On the Shoulders of Giants
Bazaar” How Harlem Became
the Center of the Universe
- Harlem!…Its brutality, gang rowdyism, promiscuous thickness. Its hot desires. But, oh, the rich blood-red color of it! The warm accent of its composite voice, the fruitiness of its laughter, the trailing rhythm of its “blues” and the improvised surprises of its jazz.
poet and novelist CLAUDE
- It’s Harlem—and anything goes. Harlem, the new playground of New York! Harlem—the colored city in the greatest metropolis of the white man! Harlem—the capital of miscegenation! Harlem—the gay musical, the Parisian home of vice!
- I’d rather be a lamppost in Harlem than governor of Georgia.
When Black Was in Vogue
Once upon a time there was an enchanted land called…Harlem.
Considering all the transcendent things that have been said about the Harlem of the twenties and thirties, it would be easy to romanticize the place as an elaborate set of a movie musical-comedy extravaganza, filled with bubbly jazz melodies and populated by a happy cast of all-singing, all-dancing cockeyed optimists. But to do so would simplify the complexities of the history-making, life-and-death struggle that was really going on in Harlem. And it would reduce the residents to convenient one-dimensional stereotypes—the same indignities that the Harlem Renaissance fought so hard to erase.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Harlem has been considered the unofficial capital of an unofficial country: Black America. Because of that, in the minds of most white Americans, Harlem has symbolized all African-Americans—educated or illiterate, urban or rural, cop or criminal. One size fits all.
And that is the problem that Harlem, as a symbol of Black America, has faced from the beginning: there have always been two Harlems.
First, there was the idealized Harlem that white people imagined because of its portrayal in white films and in white literature. In the beginning of the Jazz Age, whites concocted “Oz” Harlem, the Technicolor home of sassy black women and musically inclined black men, eager to burst into song or dance at any opportunity. Sure, times were tough and they had plenty of nothin’, but, hey, by their own admission (or at least by the admission of black characters created by white writers), nothin’ was plenty for them. Whites admired how Harlemites had learned to accept their miserable lot in life with a Christian smile and without pointing any angry fingers of blame. “We could all learn a lesson in humility from them,” whites said approvingly. In Oz Harlem, white folk were welcome, particularly in high-class nightclubs such as the Cotton Club, which featured black jazz performers, black dancing girls, and a deferential black staff—but allowed only white patrons. In Oz Harlem, blacks entertained and served, but didn’t mingle with whites. Oz Harlem was a white fantasy of perfect race relations, a racist’s Disneyland (“the honkiest place on earth”). And thousands of whites visited this Harlem weekly, seeing only what they wanted to see. Like people visiting a zoo who marvel at the animals but ignore the cages.
But behind the velvet curtain of Oz Harlem was the other Harlem—“Daily” Harlem—the one that black people wrote about, sang about, painted and sculpted. The one where black people actually lived, worked, cooked, went to church, gossiped about neighbors, and buried loved ones. This was the Harlem where they raised families, raised rent, and, on occasion, raised the roof. During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s, those two Harlems—Oz Harlem and Daily Harlem—came to represent the two different ways all African-Americans throughout the country were viewed, not just by whites, but by other blacks as well.
In the end, these two radically different visions couldn’t peacefully coexist. For those who were part of the Harlem Renaissance, white America’s romanticized ideal of happy black folk singing away their worries and cares only encouraged the poverty and injustice to flourish. It allowed the real problems to be ignored. Especially by white politicians who had the power to change things. Ignoring Harlem, and African-Americans throughout the country, was business as usual for most politicians. As police detective Coffin Ed Johnson says in the film Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), “What the hell do the attorney general, the State Department, or even the president of the United States know about one goddamn thing that’s going on up here in Harlem?”
But Harlem would not be ignored.
Jazz legend Miles Davis said, “Jazz is the big brother of revolution. Revolution follows it around.” What was going on in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s was nothing short of a cultural and political revolution. Certainly jazz provided the backbeat, but the revolution itself was orchestrated by a group of confident, educated, and talented young men and women undeterred by the perceptions and injustices of the past, their eyes firmly fixed on the prize: a future filled with limitless opportunities for blacks. And most of these cultural warriors would live and work and create, even if only for a short while, in Harlem.
