War and Renaissance
The First World War had started in Europe in 1914, but the United States entered it only in 1916. The conflict brought a halt to the massive immigration of Europeans, which resulted in a severe labor shortage at a time when workers were needed in the booming arms and war-supplies industries. Potential workers were in large supply in the South, where agriculture had been devastated by the boll weevil. Soon African Americans, seizing the opening of job opportunities and fleeing the violence of southern racism, made the journey north to “The Promised Land.”
The Great Migration of hundreds of thousands of southerners changed the political, social, racial, and cultural landscape of the country. Often traveling by train, the migrants settled in northern cities along the railroad routes. The vast majority of those who made New York their home came from Virginia; far behind were South and North Carolina and Georgia.
Migration and immigration continued to transform the fabric of black New York. In 1920 New York City counted 152,467 blacks as compared with 91,709 in 1910. The increase was 60 percent, whereas it was only 16.9 among whites. By 1930, New York City’s black population had reached 327,706, and Harlem not only had become the largest black urban community in the United States but also possessed a dynamic, ethnically diverse population. Black Brooklynites numbered about 70,000, 42 percent of whom were born in the South.
Between 1920 and 1923, about 35,000 Caribbeans (and a few Africans) migrated to the city, primarily to Manhattan and Brooklyn. By 1930, almost a quarter of black Harlem was of Caribbean origin, and Caribbeans represented one-third of Harlem’s professionals. Caribbeans made up about 16 percent of Brooklyn’s black population. The new immigrants, skilled and often well-educated, coming from black-majority countries under colonial rule, frequently brought a sense of racial identity and political nationalism that affected not only the African-American economic, political, and social fabric but also literature, the arts, and entrepreneurship.
On the political and social front, the period saw the birth of the largest Pan-Africanist movement ever, led by Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey; the proliferation of antilynching campaigns; and the emergence of black socialist and communist militants.
The 1920s were characterized by what has since been called the Harlem Renaissance. Known then as the New Negro Renaissance, its influence extended well beyond Harlem to Washington, D.C., Chicago, Kansas City, the Caribbean, France, and Brazil. It was a time of renewal and affirmation for black New Yorkers, but by the end of the decade, they and millions of others throughout the world were hit by an event of catastrophic proportions. New York, the banking and commercial capital of the world, was the epicenter of the Crash of 1929 that brought on the Great Depression, which affected African Americans particularly severely.
By the early 1930s, about 50 percent of African Americans nationwide were unemployed, and racial violence had steadily mounted. There were twenty-eight lynchings in 1933.
The Harlem Race Riot of 1935, a protest against the entrenched racial discrimination that had plagued black New Yorkers’ existence for centuries, focused local and national attention on the black plight during the Depression and served as a catalyst for improving African Americans’ access to jobs, programs, and welfare services. By 1936 one-seventh of all Works Progress Administration (WPA) spending was flowing into New York City. That same year, President Roosevelt organized key black leaders to ensure that blacks got a fair share of the available funds.
African Americans en masse switched from the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, to the Democratic Party.
The First World War
Participation in the war was a divisive issue for African Americans. New York socialist A. Philip Randolph stated he “would rather fight to make Georgia safe for the Negro.” W. E. B. Du Bois for his part encouraged African Americans to join the war effort. Arguing that what Germany represented spelled “death to the aspirations of Negroes and all darker races for equality, freedom and democracy” he urged them to “forget our special grievances and close ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy.”
About 380,000 African Americans served during World War I—blacks made up 13 percent of the draftees although they were only 10 percent of the population—and 200,000 were sent to Europe. At home and abroad, they continued to suffer discrimination, indignities, and humiliations. Forbidding them to be part of the American Expeditionary Force, the U.S. Army assigned the vast majority of black soldiers to service units, reflecting a belief that black men were more suited for manual labor than for combat duty. Those who did serve in combat were detached to the French Army.
Among the first regiments to land in France was the 369th Infantry Regiment (originally the 15th New York National Guard), an all-black regiment of 4,500 men, 70 percent of whom lived in Harlem, led by mostly white officers. Baptized the “hell fighters” by the Germans, they became known as the Harlem Hellfighters but called themselves “men of bronze.” The 369th Infantry left New York in December 1917. They were assigned to the 16th Division of the Fourth French Army in May 1918 and later reassigned to the 161st Division.
The 369th highly distinguished itself. In May 1918, as they were mounting guard in an isolated post, Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts were attacked by a twenty-four-man German unit. They suffered disabling wounds, but refused to surrender and continued fighting hand-to-hand with a knife and a rifle butt. As the New York Evening Post recounted, “Having shot one of his foe down and clubbed another with the butt of his rifle, [Johnson] sprang to the aid of Roberts with his bolo-knife. As the enemy fell into disorderly retreat, Johnson, three times wounded, sank to the ground, seized a grenade alongside his prostrate body, and literally blew one of the fleeing Germans to fragments.”
For their heroism, Johnson and Roberts were the first Americans to be awarded the French Croix de Guerre. (Johnson received a Purple Heart from the U.S. government in 1996.) In the end, 171 Harlem Hellfighters received medals individually and the unit as a whole received the Croix de Guerre for having taken back the village of Séchault. (A monument in their honor was dedicated there in 1997, and a 12-foot-high replica of the obelisk was erected in New York in 2006 at Fifth Avenue and 142nd Street across from the 369th Armory.) After the Armistice of November 11, 1918, the Harlem Hellfighters were the first Allied troops to reach the Rhine, on November 26.
