"The City of Refuge" by Rudolph Fisher tells the story of King Solomon Gillis, a black man who runs to Black Harlem to escape lynching and persecution for killing a white man down south in North Carolina. What Gillis finds in Harlem is a land of plenty, a 'city of refuge' for blacks, where black people are in the majority and are able to thrive. The setting of the short story - Black Harlem - is brought to life with vivid detail, and Gillis' encounters in this neighborhood give the city a life all its own. The use of setting in this story conveys the hustle and bustle of black Harlem, as well as its deceptive nature; Gillis thinks he has found a city of refuge, but it is just a trap that chews up and spits out naive blacks looking for help and sanctuary.
When Gillis first arrives in Harlem off the train, he is absolutely astonished by what he sees around him. Instead of a white-centric landscape, he sees Negroes everywhere; "Here and there a white face drifting along, but Negroes predominantly, overwhelmingly everywhere. There was assuredly no doubt of his whereabouts. This was Negro Harlem" (Fisher 1). This is when he knows he has arrived, and the thought fills him instantly with glee and rapture; he has made it. The vast difference he notices right away, from the sight of Negroes everywhere running about and going about their business, is the dominance of blacks in Harlem; "In Harlem, black was white. You had rights that could not be denied youEverybody in Harlem had money. It was a land of plenty" (Fisher 1). His first impression gives him substantial hope for his future in the big city.
Gillis come to Harlem in order to escape his potential lynching due to his killing of a white man; he knew he was as good as dead if he did not leave, and so Harlem represents more than just a better place to live - "The land of plenty was more than that now; it was also the city of refuge" (Fisher 2). Of course, Harlem eventually betrays this image with its own problems - there are few high paying jobs, the housing is cramped and uncomfortable, and the cabaret life is seedy. That being said, Gillis at first enjoys the sheer movement and kinetic nature of life in the city, as it is so different from the slower pace of the South; "If the inside of New York had mystified him, the outside was amazing him" (Fisher 2).
Harlem is made out in Fisher's story to be the kind of place that chews up and spits out people like Gillis; Uggam introduces Gillis to Tom Edwards as "a baby jess in from the land o'cotton and so dumb he thinks ante bellum's an old woman" (Fisher 3). The implication is that other people like Gillis have come up and tried to make it in Harlem, and are naive to do so; this paints Harlem as a very fast-paced locale that is not friendly to newcomers. Gillis is put up in "a room half the size of his hencoop back home," and is subjected to "a sewer of sounds and smells" that make him increasingly uncomfortable; all the same, he clings to the fact that he found "cullud policemans" as a sign that things are good for black people in Harlem (Fisher 3-4). This indicates Harlem's ability to allure and alarm new black migrants to the big city; its own charm, and the novelty and opportunity an all-black neighborhood brings, is what draws people in and traps them.
Instead of being lynched in Harlem, Gillis is hustled by Uggam, a man he thinks is his friend; Uggam gets him to smuggle "little white pills" he explains to Gillis is "valuable French medicine," in order to get him back for the manufactured favor that he does Gillis in chasing away the West Indian man who bills him for lost apples (Fisher 6-7). The city is shown to be duplicitous, where everyone hides their ulterior motives behind a veneer of friendship; the city seems to thrive on young naive Negroes like Gillis coming to the city for a better life, only to find themselves being taken advantage of without sympathy. This drug scheme is but the latest thing that sets Harlem apart from Gillis' home; he has no idea of the drug trade, and he earnestly expects people in the city to be nice to him because they all share the same race. Gillis expects everyone to see Harlem the same way he does - a shining beacon of light for blacks, where they get to be in charge; the city of refuge he so desperately looked for. Unfortunately, Uggam and others descend upon him like hawks, taking him for what he has and disposing of him when he becomes inconvenient.
Gillis' short stint at Tony's store is another indicator of the nature of Harlem; Tony notices the suspicious nature of his increase in business, but understands the shady system under which the neighborhood runs. The noted difference from the South is that, truly, this is a black man's neighborhood; "Patronage had a queer way of shifting itself in Harlem. You lost your temper and let slip a single "negre!" A week later you sold your business" (Fisher 8). Even other whites found in Harlem businesses run by whites are suspicious; this is a marked difference from the mostly-white South. These whites turn out to be policemen, which is the only context in which you would find whites actually living and breathing in Harlem (except for those who run businesses). At first glance, this is the kind of world that Gillis would welcome, as he feels safe from the oppression of whites; however, it ends up being his undoing.
In many ways, Harlem is just like the rest of the world, with its own seedy locales; "even the oldest and rattiest cabarets in Harlem have sense of shame enough to hide themselves under the ground" (p. 9). Gillis is eventually undone by the expectation that, just because Harlem is occupied by blacks, it allows them special treatment or is particularly kind to them. Being arrested by a black policeman, his cry of "Cullud policemans!" is empty and desperate. Harlem in "The City of Refuge" is a trap; it seems to be a land of plenty, but it just proves to be a place that chews up naive Southern blacks looking for sanctuary, as they are not used to or familiar with the fast-paced, seedy element of the big city.
Fisher, Rudolph. "The City of Refuge." Atlantic Monthly 1925. Print.