How Harlem Got Its Black
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Harlem seemed an unlikely location for a capital of Black America—or the Mecca of anybody but moneyed whites. Located just north of Central Park, Harlem was where upper-middle-class whites resided in fancy apartments and magnificent brownstone houses. If you wanted to find the majority of New York City’s black population, you’d have to travel south of Central Park to the West Side, particularly to an area called the Tenderloin. This was where most of the city’s sixty thousand African-Americans were crammed. And living around them, like an army laying siege to a castle, were various groups of whites, mostly Irish immigrants, dedicated to driving the blacks away.
Central Park was a physical border beyond which blacks were not welcome; but money was the practical barrier keeping blacks from living in upscale Harlem. Without equal education or job opportunities, movin’ on up to Harlem didn’t seem possible. Yet, we know it happened, or this book would be about the Tenderloin Renaissance. But how? Ironically, it was Harlem’s desirability among the well-off whites that eventually resulted in Harlem’s evolving from ritzy white enclave to the destination for blacks from all over the country, and even from outside the country.
The section of the Tenderloin between Twenty-seventh Street and Fifty-third Street was called Black Bohemia. Black Bohemia sounds almost cheerful, like a lively jazz club or a tropical Jamaican resort. But, in fact, it was a squalid ghetto where black families strove to raise their children amidst brothels, gambling dens, nightclubs, pool halls, and unbearable poverty. In 1911, the average black laborer earned $28 a month; the average rent for a small four-room apartment in Black Bohemia was $20 a month ($2 to $5 more per month than in white neighborhoods). That left only $8 a month to survive. In 1900, Harper’s Weekly condemned the housing situation:
Property is not rented to negroes in New York until white people will no longer have it. Then the rents are put up from thirty to fifty per cent, and negroes are permitted to take a street or sometimes a neighborhood. There are really not many negro sections, and all that exist are fearfully crowded…. Moreover, [the landlords] make no repairs, and the property usually goes to rack and ruin…. As a rule…negroes in New York are not beholden to property owners for anything except discomfort and extortion.
The rents weren’t the most serious problem. Hostility toward blacks reached explosive proportions in August of 1900 during the Tenderloin riots. The spark that lit the fuse occurred on August 12, on Forty-first Street and Eighth Avenue when a white under-cover police officer dressed as a civilian attempted to arrest a black woman whom he thought was a prostitute soliciting. When the husband, not knowing the man was a police officer, attempted to defend his wife, the officer clubbed him. The husband then stabbed the officer with a penknife, killing him. Though the husband, because of the circumstances, was exonerated a couple days after the stabbing, police and white gangs roamed black neighborhoods in the Tenderloin looking for vengeance. Innocent pedestrians who ran to the police for protection were shoved into the crowd of rioters by angry officers. Frank Moss, who compiled the affidavits of black victims, said in his account, The Story of a Riot:
The unanimous testimony of the newspaper reports was that the mob could have been broken and destroyed immediately and with little difficulty…[but that] policemen stood by and made no effort to protect the Negroes who were assailed. They ran with the crowds in pursuit of their prey; they took defenseless men who ran to them for protection and threw them to the rioters, and in many cases they beat and clubbed men and women more brutally than the mob did.
An official investigation not only cleared the police of wrongdoing, but praised them for keeping the situation under control. Yet, “the situation” was anything but under control for black residents, who lived under the constant threat of violence. Realizing that geography was destiny, the residents of Black Bohemia began looking around for someplace else to live—someplace where their children would have a better life than they did. As one Tenderloin resident observed, “Every day was moving day.”