The 369th Regiment achieved renown not only for its combat skills, but also for its band. James Reese Europe’s military band played in Europe and introduced jazz to enthusiastic audiences, especially in France. Noble Sissle was the drum major.
The “men of bronze” spent more days in combat—191 in frontline trenches—than any other American unit. The French general Henri Gouraud stated that they were crucial in the counteroffensive that led to the end of the war. Yet, the United States refused to allow any remaining black American soldiers to march with other Allied soldiers, including colonial African troops, in the victory parade up the Champs-Elysées in Paris on Bastille Day in 1919.
The end of the war brought the troops back home. On February 17, 1919, the three thousand men of 369th Infantry Regiment marched up Fifth Avenue into Harlem to the music of James Europe’s band before a crowd of a quarter of a million people.
Commenting on the parade, the New York Tribune wrote, “Never have white Americans accorded so heartfelt and hearty a reception to a contingent of their black country-men.” But in the May 1919 issue of Crisis, W. E. B. Du Bois perceptively observed in his editorial “Returning Soldiers,” “We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting. Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.” Indeed, the following decades were marked by continuous struggles for civil rights and economic and social justice.
On May 9, 1919, James Reese Europe was fatally knifed in the neck by one of his musicians.
Marcus Garvey and the UNIA
Born in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica, Marcus Mosiah Garvey (1887–1940) left school at fourteen and traveled abroad, learning many lessons that shaped his later endeavors. In 1914 he returned to Jamaica and founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), whose aims included advocating that blacks create an independent state in Africa. Garvey traveled to America in 1916 and established the UNIA in Harlem. Its first office was at 235 West 131st Street, but the organization soon expanded to a larger space at 2305 Seventh Avenue. Garvey lived at 552 Lenox Avenue (138th Street) with his first wife, Amy Ashwood, and at 133 West 129th Street with his second wife, Amy Jacques.
Garvey drew his following largely from the lower end of the economic scale. Southerners, servicemen returning from the European battlefields, and his fellow West Indians seemed particularly attuned to his philosophy.
Garvey’s charismatic style and effective oratory skills, as well as his emphasis on self-reliance and pride, helped him gain national and international prominence. His version of Black Nationalism argued that African Americans’ quest for social equality was a delusion. They were fated to be a permanent minority who could never assimilate because white Americans would never let them. African Americans, therefore, could not improve their condition or gain autonomy in the United States. Only in Africa was self-emancipation possible.
In August 1918, the association began publishing the Negro World in English, with Spanish and French editions. The newspaper had a circulation of 50,000 to 200,000 copies weekly. At its height in the mid-1920s, the UNIA had hundreds of chapters in Africa and throughout the Caribbean. In 1919 Garvey launched the Black Star Line steamship corporation from its berth on the Hudson River at 135th Street to encourage trade and migrations among black communities in North America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Its flagship, the SS Frederick Douglass, made its maiden voyage to the Caribbean and Central America. But the Black Star Line turned out to be a disastrous business venture and closed down in 1922. Although it did not accomplish its objectives, the steamship company was a potent symbol for the masses of dispossessed black men and women who had invested their money, hope, and pride in it.
The first International Convention of Negro Peoples of the World, which lasted the entire month of August 1920, drew more than 25,000 delegates to New York City’s Madison Square Garden, and announced to the world that the “New Negro” who had surfaced at the turn of the century had burst full force onto the historical stage, and “knew no fear.” The convention elected Garvey as Provisional President of Africa.
The UNIA purchased Liberty Hall at 120 West 138th Street, and Garvey regularly drew more than five thousand people to hear him invoke his message ‘‘Up, you mighty race!” In 1920 Garvey’s Negro Factories Corporation filed a certificate of incorporation to provide loans and technical assistance to blacks who needed help developing their own small businesses. With stock sold at five dollars per share, it helped develop a chain of cooperative grocery stores, a restaurant, a laundry, a tailor and dressmaking shop, a millinery store, and a publishing house.
But Garvey had powerful foes such as A. Philip Randolph, W. E. B. Du Bois, the NAACP, and Robert S. Abbott (publisher of the Chicago Defender). They believed he was a fraud and organized the “Garvey Must Go” campaign. It reached its height after Garvey held a secret meeting with the leader of the Ku Klux Klan in June 1922. Garvey had declared, “This is a white man’s country. He found it, he conquered it, and we can’t blame him if he wants to keep it. I am not vexed with the white man of the South for Jim-Crowing me, because I am black. . . . I never built any street cars or railroads. The white man built them for his convenience. And if I don’t want to ride where he’s willing to let me ride then I’d better walk.”
Garvey was accused of mail fraud, found guilty, and condemned to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of $1,000. After his appeals failed, he was taken into custody in February 1925 and sent to the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. President Calvin Coolidge commuted his sentence, and in November 1927 Garvey, who had unsuccessfully applied for U.S. citizenship, was deported to Jamaica. He later migrated to England, where he died in 1940.
