What Was the Harlem Renaissance?
It was summertime in Toluca, Mexico, in 1920. An American teenager named Langston Hughes and his father were leading two horses across the lonesome countryside. Langston’s father was an engineer. He wanted his son to become one, too. Engineers made good money.
Langston had seen what it was like to be both rich and poor. He had lived with his mother’s family in the midwestern United States and on his father’s ranch in Mexico. His father had money. His mother did not. Black people were segregated from white people in the United States. (Segregated means kept separate.) African Americans did not have the same opportunities as white Americans. That was one reason Langston’s father lived in Mexico. He thought Langston would have a better life as an engineer outside the United States. But Langston had other ideas.
Langston loved to write. He desperately wanted to go to New York City’s uptown neighborhood of Harlem. The bustling African American community was like a city within a city. Black writers and artists were beginning to make a name for themselves there. Langston would later say, “I dreamt about Harlem.”
In June 1921, the Crisis magazine published Langston’s first poem. It was called “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” (Negro is an outdated term for people of Black African descent.) The poem was about the journey of Black people from Africa to the American South.
“Did they pay you anything?” he remembered his father asking. No, Langston admitted. But it was a start. Not long after, his father agreed to pay for college in New York. Langston was headed to Harlem! He was only nineteen years old. Soon he would become one of the best--known poets of the Harlem Renaissance.
The Harlem Renaissance was a tremendous wave of creativity in the Black community of New York City. It took place during the 1920s and 1930s. African American culture had long been looked down on in the United States. Now new Black music, poetry, novels, dance, and art challenged those old views. Black artists began to take inspiration from their African roots and everyday lives. They wanted to express themselves not just as Americans but as African Americans. And it all began in Harlem, what Langston Hughes called “the greatest Negro city in the world.” Chapter 1: Welcome to Harlem!
Harlem of the 1920s was home to a swiftly growing African American community on the island of Manhattan in New York City. This “city within a city” reached from 110th Street all the way up to 144th Street between Lenox Avenue on the east and Seventh Avenue on the west. Famous nightclubs like the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom studded Lenox Avenue like neon jewels. They attracted wealthy customers and celebrities. Secret nightclubs called speakeasies served the Black working class on 133rd Street. On Seventh Avenue, Smalls’ Paradise offered “A Red Hot Show in a Cool Place” to racially mixed crowds. Smalls’ was a favorite hangout of the Harlem Renaissance set and featured dancing waiters!
Harlem wasn’t just about nightlife. The 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library and the Harlem branch of the YMCA held many cultural events.
The famous Apollo Theater on 125th Street near the local shopping district opened its doors to Black audiences in 1934. It draws African American performers from around the country to this day.
Harlem was a thriving neighborhood with Black doctors, lawyers, and even police officers. Wealthy areas like Strivers’ Row and Sugar Hill boasted stately stone townhouses and elegant apartment buildings. The sense of possibility in Harlem drew newcomers by the thousands. But it had not always been that way.
In the 1800s, Harlem had been a fashionable white neighborhood. By the end of the century, a large number of Jewish immigrants had moved in. The famous magician Harry Houdini bought a home there in 1904.
That same year, an enterprising African American man named Philip A. Payton Jr. began buying property in Harlem. “My first opportunity came as a result of a dispute between two white landlords in West 134th Street,” Payton recalled. “To ‘get even’ one of them turned his house over to me to fill with colored tenants,” he said. (Colored is an outdated word for people with brown skin.)
Payton was a smart businessman. He soon opened the Afro--American Realty Company to sell houses and rent apartments to Black people in Harlem. At the time, that was about four thousand people. By 1930, Harlem stretched north to 155th Street and south to 114th Street, and 165,000 Black people called it home! Chapter 2: Changing Times
Why did the Harlem Renaissance take place in the 1920s and ’30s? The previous decade was a time of great change in America. Millions of African Americans from the South began moving North where they hoped to find a better life.
In the South, Black people had been forced to live under conditions that made it nearly impossible for them to get a good education or job, or to feel safe. So they left for cities such as New York and settled in certain neighborhoods, such as Harlem. These neighborhoods became thriving African American communities where Black culture flourished.
