Citizenship, Solidarity, and Struggle: Histories of Harlem’s Migrant Neighbors in the Interwar Period

AHA Session 270
Sunday, January 10, 2016: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Room 309/310 (Hilton Atlanta, Third Floor)
Ariana Ochoa Camacho, University of Washington Tacoma
Joshua Guild, Princeton University

Session Abstract

The history of migration to Harlem in the early 20th century has been well-explored, particularly with regard to the movement of African Americans from the U.S. South. An equally important trend that has been less examined is the complex ways that the varied racial and ethnic communities on these blocks interacted. Central Harlem was experiencing influxes of Caribbean immigrants (mostly viewed as “Negro” in the mainland racial paradigm) as well as some working-class white European immigrants, while East Harlem was in the process of transitioning from a primarily Italian and Jewish neighborhood to a Puerto Rican majority. While these stories are often told as disparate histories, this panel offers an interlocking set of narratives of Harlem. The panel explores questions of citizenship and identity, and it contributes to a growing literature that globalizes the history of race in the United States.

Papers included in this panel will provide a rich and varied picture of Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s---a picture that centers Harlem in the histories of empire, mobility, social movements, and race-making. These are are transnational stories that trace the experiences of seemingly disparate migrant populations: Puerto Ricans, U.S. Virgin Islanders, and Finns. However, central to each is encounters with U.S.-born black people. The panel shows that not only did migrants need to navigate U.S. racial and ethnic ideologies, but that those ideologies themselves shifted in response to migrant arrivals and actions. The scholars on the panel also examine how migrants’ experiences shaped their desires for inter- and intraracial solidarity and how those desires affected political mobilization efforts across racial, ethnic, and class lines.  Daniel Acosta Elkan’s paper will examine the growing prominence of Puerto Ricans in East Harlem, and the ways in which U.S.-born black people perceived Puerto Rican community organizing to be seen as citizens and rightful members of the New York and U.S. society. J. Tiffany Holland will analyze how migrants from the U.S. Virgin Islands navigated their new citizenship status, as well as their own identification or disidentification with the category of “Negro.” Aleksi Huhta will consider the complex and uneven development of solidarities between black and Finnish communities within the Communist Party.

Conversation among these three scholars, and consideration of their papers alongside each other, will allow for broad conversation around how Harlem was reorganized during this period, and the extent to which its residents saw themselves as enjoying civic and national belonging.

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