Over the years, lynching had become ever more sadistic and exhibitionist. People were horribly tortured, mutilated, and burnt in front of large crowds that included women and children. Riots by white mobs left hundreds of people dead, injured or homeless. In 1917 a race riot erupted in East St. Louis “in which four hundred thousand dollars’ worth of property was destroyed, nearly six thousand Negroes driven from their homes, hundreds of them killed; some burned in the houses set afire over their heads,” recalled poet and novelist James Weldon Johnson. He suggested that the NAACP hold a silent parade to register black New Yorkers’ protest.
On July 28, fifteen thousand African Americans marched down Fifth Avenue. Boy Scouts passed out leaflets saying in part, “We march because we want our children to live in a better land and enjoy fairer conditions than have been our lot.” Johnson stated, “The streets of New York witnessed many strange sights but, I judge, never one more impressive. The parade moved in silence and was watched in silence.”
In August, a delegation of prominent African Americans—including New Yorkers Fred Moore of the New York Age, W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, realtor John Nail, cosmetics mogul Madame C. J. Walker, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., and Rev. George Frazier Miller—went to the White House to present a petition to President Woodrow Wilson, urging him to support legislation making lynching a federal crime. They were denied an audience. During the “Red Summer” of 1919 twenty-six race riots claimed the lives of over one hundred African Americans and thousands were injured or left homeless.
The Fourth Pan-African Congress opened at St. Mark’s Methodist Episcopal Church at 137th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue on August 21, 1927. It was the first time the Congress was held in the United States. Its primary organizer and sponsor were Addie W. Hunton and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. According to the Crisis, 208 delegates (from the United States, the Caribbean, South America, Africa, Germany, and India) and 5,000 participants followed the sessions held in a number of Harlem churches until August 24.
A. Philip Randolph—who helped organize the Socialist Party’s first black political club in the city—and Chandler Owen—who had launched the Messenger, subtitled “The Only Radical Magazine Published by Negroes,” in August 1917—opposed participation in the war, and advised African Americans to resist the draft and to align themselves with trade union and socialist movements. In 1925, Randolph led the first successful movement to organize black labor nationally with the founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters established at 2311 Seventh Avenue in Harlem.
A crucial ally of Randolph’s was Frank R. Crosswaith, a lifelong socialist, a labor union organizer, and an editor born in St. Croix. During the 1920s and 1930s he was one of the most effective organizers of black workers in the city and was known as the Socialist Party’s foremost black orator. He ran for various offices on the American Labor Party and Socialist Party tickets. Crosswaith was chairman of the Negro Labor Committee (NLC), which maintained the Harlem Labor Center, established in 1935 at 312 West 125th Street. It served as a headquarters for trade unions, bringing together many black workers who, because of economic conditions, had a newly aroused interest in organizing. The NLC established the Negro Labor News Service that disseminated information to newspapers on events relating to black labor throughout the country.
Richard Benjamin Moore was another vocal Caribbean activist. A civil rights advocate, Communist Party leader, bibliophile, and champion of Caribbean and African self-determination, Moore, who was born in Barbados, migrated to the United States in 1909 and played an influential role in Harlem for more than fifty years. By 1918 he had become radicalized by the racism he experienced personally and the violence visited upon blacks across the country. He joined the Socialist Party and the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), a paramilitary organization affiliated with the Communist Party that advocated armed defense, before enrolling in the Communist Party, which expelled him in 1942, allegedly for his advocacy of Black Nationalism.
Still another major figure of the left was Hubert H. Harrison—the “father of Harlem radicalism,” according to Randolph—who had emigrated from St. Croix. Harrison was the Socialist Party’s leading black speaker and campaigner from 1911 until he left around 1915. He published the Voice, “A Newspaper for The New Negro,” as the organ of the Liberty League of Afro-Americans. It promoted race- and class-consciousness and internationalism, and demanded a federal antilynching legislation. Harrison, a highly influential leader and prolific writer, briefly edited the UNIA’s Negro World in 1920, before breaking with Garvey.
Journalist Cyril Briggs, a native of Nevis in the Caribbean who immigrated to Harlem in 1905, became the editor and publisher of the Crusader, which first served as the organ of the Hamitic League of the World—a nationalist organization founded by African American George Wells Parker—and then of the African Blood Brotherhood for Liberation and Redemption, until it ceased publication in 1922.
Jamaican poet and novelist Claude McKay, a member of the African Blood Brotherhood, left New York for the Soviet Union in 1922 to attend an international Communist conference, during which he spoke about racism in the United States and criticized American socialists as being unwilling or unable to transcend their prejudices. With him was Otto Huiswoud, born in Surinam, candidate of the Workers Party of America—an arm of the underground Communist Party—for the New York state legislature. After the dissolution of the ABB, Briggs, Huiswoud, and Richard B. Moore became active members of the American Negro Labor Congress, a Communist organization.
In 1932, the Communist Party chose New Yorker James Ford as its vice presidential candidate, the first time in the century that a black person was selected to run for the nation’s second-highest office. The Party appealed to black voters, stating: “The Negro people suffer doubly. Most exploited of working people, they are also victims of Jim-Crowism and lynching. They are denied the right to live as human beings.” Harlem Renaissance writers Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes endorsed the ticket. Later that year, Hughes and nineteen other African Americans traveled to the Soviet Union, where Hughes remained for a year.
