History of Harlem
Harlem has a rich history.
It was once home to Native Americans before the arrival of Dutch settlers who renamed the area New Haarlem – named after a town in the Netherlands.
Harlem was once a place filled with farms.
When people think of Harlem, they think of the Harlem Renaissance, they think of the Apollo Theater. The Apollo theater was once a theater for whites only. It wasn’t until 1943, that the theater was opened to black patrons and black artists and musicians.
Harlem is known for being burned during the American Revolution. George Washington famously led the Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776. Throughout the war, the British occupied certain areas of the city for years. Harlem has been home to a number of important people in history, we are going to talk about a number of it’s famous residents throughout this episode. It was once the home (albeit short lived) of Alexander Hamilton.
Harlem was once home to Jewish, Italian and German immigrants. As elevated railroad lines were extended further north in Manhattan, it encouraged the movement of people. Over development in the neighborhood led to a number of empty buildings and apartments. One of the most famous streets is known as Striver Row.
The homes along W 138 and W 139 which would eventually become known as Strivers Row were built between 1891 and 1893 by developer David H. King Jr for elite Manhattanites. The homes were advertised as having shared courtyards which could also be used as stables (eventually a coveted driveway for one’s car). The financial panic of 1893, led to a recession and the homes sat empty. They sat empty for years in fact. The Equitable Life Insurance Society funded the building project and foreclosed on the majority of the units. In 1919, the homes were sold to black residents for $8,000. Leaders of the black community or professionals bought the properties. Seen as wanting to elevate their status with their new address, the homes became known as Strivers Row.
Strivers row was not the only empty developments in the area. Like most new comers to major cities whether through migration or immigration, many settled in tenements or slums. For black Americans, they found that white landlords wouldn’t rent to them. Real estate agent and business owner, Philip. A. Payton knew first hand of the struggles black Americans faced when looking to buy or rent a home. He himself moved to Harlem and began to steer black families and individuals looking for a place to live in Harlem. As more and more black residents filled the once empty and foreclosed apartments and homes, many remaining white tenants left Harlem. Today, Payton is often referred to as “the father of Harlem”.
During The Great Migration, more than 6 million Black Americans moved from the predominately rural south to Northern cities like Harlem. The catalyst for this move was the need and want for more opportunities, poor southern economies, strict segregation laws, the revival of the KKK in the 1920s and the job opportunities available to black Americans in Northern and Midwestern cities.
Life in Northern and Midwestern cities while it provided more opportunities; it wasn’t easy. Racial tensions in cities increased, racism, and even violence erupted in the summer of 1919 in a number of cities. It wasn’t always easy to find a place to live. In many cities and states, restrictive covenants within housing prevented Black Americans from buying or renting a home or apartment. Or Redlining which prevented Black Americans for being approved for mortgages. These discriminatory practices wouldn’t be deemed illegal until The Fair Housing Act of 1968.
There is a wonderful article in Smithsonian Magazine by Isabel Wilkerson in 2016. In it, Wilkerson states the following:
“By leaving, they would change the course of their lives and those of their children. They would become Richard Wright the novelist instead of Richard Wright the sharecropper. They would become John Coltrane, jazz musician instead of tailor; Bill Russell, NBA pioneer instead of paper mill worker; Zora Neale Hurston, beloved folklorist instead of maidservant.” .– article By Isabel Wilkerson in Smithsonian Magazine 2016
James Earl Jones, the famous actor of film and stage was part of The great migration. He was a young boy when his family left the south. James Weldon Johnson, the writer of Lift Ev’ry Voice and sing; what is often called the Black National Anthem was part of The Great Migration, moved to Harlem. In addition to being a writer and poet he was also a lawyer and a leader of the NAACP and the Civil Rights Movement.
The Harlem Renaissance is the intellectual and cultural revival of African American, art, dance, literature, music, politics, & theater. It began in the 1920s in NYC and would spread across the country and last for multiple decades. If you’re looking for a window into the time period, I recommend looking at the photographs of James Van Der Zee. He is most known for his portraits of Black New Yorkers and his work provides the most comprehensive documentation of The Harlem Renaissance.
Literature during the Harlem Renaissance, we have to discuss Langston Hughes who is often considered the voice of the movement. He went to college in NYC. His first poem was “The Negro speaks of rivers” and his most famous works include “Mother to son” “The Weary Blues” and “The ways of white folks.” Zora Neal Hurston, who attended Howard University and Barnard. She was an anthropologist and a writer. Her work, “Their eyes were watching God” I and Barracoon: The story of the last known black cargo which really a must read. It tells the story of Cudjoe Lewis, who at the time was thought to be the last known survivor of the middle passage.
