The Harlem Renaissance

A golden age in African American culture

A Brief History

In the 1920’s, creative and intellectual life flourished within African American communities in the North and Midwest regions of the United States, but nowhere more so than in Harlem. The New York City neighborhood, encompassing only three square miles, teemed with black artists, intellectuals, writers, and musicians. Black-owned businesses, from newspapers, publishing houses, and music companies to nightclubs, cabarets, and theaters, helped fuel the neighborhood’s thriving scene. Some of the era’s most important literary and artistic figures migrated to or passed through “the Negro capital of the world,” helping to define a period in which African-American artists reclaimed their identity and racial pride in defiance of widespread prejudice and discrimination.

The origins of the Harlem Renaissance lie in the Great Migration of the early 20th century, when hundreds of thousands of black people migrated from the South into dense urban areas that offered relatively more economic opportunities and cultural capital. It was, in the words of editor, journalist, and critic Alain Locke, “a spiritual coming of age” for African American artists and thinkers, who seized upon their “first chances for group expression and self-determination.” Harlem Renaissance poets such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Georgia Douglas Johnson explored the beauty and pain of black life and sought to define themselves and their community outside of white stereotypes.

Poetry from the Harlem Renaissance reflected a diversity of forms and subjects. Some poets, such as Claude McKay, used culturally European forms—the sonnet was one––melded with a radical message of resistance, as in “If We Must Die.” Others, including James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, brought specifically black cultural creations into their work, infusing their poems with the rhythms of ragtime, jazz, and blues.

Important Dates

Timeline Overview

Slavery Abolished
World War 1
Great Migration
Harlem Renaissance
Prohibition Era
The Roaring Twenties
The Cotton Club
The Great Depression
Prohibition Era Ends
The Apollo Theatre
Harlem Race Riot
Harlem Renaissance Ends

Slavery Abolished

The abolition of slavery in the U.S. occurred by 1865, with the end of the American Civil War (1861–1865) and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Slavery’s abolishment ended the darkest period in America’s short history, a stain that runs further than America’s very own independence from Great Britain in 1776, a deeply soiled blemish with roots that go as far back on American soil as the early 1600’s when the first 19 or so Africans to reach the English colonies arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, brought by Dutch traders who had seized them from a captured Spanish slave ship. The transformation of the social status of Africans, from indentured servitude to slaves in a racial caste which they could not leave or escape, happened gradually and swept over much of the original 13 colonies and expanding states. From John Punch (the first official American Slave of record) to the passing of the thirteenth amendment, America’s days of legalized slavery would set a tone that lives in the every fiber of our complex history.

As an economic system, slavery was largely replaced by sharecropping. Socially, slavery would be replaced by rapid fear mongering and rebellious hate crime in the form of the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, Segregation and various forms of cultural exclusion.


World War 1

Over 350K African Americans served during World War I, most served as “stevedores, camp laborers, [and in] logistical support.” Close to 50,000 saw combat and nearly 1K were killed.

The hundreds of thousands of African Americans who served in the US Army during World War I and returned home as heroes soon faced many more battles over their equality in American society. This can be summed up concisely by an excerpt from W.E.B. DuBois poem “Returning Soldier”:

We return.
We return from fighting.
We return fighting.

African-American soldiers were celebrated as returning heroes after the war. Black soldiers symbolized the hopes and aspirations African Americans had for true democracy in the United States after the war.

Conversely, many white Americans viewed returning black soldiers as a threat because of their military service and exposure to new ideas about race and equality, especially in France. Many black veterans were victims to waves of postwar racial violence including one of the deadliest waves coming in the Summer of 1919. In what come to be known as the “Red Summer,” coined by Literary figure and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson.

World War I was in many ways the beginning of the 20th-century civil rights movement. The war created opportunities for African Americans to demand their civil rights, in and outside of the Army.

Moreover, the war transformed the racial and political consciousness of a generation of black people, especially those who served in the military. This would shape the activism and everyday resistance of black people throughout the postwar period.


The Great Migration

With the manpower mobilization of World War I and immigration from Europe cut off, the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest experienced severe labor shortages. Northern manufacturers recruited throughout the South and an exodus of workers ensued. By the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance in 1918, some 1 million blacks had left the South, usually traveling by train, boat or bus. In the decade between 1910 and 1920, the black population of major Northern cities grew by large percentages, including New York (66 percent), Chicago (148 percent), Philadelphia (500 percent) and Detroit (611 percent), henceforth creating the first wave of the Great Migration which continued until 1940.