In the following years, the Communist Party continued to attract artists and intellectuals. In 1937, Richard Wright moved to Harlem to work as a writer for the party’s Daily Worker. Civil rights activist Bayard Rustin joined the Young Communist League. Sculptor Augusta Savage organized the Vanguard, a left-wing social club from which a chapter of the Friends of the Soviet Union developed. (She founded and owned Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts at 163 West 143rd Street and also ran the Harlem Community Art Center. She produced Lift Every Voice and Sing, a sculpture commissioned for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.)
To black New Yorkers, the most significant international event of the mid-1930s was the October 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia, which rekindled the Pan-Africanist movement. In Harlem the Provisional Committee for the Defense of Ethiopia, the Ethiopian World Federation, and the Black Legion and others vowed to help the country. Black nurses raised money to ship medical supplies and a seventy-five-bed hospital to Ethiopia. Over one thousand black men signed up to go and fight the invaders. Nationwide, more than seventeen thousand promised to defend Ethiopia, but obstacles put up by the U.S. government prevented them from joining the fight, and they turned to fund raising instead.
John C. Robinson, nicknamed the Brown Condor of Ethiopia, trained pilots there when Italy invaded the country and became Emperor Haile Selassie’s personal pilot. Hubert F. Julian, originally from Trinidad, called the Black Eagle of Harlem (where he settled in 1921 after a sojourn in Canada), was in command of the Ethiopian Imperial Air Force.
In New York, African Americans created the Ethiopian World Federation with the support of Emperor Haile Selassie. Its preamble read: “We the Black People of the World, in order to effect Unity, Solidarity, Liberty, Freedom and self-determination, to secure Justice and maintain the Integrity of Ethiopia, which is our divine heritage, do hereby establish and ordain this constitution for The Ethiopian World Federation, Incorporated.” On August 4, a crowd estimated at twenty thousand marched in Harlem with Ethiopian flags.
The church was the cornerstone of the community, providing guidance and relief. In the 1920s, 150 blocks in Harlem counted 140 mostly storefront churches. The more established churches grew rapidly too as Southerners became used to city ways and joined them in great numbers, leaving the storefront establishments to the new arrivals.
In 1920 the Abyssinian Baptist Church, located on West 40th Street, purchased lots in Harlem near Seventh Avenue. In 1925 Mother AME Zion Church was completed at 140 West 137th Street. George W. Foster, Jr., one of the first black architects in New York State, designed the neo-Gothic stone church. In 1929 the Riverside Church was constructed at 122nd Street and Riverside Drive. Its dedication as an “interracial, interdenominational and international” church body made it among the nation’s first avowedly interracial churches.
Other religious movements developed and recruited heavily in the migrant population. Father Divine, a southerner, established the Peace Mission Movement. Calling himself God, he preached racial and gender equality and counted tens of thousands of followers, including in Canada, Australia, Panama, England, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. In 1918 he moved his growing congregation from Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn to Sayville, Long Island, and then established his headquarters at 455 Lenox Avenue in Harlem. Father Divine owned restaurants, barbershops, and grocery stores and became the largest landlord in Harlem. He provided many followers with work, shelter, and food during the Great Depression. But as the nation recovered, the popularity of the Peace Mission Movement declined. Father Divine died in 1965.
The focus of some religious movements on racial consciousness and pride was a powerful magnet to the southerners in search of new identities. Noble Drew Ali, originally Timothy Drew from North Carolina, organized the Moorish Science Temple of America in 1913 in Newark, New Jersey, and had followers in New York. Drew proclaimed himself a prophet ordained by Allah and mixed some Islamic tenets into his teachings.
Besides the Nation of Islam established in 1931 in Detroit and led since 1934 by Elijah Poole, a migrant from Georgia who became Elijah Muhammad, black Muslim converts also followed Shaikh Daoud Ahmed Faisal—said to be the son of a Moroccan father and a Jamaican mother—who founded the Islamic Mission to America for the Propagation of Islam and Defense of the Faith and the Faithful at his home at 143 State Street in Brooklyn in 1939, bringing immigrant and African-American Muslims together.
In 1918, Wentworth Arthur Matthew and eight other men founded The Commandment Keepers: Church of the Living God, a denomination of black Hebrews. The Commandment Keepers believed they were the descendants of the ancient Hebrews, who they thought were black people. Their place of worship was a two-story frame building at 87 West 128th Street, on the corner of Lenox Avenue. Bishop Arthur Matthew later changed the name to the Falashas of America, following the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia. The denomination associated itself with Jewish traditions as observed by the Ethiopian Hebrew rabbinate.
Bishop Charles M. Grace led another new religious movement. Known as Sweet Daddy Grace, he was born in the Cape Verde Islands, off Senegal, and had migrated in 1904 to Massachusetts like thousands of Cape Verdeans who worked in the cranberry bogs and textile mills. Bishop Grace founded the United House of Prayer for All People, a Pentecostal church. An early black owner of Harlem real estate, he purchased a building at 555 Edgecombe Avenue and sponsored a line of commercial products that included Daddy Grace soap, tea, coffee, and cookies. He also organized a home-buying association, an insurance company, and a burial society.
