Political Walks: New York City: Multiracial Struggles and Solidarities in Islamic Harlem



HarlemWalk Merriman

Harlem is home to only a handful of New York City’s nearly 300 mosques, but its history is a testament to the presence of Muslim institutions, leaders, and literature as solace and a form of resistance to white supremacy. Moreover, Muslims are part of a larger tradition that sees Harlem as a sacred site for black brilliance and rejuvenation.

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1/// Also known as The House of Common Sense and Proper Propaganda, the National Memorial African Bookstore served for over forty years as a center for building knowledge on Africa and the African diaspora. Founder Lewis Michaux opened the store in 1932 to fill an unmet need for literature available to the black population of Harlem about their own history and thought. He dedicated his life to amassing a collection that boasted over 200,000 volumes, accessible to window washers and professors alike. In 1970, at age 90, he decided to close the shop: “It’s my baby, but it’s got too heavy for me.”

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2/// Members of Mosque #7 keep alive the commitment to justice, equality, and freedom for black people made by the Nation of Islam, first present here in the mid-1940s, through their public service and educational work. Members can be seen selling The Final Call newspaper on street corners around Harlem, in addition to weekly sidewalk sales of Nation literature, DVDs, and bean pies. These offerings invite the neighborhood to free themselves of the mental and physical confines of white supremacy through re-education and moral discipline. Male nation members run public safety walks in local projects while donning the recognizable attire of sharply pressed suits with NOI pins and nationally the Nation has offered security detail at Black Lives Matter events.

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3/// In the first decades of the 20th century, Bengali sailors deserted their posts and colonial status on British shipping vessels to start life anew in large American port cities like New York. Anti-Asian immigration laws left them without legal status, so they adapted by integrating into black and Latino neighborhoods. While they maintained a vested interest in Indian nationalism, forming social-cum-political clubs, these Bengali seamen joined efforts with black workers to protest unequal working conditions in the shipyards of Lower Manhattan. By the 1930s, they moved up to East Harlem and used savings to start businesses – especially restaurants. Advertising “Delicious East Indian Dishes,” Bengalis took advantage of white American orientalist fascinations but growing African American converts also sought them out for halal dining. Through the 1960s, Ameer’s Restaurant was a central spot for African American and South Asian Muslims to engage in discussions on race, empire, and Islam.

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4/// The Allah School in Mecca Street Academy preserves a community commons rare in this era of corporate gentrification blight in Harlem. In 1967 Mayor John Lindsay gave this former barbershop to Allah, the Nation of Gods and Earths founder, in exchange for his help in keeping neighborhood stability during a period of national uprising against the failure of racial equality. Allah had attracted a strong following among local youth through the promotion of black self-knowledge and respect. Building off of Nation of Islam teachings, Allah developed a “science” of thought using a sacred numerology and alphabet, which spread rapidly in its adoption by hip hop artists. He explained the truth of the Asiatic Black Man as the Supreme Being, or God: using the mathematics “Allah” was broken down as Arm, Leg, Leg, Arm Head and “Islam” as I Self Lord And Master. Members of the original center in Mecca continue to invest heavily in youth education and empowerment and host an annual “Show and Prove” Universal Parliament to support collective intellectual growth.

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5/// The central artery of Harlem is 125th street, layered with the sediments of historical record be it labor strikes, Apollo performances, or soapbox sermons. Looking east was the 303 125th street mosque, which served many black musicians who converted to Islam through Ahmadiyya missionaries or the Cold War era Jazz Ambassadors tours. In this same area Moorish Science Temple and Pakistan League members came together to host an Indian Sufi teacher at the International Muslim Society house in 1950. Here at no. 217 the Ad Hoc Working Committee of Unity for Action had their first meeting in 1961. Lead by labor leader A. Philip Randolph, the committee brought together political organizers across the spectrum, including then NOI leader Malcolm X who recorded his name, for the first time, in their published roster as Malik el-Shabazz.

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6/// Love B. Woods purchased and desegregated the Hotel Theresa in 1940, bringing to life a luxury way station in the center of the Black Renaissance. Black politicians like Patrice Lumumba and top artists such as Josephine Baker and Jimi Hendrix chose to stay at Theresa in rejection of the white centric spaces of central Manhattan hotels. Perhaps the most famous booking was made for Fidel Castro, in town for the 1960 UN General Assembly and unwelcome at his original hotel reservation. Castro originally threated to have his entourage sleep in Central Park but Harlem organizers wooed him to the Theresa, where he met with local luminaries and world leaders, including Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Jawaharlal Nehru. Among the office spaces on the lower floors, Malcolm X began to rent Suite 128 in March 1964 for his independent religious organization, Muslim Mosque Inc. The hotel closed its doors in 1967 and reopened as offices in 1970.

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7/// In the spring of 1920, an Indian Muslim missionary travelled to the United States to preach about a faith that could overcome the racial hierarchies and divisions that plagued America. Mufti Muhammad Sadiq was a London-trained philologist and revered trainee of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the messianic leader of the Ahmadiyya community. The polymath was detained upon arrival, ostensibly for intent to promote polygamy but more likely due to the intense flares of anti-Asian xenophobia engulfing the nation. Once freed in April, he set up a mission at 1897 Madison Avenue. Here Sadiq began a decades long campaign to awaken Americans to the pitfalls of Christianity and the promise of Islam; his message of dignity for all races became especially appealing to African Americans whose newly chosen Muslim names were published in The Moslem Sunrise. Sadiq moved to Chicago a year later but not before he gained the friendship of Pan Africanist Marcus Garvey, who also saw Islam as an indigenous African religion.