Driven from their homes by unsatisfactory economic opportunities and harsh segregationist laws closely associated with the Jim Crow South, many blacks headed north, where they took advantage of the need for industrial workers that first arose during the First World War. African-American workers filled new positions in expanding industries, such as the railroads, as well as many jobs formerly held by whites in which Black workers could typically make a wage three times than what blacks could expect to make working the land in the rural South. This increased resentment against blacks among many working-class whites, immigrants or first-generation Americans. While segregation was not legalized in the North (as in the South), racism and prejudice were nonetheless widespread.

During the Great Migration, African Americans began to build a new place for themselves in public life, actively confronting racial prejudice as well as economic, political and social challenges to create a black urban culture that would exert enormous influence in the decades to come. Rising rents in segregated areas, plus a resurgence of KKK activity after 1915, worsened black and white relations across the country.

As a result of housing tensions, many blacks ended up creating their own cities within big cities, fostering the growth of a new urban, African-American culture. The most prominent example was Harlem in New York City, a formerly all-white neighborhood that by the 1920s housed some 200,000 African Americans.

The black experience during the Great Migration became an important theme in the artistic movement known first as the New Negro Movement and later as the Harlem Renaissance, which would greatly impact the culture of the era.


Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was the development of the Harlem neighborhood in New York City (which covers just 3 Sq. Mi) as a black cultural Mecca that would house 175K African Americans in the early 20th Century and the subsequent social and artistic explosion that resulted. Lasting, from the 1918 through 1937, the period is considered a golden age in African American culture, manifesting in literature, music, stage performance and art.

The northern Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem was meant to be an upper-class white neighborhood in the 1880s, but rapid overdevelopment led to empty buildings and desperate landlords seeking to fill them. In the early 1900s, a few middle-class black families from another neighborhood known as Black Bohemia moved to Harlem, and other black families followed. Some white residents initially fought to keep African Americans out of the area, but failing that many whites eventually fled and the Harlem neighborhood would become the largest concentration of black people in the world.

Originally called the New Negro Movement, the Harlem Renaissance was a literary and intellectual flowering that fostered a new black cultural identity in the 1920s and 30’s. Literary figure Alain Locke described it as a "spiritual coming of age" in which the black community was able to seize upon its "first chances for group expression and self determination."

The years between World War 1 and the Great Depression were boom times for the U.S., and jobs were plentiful in cities, especially in the North. Black-owned magazines and newspapers flourished, freeing African Americans from the constricting influences of mainstream white society.

The Harlem Renaissance’s impact on America was indelible. The movement brought notice to the great works of African American art, and inspired and influenced future generations of African American artists and intellectuals. In doing so, it radically redefined how people of other races viewed African Americans and understood the African American experience.

Most importantly, the Harlem Renaissance instilled in African Americans across the country a new spirit of self-determination and pride, a new social consciousness, and a new commitment to political activism, all of which would provide a foundation for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.


Prohibition Era Begins

The ratification of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution–which banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors–ushered in a period in American history known as Prohibition. The result of a widespread temperance movement during the first decade of the 20th century, Prohibition was difficult to enforce. The increase of the illegal production and sale of liquor (known as “bootlegging”), the proliferation of speakeasies (illegal drinking spots) the smuggling of alcohol across state lines and the informal production of liquor (“moonshine” or “bathtub gin”) in private homes as well as the accompanying rise in gang violence and other crimes led to waning support for Prohibition by the end of the 1920s. By the turn of the century, temperance societies were a common fixture in communities across the United States. Women played a strong role in the temperance movement, as alcohol was seen as a destructive force in families and marriages.

Ratified on January 29, 1919, the 18th Amendment went into effect a year later.

Both federal and local government struggled to enforce Prohibition over the course of the 1920s. In general, Prohibition was enforced much more strongly in areas where the population was sympathetic to the legislation–mainly rural areas and small towns–and much more loosely in urban areas.

The 18th Amendment only forbade the “manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating liquors”—not their consumption. By law, any wine, beer or spirits Americans had stashed away in January 1920 were theirs to keep and enjoy in the privacy of their homes. For most, this amounted to only a few bottles, but some affluent drinkers built cavernous wine cellars and even bought out whole liquor store inventories to ensure they had healthy stockpiles of legal hooch.

