Article by Katherine E. Hernandez and Fatima Manier. Photos by Fatima Manier.
At the 125th Street subway station on Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem, the walls of the train platform hold the mosaic work of Faith Ringgold, Harlem-born artist. The first panel of Ringgold’s “Flying Home: Harlem Heroes and Heroines,” depicts W.E.B Dubois holding aloft a copy of The Crisis and soaring over the historic Harlem office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which for years stood just a few blocks away on the corner of West 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr Boulevard.
During its early years, the NAACP became the nation’s preeminent force for black advocacy and political leadership, leading the battle against lynching during the 1920s and school segregation following World War II, and championing civil rights during the 1960s—all efforts coordinated from its headquarters in New York City. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the organization moved its headquarters to Baltimore.
“In New York, the NAACP has been synonymous with power,” said Hazel N. Dukes, former President of the NAACP and current president of the organization’s New York State Conference Branch. “We have grown from civil rights protesting to advocacy.”
But does the New York Branch of the NAACP still play a vital role in Black advocacy?
As part of our exploration of the Harlem Renaissance, we decided to visit the NAACP’s historic neighborhood office to find out more about its role in the New Negro Movement, an early 20th century black political movement, and its connection to current black grassroots organizing in modern-day Harlem. So, imagine our surprise to find a demolition notice and scaffolding at the 144 West 125th Street, where Harlem’s historic New York branch office had rented space from the Studio Museum of Harlem.
At this point, our story took an unexpected turn from an effort to understand the political legacy of the NAACP and the New Negro Movement, to a search for the NAACP itself–not just in Harlem, but nationwide. Our quest revealed an organization hampered by bureaucracy and struggling to maintain community engagement and relevance in the face of nimbler groups like Black Lives Matter, which has attracted younger members and led battles such as the fight against police brutality.
“The challenge is being nimble enough to operate on the street level,” said Cornell William Brooks, former president and CEO of the NAACP, while emphasizing his respect and longstanding support of the NAACP. “The bureaucratic institution needs to be radically modernized. If you’re not seeing the NAACP on TV every day, you’ve got a problem.”
One of the nation’s oldest and most widely recognized civil rights organizations, the NAACP was founded in New York City in 1909, by several leading African Americans, including DuBois; Ida B. Wells, an investigative journalist; Archibald Grimké, a lawyer and journalist; as well as some white activists. It was at the NAACP’s Harlem office that DuBois created The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP and one of the nation’s oldest black publications. The group’s first signature effort was its support of the 1918 anti-lynching Bill, which grew out of years battling, and drawing attention to, widespread lynchings in the South. Decades of advocacy followed, including the NAACP’s leadership in the fight for desegregation and the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case argued before the Supreme Court by Thurgood Marshall, who was later appointed to the Supreme Court.
That legacy, we found, has all but disappeared in Harlem. The 125th Street office was quietly demolished in the fall of 2019, and the absence of the organization’s New York branch went unnoticed by the surrounding Harlem community. When we contacted the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, several blocks away on Malcolm X Boulevard, we found that the library had no record of the office relocating, according to Associate Chief Librarian Maira Liriano.
So, we set out to find the NAACP’s representatives elsewhere in New York. Learning that there are 15 official NAACP branches in the five boroughs of New York City, of which the Harlem branch was the first, and 56 branches through the state, we were hopeful about speaking to a representative. The task turned out to be daunting.
We began with an email, via NAACP’s “Find Your Local Unit” page, which still listed the demolished site as the organization’s Harlem office. Next, on Jan. 10, we emailed Anthony Harmon, president of the Harlem office; we never received a response.
So, we tried calling, several times. The listed number for the Harlem office rang, but no one ever picked up. As we pursued this story through different channels, we made a note to call this number again in hopes of receiving a call back or response.
Without an office address to visit or an official website outside of the NAACP’s main page, we decided to reach out to the NAACP’s Mid-Manhattan Branch, led by Geoffrey Eaton. Unlike the Harlem office, Mid-Manhattan has an individual website with its own email address and phone number; the website lists its office location at 207 West 96th Street. When we phoned the number for the Mid-Manhattan branch, we discovered from the voicemail greeting that the branch office had moved to a WeWork space at 500 7th Avenue–another address that is not listed on the NAACP webpage.
Several calls and emails again went unanswered, including an email to Eaton’s personal email address, which we obtained from another Dollars & Sense editor.
We then contacted a Baruch College English professor who specializes in the print culture of Harlem, and who lives in the Lenox Terrace complex in Harlem.