Harlem, by contrast, has heaven. White heaven. Thick, healthy trees lined the wide streets and avenues, which were newly paved and bracketed by luxurious apartments and houses. In a way, this was the paradise that public transportation had built. Named Nieuw Haarlem (New Harlem) in 1658 by the Dutch settlers after a Dutch city, and renamed Harlem when the English took control in 1664, the area quickly became a haven for wealthy farmers, who built expansive estates overlooking the Hudson River. Passage to New York City proper required a ninety-minute steamboat ride. That kept Harlem isolated and virtually undeveloped until 1880, when the city constructed an elevated railroad along Eighth Avenue. This access to the west side of Harlem encouraged developers to turn the agricultural fields of Harlem into what they envisioned as a refuge for upper-middle-class whites from the turmoil of downtown Manhattan. Then came even more good news: a subway would be built under Lenox Avenue, making the east side of Harlem a mere eight-minute ride to downtown rather than the hours it used to take by streetcar. In anticipation of the subway, which was scheduled to be completed in 1904, developers began constructing many new apartment buildings. However, so many speculators had the same idea that too many buildings were constructed. By 1902, with two more years until the subway would reach Harlem, and brand-new buildings standing around unoccupied, many of those speculators faced bankruptcy.
In Harlem, necessity was the mother of integration.
Enter twenty-four-year-old real estate agent Philip A. Payton, later known as the Father of Colored Harlem. If anyone was the quintessential example of a Harlem Renaissance man, it was Payton. Despite being a college graduate, the only jobs he could get were as a barber, a slot-machine attendant, and a porter in an apartment building. Payton later recounted the early struggle:
The hardships that my wife and I went through before things broke for us would fill a book. If I have gained any success, to my wife belongs the major portion of the credit…. My customary amount of cash to leave the house with was fifteen cents; five cents to ride downtown, five cents for luncheon and five cents to ride back up town at night…. I just simply was not making any money. My wife was doing sewing, a day’s work or anything else she could get to do to help me along…. All of my friends discouraged me. All of them told me how I couldn’t make it, but none of them, how I could. They tried to convince me that there was no show for a colored man in such a business in New York.
Opportunities just weren’t there, so he made his own and became one of the first black real estate agents in New York. “I was a real estate agent, making a specialty in management of colored tenement property for nearly a year before I actually succeeded in getting a colored tenement to manage,” Payton said in an interview. “My first opportunity came as a result of a dispute between two landlords in West 134th Street. To ‘get even’ one of them turned his house over to me to fill with colored tenants.” Though blacks got their first opportunity to move to Harlem to spite another landlord, Payton took full advantage of the chink in the wall. His success was such that he convinced several other desperate white landlords to allow him to fill their vacant apartment houses, not with the white residents they’d hoped for, but with blacks anxious for decent housing and a safe neighborhood. And come they did. It was as if the great sea that was Central Park had parted, and African-Americans fled toward what many considered the New Jerusalem.
Despite the growing African-American population, white landlords refused to give up without a fight. They saw the incoming blacks as invaders and were determined to drive them right back to the Tenderloin. The Harlem Home News articulated white fears in 1911: “We must warn owners of property…that the invaders are clamoring for admission right at their doors and that they must wake up and get busy before it is too late to repel the black hordes that stand ready to destroy the homes and scatter the fortunes of the whites.” Whites responded to the call to arms and counterattacked by forming realty companies for the express purpose of buying any houses in which blacks lived and evicting them. The real estate publication the New York Indicator chided that blacks should live “in some colony in the outskirts of the city, where their transportation and other problems will not inflict injustices and disgust on worthy citizens.” John G. Taylor, the president of the Property Owners Protective Association, suggested that a “dead line” be built to mark the border between whites and blacks; this demarcation would be in the form of a twenty-four-foot fence (not unlike the one proposed in 2006 between the United States and Mexico).
