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Racial Tension in Harlem

May 6, 1964 - The white merchant on 125th Street says Harlem is no longer just a locale — it is a state of mind. And he is afraid.

He says he walks with uncertainty, talks with caution.

His relationship with his Negro customers has changed; now he is careful not to talk about politics or other controversial topics, fearing it may lead to arguments — or worse.

“I don’t believe there’s a white businessman in Harlem today who, if given reasonable terms, wouldn’t sell out and leave,” says Frank Schiffman, owner of the Apollo Theater.

They do not leave, they say, both because they would have to take a heavy loss and because they have done business in Harlem for 20, 30 or 40 years and they have no other place to go.

“It’s my life,” says a 68-year-old haberdasher. “I can’t just take off and dump my whole life’s work down the drain.”

So they remain in Harlem all day, being careful always to have a partner or employee in the store with them at all times; at night, they leave Harlem and return to their homes in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, or other neighborhoods in Manhattan.

They are aware that the Black Muslims and Black Nationalist groups call them “Colonialists,” but they say they do not care about words. What frightens them now are the acts that a small of band of Negro terrorists are allegedly committing against the white man in Harlem, making his existence more precarious than ever.

“It’s never been as bad as it is today for white men,” says Samuel Ross, a clothing salesman. “For 24 years I’ve worked here, but only now do I feel uncomfortable.”

Next door, another merchant admits that, after 32 years in Harlem, he has recently felt the need of installing a wire cage over his window at night. And on the same block another merchant reports that, even with the wire cage, his window has been broken twice in the last two weeks and that merchandise was either damaged or stolen.

Outside a bookshop on 125th Street is a sign that reads, “The God Dam White Man,” and, under a picture of Jesus, the caption, “This can’t be Him because he has the wrong hair.”

Across the street, a white pharmacist said: “Each night we hear them preaching hate, hate, hate — kill. Eventually, I’m afraid, this will seep into the subconscious of even some Negroes who aren’t troublemakers.”

His partner said: “We don’t know what to expect from our Negro customers anymore. Some of them seem so different. There is not the ease that we used to have with them. So, we’re very careful. We avoid any kind of discussion. No politics. No nothing. We just serve them courteously as we can, and whatever they say, all right. We bend over backward. We don’t want trouble.”

The clothier who has had his windows broken into twice said: “Years ago, when I first came to Harlem, I thought that you should never show a Negro you’re afraid of him. Talk tough, I always thought, and he’ll respect you. So, I used to talk tough, and I never had any trouble. But today, you talk tough — and they get vicious.” Then he said: “Look, don’t quote me by name, please. I got to live with them.”

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