On the whole, the initial economic effects of Prohibition were largely negative. The closing of breweries, distilleries and saloons led to the elimination of thousands of jobs, and in turn thousands more jobs were eliminated for barrel makers, truckers, waiters, and other related trades.

One of the most profound effects of Prohibition was on government tax revenues. Before Prohibition, many states relied heavily on excise taxes in liquor sales to fund their budgets. In New York, almost 75% of the state's revenue was derived from liquor taxes. With Prohibition in effect, that revenue was immediately lost. At the national level, Prohibition cost the federal government a total of $11 billion in lost tax revenue, while costing over $300 million to enforce.


Roaring Twenties

In the Roaring Twenties, a surging economy created an era of mass consumerism, as Jazz-Age flappers flouted Prohibition laws and the Harlem Renaissance redefined arts and culture.

Many Americans spent the 1920s in a great mood. Investors flocked to a rising stock market. Companies launched brand-new, cutting-edge products, like radios and washing machines. Exuberant Americans kicked up their heels to jazz music, tried crazy stunts, and supported a black market in liquor after Prohibition. A popular expression of the time asked, “What will they think of next?”

Many people believe that the 1920s marked a new era in United States history. The decade often is referred to as the "Roaring Twenties" due to the supposedly new and less-inhibited lifestyle that many people embraced in this period. One could say that it was in the “Roaring Twenties that America found its swag.

Following World War I, many returning veterans, as well as many men and women who had moved to cities to seek wartime jobs, had no desire to return to working in factories or on farms. They hoped to live a more comfortable life, like the ones portrayed in the movies, magazines, and newspapers of the day. The Flappers, women who dressed provocatively by the standards of the time, had bobbed hairstyles, went to clubs, smoked, and drank bootleg liquor, redefined gender roles for women and became icons for the decade.

The “New Woman” a young woman with bobbed hair and short skirts who drank, smoked and said what might be termed “unladylike” things, in addition to being more sexually “free” than previous generations. In reality, most young women in the 1920s did none of these things (though many did adopt a fashionable flapper wardrobe), but even those women who were not flappers gained some unprecedented freedoms. They could vote at last: The 19th Amendment to the Constitution had guaranteed that right in 1920. The increased availability of birth-control devices such as the diaphragm made it possible for women to have fewer children.

The 1920s were an age of dramatic social and political change. For the first time, more Americans lived in cities than on farms. The nation’s total wealth more than doubled between 1920 and 1929, and this economic growth swept many Americans into an affluent but unfamiliar “consumer society.” Many Americans were uncomfortable with this new, urban, sometimes racy “mass culture;” in fact, for many–even most–people in the United States, the 1920s brought more conflict than celebration.


The Cotton Club

The Cotton Club was a New York City nightclub located in Harlem on 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue from 1923 to 1935, then briefly in the midtown Theater District from 1936 to 1940, when it relocated largely due to reduction of patrons with the end of Prohibition and the infamous Harlem Race Riots of 1935. The club operated most notably during the United States. The club was a whites-only establishment, but featured many of the most popular black entertainers of the era.

In 1920, heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson rented the upper floor of the building on the corner of 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue in the heart of Harlem and opened an intimate supper club called the Club Deluxe before Owney Madden, a prominent bootlegger and gangster, took over the club after his release from Sing Sing in 1923 and changed its name to the Cotton Club. The two arranged a deal that allowed Johnson to remain the club’s manager. Madden "used the cotton club as an outlet to sell his #1 beer to the prohibition crowd”. When the club closed briefly in 1925 for selling liquor, it soon reopened quickly due to political connections, what we today call “the plug” without interference from the police.

The Cotton Club was a whites-only establishment and reproduced the racist imagery of the era, often depicting black people as savages in exotic jungles or as "darkies" in the plantation South these all helped perpetuate widely held stereotypes about African Americans. "Black performers did not mix with the club's clientele, and after the shows many of them went next door to the basement of the superintendent at 646 Lenox, where they imbibed corn whiskey, peach brandy, and marijuana.”. Ellington was expected to write "jungle music" for a white audience; Ellington's contributions to the Cotton Club were priceless. Entrance was expensive for customers, so the performers were well-compensated


The Great Depression

The Great Depression was the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world, lasting from 1929 to 1939. It began after the stock market crash of October 29, 1929 “Black Tuesday,” which sent Wall Street into a panic and wiped out millions of investors. Over the next several years, consumer spending widely associated with the Roaring 20’s and investments dropped, causing steep declines in industrial output and employment as failing companies laid off workers. By 1933, when the Great Depression reached its lowest point, some 15 million Americans were unemployed and nearly half the country’s banks had failed.

