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Black History

Historical Reflections on Black Americans in NYC Real Estate and the Agents of Change

Although I am not black, I would like to reflect on the agents who denied black people their predetermined fates of oppression, and ultimately changed the landscape for black New Yorkers and all tenants of color.

The roots of residential segregation that remain in our society may stem from the time of redlined New York. In 1935, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation created a color-coded map [1] that illustrated which neighborhoods were deemed satisfactory for insured mortgages. Green areas rated “A” were “in demand” neighborhoods with white inhabitants (the only green/desirable neighborhoods in all five boroughs being Inwood, the Upper East Side, Brooklyn Heights, Riverdale, and only a few blocks of Forest Hills, Queens), while the red colored areas, rated “D,” were black neighborhoods that were consistently denied support from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The maps were drawn “after gathering a variety of data: neighborhood terrain, ages and types of buildings, sales and rental demand, and the ‘threat of infiltration of foreign-born, negro, or lower grade population,’ as the HOLC put it [2]. Blue areas, like the Upper West Side or Bay Ridge, were “still good,” while yellow areas typically bordered red lines and were mostly considered “in transition” towards decline. The ensuing disinvestment of these neighborhoods are a root cause of much of the income inequality in New York today. Although redlining is no longer supported by the government, many of the same neighborhoods still carry some of the highest poverty rates.

Despite the dark history for black Americans and the elusive concepts of home begotten them, there are black pioneers who helped raise up their disenfranchised communities, and who deserve to be celebrated. Today, we spotlight two faces, past and present, who helped transform the professional real estate prospects and residential lives of black people in New York.

Philip A. Payton, Jr. — “Father of Harlem”

Philip A. Payton, Jr. was born in Westfield, Massachusetts in 1876; his father worked as a barber and his mother was a hairdresser. He worked in the family trade before moving to New York in 1899 where he worked as a barber, handyman, and porter at a real estate firm, where he realized his aspiration to enter real estate. Despite the struggle to earn his living on dismal pay, he scraped his savings to open an office and released ads in several real estate publications that read: “COLORED TENEMENTS WANTED/Colored man makes a specialty of managing colored tenements; references; bond./Philip A. Payton, Jr., agent and broker, 67 W. 134th.”

Despite the dark history for black Americans and the elusive concepts of home begotten them, there are black pioneers who helped raise up their disenfranchised communities, and who deserve to be celebrated.

Within a year, Payton began managing buildings with black tenements, but he still struggled financially and faced regular discouragement: “All my friends discouraged me. All of them told me how I couldn’t make it. They tried to convince me that there was no show for a colored man in such a business in New York.” The prospects of a successful black businessman, especially in real estate were nearly impossible then. Yet In 1904, he became the most prominent black man in real estate when he founded the Afro-American Realty Company, backed by a circle of successful black men, notably Booker T. Washington

Before Harlem (fully red coded) became known as New York’s primary black community, it was an upper-class, whites-only neighborhood with newly developed rows of brownstones and elevated railroads that catalyzed a development boom. The late 19th-century marked the time Harlem was set to become New York’s next real estate jewel, replete with a majestic opera house opened by Oscar Hammerstein on 125th Street in 1889, and the completion of the new campus at Columbia University at 116th St. and Broadway [3]. Subway construction along the west side of Manhattan granted easy access to the downtown business district, enhancing residential appeal and the promise of new real estate fortune. As the boom faded into bust, with hundreds of unsold homes and thousands of vacant apartments, Payton seized the opportunity to build an empire while also disrupting the color line system that would eventually earn him the title “Father of Harlem.”

On June 15, 1904, the Afro-American Realty Company was valued at $500,000 (50,000 shares sold for $10 each). Payton’s company existed with a two-pronged purpose of profit and justice exemplified in the company prospectus [4]: The very prejudice that has heretofore worked against us can be turned and used to our profit.” His company ran an ad in The New York Age in 1906 that read: “Colored Tenants, Attention! After much effort I am now able to offer to my people for rent” several apartment houses “of a class never before rented to our people.”

The success and integrational focus of the Afro-American Realty Company saw fierce opposition by white New Yorkers who supported segregation. When Payton’s company sold three buildings on West 135th Street to the Hudson Realty Company, the “white-owned company promptly evicted the black tenants and filled the buildings with whites. Mr. Payton retaliated by buying two adjacent properties and evicting the white tenants in favor of blacks.” The Hudson Realty Company then resold the three buildings to Payton at a substantial loss. The affair drew more interest from investors until the company’s assets exceeded $1 million.

“All my friends discouraged me. All of them told me how I couldn’t make it. They tried to convince me that there was no show for a colored man in such a business in New York.”

As the black population in Harlem expanded, white property owners resisted by “forming block associations and requiring buyers of their houses to sell only to whites, but they were fighting superior numbers.” [5] ‘Although organizations to prevent the settling of colored citizens in certain sections of Harlem mushroom overnight,’ one black newspaper noted with glee, ‘the colored invasion goes merrily along.'”

Payton’s overtly optimistic buying of properties amidst the Recession of 1907, alongside a lawsuit by shareholders seeking “to recover the money which they subscribed” which ruined the company’s reputation, ultimately led to his company’s foreclosure in 1908. Nevertheless, Payton continued to work in real estate until his untimely death in 1917 to liver cancer.

