45 pages 1 hour read

Chester Himes

Cotton Comes To Harlem

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1964

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Chester Himes’s 1965 novel Cotton Comes to Harlem is the sixth and best-known novel in his Harlem Detective series. The book follows black detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed as they search for $87,000 stolen from hardworking African American families who dream of returning to Africa and to escape poverty in America. The novel’s popularity led to other crime novels featuring African American cops and detectives, earning Himes the reputation as the father of the black crime novel. It was adapted into a film in 1970 and a BBC 4 Radio Play in 2012.

Plot Summary

Cotton Comes to Harlem opens with a Back-to-Africa rally, led by the charismatic conman Reverend Deke O’Malley. Deke persuades hardworking African American families to pay $1,000 for the chance to return to Africa and escape white oppression. Deke raises $87,000, but before he can pocket the money, a group of masked white men hijack the money. As police and hired gunmen pursue the white hijackers, a bale of cotton falls off the back of the white men’s meat truck as it disappears onto the streets of Harlem. A homeless junkman named Uncle Bud finds the cotton and stacks it onto his cart.

African American detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson take on the case. Unaware of the missing bale of cotton or its significance, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed pursue Deke, suspecting that he may have staged the hijacking to take off with the $87,000. They track Deke’s girl, Iris, who warns Deke not to come back to the apartment. Deke holes up with one of his followers, Mabel Hill, until Iris learns he’s been sleeping with her and confronts them at Mabel’s apartment. Mabel and Iris fight, and Iris shoots and kills Mabel. Deke beats up with Iris and takes off, disappearing into the streets of Harlem.

A new business opens in Harlem: The Back-to-the-Southland headquarters run by Colonel Calhoun, a Southerner from Alabama who wants to convince black people to return to the South and pick cotton. Calhoun believes blacks need the steadying hand and guidance of whites to show them the way. The headquarters also advertises for a bale of cotton. Meanwhile, Uncle Bud pawns off the cotton he’s found to a Jewish junkyard owner, Mr. Goodman. One of Goodman’s workers, Joshua, sees the advertisement in the Back-to-the-Southland building and approaches Calhoun about making a deal.

Grave Digger and Coffin Ed continue to pursue leads that might help them find either Deke or the missing money. The two detectives use the help of “pigeons” (police informants), prostitutes, drug runners, and conmen to track down Deke. Grave Digger and Coffin Ed learn about one of Deke’s associates, Barry, who has been helping Deke since he left the crime scene at Mabel’s place. Barry makes a deal with Calhoun about the cotton, and they agree to rendezvous later that night.

Grave Digger and Coffin Ed learn that Joshua was murdered at Mr. Goodman’s junkyard. The detectives realize something has been stolen, which Goodman identifies as the bale of cotton he bought from Uncle Bud. Grave Digger and Coffin Ed piece together that whoever murdered Joshua didn’t get their hands on the cotton. On their way out of the junkyard, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed are nearly gunned down by a passing car.

Deke, Barry, and some hired gunmen meet up with Calhoun under a bridge. Deke sends Barry to negotiate with Calhoun, but Calhoun and his men grab Barry and demand to know where the cotton is. Fearing for his life, Barry tells them Deke has it. Deke’s gunmen spook and try to shoot Calhoun but end up killing Barry. Calhoun escapes, but Grave Digger and Coffin Ed arrive and nab Deke. In the interrogation room, they refuse to contact his lawyer and instead bring in Iris, who tells Deke she will testify that he murdered Mabel Hill. Deke clams up and refuses to speak.

As Deke is being transferred to another prison, his followers riot outside and manage to set him free. Grave Digger and Coffin Ed make a deal with Iris to help them find Deke. Once free, Iris disappears into the streets of Harlem, though Coffin Ed and Grave Digger tail her. Iris goes to her lover’s house, a female dancer named Billie Belle, before leading the detectives to Deke’s church. Two of Calhoun’s gunmen hold Deke hostage in the basement, where they can hear the detectives following Iris. The gunmen try to shoot Coffin Ed and Grave Digger, but the detectives kill them. The church catches on fire, and Grave Digger and Coffin Ed use this threat to coerce Iris into telling them where the cotton is: with Billie.

Billie does an erotic dance around the bale of cotton and puts it up for auction. Calhoun pays $1,000 for the cotton and takes it back to his headquarters, and Grave Digger and Coffin Ed follow him. Grave Digger and Coffin Ed break into the building and hide in a closet as they watch Calhoun and his assistant dig into the cotton—only to discover it is empty. Grave Digger and Coffin Ed arrest Calhoun for Joshua’s murder but agree to let Calhoun go if he pays the stolen $87,000 out of his own pocket.

Back at the station, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger play innocent about how Calhoun managed to escape. The detectives question Billie, who bought the cotton from Uncle Bud for her dance. Billie faints when she learns it had $87,000 in it. Grave Digger and Coffin Ed learn that Uncle Bud kept the money and made his way to Africa, where he has been buying cattle to trade for wives.

blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
Unlock IconUnlock all 45 pages of this Study Guide
Plus, gain access to 8,000+ more expert-written Study Guides.
Including features:
+ Mobile App
+ Printable PDF
+ Literary AI Tools