Dr. Zulema Blair, chair of the Department of Public Administration at Medgar Evers College, says a shift in Harlem's population at the turn of the 20th century brought with it a strong appetite for politics.

“Harlem was the first place in the city that people migrated to from the West Indies, from the Caribbean, from Haiti, from all over,” Blair said. “People brought their political acumen with them from these countries, the immigrant community."

What You Need To Know

  • Former Rep. Charles Rangel served 23 terms, from 1971 to 2017

  • Rangel was part of the "Gang of Four," a powerful political force that shaped Harlem's history for decades

  • Brooklyn is now home to powerful Black political representation, including leaders like Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, New York State Attorney General Letitia James, Mayor Eric Adams and Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichot Hermelyn

Still, it wasn’t until 1945 that Harlem had its first Black representative, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. He was a charismatic and controversial congressman and pastor who would serve for more than 25 years, pressing for civil rights, and passing legislation that made lynching a federal crime and desegregated public schools.

The man who would finally unseat Powell in 1970 would also become a Harlem legend, a firebrand who was part of a political machine that would change the way the game was played for the next half century: former Rep. Charles Rangel.

"What would you say to Harlemites now who might think that your achievements are out of reach for them even though they’re in the same community?” NY1 asked Rangel.

“You got to marry good,” Rangel joked.

Rangel was a high school dropout and a Korean War hero. He found himself at a crossroads when his time in the army ended.

“I had a grandfather; he was an elevator operator at the criminal court building. He would sit on the stoop on 132nd Street in his uniform and give out legal advice. I wanted so badly to impress him. I said, ‘I want to be a lawyer.’ I had no idea you had to finish high school, college, and then to go to law school,” Rangel said.

A determined Rangel did all of that, and worked as an assistant U.S. attorney and a New York prosecutor. When he took a job with Mayor John Lindsay, Rangel caught the eye of J. Raymond Jones, a Caribbean-born political wheeler-dealer known as “The Harlem Fox," who was famous for cutting deals with the Tammany Hall political machine downtown.

“Lindsay asked me to become a mayor of the little section of Harlem. I did that, and then I got a call from Ray Jones that’s about as close as I ever got to any real power. He says, ‘I hear you made quite a name for yourself,’” Rangel said.

Jones would introduce him to Percy Sutton, a hard-charging Harlem civil rights advocate, as well as David Dinkins, an ex-Marine who had married into one of Harlem’s political families, and lawyer Basil Paterson. Just like that, the “Gang of Four” was born, a powerful political force that shaped Harlem’s history for decades.

“We all came together and never, never, never looked back. And most of what we had done, it was because people just assumed that we were the best of buddies. That we were fraternity people. Percy Sutton and I never went to a bar together. [We] never visited each other’s homes,” Rangel said.

“They understood what it took to make Harlem an economic engine for the Black community,” Blair added.

Their record of achievement was remarkable: Dinkins became New York City’s mayor in 1989. Rangel held a congressional seat for a record 23 terms. Sutton was Manhattan’s longest-serving borough president and Paterson was New York’s first Black Secretary of State. The problem that emerged was that the group never really created a plan for succession.

“I think they thought they can be there forever,” Blair noted.

But the demographics of Harlem were changing, and so was the political landscape. Rangel’s own seat went not to his hand-picked Black ally, Keith Wright, but to Rep. Adriano Espaillat.

“Where are things now? Things have changed in part demographically and there’s the economic transformation as well and a political change as well," NY1 asked Rangel. 

Rangel responded: “There’s no sense that the club is going to help you to pay the rent to get a job. It’s not the quality of those that’s running for leadership. It’s the opportunities that others that are better qualified have that causes people who need a job to run.”

And those opportunities created a new Black political power base. In Brooklyn, a trend that took shape in 1968, when Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman elected to Congress. Now, Black political leaders, including Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, New York State Attorney General Letitia James, Mayor Eric Adams and Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichot Hermelyn, all come from Kings County.

Blair said it’s because the Brooklyn machine did everything it could to protect historically Black neighborhoods, and the political base that went with them.

“Harlem didn’t always say, we’re going to get behind a Black national candidate, but Brooklyn did, especially with Barack Obama coming of age and although there were remnants of Harlem power still there, Brooklyn really sealed the deal there,” Blair said.