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8/// On April 14, 1957 Johnson X Hinton watched with concern as two white police officers physically assaulted a black man on 125th street. Hinton called out, “You’re not in Alabama – this is New York,” and in response the officers turned and viciously beat him with nightsticks, cracking his skull. Hinton was taken to the NYPD 28th Precinct while news of his assault spread rapidly in the neighborhood. When Malcolm X was informed, he mobilized the Fruit of Islam male defense team and went to the precinct to demand access to Hinton. Hundreds and then thousands of black residents had amassed outside, infuriated by this brazen act of police brutality. It was only with Minister Malcolm’s persistence that Hinton was finally brought by ambulance to Harlem Hospital to get needed medical attention. Once he was treated, Malcolm X directed the FOI to disperse the crowd and all left without a clamor. The police were surprised by the power of the Muslim minister while local residents were impressed by the stand taken by a group of their own. Hinton sued the NYPD and was awarded the largest settlement, at that time, against the police force for $70,000. Today, the concrete fort, built later in 1973, sits behind an intrepid statue of Harriet Tubman, a woman who early in life was literally struck in the head by white supremacy and rose up for black liberation.

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9/// The former Aqsa Mosque was one of many African mosques that emerged in 1990s to serve the new surge of West African Muslim immigration to New York and other major American cities. Failed neocolonial structural adjustment programs and corrupt governments at home pushed tens of thousands to begin to emigrate in the 1980s. Early wave street sellers were banned from the 5th avenue fashion district in 1985, prompting many to move to a more accommodating Harlem. At first they prayed in established African American mosques, but raised funds to have their own spiritual homes that doubled as service centers. Aqsa was one such place, founded in 1998 and run by Ivorian Imam Souleimane Konaté. By the mid 2000’s, Aqsa’s property became prime real estate for gentrification and rent jumped from $4,000 to $10,000 in 2007 and then $18,000 in 2012, with a lawsuit to claim back rent. After a long fight the congregation finally conceded and moved east to 115th street in El Barrio, displaced from its congregants. The managing company for the cleared site offers one-bedroom apartments at over $3,400 per month, far above access for most local residents.

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10/// West African presence in Harlem is concentrated most clearly on 116th street, which a century earlier hosted Bengali halal hotdog stands. Several businesses are named in reference to the Muridiyya Sufi Order and its holy city of Touba, Senegal, founded by mystic and turn-of-the-century anti-colonial figure Cheikh Amadou Bamba. Exiled twice by the French occupation, Bamba’s popularity grew from fantastic accounts of his spiritual power; in one narrative he prayed atop a prayer mat on the Mediterranean Sea. New York is a major hub for the Muridiyya diaspora, so in 1988 Borough of Manhattan President David Dinkins established July 28 as Cheikh Amadou Bamba Day. Each year, murids fly in from across the country to march up Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and attend a conference hosted at the UN headquarters.

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11/// Tucked away on 113th street, the modest presence of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood (MIB) belies its longstanding contributions. Before it found physical manifestation, MIB was an idea in the heart of founder K. Ahmad Tawfiq who sought to cultivate an “African American Sunni Muslim Intelligentsia.” Tawfiq embraced Islam through a Pakistani maritime merchant but saw in Malcolm X the model for Black religious leadership. Muslim Mosque Inc. would fund his theological studies at al-Azhar University in Cairo, but outside class Tawfiq sat at the feet of Muslim Brotherhood leader Zainab al Ghazali to understand how to build an Islamic order cleansed of the colonized mindset. Upon return he purchased a dilapidated drug den in 1970 and transformed it into a center for rigorous adult training in theology and Arabic alongside full time children’s education. His reach extended through community barbeques, jazz and lecture series, sports events, and prison ministries; the surrounding sidewalk is still painted green from earlier campaigns against street corner drug sales. After working together in a Bronx hospital MIB also attracted converts from the Young Lords, who were recently disbanded by the FBI’s COINTELPRO in 1973. This legacy of cross-community support continues under Tawfiq’s protégé Imam Talib Abdur Rashid, who has been a vocal opponent to the NYPD post-9/11 Muslim spying and entrapment programs.

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12/// The former Lenox Casino was a small community of a few hundred Muslims when Malcolm X came in 1954 as the new presiding minister. Malcolm’s arrival coincided with his rise as the public face of the NOI, bringing the program of Black self-improvement and religious transformation to African American communities across the country. Harlem did not want for religious life, then brimming with churches and spiritualist movements, but Malcolm’s rhetorical power as well as the socio-economic boost enjoyed by Nation members encouraged thousands to convert at Mosque #7. Eventually Malcolm left the Nation in 1964 to start his own organization and prominent preacher Louis Farrakhan was brought as a replacement. Two days after Malcolm’s assassination on February 21, 1965, the mosque was firebombed and, according to lore, everything was charred save the former minister’s office. Warith Deen Muhammad took over the Nation in 1975 and transitioned his mosques to Afro-centric Sunnism. The renovated Harlem mosque was re-named in 1967 as Masjid Malcolm Shabazz for its beloved former minister, who was, from the eulogy of Ossie Davis, “our own black shining prince who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so.”

The current leadership maintains the Malcolm Shabazz Development Corporation with several residential and commercial properties. The mosque also hosts a bazaar where many West African street sellers moved after being kicked off of 125th street in 1994, part of NYPD Police Commissioner William Bratton’s Broken Windows tactics. H&M and soon Whole Foods enjoy the prime real estate of the 125th street thoroughfare, but sidewalk sales of Afro-centric literature, black protest art, and incense persist and insist on the sacredness of this Black Mecca, despite all efforts by a corporate friendly City Hall.