrock of racist America, into a society where rules to govern were little more than blots of black ink on stale sheets of white paper. For they were empty words of broken promises, as Jim Crow was put in place for the solace of segregation. To appease and placate the hate filled hearts and corrupted minds of men and women for whom racial prejudices were still life’s norm. I was born into a society in which a mob was the jury and a noose was the verdict.
This was life for my parents. And likely, it was to be my destiny too. But I reason my parents got tired of the racism and the burden of raising me in world with so few opportunities. So we moved. It was early 1913 then. The destination was to be Harlem, a grand place we were told.
My parents sold everything we had to buy tickets for the many train rides we were about to take. But these proceeds would not be enough. We had to stop in a few cities for periods of time so that my parents could earn more money to buy more train tickets. On most days, I’d work too. Child labor was in high demand and money was sparse. The cost of the train rides was expensive. And we had many miles to cover.
Finally, after months in travel, we made it. We arrived at a brand new Grand Central Station on August 16th, 1913. I stepped out to the rumbling noises of cars and people, trains, horses and carriages. It seemed like all the world was hunkered down in a handful of city blocks. There were people of every shape and color talking in languages I had never heard. Wearing clothes I had never seen. Or at least that’s how the world felt to me that day.
Back then, Harlem was the destination for many black migrants moving from the South. Named after the old city of Haarlem near Amsterdam in the Netherlands, it had the distinguished feel of a European city, or at least of what I could imagine. I’d say it was the brownstones, their royal presence with stately columns and tall, solid wood doors, incased in arched entries reminiscent of grandeur old European architecture. And the windows, how big and elegant they were. There to catch all the summer shine.
We moved in with my uncle and his family who were already living in Harlem when we arrived. Two families of nine total, living in a two bedroom flat could seem chaotic. But for us, there was a comfort to this new home. Even though crowded, the chaos and poverty were different here then back in Mississippi. And regardless, it was our new home. We had arrived.