The stock market, centered at the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street in New York City, was the scene of reckless speculation, where everyone from millionaire tycoons to cooks and janitors poured their savings into stocks. As a result, the stock market underwent rapid expansion, peaking in August 1929.

The American economy entered a mild recession during the summer of 1929, as consumer spending slowed and unsold goods began to pile up, which in turn slowed factory production. As consumer confidence vanished in the wake of the stock market crash, the downturn in spending and investment led factories and other businesses to slow down production and begin firing their workers. For those who were lucky enough to remain employed, wages fell and buying power decreased. Many Americans forced to buy on credit fell into debt, and the number of foreclosures and repossessions climbed steadily.

By 1930, 4 million Americans looking for work could not find it; that number had risen to 6 million in 1931. Meanwhile, the country’s industrial production had dropped by half. Bread lines, soup kitchens and rising numbers of homeless people became more and more common in America’s towns and cities. In the fall of 1930, the first of four waves of banking panics began, as large numbers of investors lost confidence in the solvency of their banks and demanded deposits in cash, forcing banks to liquidate loans in order to supplement their insufficient cash reserves on hand.

Bank runs swept the United States again in the spring and fall of 1931 and the fall of 1932, and by early 1933 thousands of banks had closed their doors.

In the face of this dire situation, Hoover’s administration tried supporting failing banks and other institutions with government loans; the idea was that the banks in turn would loan to businesses, which would be able to hire back their employees. If this all sounds quite familiar, it's because 1929 had some things in common with the recession of 2009, clearly history can repeat itself.


Prohibition Era Ends

The high price of bootleg liquor meant that the nation’s working class and poor were far more restricted during Prohibition than middle or upper class Americans. Even as costs for law enforcement, jails and prisons spiraled upward, support for Prohibition was waning by the end of the 1920s. In addition, fundamentalist and nativist forces had gained more control over the temperance movement, alienating its more moderate members.

With the country mired in the Great Depression by 1932, creating jobs and revenue by legalizing the liquor industry had an undeniable appeal. Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for president that year on a platform calling for Prohibition’s appeal, and easily won victory over the incumbent President Herbert Hoover. FDR’s victory meant the end for Prohibition, and in February 1933 Congress adopted a resolution proposing a 21st Amendment to the Constitution that would repeal the 18th.

Socially, the end of the prohibition era, notched another chink in the forthcoming end of the Harlem Renaissance era, as the white patrons that frequented and supported the speakeasies, bars and clubs cleverly residing in the densely populated Harlem neighborhood would now spend their entertainment times away from the Black populated and riot riddled Uptown scene.


The Apollo Theatre

Though The Apollo Theater was constructed in 1914, it wouldn’t grow to prominence until the latter years of the Harlem renaissance, of the pre World-War II years, located on 125th Street in Harlem, New York, the Apollo was by Sidney Cohen. Under a 30 year lease It was originally Hurtig and Seamon's New Burlesque Theatre in 1914, and African American admissions were not permitted. It originally featured burlesque, however, the city's mayor at the time, Fiorello La Guardia, did not like burlesque, and campaigned about it which would eventually lead to its temporary closing.

In January 1934, owner Cohen reopens the Apollo Theater and changes the show format burlesque to variety reviews. Marketing attention is redirected to the growing African-American community in Harlem. The Theater is renamed 125th Street Apollo Theater. African Americans began to perform, and the attention shifted from Burlesque, to the new celebration of Black culture in New York City.

It introduced its regular Amateur Night shows hosted by Ralph Cooper. The venue helped many famous black performers start their careers including a then 17-year old Ella Fitzgerald to later on James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and even Michael Jackson.

The Tree of Hope, cut down from in front of the Lafayette Theatre, is brought to the Apollo Theater by Ralph Cooper. The Tree of Hope still stands on the Apollo stage where Amateur Night performers rub the object hoping to share the good fortune of so many artists before them.

