Harlem and Detroit: Same difference

Herb Boyd | 7/3/2014, 11:56 a.m.
Researching the history of the Black community in Detroit, my hometown, I am struck by the number of commonalities it ...

Researching the history of the Black community in Detroit, my hometown, I am struck by the number of commonalities it shares with New York City, particularly Harlem, where I have lived for nearly a generation.

That connection was given a gruesome aspect last week in Detroit, when five young Black men confessed to the beating of a white man. It sent my memory swirling back to Harlem 20 years ago and my coverage of the “Central Park Five,” who also confessed to a brutal attack on a white woman jogger but whose convictions were later overturned.

New York City has agreed to a settlement of $40 million with the five men, who each spent seven to 13 years in prison. Meanwhile, the five young men in Detroit face long prison sentences with little hope of exoneration.

This is the most recent Harlem-Detroit convergence for me, but many of these similarities exist in the past, when Harlem was comprised mainly of African-Americans, which is the current makeup of Detroit.

Both Detroit and New York City were destinations for runaway or fugitive slaves during the 18th and 19th centuries. Sometimes, when the runaways arrived in New York City, they discovered, like Frederick Douglass, the city was no safe haven. Rather, it was necessary to seek refuge further north and across the Canadian border. Detroit was a popular terminus for fugitives after they had safely navigated the Underground Railroad, though they too were often spirited across the river to Canada, especially after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

In the middle of the Civil War, both cities experienced major race riots and practically for the same reasons: economic and job competition. White men in New York City, mainly Irish, were disgruntled that upon being conscripted to serve in the military, their former jobs were taken by Black workers. In Detroit, the civic disturbance that rocked the city in 1863 was precipitated by a similar wartime situation.

When Harlem was beginning to sprout the first sprigs of its fabled renaissance in the 1920s, Detroit’s storied Paradise Valley was giving birth to its own cultural flowering, which would later mark the emergence of the poet Robert Hayden and the great jazz ensemble McKinney’s Cotton Pickers.

False rumors of racial conflict sparked the riots in Harlem and Detroit in 1943, and in the wake of these disturbances that left many dead and a massive destruction of property, it took the communities years to regain any semblance of social and economic stability. The melding of Harlem and Detroit took on a special significance in the 1960s with the occurrence of the riots, but more positively for the era, there was the productive sharing of a coterie of musicians bred in Detroit and nurtured in Harlem. The Apollo Theater would be a veritable cauldron for the aspiring entertainers groomed by Berry Gordy at Motown. (Broadway’s “Motown the Musical” is a current manifestation, at least symbolically, of a connection between the cities.)

Nowadays, Detroit and Harlem are in the midst of political battles in their 13th Congressional Districts, represented respectively by John Conyers and Charles B. Rangel, senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus. The veteran leaders, each pressured by campaign snafus or heavy breathing challengers, had to fight for their political lives and legacies.