In 1904, Payton responded by founding the Afro-American Realty Company to buy and lease residences in Harlem that would then be rented to blacks. But aggressive pressure from white real estate agents, including the Property Owners Protective Association, made it difficult for Payton to procure mortgages, or even keep the ones he had. His Afro-American Realty Company was soon forced out of business. But Payton wasn’t. Fueled by his failure, he quickly partnered with a wealthy undertaker, bought two five-story apartment houses, evicted the white tenants, and rented to blacks. Two of his salesmen from the defunct Afro-American Realty Company also started buying buildings, evicting whites, and renting to blacks. They convinced other African-Americans to invest in Harlem real estate, including the wealthy St. Philips Protestant Episcopal Church, which bought thirteen apartment houses and replaced the white tenants with black ones. Eventually, white landlords abandoned Harlem. In 1905, only about 4,000 blacks lived north of 125th Street; by 1920, 84,000 blacks lived there; by 1930, 200,000 blacks lived there, which was 60 percent of the population of Harlem. Payton, and the blacks of the Tenderloin, had their revenge: Payton became the most successful black real estate agent in New York City, and the black families of the Tenderloin had a new home—and new hope.
But the black residents of the Tenderloin weren’t the only ones in search of hope.
Movin’ on Up: Jim Crow
and the Great Black Migration
In 1910, while Harlem was developing into a popular black neighborhood among New York City’s African-Americans, 90 percent of the black population of the United States still lived in the South, most of them in rural areas. In fact, three out of four black Americans lived on farms. If blacks in the Tenderloin thought they had it bad trying to migrate to Harlem, the Southern blacks had it even worse, contending with severe poverty, discriminatory Jim Crow laws, and frequent lynchings. These harsh living conditions, combined with the onset of World War I, and severe blows to the cotton crop, convinced many to leave the South. Between 1915 and 1930, 2 million Southern blacks migrated to the North, mostly to New York City, Detroit, Cleveland, and Chicago. In 1910, New York City’s black population was 91,709; by 1930, the population had more than tripled to 328,000. Because of this Great Black Migration, the Harlem Renaissance would not only be possible, but necessary.
One major cause of the Great Black Migration was the Jim Crow laws, named after a popular character in minstrel shows, a demeaning caricature portraying Southern blacks as dumb and lazy (see the chapter “ ‘Musical Fireworks’: Jazz Lights Up the Heavens of Harlem”). Certainly many Southern laws reflected the attitude that blacks were more like cartoon characters than human beings. These restrictive laws were a direct reaction to civil rights laws that white Southerners felt were forced upon them by meddling Northern politicians. Immediately after the Civil War ended in 1865, the Republican-run federal government began actively protecting black rights through the policy of Reconstruction. As a result, they pushed passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Civil Rights Act of 1875. However, in 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down most of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, ruling that Congress did not have the constitutional power to regulate the conduct of individuals. The Democrat-run Southern legislatures took advantage by passing laws meant to chip away at any federally mandated civil rights.
The first Jim Crow law was probably the 1890 law that required segregation of all railroad cars in New Orleans. This was quickly followed throughout the South by laws restricting blacks from voting through poll taxes and literacy tests, which were not required of whites. Other laws made interracial marriage or cohabitation illegal and forced segregation of schools, restaurants, drinking fountains, and libraries. Mississippi even threatened a $500 fine or six months’ imprisonment for anyone who printed or circulated written material that argued “in favor of social equality or of intermarriage between whites and Negroes.” Blacks were also sent to prison more often than whites for petty crimes, where, through a convict-lease system, they were forced to labor for no pay. Slavery by another name. In 1863, President Lincoln had issued his Emancipation Proclamation, resulting in the eventual freeing of 4 million slaves. Fifty years later, Jim Crow laws had virtually wiped out most gains Southern black Americans had earned.
Though the Jim Crow laws were harsh, Southern blacks had even more to fear from those acting outside the law. Black farmers were sometimes driven from their land by “white-capping,” in which white riders (traditionally wearing white caps to disguise themselves) threatened or attacked blacks. Hundreds of cases of white-capping were recorded, especially in Mississippi. The white-cap fashion statement became an icon of the Ku Klux Klan, which was founded in 1866, as much to fight Northern businessmen as to harass freed blacks. President Ulysses S. Grant used the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act) to shatter the Klan, but it returned again in full force in 1915, inspired in part by D. W. Griffith’s classic film Birth of a Nation, which portrayed Klansmen as romantic heroes. This time around, the Klan went national, with millions of Americans eager to join their ranks. By 1920, the same year that the Harlem Renaissance was hitting its stride and black music and literature were being noticed on an international level, KKK membership had risen to include a massive 15 percent of eligible Americans. As African-Americans began to achieve more rights, opportunities, and success, a white backlash arose like a giant tidal wave to attempt to stop the progress.