Famous artists of The Harlem Renaissance like Aaron Douglas who coined the concept of New Negro” which he deemed to be a reinvention of African Americans from the terrible past trials and tribulations that involved slavery. He is considered the father of African art. His painting and murals often focused on social issues like race and segregation. He helped to found the art department at Fisk University.
WEB DuBois, Alain Locke and Marcus Garvey. We dedicated an entire podcast episode to WEB DuBois and Booker T. Washington which if you haven’t listened to be sure to check it out. Briefly, WEB DuBois is considered the architect of the Harlem Renaissance. He’s a sociologist, educator, historian and activist. He is known for helping to found the NAACP. In the newspaper The Crisis, many of the voices and artists on The Harlem Renaissance were featured. Throughout his life, Du Bois continued to write about race, human rights, and politics. He published over 20 books and edited many more, including The Crisis (1910), The Negro Church (1903), and The Negro American (1907). He also wrote articles for publications such as The Atlantic Monthly and The New Republic. He is credited with helping to usher in a new era of African-American literature through his work.
His legacy endures today as he is remembered for his tireless activism and advocacy for racial equality and justice. I hope you will go and listen our full episode on him.
Alain Lock, referred to The Harlem Renaissance as “a spiritual coming of age” for African American artists and thinkers. For the first time, the African American experience was being told by African Americans. His life is full of important accolades. He studied at Harvard and was the only black student in his graduating class. He was the first black Rhodes scholar and studied at Oxford. He was a professor at Howard University. He was an author and wrote the book “The New Negro” the book challenged old stereotypes and challenged the current generation to replace those stereotypes with a new ideas of black identity. The book encouraged young black Americans to get educated and to continue to work for civil rights. He was also a gay man. An aspect of his life that he couldn’t be fully open about because of the harsh prejudices of the time. He was a philosopher, writer, educator, and patron of the arts, and he played an instrumental role in the development of African American culture. Locke was an advocate for African American arts, culture, and literature. He wrote extensively on the subject of race and its effects on art and literature. In 1925, he organized the “Negro-Art Exhibition” which featured pieces by African American painters and sculptors. Locke was a strong proponent of the Harlem Renaissance, believing that this era of intellectualism and creative expression was essential for the advancement of African American society.
Marcus Garvey was an influential and often times considered controversial Jamaican-born civil rights leader and entrepreneur who was a major figure in the 20th century Black Nationalist movement. His primary goal was to help black people around the world achieve economic, political, and social freedom. He founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), an organization dedicated to promoting economic and social development among African-Americans, as well as encouraging them to embrace their heritage and culture.
Garvey was a pioneer in the Pan-Africanist movement, which advocated for global unity among black people and encouraged diasporic communities to unite in the face of racism and white supremacy. His goal was to empower the African diaspora and create economic opportunities for African-Americans both at home and abroad. He organized boycotts of American companies which he felt were oppressive, and advocated for the establishment of black-owned businesses. Garvey called for the migration of African-Americans to Africa, believing that would be the only way for them to experience true freedom and equality. Garvey also had a strong influence on the music of the Harlem Renaissance, encouraging the use of traditional African instruments and rhythms in jazz, blues, and other popular genres of the time. His speeches also encouraged the audience to explore African culture
The Harlem Renaissance was a time of increased creative expression and cultural production by African Americans, primarily in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem. This “New Negro” movement was fueled by a resurgence of pride in black culture, heritage, and identities, as well as greater economic opportunities for African Americans and the arrival of thousands of black migrants from the South to cities throughout the U.S. Today, we can take away several lessons from this moment in history. First, we can remember the importance of giving a platform to diverse voices and ideas. During the Harlem Renaissance, black artists and writers were encouraged to celebrate their culture and create art that was reflective of their experiences. We can also learn that education is vital for achieving lasting social change. I also think that we should be inspired by the individuals who fueled this movement. To be bold and be encouraged to tell your story from your lense. To celebrate your uniqueness and your culture and to know that you and it have something incredible rich to add to the world. The impact that the 3 square mile neighborhood known as Harlem would have on the development and history of the United States continues to be felt today. Harlem provided the space for ideas and creativity to spread and flourish. As a New Yorker, I must say that every neighborhood has a vibe and history that is uniquely its own. The influence of past residents of Harlem to its current residents have made it such a special place. Go on a walking tour, visit a music club, eat at one of the man incredible restaurants like Sylvia’s, visit the Schomberg Center, see a show at the Appolo, take a walk down strivers row, speak to residents, ask them about their neighborhood and what they love about it. Open your heart and your mind to the incredible history that Harlem has to offer.