Beyond his death, an exciting migrational movement of black artists, writers, thinkers, and musicians into Harlem ignited in the 1920s. This concentration of black art and culture allowed for the blooming of the Harlem Renaissance, the posthumously adorned jewel of Payton’s legacy. The foundation that Payton crafted on the grounds of Harlem hosted the cultural, social, and political explosion that helped black people in New York assume and create new, empowering identities for their lives and culture, and for this he will be remembered.

Roy Donahue “Don” Peebles — Real Estate Mogul

Falling in line with Payton’s legacy of transformation is Don Peebles, current CEO and founder of the Peebles Corporation, the largest, most successful black-owned real estate development and ownership company in the US. According to his website, the Peebles Corporation is “one of the country’s few national privately held real estate investment and development companies with a multi-billion dollar portfolio of projects in New York, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, Miami and Miami Beach.” His portfolio encompasses more than 6 million square feet and is valued at $5 billion.

Don Peebles was born in Washington D.C. to Ruth Yvonne Willoughby and Roy Donahue Peebles Sr., an employee of the Federal Power Commission and a mechanic at an auto shop [6]. After his parents divorced, his mother worked within the real estate industry, which provided him early insight into the business. When he was a teenager, he volunteered for numerous political campaigns and eventually completed high school as he worked as a Congressional Page on Capitol Hill. He attended Rutgers University for one year as a premed student, before deciding to leave school and pursue a full time career in real estate.

Speaking to Forbes, Peebles said, “The projects we tend to be attracted to are those that have greater impact, greater symbolism. Our number one focus is that our buildings are vehicles or symbols of opportunity. Our goal is to develop projects that transform communities.”

Peebles returned to D.C. where he initially worked as a real estate agent until age 23, when he established his own residential and commercial real estate appraisal firm named the RDP Corporation. A year later, his early political experience was recognized by then D.C. mayor Marion Barry, who appointed him to Washington’s Board of Equalization and Review— the city’s real estate tax-appeals board, currently named the Board of Real Property Assessments and Appeals. [7] His cultivated relationships in politics and real estate grew steadfast in influence and power, eventually paving the way to his enormous success.

The metaphoric torch passed from Payton to Peebles not only reflects critical success of African Americans in real estate, but also a shared goal of fostering community. Speaking to Forbes, Peebles said, “The projects we tend to be attracted to are those that have greater impact, greater symbolism. Our number one focus is that our buildings are vehicles or symbols of opportunity. Our goal is to develop projects that transform communities.” Similar to Payton’s dual ambitions of cracking the color lines and becoming a successful entrepreneur, Peebles, whose net worth exceeds $700 million, is nearing billionaire status [8]. Peebles also courts the idea of adopting a new occupation, one that would have a more direct ability to unify communities and advance equal opportunities. “‘Mayor of New York sounds like an interesting job. So does Mayor of Washington, D.C.,’ he said.”

Peebles has a conscious focus to develop both luxury and affordable housing projects, which speaks to his inspiration of “shrinking the wealth gap by providing greater access to opportunity, and says his company focuses on helping women and minorities.” He goes on to say, “I attribute my success to access to opportunity. The status quo is not a sustainable situation for businesses. It’s in our interest as entrepreneurs to provide greater access to opportunity.” As proven, access to opportunity changes the world and helps black Americans in New York reach a better quality of life than that historically bestowed, can spark a cultural revolution (the Harlem Renaissance), and it might even inspire a young black kid to become a billionaire.

Philip A. Payton Jr. (The Father of Harlem), and Don Peebles have effectively sown seeds of opportunity for POC to reside in the dwellings we seek, not just for refuge, but for the fostering of love and dignity in our communities. As people of color, our homes have always been dictated to us without concern for our livelihoods. We’ve been ushered into stigmatized “restricted,” “redlined” areas, thus simply denied the opportunities for actual quality of life. Yet Payton and Peebles have both, in their own ways, written us into the overall spectrum of the real estate market. They crafted an irreversible script where we are represented, with our communities finding home in the streets of New York. Their work has helped establish our value in a racist system and allowed us to build homes that restore our dignity— living in homes where we can be Black, Latino, Asian, Brown, where we can be ourselves in a world that couldn’t accept us; Payton’s movement itself changed the face of New York forever. As a result, our communities have grown so much that we can freely celebrate who we are, and while the rest is still unwritten, perhaps now we have the leverage to write our own stories of home.



[1] Redlining: How one racist, depression-era policy still shapes New York real estate
[2] Race and Redlining in Richmond
[3] CITY LORE; A Neighborhood of Their Own
[4] Philip A. Payton: the Father of Harlem
[5] Streetscapes: 13 West 131st Street; ‘Father of Harlem’ Called It Home
[6] Roy D. Peebles Sr., 80: Federal employee, mechanic
[7] Don Peebles: Real Estate’s Self-Made Mogul
[8] Successful African American Real Estate Mogul Inches Closer To Billionaire Status

By Nikko Espina

Nikko is a graduate from Rutgers University where he studied English and Environmental Policy. He is currently an editorial intern for a boutique real estate firm in New York. He ultimately seeks to tell stories that educate, awe, and stun. You can check out his personal blog.

Headshot by Michaela Kobsa-Mark