“I think they’re still present in the Harlem community,” said Richardson. “It just requires a little bit of bureaucracy some of the time. It does take sending the letters, sending the emails, contacting the different members from the NAACP.”
After our conversation with Richardson, we spent another week making calls and sending emails. We attempted to contact the National Press Secretary at the NAACP headquarters in Maryland; the Mid-Manhattan Branch once more; the NAACP New York State Conference, at 44 Wall St. in Manhattan; and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund at 40 Rector St. in Manhattan. We received no response from any of the offices.
The tide turned in our favor on Feb. 20, when we sent an email to Cornell Brooks, the former NAACP president. He responded the same day.
“Help me Lord,” said Brooks when we recounted the lack of communication we had received from the various branches and offices. “That’s all I have to say about that.”
Brooks was President and CEO of the NAACP from May 2014 until June 2017, when he was ousted from his position by the NAACP Board of Directors. His tenure as NAACP president began shortly before the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown, Jr., an unarmed 18 year old, by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., when Black Lives Matter became the face of the protest movement against the nation’s spate of police shootings. Today’s struggle between an activist Black Lives Matter movement and a more bureaucratic NAACP reflects a years-long debate within the NAACP over its strategy.
“The national branches need to be in the field; the CEO needs to be present alongside the community; people need to see you in the fight,” said Brooks over a Zoom call on Feb. 26.
Under Brooks, the NAACP took an active role following Brown’s shooting, including in organizing behind-the-scenes negotiations among witnesses and officials. Yet, Ferguson revealed the rift between younger grassroots organizations like Black Lives Matter, which favor activism, and the more bureaucratic strategy favored by the NAACP’s older leadership—a rift that dates back to at the 1960s and tensions between some NAACP leaders and Martin Luther King, Jr. over tactics during the Civil Rights movement (as well as among the NAACP and the then-new Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.)
Shortly before his ouster, in January 2017, Brooks and several other NAACP members were arrested for trespassing during an organized sit-in at the Mobile, Ala., office of then-Senator Jeff Sessions, in protest over his nomination for Attorney General by President Trump.
In May 2017, the NAACP’s Board of Directors issued a statement announcing its “new direction, focus, and accountability” that required “the right plan and the right leadership.” The NAACP voted not to renew Brooks’ contract. The Board Chairman, Leon W. Russell and Vice-Chairman, Derrick Johnson, held the interim position after Brooks finished his term in June 2017, before Johnson was unanimously elected as President and CEO in October later that year.
Brooks argues that striking the right balance between the bureaucracy and activism is what has enabled the NAACP to endure.
Brooks connected us to the NAACP’s current leadership, putting us in contact with Hazel N. Dukes, former president of the NAACP and current head of the NAACP New York State Conference. We had attempted to contact Dukes’s office at the beginning of our journey, but received no response until after Brooks’s introduction.
We met with Dukes on March 5 at the New York State Conference office located at 44 Wall St., two months after our initial email in January. Dukes, who completed her tenure as president of the NAACP in 1992, is one of four women to have served as president of the NAACP.
Dukes confirmed that individual NAACP local chapters work independently from one another, relying on the National and Conferences branches as the central point of communication among them.
However, Dukes pushed back against our suggestion that the NAACP may have become too bureaucratic and that youth movements like Black Lives Matter have taken on a greater leadership role in recent conflicts, such as the battle against police brutality. “You can’t find who’s in charge,” Dukes said with respect to Black Lives Matter.
Dukes said she respects and upholds the need for a bureaucratic side to the organization that helps to coordinate the community work the organization does. The morning of our interview, she explained, Dukes held a meeting at the downtown offices of the New York State Conference with other New York branches, including the elusive Mid-Manhattan branch, to discuss the NAACP’s plans to increase African-American participation in the 2020 Census. African Americans are chronically under counted; in Central North Harlem, for example, less than 60 percent of African Americans completed the 2010 census.
Dukes also provided us with an answer to one of our most perplexing questions: What happened to the NAACP’s Harlem office? It moved further uptown to 2738 8th Ave., between West 145th & 146th streets, according to Duke—though she never explained the reason for the move.
After our meeting with Dukes, we called the number for the new offices of the Harlem office. We received no response.
Before we could visit the new Harlem office location, Mayor DeBlasio announced the city’s shelter-in-place notice.
We recently emailed Dukes again to ask how the NAACP was adjusting its strategy for getting out the census count in New York City during the COVID-19 lockdown, but have not yet received a response.