Lynching was one popular method of stopping this progress. Between 1889 and 1918, 2,522 blacks were lynched, 79 percent in Southern communities. Causes for being lynched included everything from homicide to theft to “insult to a white person.” In 1906, Atlanta, Georgia, was the site of one of the most violent race riots in history. The local press had begun publishing unsubstantiated accounts of black men assaulting white women (the one charge that seemed to have the most effect in inspiring white violence) and urging the formation of a local Ku Klux Klan. White mobs responded by roaming through black neighborhoods beating and killing blacks and destroying their homes and businesses. The black president of a theological society was pistol-whipped by the police officer he’d run to for help. The violence continued for days, forcing the militia to march in to restore peace. In the end, twenty-five to forty blacks were murdered through beatings, bullets, and lynching. Two whites died, one of them a woman who suffered a heart attack when she saw the mobs roaming outside. Walter White, in his book A Man Called White, recounted his experience as a thirteen-year-old black boy facing a white mob:
Father told Mother to take my sisters, the youngest of them only six, to the rear of the house, which offered more protection from stones and bullets…. In a very few minutes the vanguard of the mob, some of them bearing torches, appeared. A voice which we recognized as that of the son of the grocer with whom we had traded for many years yelled, “That’s where that nigger mail carrier lives! Let’s burn it down! It’s too nice for a nigger to live in!” In the eerie light Father turned his drawn face toward me. In a voice as quiet as though he were asking me to pass him the sugar at the breakfast table, he said, “Son, don’t shoot until the first man puts his foot on the lawn and then—don’t you miss!”
A volley of shots from family friends sent the mob scurrying away. Young Walter White came away from that night of terror a changed person: “I was sick with loathing for the hatred which had flared before me that night and come so close to making me a killer; but I was glad I was not one of those who hated; I was glad I was not one of those made sick and murderous by pride.”
The effect of the riot spread beyond the confines of Atlanta. African-Americans across the country were reevaluating their approach to civil rights. They began to question the approach of the de facto leader of the civil rights movement, Booker T. Washington, who advocated a passive approach of not doing anything to anger the white masses. Clearly, the escalation and sheer savagery of the violence against blacks argued against it. Black America was searching for new, more aggressive leadership. One leader who would emerge, and be the guiding intellect of the Harlem Renaissance, was W. E. B. Du Bois, who, while on his way to the Atlanta Constitution newspaper to protest a lynching, passed a butcher shop. Displayed in the window along with the freshly butchered meat were the severed knees of a black lynching victim. Overcome with emotion, Du Bois returned to his home. Sometime later he would express his outrage at the violence of the Atlanta riots in a poem, “Litany of Atlanta (Done at Atlanta, in the Day of Death, 1906).” But more effectively, he would express his outrage at the causes of the Atlanta riots by helping to create the Harlem Renaissance.
Meantime, the violence continued; the lynchings continued. In 1901, George Henry White, a former slave and the only African-American in the House of Representatives, introduced a bill that would make lynching a federal crime. He argued that lynching was a form of terrorism and those who used it should be convicted of treason. As evidence, he showed that of the 109 people lynched in 1899, 87 were black. The bill was defeated. Until 1918, not one person in the South was punished for participating in a lynching. The effect of this situation was clear: “Every time a lynching takes place in a community down South,” said Chicago’s Urban League president T. Arnold Hall, “you can depend on it that colored people will arrive in Chicago within two weeks.” Perhaps one measure of the success of the Harlem Renaissance’s efforts to reinvent the image of the African-American is that lynchings became rare after the Harlem Renaissance. Still, black Americans had endured this kind of treatment for so long that many saw it as part of the cost of living. It would take a lot more pressure to finally mobilize 2 million people to leave.
