Conscious Pathbreakers: Escaping the “Ghetto”

Eunice Roberta Hunton once wrote, “Harlem is a modern ghetto”. To understand what Hunton meant by a “modern ghetto” we must first recognize where the habitats of Harlem of 1925 got there. Harlem became a predominately black community for a few reasons. After slavery was abolished 90 percent of African Americans remained in the south but between 1910 and 1920 horrible weather conditions put many black families into severe economic depression and seeking new opportunities. Over 500,00 African Americans moved North during the Great migration, and this does not include the thousands of Caribbeans who also moved north to cities like Harlem to help their families back home. The majority of these Black people only knew a life of poverty and unlike their white peers had no sense of financial education so many would relieve on government aid and low-paying jobs to survive. Also, with Jim Crow in full effect in the south, and racial crimes becoming more common, it was safer for all minority groups to self-segregate. Although the people of color living in Harlem were not “forced” to live in just the area, the fear of racial discrimination and effects of economic and social pressure confined blacks to communities and neighborhoods concentrated by their minority group. Hunton’s article “Breaking Through” in the Survey Graphic gives a different perspective of Harlem, one that contrasted with many of the other Harlem Renaissance writers. Rather than describe the community as “Mecca” or a place of enlightenment, Hunton explains the “invisible lines and bars” of race that “bound” the community to their modern ghetto or in today’s term “hood”. In this post, I’m going to cover the similarities between 1925’s Harlem “ghetto” and today’s Harlem.

Looking at Hunton’s description of Harlem, there are two distinct points that I found notable. The first notable point is the quote, “Education is the way out of the ghetto”. In other words, for community members to escape the confines of their race-bounded neighborhoods they must develop discipline through higher education. Education is often referred to as the great equalizer because it opens opportunities for jobs and resources not accessible without it and the youth of this time knew this very well. These young people or “conscious path-breakers” knew disciplines like teaching, religion or medicine were the paths most black people could easily fit in but were still limited to the community. They were rather getting into more individualistic disciplines like business, technical professions, and the arts. It was this educational trailblazing that led to a lot of “first”. Even Eunice Roberta Hunton was the first female African American prosecutor to work in the New York District Attorney’s office. These “firsts” opened doors that the people of the “ghetto” would have never seen possible by coming back to the community and in turn, educating them about the experience they gained outside of the community. The second point is the false change outsiders would bring into the “ghetto”. Hunton states, “…there is no conscious attempt to break the ghetto bonds…”. In this quote, she is explaining how white people would only come to Harlem to “help” because of their own self-interest. Many of these white people would do actions such as charity events and welfare fundraisers to ironically keep the blacks in the ghetto. This was done deliberately so these same white people would have connections in Harlem to satisfy their curiosity and wonder about black culture. The conscious pathbreakers are the only people escaping the ghetto and helping the community change in a real way, through mindset changes and knowledge.

When I compare Hunton’s description of Harlem to today. I see so many similarities. Harlem is still inhabited by mostly minorities, and many would still refer to it as the hood compared to downtown Manhattan. I still see, even within myself, a need to achieve my highest academic goals so I too can “escape the ghetto”. I remember my grandmother saying to me that because of the color of my skin I must work harder because I’m doing it not only for myself but for my ancestors and future generations. I also still see outsiders coming into the community looking to “help” with temporary fixes that just keep people of color in the ghetto with programs such as welfare, public housing, and employment. Mrs. Hunton’s description of Harlem as a modern ghetto is still accurate today which is why her point of education being the way out remains true.

 Eunice Roberta Hunton Carter (July 16, 1899 – January 25, 1970) was New York’s first female African-American lawyer, and one of the first prosecutors of color in the United States.