The New Negro Renaissance
The 1920s saw the emergence of the New Negro Renaissance, later called the Harlem Renaissance. It took some of its inspiration from the lives and struggles of the newcomers to the North and reflected the racial consciousness, pride, and sense of freedom that people felt in the urban North. Tapping into the vibrant black culture of the South—including its dialect, customs, and mannerisms—and its African roots, British Romanticism, and American experimentalism, writers and artists claimed the right to represent themselves and their community and produced important works that deeply influenced the major artistic and literary forms later associated with African-American life and culture.
In 1918, responding to the racial hatred sweeping the country, Claude McKay had written a sonnet, “If We Must Die,” published in Liberator magazine. Later he was hired as associate editor. His poetry collection Harlem Shadows is regarded as the first major book of the New Negro Renaissance. His critically acclaimed novel Home to Harlem, published in 1928, became the first best-selling novel by a black writer.
Another landmark of the Harlem Renaissance was the publication in June 1921 in the Crisis of the poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes. Arriving from Missouri, he had spent a year at Columbia University before holding a series of odd jobs and traveling to Europe and Africa. Poet, playwright, essayist, and author of short stories, Hughes was one of the most prolific and influential writers of the Renaissance.
Poet, novelist, and playwright Countee Cullen—an NYU and Harvard graduate—won numerous literary prizes as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship, NAACP Spingarn Medal, and first prize from the prestigious Harmon Foundation. Nella Larsen, the daughter of a Danish mother and a St. Croix father, wrote two novels, Quicksand and Passing, while holding the job of librarian at the 135th Street branch of The New York Public Library.
The year 1925 was particularly fruitful. Survey Graphic, a white publication, devoted its March issue to “contemporary Negro life.” Edited by Alain Locke, it sold out two printings (more than forty-two thousand copies) and became the magazine’s most widely read issue. Focusing on Harlem’s vibrant culture, it offered contributions by Du Bois, Arthur Schomburg, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen.
Alain Locke, the editor later that year of the anthology The New Negro, stressed that the many talents and emerging voices of the Renaissance would lead to economic, cultural, and political progress for blacks in the United States and worldwide. In May, the National Urban League published the first issue of Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, edited by Charles S. Johnson.
Zora Neale Hurston, one of a number of celebrated women of the Renaissance, had studied anthropology at Barnard College and turned her research into literary works like Mules and Men, Tell My Horse, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. She created the term “Negrotarians” for whites who supported the New Negro movement: people like Carl Van Vechten, whose novel Nigger Heaven became popular among whites but got an angry reception in Harlem, where he divided the intelligentsia.
When Jean Toomer’s Cane was published in 1926, avant-garde critics hailed the work as a literary landmark. Charles S. Johnson noted that Toomer had “the most astonishingly brilliant beginning of any Negro writer.” Marketed as a Negro writer by publishers but recorded as white in the 1930 federal census, Toomer imagined “a new race in America” and declared himself a member.
The Harlem Renaissance literary movement was “heavily gay flavored,” to quote scholars Robert Reid-Pharr and Justin Rogers Cooper, and “black gay men assumed important positions in American cultural and intellectual life, a primacy they have maintained ever since.” As the noted,
Socialite hostess A’Leilia Walker [Madam C. J. Walker’s daughter] surrounded herself with gay men whose work she promoted, and Carl Van Vechten, a gay white man, helped sponsor the movement’s artistic products. Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, Wallace Thurman, Lawrence Brown, Claude McKay, and Richard Bruce Nugent were gay or bisexual men who were some of the brightest lights of the Harlem Renaissance. Specifically, Nugent published the first explicit piece of black gay literature, “Smoke Lilies and Jade” (1926), a short story published in the short-lived Harlem Renaissance journal Fire. Claude McKay’s novel Home to Harlem (1928) features a scene in a recognizably gay bar. Colin Palmer, ed. Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History.
An important figure during the Renaissance was collector and bibliophile Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. Through the efforts of the National Urban League, the Carnegie Corporation provided a grant of ten thousand dollars for The New York Public Library to acquire Schomburg’s collection. On May 19, 1926, his more than ten thousand books, manuscripts, newspapers, and assorted items of African and African Diaspora history and culture were delivered to the New York Public Library and processed for later transfer to the 135th Street Branch. In 1927 the Arthur A. Schomburg Collection was officially opened at the branch’s Negro Division. It was the largest and most comprehensive library of black-related materials in the nation. In 1932 Schomburg was appointed curator of the Negro Division, a position he held until his death in 1938.
A dozen black theater companies operated during the Harlem Renaissance. After Anita Bush sold the Anita Bush Players Company to the Lafayette Theater, it became a black-owned stock company offering nonstereotypical roles and playing Broadway shows for black audiences. The 2,000-seat Lafayette Theater, at Seventh Avenue and 132nd Street (now a rental building and church complex), was home to the Lafayette Players. As a writer of the Works Progress Administration stated, “The Negro actor found himself free from a great many restraints and taboo that had cramped him for many years. This sense of freedom manifested itself in efforts covering a wide field. Efforts that ran the range from burlesque to opera. … The Lafayette Players group was the medium which carried Negro actors to a fresh start in their theatrical history.” One of their main successes was Shakespeare’s Macbeth with an all-black cast.
Race movies by blacks for black audiences flourished during the 1920s and the early ’30s. They explored racial themes and featured stories of uplift. Oscar Micheaux was considered the first major African-American filmmaker and producer. He made thirty-two films between 1919 and 1936 (forty-four in all), including Harlem after Midnight in 1934, and often used actors from the Lafayette Theater.