Flight of the Boll Weevil,
Flight of the Black Farmer
One major source of pressure was a small invader from Mexico. It can be said that some of the weight of the Renaissance was carried into Harlem on the fragile wings of a tiny insect: the boll weevil. In 1892, the boll weevil traveled up from Mexico into Texas and by 1922 had made its way to Virginia. In its wake, this tenacious beetle was destroying 8 percent of the annual cotton crop in the United States. With cotton as the mainstay of Southern agriculture, the effects on the local economy were devastating, especially to blacks, most of whose livelihoods were directly tied to agriculture. Thousands of farmers lost their livelihood and were forced to find some other way to support their families. The boll weevil invasion inspired several blues songs that became mainstays of Harlem Renaissance musicians such as Bessie Smith. Modern variations of boll weevil songs have been recorded by singers from Harry Belafonte and Teresa Brewer to the rock duo White Stripes.
Whoever recorded it, the basic sentiment of catastrophic loss was the same:
The Boll Weevil knocked on my front door,
He said I’ve come to eat,
I’m gonna starve you plum to death
And get the shoes right off yo feet.
Some historians attribute the enduring popularity of boll weevil songs not just as a testament to disaster, but as a divine retribution visited upon the heads of the wealthy white plantation owners. God was punishing them for their long dishonorable history of mistreating African-Americans.
World War I: Fight, Not Flight
The final, and some believe the most significant, cause of the Great Black Migration was World War I (1914–18). America’s entry into the war in 1917 had a twofold effect: first, it created an enormous demand for manufactured war material; second, it cut off industrial America’s chief source of cheap labor: European immigrants. In 1914, 1,218,480 European immigrants arrived willing to work for little pay; by 1918, the war had choked off that supply to 110,618. In addition, 4 million young, able-bodied men were removed from the American workplace and sent to fight, thereby creating an even larger labor shortage. Industrial America, mostly located in the North, had to look elsewhere for laborers who met their two major criteria: able-bodied and cheap. They looked to the South.
The Great Black Migration wasn’t caused just by people escaping, some were being actively recruited. Representatives from Northern companies came South to extol the virtues of moving North. The average wage for black workers in the South was far below what was being offered in the North. Southern black steel-workers made only $2.50 per day, while in the North they made $4.50 a day. And if that wasn’t enough incentive, recruiters were helped in this task by black newspapers, particularly the Chicago Defender, the largest and most influential black-owned newspaper in the country (for whom Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes was a columnist). The weekly’s subscription was 125,000, but two-thirds of the readers lived outside Chicago. The paper relentlessly portrayed the North as a Promised Land of true freedom. Acclaimed Harlem Renaissance writer Richard Wright (1908–60), whose novel Native Son (1940) explores the issues of racism he faced while growing up in Mississippi, recalled the siren song of the North that wafted from the pages of newspapers like the Defender: “The North symbolized to me all that I had not felt or seen; it had no relation to what actually existed. Yet by imagining a place where everything is possible, it kept hope alive inside of me.”
So effective was the Defender’s campaign of hope in siphoning off black workers from the South that the paper was banned in many Southern towns. Desperate white employers sometimes actually boarded trains carrying black workers to the North and attempted to violently drag them off. But what these workers were leaving behind was much worse than a beating, and the trains rolled north, one after another, day after day.
The war had inadvertently provided an economic opportunity for Southern blacks at a time when they had run out of options. But there was another, more personal, effect of World War I. Black soldiers came back expecting more from their country. Four hundred thousand of them had just fought a war for democracy, and they wanted to experience the full fruits of that democracy themselves. Certainly they were owed it. After all, they had distinguished themselves as heroes on the battlefields of France, returning with an inordinate amount of honors. The 370th Infantry won 21 American Distinguished Service Crosses and 68 French War Crosses; the 369th Infantry, called the Hell Fighters by the French, were given the Croix de Guerre for gallantry; 171 black soldiers were awarded the French Legion of Honor. Also, the first American soldier awarded the French Croix de Guerre with star and palm was black sergeant Henry Johnson.