With the Cotton Club’s move downtown in 1936, the Apollo quickly became the prominent and leading space for break-ing and showcasing black talent to mixed audiences.

"….the Apollo probably exerted a greater influence upon popular culture than any other entertainment venue in the world. For blacks it was the most important cultural institution–not just the greatest black theatre, but a special place to come of age emotionally, professionally, socially, and politically. Ted Fox, “Showtime at the Apollo”

When it comes to the music and entertainment significance of Black culture, The Apollo is every bit as relevant at Motown Records, BET and other stalwarts of influence commonly recognized for greatly shaping Black Entertainment in America.


Harlem Race Riots

Harlem race riot of 1935, a riot that occurred in Harlem on March 19–20, 1935. It was precipitated by a teenager’s theft of a penknife from a store and was fueled by economic hardship, racial injustice, and community mistrust of the police. It is sometimes considered the first modern American race riot.

Once home to a number of New York’s prominent families, Harlem by the early 1900s had become a major centre of African-American culture. It provided the backdrop against which the Harlem Renaissance was set. Indeed, the race riot of 1935 is considered the terminating event of that cultural flowering bring the era to a decisive end by early 1937.

By the 1930s African Americans had begun to make some strides towards equality —the first African American since Reconstruction had been elected to congress; boycotts had resulted in opening up job opportunities for African Americans; and the Congress of Industrial Organizations had become the first union to admit blacks.

Despite those steps, however, racial inequality was still prevalent. The Great Depression had left the national economy in a shambles. Millions of people, of all ethnicities, were out of work. Further, African Americans continued to be the victims of discriminatory practices. They were often the first to be fired and the last to be hired. As homeowners they struggled with redlining policies, unfair rents, and falling property values.

Life in Harlem, as in many urban settings, was difficult during that period. The once-teeming nightclubs that had employed (though not necessarily welcomed) so many blacks closed, and thousands of Southern blacks, hoping to escape poverty and discrimination, settled in Harlem. To add to the residents’ frustration, the New York City government generally neglected Harlem, so its streets, playgrounds, and public facilities were often the last on the list to be repaired.

On March 19 Lino Rivera, a 16-year-old black Puerto Rican, was caught stealing a penknife from the S.H. Kress dime store at 256 West 125th Street (across from the Apollo Theater), and the owner called the police. By the time the officers arrived, a crowd had gathered outside the store. The storekeeper, afraid of what the crowd might do if the boy was arrested, asked police to let Rivera go. The officers agreed, and the boy left by the store’s backdoor.

No one told the crowd what had happened, and soon rumors spread that the police had killed Rivera. More than 10,000 people took to the streets to protest the perceived police brutality. Black frustration exploded into rioting and the destruction of property. With the onset of looting, storekeepers tried to protect their property by posting such signs as “Black owned” and “We employ black people” in their windows. When the all-white police force arrived to attempt to regain control, the rioters fought them.

The riot continued through the night of March 19 and into the next day. When it ended, 125 people had been arrested, more than 100 people had been injured, and 3 individuals were dead—all of them black. Property damage to some 200 stores was in excess of $2 million.


Harlem Renaissance Ends

The end of Harlem’s creative boom began with the stock market crash of 1929, wavered thru the end of Prohibition in 1933, which meant white patrons no longer sought out the illegal alcohol in uptown clubs.

By 1935 many pivotal Harlem residents had moved on seeking work, replaced by the continuous flow of refugees from the South, many requiring public assistance. That same year, the Harlem Riot ensued, serving as a marker of the end of the Harlem Renaissance and the era officially ending in early 1937.

Well that’s just it, does the Harlem Renaissance really end or does it simply evolve. Planting its spirit of Inspiration within the Zora Neale Hurston 1937 Classic novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God”, the Tuskegee Airmen of the 1940’s, civil rights activist of the 50’s, the Motown era of the 60’s, the Black Panther movement of the 70’s, the birthing of Hip-Hop thru the 80’s, Toni Morrison’s work in the 90’s earning her the first African-American to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, the first U.S. Black President being elected in Barack Obama in the 2000’s and its vast contributions to American culture now celebrated 100 years later and certainly well beyond.

The “era” of the Harlem Renaissance officially ended in 1937, however, the “spirit” of the Harlem Renaissance lives on with its best day still ahead...