Harlem-based (and white-owned) Reol Motion Pictures Corporation was founded in 1921 by Robert Levy, manager of the Lafayette Theater. It released nine films and two documentaries on black themes with Lafayette Players. In 1921, it filmed The Sport of the Gods, based on Paul Laurence Dunbar’s novel. Way Down South, by Langston Hughes and Clarence Muse, was the first Hollywood film with a script by black writers
The Harlem Renaissance spawned a fascination for all things black, and Broadway could not get enough. With a story by comedians Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles and music by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, the black musical comedy Shuffle Along was a huge success. Chocolate Dandies by Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, and Lew Payton was at the Colonial Theatre. The cast included Josephine Baker.
In 1927 Porgy by white playwrights DuBose and Dorothy Heward opened on Broadway featuring an all-black cast; and in 1933, Hall Johnson’s Run Little Chillun was the first production of a black folk opera written by a black composer. Its cast had more than two hundred singers and actors. On December 21, 1934, Kykunkor, an African dance operetta by Asadata Dafora, opened on Broadway. Dafora, a native of Sierra Leone, had studied voice in Milan and taught dance in Germany before forming his world-renowned dance company.
As scholar Maryemma Graham summed up, “While the New Negro Renaissance was not a single phenomenon or located in a single location, it had its most visible expression in Harlem. It is considered by many as the ‘golden age’ of black art because of the level of cultural production that was achieved. Its role as a catalyst for great art within the period and beyond cannot be overestimated.”
Giving the movement a historical and political perspective, David Levering Lewis, for his part, concluded in When Harlem Was in Vogue, that the Harlem Renaissance was “an elitist response on the part of a tiny group of mostly second-generation, college-educated, and generally affluent Afro-Americans—a response, first to the increasingly raw racism of the times, second, to the frightening Black Zionism of the Garveyites, and, finally, to the remote, but no less frightening, appeal of Marxism.”
A keen observer of the Harlem scene, journalist and author Roi Ottley, wrote in his best-selling and award-winning New World A-Coming, “everywhere there seemed to be gaiety, good feeling, and the sound of jazz, ushering in an era of incredible doings. The rhythm of life seemed to beat to the clink of glasses and the thump of drums. From the windows of countless apartments, silhouetted figures rocked and rolled to mellow music.” Jazz and blues were in full swing with brilliant performers like Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, and Ma Rainey.
Harlem was moving to the music of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson and to Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” the first blues recording to sell more than one million copies. Harry H. Pace, formerly W. C. Handy’s partner at the Pace and Handy Music Company, operated his Pace Phonograph Corporation from offices at 257 West 138th Street. One of its directors was W. E. B. Du Bois.
The nightlife was swinging, but it was very much segregated. The Cotton Club—formerly named Club Deluxe, when owned by heavyweight champion Jack Johnson—at 644 Lenox Avenue and 142nd Street (now the site of a housing project) was the property of white mobster Owen “Owney” Madden. It excluded black customers, although all the performers were black. Connie’s Inn, at 2221 Seventh Avenue and 131st Street (next door to the Lafayette Theater), also maintained a whites-only policy. Its owner was white bootlegger Connie Immerman.
The Ubangi Club—housed next to the Lafayette Theater –opened in 1934 on the location of the former Harlem Club. It attracted racially mixed crowds and a large gay audience. Its main attraction was blues singer and pianist Gladys Bentley, a lesbian who performed in a white tuxedo with a chorus of men in drag. The Clam House on 133rd Street—where Bentley also performed—was another famous queer establishment in a neighborhood that in the 1930s counted quite a few.
The Exclusive Club (a café, cabaret, and pool room), known as Barron’s for its owner, Barron Wilkins, moved from the Tenderloin to Seventh Avenue and 134th Street and opened in 1915. It was black-owned but catered only to whites and very light-skinned blacks. The Alhambra Theatre on Seventh Avenue at 126th Street offered movies and live entertainment. For dance events, blacks and whites were separated by an alternate-night policy.
The nine hundred-seat Renaissance Theater at the corner of 138th Street and Seventh Avenue (today a derelict structure) was built in 1921 by the Caribbean immigrants William H. Roach and Joseph H. Sweeney from Montserrat and Cleophus Charity from Antigua, followers of Marcus Garvey and his entrepreneurship philosophy. Two years later, they added a casino and a ballroom at 137th Street. The block-long complex, known as the Renaissance Ballroom and Casino or the Renaissance Theater and Casino, showed films; held award ceremonies, meetings, and banquets; and offered live musical performances. An added attraction was basketball. In 1923, Brooklyn’s best-known black team, the Spartan Five, relocated to Harlem and was renamed the New York Renaissance Big Five (known as the Rens) for the complex where they played before the dance. The Rens were regarded as one of America’s best professional teams.
Smalls’ Paradise on Seventh Avenue and 135th Street—now the site of the Thurgood Marshall Academy—a high-priced club, catered to blacks and whites and counted several Harlem Renaissance writers among its clientele. Its owner was Edwin Smalls, a descendant of Robert Smalls, the formerly enslaved hero of the Civil War and later U.S. congressman from South Carolina. One of the club’s distinctions was its waiters, who balanced their trays while dancing the Charleston.
