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On January 1, 1898, New York City was reborn. No longer did it consist solely of the island of Manhattan; at the stroke of midnight that heralded the New Year, the city incorporated its twin city of Brooklyn, as well as the Bronx, Staten Island, and the Long Island community of Queens. This enlarged metropolis became known as Greater New York. And the political changes were just beginning.
That same month, a group of disaffected black Republicans, who felt that the city's Republican organization had been taking black votes for granted, and who had thus voted for the Democratic mayoral candidate the year before, formed the first local Democratic organization run by blacks, an association named the United Colored Democracy. This represented, some thirty years after the end of the Civil War, the beginnings of a political emancipation for blacks in what was now the second largest city in the world. (2)
Ironically, it was emancipation from the legacy of the Great Emancipator himself, Abraham Lincoln. During the late nineteenth century, black professional and intellectual elites in most American cities were Republican. After all, Lincoln had been a Republican, and it had been the Republicans who had gotten the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments added to the Constitution, which officially ended slavery, and guaranteed civil rights (including the right to vote) to those who were recently freed. In fact, Republican efforts to encourage black voting and office holding had led to the election of the first blacks in the Senate and House of Representatives. Yet, these developments did not deter New York City's Democratic organization, popularly known as Tammany Hall, from recruiting working-class blacks into its own fold. Since the 1860s, Tammany had become famously successful in forging a political machine by cultivating poor Irish immigrant voters (and equally infamous for the corruption of its boss, William M. Tweed). By 1886 Tammany was enlisting (often forcibly) the services of black saloon keepers and hotel owners as party leaders. (3) In the coming decades Tammany's biggest challenge would be to overcome the growing sentiment among blacks of all classes that to vote against the party of emancipation was racial treason. (4)
Not that either party was interested in making blacks full members of their political families. New York Republican county leaders, such as Lemuel Eli Quegg, took black loyalties to the party for granted and rejected blacks seeking appointments as assistant district attorneys or coroners. And when blacks responded to this by forming the United Colored Democracy in 1898, the Democrats segregated the UCD from its mainstream organization. Instead of having local representation from each predominantly black district, (as was the case for other ethnic neighborhoods) the city's black Democrats, wherever they might be throughout the city, were all lumped together under a single designated representative, who was himself subject to the direction of the white Tammany leadership rather than to the will of the voters. This separate and unequal situation was hardly a reward for the courageous blacks who endured scorn from their peers for daring to desert the Republicans. Moreover, as Harlem historian Gilbert Osofsky observes, this arrangement prevented the Democratic Party from organizing at the grassroots level among Manhattan blacks, and taking full advantage of the political opening the Republicans had given them. At the dawn of the new century, blacks tragically found that their subordinate status in so much else of New York society extended to their role in major party politics as well. (5) But that was about to change. Those initial efforts at political independence would have a cumulative effect, as leaders in both parties emerged who would show just how important it was to both cultivate and reward the black vote.
The first of these black leaders, perhaps the founder of black political leadership in New York City, was ironically born in Ohio. Charles W. Anderson came to New York City in 1886, when he was twenty years old, and his activism and leadership in local Republican Party organizations earned him patronage positions in the Internal Revenue Service, the New York State Treasury, and the New York Racing Commission. He quickly mastered the intricacies of political district organization in the city, and earned a reputation for party loyalty and for his quiet but efficient ability to secure jobs and money for needy black residents. (6)
He also enjoyed the friendship of the most famous and influential black man in America, Booker T. Washington, who himself had connections with Theodore Roosevelt, the current President of the United States. In 1905, these factors combined to bring about Anderson's appointment to a position the likes of which no other black American of his time held. He was now Collector of Internal Revenue for the second New York District, the area that included the Wall Street financial district. Shortly after the financial panic of 1907 hit the country, wealthy New York financiers were expressing gratitude to "Charlie'" Anderson for taking their income tax payments by check so that they had time to get sufficient funds into the bank. Their attempts to reward him monetarily, which Anderson rejected on principle, resulted in handsome contributions being made to Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute. (7)
Anderson continued to make powerful friends, among both black and white Americans. And he was acquiring greater power with which to deal with his enemies. One outstanding member of the latter group was the Black Nationalist and Socialist leader Hubert H. Harrison, who in 1911 attacked Booker T. Washington in print. Anderson, whose loyalty to Washington became as legendary as his political finesse, exploited a critical weakness of Harrison's: the fact that he held a job in the Post Office. Excerpts from letters Anderson sent to Washington during this period illustrate how Anderson handled the matter:
Do you remember Hubert H. Harrison? He is the man who wrote two nasty letters against you in the New York "Sun." He is a clerk in the Post Office. The Postmaster is my personal friend. ... Can you see the hand? I think you can. Please destroy this, that it may not fall under another eye. ... If he escapes me, he is a dandy. (8)
Within six weeks Harrison was removed from his position at the Post Office, and apparently went to his grave never knowing who was responsible. Indeed, the hand of Charlie Anderson was both powerful, and when he wanted it to be, invisible. (9)
But his hand was also beneficial when it came to patronage for blacks. "We do not belong to that group to whom nothing is desirable but the impossible," he declared, explaining why he sided against W.E.B. DuBois, who agitated for immediate racial equality, and instead supported Washington, who was willing to put off demanding full equality until other short-term gains in education and employment for blacks were achieved. "Some of us are trying to provide opportunities for members of the race," Anderson argued, and in this area his achievements on behalf of black New Yorkers was astounding. He arranged placements for blacks in all levels of employment, from deputy collectors in the Internal Revenue Service, to inspectors of Customs, to immigration inspectors, to election fraud attorneys, to deputy United States Marshals. Perhaps the most famous appointment he made possible was that of Samuel J. Battle as the first black policeman in New York City in 1911. All this, plus his ability to obtain firewood for cold citizens in the wintertime, candy for children at Christmastime, and contributions for various charitable organizations all year round, made Charlie Anderson for blacks what Tammany Hall leaders of the era were for many whites; a benevolent political figure with the "pull" to get people's needs met when the government bureaucracy failed them. (10)
Neither the end of Republican control over the White House in 1913, nor the death of Booker T. Washington in 1915, stopped Anderson's rise in power and influence. Fired from his federal post under the Presidential Administration of Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Anderson was soon afterwards appointed Supervisory Agent of the State Agriculture Department in New York City, a position that gave him power over all inspectors and marketing projects that the state undertook within New York City's borders. Anderson chaired the Colored Advisory Committee of the Republican Party during the 1916 Presidential election, and became Collector of the newly created federal Internal Revenue District (the Third District) in 1923, when the Republicans again controlled the White House. Although he was debilitated by illness in 1927, he remained in this federal post until his retirement in 1934. In 1938, after eleven years of struggling with his illness, he died. (11)
By the time Anderson died, black New Yorkers were supporting a Democrat (Franklin D. Roosevelt) for President and a Republican (Fiorello La Guardia) …