Then came World War I and with it, even more change. In 1917, the United States entered the war in Europe. In the United States, some white Americans didn’t think Black people were as brave or intelligent as white people. Many Black men thought fighting in the war was a chance to show that those ideas were wrong! They hoped that by serving in Europe with honor they would be rewarded with equal treatment back home. None fought more nobly than the men of the 369th Regiment.
The 369th served in France, fighting against the Germans. Of all the American regiments its size, the 369th spent the most time on the battlefield. And they suffered the most losses.
The 369th fought so fiercely that the Germans reportedly called them “hellfighters.” Both the United States and France awarded the “Harlem Hellfighters” medals for their brave service.
African American soldiers were treated with respect in France. They were not turned away from restaurants and hotels the way they would have been in the States.
A few months after the war was won, 2,900 Harlem Hellfighters marched up Fifth Avenue in New York City. The front page of the New York Times newspaper declared, “Fifth Av. Cheers Negro Veterans.” Photographs show the soldiers in their domed helmets, rifles at their sides. It was an impressive display of African American pride. The Hellfighters were celebrating a double victory—-one over the Germans, and one over racism at home. Or so they thought.
The Germans had indeed been defeated. But racism in the United States had not. Many white Americans viewed these heroic Black soldiers as a threat. In 1919, in cities across the country, white people attacked African Americans in violent race riots known as “Red Summer.”
The attacks inspired poet Claude McKay’s poem “If We Must Die.” It urged Black people to fight back with dignity. McKay later became a famous poet of the Harlem Renaissance.
Sadly, the riots continued. By the end of the year, hundreds of African Americans lay dead and thousands more were houseless. It was clear America was at a terrible crossroads. The old stereotypes of Jim Crow and the false belief in white superiority had to be erased.
Could art be the answer? Chapter 3: On with the Show!
By 1920, Harlem had become a destination for upwardly mobile Black people. It was seen as a place where great things could happen. This hopeful energy was what attracted Langston Hughes to Harlem. That, and a musical called Shuffle Along.
The show opened on May 23, 1921, at the 63rd Street Music Hall on Broadway. (Broadway is the name of the theater district in New York City.) James Hubert “Eubie” Blake and Noble Sissle teamed up to create the show. Sissle had been a Harlem Hellfighter. Blake had worked with ragtime musician James Europe. Blake and Sissle believed the best way to appeal to a wider audience—-both Black and white theatergoers—-was with a musical comedy. Shuffle Along would prove them right!
Shuffle Along told the story of two dishonest grocery store owners who run for mayor in a fictional town only to be defeated by an honest man. Blake composed the music. Sissle wrote the lyrics, the words to songs. While it might seem outdated today, the show was groundbreaking for its time. It featured an all--Black cast, toe--tapping music, singing, dancing, laughs, and a realistic love story. Up until this point, all African American onstage romances had been played for humor.
The star was a famous singer. Florence Mills had a unique voice, “full of bubbling, bell--like, bird--like tones.” One of the show’s songs, “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” was a massive hit and years later became President Harry Truman’s campaign theme. (And he won!)
The hit show ran for more than five hundred performances—-a record for a show written, produced, performed, and directed entirely by African Americans. Shuffle Along’s popularity sparked new interest in African American culture. Over the next three years, nine other Black musicals were created for Broadway. It also helped desegregate Broadway audiences. Black theatergoers could sit in seats near the stage that had been for “whites only.”
Langston Hughes was a broke college student. He didn’t mind sitting in the cheap seats night after night to hear Mills sing. To him Shuffle Along “gave just the proper push . . . to that Negro vogue of the 20’s, that spread to books, African sculpture, music, and dancing.” (Vogue means fashion.)
White people began flooding north to Harlem for Black entertainment. Unfortunately, even in Harlem, some famous nightclubs had “whites only” policies. The Cotton Club was even designed to look like an old southern plantation. Great African American musicians and singers performed there. But Black customers were only allowed inside if they were famous. And even then, they had to sit to the side.
African Americans were not welcome in most restaurants or nightclubs in white neighborhoods. One exception was the Civic Club of New York in lower Manhattan. It would host one of the most important events in the Harlem Renaissance.
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