The Savoy Ballroom (demolished in the 1940s) on Lenox Avenue between 140th and 141st streets boasted a dance floor that could accommodate more than three thousand people. It was open to blacks and whites. The Camel Walk, the Shimmy, and the Black Bottom were created there.
The Apollo Theater on 125th Street was, as reported by a WPA writer,
owned and operated by the Schifman-Brecker Syndicate (who do all of the theatre business that there is to be done in the Black Metropolis) who have a chain that extends as far south as Greensboro N.C. The Lincoln, Renaissance, Odeon, Roosevelt, all movie houses, are under the direction of the Schifman-Brecker Syndicate. And it is the policy of the White owners to install Negro managers, ushers, electricians, porters, etc. It is no wonder that more than two-thirds of Harlem’s black population would vote to the affirmative that all of its theatres are owned by Negroes. The White owners are seldom if ever seen on the premises.
Madam C. J. Walker, a native of Louisiana, moved to New York in 1916. She had first migrated to Denver, Colorado, in 1906 and launched a career making and marketing beauty products for African-American women. She was the first woman to sell products by mail order, to organize a nationwide membership of door-to-door agents, the “Madam C.J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America,” and to open her own beauty school. She and her daughter, A’Lelia, established a chain of beauty parlors throughout the United States, South America, and the Caribbean. By 1914, her company had grossed more than a million dollars. Madam C. J. Walker, a philanthropist, supported, notably, the NAACP, and the national Conference on Lynching and offered scholarships to students.
Casper Holstein, another philanthropist and businessman, emigrated from St. Croix in 1894. He is credited by some with introducing the numbers game—illegal gambling also known as bolito—into Harlem, a scheme he conceived when he worked as a bellhop and porter on Wall Street. Known as the Bolito King, he made a fortune estimated at over $2 million and supported black schools, colleges, and libraries and other causes in the United States, Liberia, and the Caribbean.
Another famous numbers magnate—also deemed the first numbers banker—was Stephanie St. Clair. Known as Madam St. Clair or Queenie, she was originally from Martinique. St. Clair and her South Carolinian partner Ellsworh “Bumpie” Johnson were central figures of the black underworld. Gambling and other illegal activities, condoned by the police who turned a blind eye, provided job opportunities to some blacks in a city that offered few; but they also created a violent, dangerous environment and robbed working-class people of part of their meager wages.
In his 1963 essay “My Early Days in Harlem” Langston Hughes captured the neighborhood’s southern, western, and diasporic dimensions:
Harlem—Southern Harlem—the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida—looking for the Promised Land—dressed in rhythmic words, painted in bright pictures, dancing to jazz…. West Indian Harlem—warm, rambunctious sassy remembering Marcus Garvey, Haitian Harlem, Cuban Harlem, little pockets of tropical dreamed in alien tongues. Magnet Harlem, pulling an Arthur Schomburg from Puerto Rico, pulling an Arna Bontemps all the way from California, … a Charles S. Johnson from Virginia, and A. Philip Randolph from Florida, a Roy Wilkins from Minnesota, an Alta Douglas from Kansas.
Harlem counted many townhouses and brownstones built for the white middle and upper class. Such were the elegant townhouses on 138th and 139th streets between Seventh and Eighth avenues (now Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Frederick Douglass avenues). The enclave was a beautiful small oasis that became known as Strivers’ Row in the 1920s. Musicians, actors, and comedians Eubie Blake, Fletcher Henderson, W.C. Handy, Noble Sissle, Bill Bojangles Robinson, and Stepin Fetchit lived there, as did lawyers, dentists, physicians, and other professionals.
Sugar Hill, a neighborhood of beautiful apartment buildings and row houses rising on Coogan’s Bluff between 145th and 155th streets also attracted the elite. W. E. B. Du Bois, Walter White—head of the NAAACP—lived at 409 Edgecombe Avenue, the most exclusive address of the area. Duke Ellington, painter Aaron Douglas and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall were also residents. Paul Robeson, Count Basie, Joe Louis, and actor Canada Lee lived a few blocks away, at 555 Edgecombe Avenue.
A’Lelia Walker lived in an imposing townhouse at 108–110 W. 136th Street (it was torn down and is now the site of the Countee Cullen Library). Designed by black architect Vertner Tandy, her house was frequented by musicians and celebrities. Her salon, known as the Black Tower, was a hallmark of the Harlem Renaissance.
Other celebrities made their way up to 149th Street when the Dunbar apartments were built at 2588 Seventh Avenue in 1928. John D. Rockfeller, Jr., financed the six buildings that surrounded a courtyard. A black-operated bank, Dunbar National Bank, opened on the grounds. W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Countee Cullen, A. Philip Randolph, Matthew Henson, and Bill Bojangles Robinson were residents. First slated as a cooperative, the complex became rental housing during the Great Depression.
But generally, there was a lack of correlation between the middle-class housing stock and the new population that was mostly working class, kept by racism in low-paying jobs. To make more profit, landlords divided the stately houses into small apartments. Where one family had previously lived in grandeur, several were squeezed into tiny units. In addition, as the New York Times article “Negro Colony Growing; 150,000 in Harlem Section” (published on July 29, 1923) explained, black tenants paid 5 to 20 and sometimes as much as 50 percent more in rents than the previous white tenants, “who had, probably, the larger income.” A black family, for example, paid $100 a month, while the white family on the other side of the hallway paid $55. Where 100,000 whites had lived, 150,000 black New Yorkers were now cramped, and they often took in lodgers to make ends meet.
