Black residents have been present in Harlem continually since the 1630s, and as the neighborhood modernized in the late 19th century, they could be found especially in the area around 125th Street and in the “Negro tenements” on West 130th Street. By 1900, tens of thousands lived in Harlem. The mass migration of blacks into the area began in 1904, due to another real estate crash, the worsening of conditions for blacks elsewhere in the city, and the leadership of black real estate entrepreneurs including Phillip Payton, Jr. After the collapse of the 1890s, new speculation and construction started up again in 1903 and the resulting glut of housing led to a crash in values in 1904 and 1905 that eclipsed the late-19th century slowdown. Landlords could not find white renters for their properties, so Philip Payton stepped in to bring blacks. His company, the Afro-American Realty Company, has been credited with the migration of blacks from their previous neighborhoods, the Tenderloin, San Juan Hill (now the site of Lincoln Center), Minetta Lane in Greenwich Village and Hell’s Kitchen in the west 40s and 50s. The move to northern Manhattan was driven in part by fears that anti-black riots such as those that had occurred in the Tenderloin in 1900 and in San Juan Hill in 1905 might recur. In addition, a number of tenements that had been occupied by blacks in the west 30s were destroyed at this time to make way for the construction of the original Penn Station.
In 1907, black churches began to move uptown. Several congregations built grand new church buildings, including St Philip’son West 134th Street just west of Seventh Avenue (the wealthiest church in Harlem), the Abyssinian Baptist Church on West 138th Street and St Mark’s Methodist Church on Edgecombe Avenue. More often churches purchased buildings from white congregations of Christians and Jews whose members had left the neighborhood, including Metropolitan Baptist Church on West 128th and Seventh Avenue, St James Presbyterian Church on West 141st Street, and Mt Olivet Baptist Church on Lenox Avenue. Only the Catholic Church retained its churches in Harlem, with white priests presiding over parishes that retained significant numbers of whites until the 1930s.