Philip A. Payton, Jr. and the “Afro-American Realty Company”
Reading time: 3 – 4 minutes
Philip A. Payton, Jr. was an African American real estate entrepreneur, known as “the Godfather of Harlem”, due to his work selling properties in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City to African Americans.
Philip A. Payton, Jr. was born in Westfield, Massachusetts on February 27, 1876, the second of four children, one girl and three boys. His father was a barber and his mother a hairdresser. His father insisted that the children know a trade, and so trained him in the family profession twice a week after school, such that Payton claimed to be a full fledged barber by the age of fifteen. Payton attended a year of college, at Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina (the college’s founder, Dr. Joseph Charles Price, was a personal friend of Philip Payton Sr.), but left before graduation due to an injury playing football which laid him up for most of another year. His siblings each had a more complete education, his sister graduating the state normal school (later Westfield State College), and both brothers attending Yale.
Payton worked in the family barber shop until April 1899, when he decided to make more of himself, and left for New York City, against the wishes of both parents. There he worked as a department store picture and weighing machine attendant at $6 per week, a barber at $5-6 per week, and finally a porter in a real estate office at $8 per week, where he got the idea of going into the real estate business on his own.
A real estate boom occurred in the northern Manhattan community of Harlem after 1900. The predominantly white community of Harlem, settled in the 1600s, had initially been a Dutch farming community. It became a residential community as transportation links with the lower Manhattan business districts improved in the second half of the 1800s. Merchants and other businessmen who worked in lower Manhattan were able to move their families to the developing community in upper Manhattan. By the 1880s and 1890s sections of the community were lined with four-story brownstone row houses and the area was known as a prosperous residential neighborhood. In 1900 construction began on the subway line extending from New York’s City Hall in lower Manhattan north to 145th Street in Harlem. The line had been discussed since the 1880s. Real estate developers responded to the construction start by building apartment houses in close proximity to the line. Philip Payton recognized an opportunity for African Americans in these developments.
Payton and a partner opened the Brown and Payton real estate firm in October of 1900. It was unsuccessful, and Brown left in the spring of 1901. Payton continued the business alone, while his wife, sewed to support them. At the low point of the business, in May 1901, the Paytons were evicted from their own apartment for being unable to pay their $12 monthly rent, and lived in a house Payton was trying to sell. Soon after this, though, business picked up, and Payton got charge of more houses, and sold them, making profits of thousands of dollars per month.
I knew that if I made one good sale I could make enough to keep me going for a year. I came so near making a good sale so many times that I knew I was bound to hit it before long.—Phillip A. Payton, Jr., quoted in The Negro in Business