At 96-years-old, Marcella Maxwell feels right at home in her cozy Harlem apartment in Lenox Terrace.

In her home are precious memories dating back to rural highways and byways in North Carolina when her family left brutal Jim Crow laws during the depression. Their destination: New York City.

“We migrated to New York like all of the other migrants that were coming from the deep south to get away from the suppressive and oppressive racist laws that made it almost impossible to do anything except pick cotton in the South,” Maxwell said.

What You Need To Know

  • Approximately six million Black people moved from the South to Northern, Midwestern, and Western states from the 1910s until the 1970s during the "Great Migration." Harlem was a popular destination during that time

  • Census data from 2000 show that Blacks made up 77% of Central Harlem's population

  • City data from 2021 show about 56,000 African Americans live in Central Harlem, amounting to 44% of the population

Maxwell’s family was among the millions of African Americans who relocated to northern cities during a period known as the ‘Great Migration’. Harlem, at this time, was among the most famous Black neighborhoods in America.

Maxwell explained as a young person, she enjoyed going to the Savoy Ballroom every weekend. The dance hall was arguably the crown jewel in Harlem at that time. Located at Lenox Avenue and 140th Street, it was known as the “home of happy feet.”

It was the place to be during the Harlem Renaissance and was one of the few integrated venues where Blacks and whites were equal.

Today, the Savoy is long gone. It was demolished in 1959, and a plaque is all that remains of the historic venue. Longtime residents say far too many cultural gems dating back to the Harlem Renaissance have vanished. Census records show the neighborhood, once considered the Capital of Black America, is no longer majority Black, and hasn’t been for years.

As of 2021, about 56,000 African Americans live in Central Harlem, amounting to 44% of the population according to city data. The white population steadily rising to nearly 18%.

These numbers are drastically different than just 20 years prior. Census data from 2000 show that Blacks made up 77% of Central Harlem’s population.

Activist and noted historian Michael Henry Adams has been appealing to the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to do more to protect buildings uptown.

“What about when Harlem is mostly white? What will be the meaning and value of your institutions at all?” Adams asked. “A lot is at stake. If you go anywhere in the world and you say, ‘I’m from Harlem,’ everybody has some idea. It is one of the most special places in this nation. And for it not to survive as an African American community, to me would be like visiting Paris without the French,” Adams added.

This summer, Harlem Week will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Lloyd Williams is one of the architects of the popular festival.

“I’m very, very focused on making sure that we do not lose Harlem, particularly the people of color,” Williams said.

The longtime President and CEO of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce knows all too well what’s happening uptown. Million-dollar real estate from river to river, and on the flip side: the lack of affordable housing.

A reverse migration of Blacks is happening: they are abandoning the city for the south, just as white families were priced out of Manhattan below 110th Street, many taking advantage of rent stabilized apartments and rows of brownstones.

“Too many of the white neighbors we have, they don’t say hello. They don’t understand the culture. They are hesitant. They are afraid. What we need to say is be a neighbor. If you’re coming into this community, be a contributor. What are you doing to help our seniors? What are you doing to help our schools? What are you doing to help our children become a part of the neighborhood? And you will be embraced. Or times you say hello to them and they kind of look at you as if you don’t even exist,” Williams said.

Denise Fisher embraces her neighbors on Strivers’ Row. About 12 years ago, she moved into this historic district from Westchester. This storied block is nestled between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass Boulevards and is widely known for its immaculate brownstone and limestone buildings and was once home to affluent Blacks and celebrities like Bill Bojangles Robinson and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Fisher personally designed the entrance to her home in honor of Harlem’s powerful legacy.

“I wanted to pay homage to the people who lived here before. And I really wanted something to be that wow factor of Harlem. Not just a wow factor, but something that really speaks to this street, this block, this community,” Fisher said.

Fisher added that from time-to-time bus tours and passersby will pause in front of her home and mention Malcolm X, but she couldn’t figure out why. NY1 learned that it was at her home that the activist founded the Organization of AFRO American Unity in 1964 months before he was assassinated.

Today, Marcella Maxwell has more white neighbors at Lenox Terrace than ever before. Built in 1958, it was called “Harlem’s Best Address.” The retired educator is proud to be part of its legacy and welcomes the change.

“I think that the diversity is a plus, but that we must always be conscious of the fact that we are the ones that built this part of the city,” Maxwell said.