Relegated to menial jobs, exploited by landlords, many Harlemites out of economic necessity resorted to the popular house-rent parties. Charging 15 cents, tenants organized dances and sold food and contraband alcohol in their apartments. The profits helped pay the rent.
The Great Depression and the 1935 Riot
The financial crash that started on October 24, 1929, and culminated on October 29, known as Black Tuesday, ushered in the Great Depression. In 1930, black New Yorkers numbered 327,700, of whom 69 percent lived in Manhattan. The Depression hit them particularly hard. Their unemployment rate stood as high as 44 percent, more than double the rate of white unemployment. Churches, the National Urban League, and community groups mobilized to help those in need, while the NAACP continued to fight discrimination in employment.
Some people found work in the federal projects of the Works Progress Administration, founded in 1935, including the work and education programs of the National Youth Administration. By the early 1940s, blacks represented a third of the WPA workforce, although they made up less than 10 percent of the population.
In the grip of the Depression, Harlemites, as described by Roi Ottley, lived “in unheated railroad flats … with dank, rat-infested toilets, footworn nondescript linoleum, dirty walls ripped and unpainted, and roaches creeping around the floors and woodwork.” Unemployment, discrimination, substandard housing, overcrowding, poverty, and disease led to what he called “slum shock” that culminated in the Harlem Race Riot of 1935.
On March 19, long-simmering charges of police brutality boiled over when Lino Rivera, a high school student, was arrested for allegedly stealing a pocketknife at the S. H. Kress Five and Dime store on 125th Street. False rumors spread that police had beaten him to death. By nightfall more than ten thousand residents were protesting in the 125th Street main shopping area. About two hundred stores were destroyed, three blacks were killed, thirty received bullet wounds, more than two hundred were injured, and one hundred were arrested. In the end, to assuage the community, Lino Rivera was photographed with Samuel Battle, the first black patrolman in Manhattan, and the fliers were passed around the neighborhood.
Responding to the incident, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., wrote the first of three articles for the New York Post. He described the unrest as a ‘‘protest against empty stomachs, overcrowded tenements, filthy sanitation, rotten foodstuffs, chiseling landlords and merchants, discrimination in relief, disfranchisement, and against disinterested administration.”
Following the uprising, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia named a commission chaired by Charles H. Roberts, a prominent Harlem dentist. Countee Cullen and A. Philip Randolph were among its members. Howard University sociologist E. Franklin Frazier directed the studies and surveys on which the commission’s report was based. LaGuardia suppressed the report as inflammatory, but the New York Amsterdam News obtained a copy and published excerpts on July 18, 1936, under the title “Complete Riot Report Bared.”
The committee’s conclusion was that the riot occurred because of “Jim Crowism” and pervasive “oppression” of African Americans. It called for an end to employment discrimination; for new schools and more teachers in Harlem; for more black staff at city hospitals, especially at Harlem Hospital; and for an end to police brutality. The report concluded, “Lack of confidence in the police and even hostility towards these representatives of the law were evident at every stage of the riot. This attitude of the people of Harlem has been built up over many years of experience with the police in this section.”
The protest against the entrenched racial discrimination that had plagued black New Yorkers for centuries focused local and national attention on the black plight during the Depression and served as a catalyst for improving African Americans’ access to jobs and welfare services. The Harlem River Houses, one of the first two federally funded housing projects in New York City, was constructed in 1936 from 151st to 153rd streets along the Harlem River Drive. Built to provide housing for working people, the project was an outcome of the riots.
Despite the fierce fight put up by white residents, Harlem had transformed itself into the “Black Mecca,” but whites still owned most of the numerous businesses that dotted the landscape, with the exception of beauty salons, funeral parlors, shoeshine stands, and a few other establishments. “The saloons were run by the Irish,” wrote Claude McKay in Home to Harlem, “the restaurants by the Greeks, the ice and fruit stands by the Italians, the grocery and haberdashery by the Jews. The only Negro businesses, excepting barber shops, were the churches and the cabarets.”
In the 1930s, the refusal of white merchants to hire black employees led to numerous picket lines and boycotts organized by the Citizens’ League for Fair Play with the slogan “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work”. Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., led several hundred demonstrators to City Hall, demanding more black doctors and nurses and better health care at Harlem Hospital. The event was Powell Jr.’s inaugural foray as a community leader as he headed the Harlem Citizens’ Committee for More and Better Jobs (formed in 1930 by Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and other ministers) in its “Jobs for Negroes” movement.
Believing Powell’s group was Communist influenced, A. Philip Randolph formed the Harlem Jobs Committee. Both groups picketed stores and utility company outlets throughout the city. “Tuesday is ‘black-out night,’” declared Powell in a campaign to force Consolidated Edison to hire black workers. Every Tuesday night, GNYCC supporters turned off their electric lights and lighted two-cent candles, which flickered from many Harlem apartment windows. The campaign climaxed with a “Bill-Payers’ Parade” at Con Ed’s office at 32 West 125th Street. Hundreds of Con Ed customers paid their bills with nickels and dimes. Con Ed reached an agreement with Powell to hire black trainees.