While World War I nudged into motion the Great Black Migration, it gave an angry shove to the Harlem Renaissance, providing it with passionate momentum. That momentum came not just from the pride of what black soldiers had proven to white America, but outrage at how white America responded to those accomplishments. At first, most black leaders had supported the war. W. E. B. Du Bois advocated a “close ranks” policy, suggesting that once the common enemy abroad was defeated, blacks could return to the task at hand: improving life for blacks in this country: “This is a crisis of the world…. We of the colored race have no ordinary interest in the outcome. That which the German power represents today spells death to the aspirations of Negroes and all the darker races for equality, freedom, and democracy…. Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow citizens.”
But many white Americans did not want a black shoulder standing with theirs. While the South was pleased to draft blacks into the army, they didn’t want them at the local training camps. Black soldiers were routinely discriminated against or outright attacked in Southern towns near boot camps. The discrimination continued even in battle. The French admiration for African-American soldiers was vigorously discouraged by the American military, which, in 1918, sent a memo to the French military titled “Secret Information Concerning the Black American Troops.” The memo warned the French not to praise black soldiers too highly because that would “deeply wound” white American soldiers. It also suggested that French officers “not eat with [black soldiers], must not shake hands with them or seek to talk with them or meet with them outside the requirements of military service.” This attitude ignored that black troops were killed at a higher rate than white soldiers: 14.4 percent for blacks; 6.3 percent for whites. This had a devastating effect on the morale of the black soldiers fighting so hard in Europe. During one particularly brutal battle in 1918, one Harlem soldier contemplated the irony of his situation, writing in his diary:
I seem to feel that the Germans (who have done so much to destroy the high ideals for which we have fought so hard and were willing to sacrifice so much), after the coming peace, will enjoy more privileges and will have the door of opportunity opened to [them] more heartily than to the American Negro, whose patriotism is above question, and who has given his life’s blood on every field of honor, in order to keep the flag which stands for such noble ideals from touching the ground.
Many blacks saw the return of their soldiers from war as a new beginning for African-Americans everywhere. The glorious victories and conspicuous bravery of black soldiers had proved that blacks were equals, and certainly white America would embrace this irrefutable evidence. Du Bois, in an editorial in the Crisis, waxed poetic about the new road ahead: “But by the God of heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land…. 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.”
The War Brought Home
Yet, during the summer of 1919, when black soldiers were returning from the war, many blacks, including W. E. B. Du Bois, had cause to question their original patriotic “close ranks” stance as well as their optimism about the road ahead. A series of twenty-five major race riots broke out across the country resulting in eighty-three blacks being lynched, and many more being beaten, shot, or burned out of their homes. So bloody were the riots that Harlem Renaissance writer James Weldon Johnson referred to that summer as Red Summer. There had been race riots before, but not this many and not with such widespread devastation. Certainly something was different. Partly, it was the result of blacks returning from war, trained in combat, and less willing to accept insult or injury. The New York Times complained about this new black attitude: “There had been no trouble with the Negro before the war when most admitted the superiority of the white race.” But blacks had a different take on the events, as expressed by the Southern black woman who wrote to the Crisis, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), edited by W. E. B. Du Bois: “The Washington riot gave me a thrill that comes once in a life time…at last our men had stood up like men…. I stood up alone in my room…and exclaimed aloud, ‘Oh I thank God, thank God.’ The pent up horror, grief and humiliation of a life time—half a century—was being stripped from me.”
World War I had changed the face of Europe, reshaping enemy countries into more manageable chunks. But the Great War had also changed the face of America, reshaping the way blacks felt about themselves, making them more actively resistant to being reshaped into manageable chunks by white America. Red Summer was the war brought home, and every black community was a country under siege, with whites attempting to send the clear message “Now that the war is over, everything goes back to the way it was.” Harlem was one such country, and on this point, the Harlem Renaissance might just as easily have been called the Harlem Resistance. Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay responded to Red Summer with the poem “If We Must Die,” a call to action to every African-American:
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in the inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In Vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! We must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back.
