Reviving a Past of Black and Jewish Collaboration in Harlem

Historian and architect John T. Reddick is putting on display his collection of images and documents from a time when Jewish and black Harlemites worked together to produce music. (Photo by Nate Lavey/Jewish Daily Forward)

Harlem historian and architect John T. Reddick is exhibiting sheet music and photographs from the early 20th century when Jewish culture flourished in Harlem and collaboration between blacks and Jews was abundant – though nonetheless constrained by social inequalities, reported the Jewish Daily Forward‘s Seth Berkman in a piece accompanied by a video by Nate Lavey.

In addressing Harlem’s past, Reddick said, “People think it was Jewish and became black, but it was a shared community.” He wants to relay that message of unity. “Jews worked with black performers behind the scenes, and I want to get across the richness of the engagement and the proximity in which they lived.”

The Philly native grew up in a Jewish neighborhood attending Seders and bar mitzvahs. Decades later, he wants to bring back to life early 20th century Harlem, through the exhibit, “Harlem’s Black and Jewish Music Culture 1890–1930” hosted by the Settepani restaurant on 120th Street and Lenox Avenue.

The restaurant’s walls are adorned with about 50 sheet music covers featuring artists and performers like actress and singer Sophie Tucker, Tin Pan Alley composer Abe Holzmann and Sigmund Romberg, whose popular operettas were performed by such singers as Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.

According to the director of the American Jewish Historical Society, it was their history that lead Jewish immigrants to work with the black community in Harlem.

Jonathan Karp, director of the American Jewish Historical Society, said Jewish immigrants from Europe had experience as brokers and intermediaries, which also enabled them to act as mediators of black culture in Harlem. By the 1920s, Jews were heavily involved in publishing, booking agencies and eventually independent record labels specializing in black music.

Beyond working together, black and Jewish New Yorkers shared similar paths in ending up in Harlem.

Reddick began collecting sheet music three years ago, after he attended a lecture given by Jeffrey Gurock, author of the 1979 book “When Harlem Was Jewish.” Gurock explained the similarities between the black and Jewish migrations to Harlem, and this resonated with Reddick. Black residents in Manhattan were forced out of Midtown dwellings because of the construction of Penn Station. Jews came in large numbers after plans were made to build the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges, and families like the Marx Brothers and the Gershwins began to leave the tenements of the Lower East Side.

The reality remained that social injustices faced by black Americans extended into the partnerships.

The collaboration between black composers and Jewish musicians often took place in apartments, away from the public eye. Black artists were often not admitted to clubs, even in Harlem, and Jewish performers occasionally went to great lengths to keep their collaborations with black performers away from their families, who did not approve of their associations with blacks.

Money and royalty disputes, as well as Jewish and white migration, triggered the end of musical collaborations between blacks and Jews in Harlem. However, Reddick strives to bring snippets of that period back into present-day Harlem via the exhibit, as well as through a historic walking tour he conducts.

Visit the original Forward article to watch the accompanying video produced by Nate Lavey.

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