Ironically, the Great Black Migration did more to better black-white relations in the South than anything else. Finally aware at just how valuable and necessary blacks were to the Southern economy, many whites decided that the best way to stem the migration was by changing the way blacks were treated. Whites began talking to blacks and, more astounding, listening to them and their grievances. White merchants were more solicitous to their black customers, and the custom of arresting blacks for petty offenses dwindled.
Still, the migration continued. One Alabama minister’s prayer suggested the migration had biblical origins: “We feel and believe that this great Exodus is God’s hand and plan. In a mysterious way God is moving upon the hearts of our people to go where He has prepared for them.” Northern cities swelled with Southern immigrants, who had to adapt to the ways of big-city life as well as the ways of the North, often with just as much difficulty as immigrants from foreign countries. So vast was the movement that many people got lost or separated. In 1938, Jack L. Cooper, black radio personality and the country’s first African-American DJ, started a radio show called Search for Missing Persons, dedicated to bringing together black migrants with their lost family and friends. During the next twelve years, because of his show, twenty thousand people were reunited.
True, there was a hefty cost to the people who, through an enormous leap of faith, uprooted their families to move to a place they’d only heard about. But the possible rewards were well worth it. In 1925 Alain Locke, Howard University philosophy professor and leading voice of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote in his essay “The New Negro” that the causes of the migration to Harlem were more deliberately political than the traditional causes attributed to the mass movement:
The tide of Negro migration, northward and city-ward, is not to be fully explained as a blind flood started by the demands of war industry coupled with the shutting off of foreign migration, or by the pressure of poor crops coupled with increased social terrorism in certain sections of the South and Southwest. Neither labor demand, the boll-weevil nor the Ku Klux Klan is a basic factor, however contributory any or all of them have been. The wash and rush of this human tide on the beach line of the Northern city centers is to be explained primarily in terms of a new vision of opportunity, of social and economic freedom, of a spirit to seize, even in the face of an extortionate and heavy toll, a chance for the improvement of conditions. With each successive wave of it, the movement of the Negro becomes more and more a mass movement toward the larger and the more democratic chance—in the Negro’s case a deliberate flight not only from countryside to city, but from medieval America to modern.
Harlem was to be the model of this “modern” America, where blacks arrived daily to get a taste of the life they had rarely dared to demand, but only to imagine. Blacks didn’t come to Harlem just to get away from something bad, they were actually choosing to rush toward something good: a place where they would form a “common consciousness,” as Locke put it, adding, “In Harlem, Negro life is seizing upon its first chances for group expression and self-determination. It is—or promises at least to be—a race capital…. Without pretense to their political significance, Harlem has the same role to play for the New Negro as Dublin has had for the New Ireland or Prague for the New Czechoslovakia.”
The Real Harlem:
Life in the Black Lane
When migrant the Reverend Betty Neal arrived in Harlem, she thought her dreams had come true: “[When we first arrived,] Bubba and me thought Harlem was Heaven, all the lights and the sights. I asked my aunt, ‘Where do all the white people live?’” Statistically, Harlem was only 30 percent black in the 1920s, but those lived in all-black communities, with black storeowners, black real estate agents, and even some black police officers. Those who had moved to Harlem felt they were among their own—in a small city where they could, at long last, relax. Black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar saw Harlem as “the center of all the glory, all the wealth, and all the freedom of the world.”
Though Harlem was far from the paradise that many migrants hoped for, it was a lively community bristling with new life, new ideas, and new hope for blacks everywhere. Among the millions of hopefuls who came North, many were the musicians, writers, and artists that would form the core of the Harlem Renaissance, including such notables as writer Zora Neale Hurston (from Florida), jazz musician Louis Armstrong (from Louisiana; see the chapter “ ‘Musical Fireworks’: Jazz Lights Up the Heavens of Harlem”), and sculptor Augusta Savage (from Florida). The Northern migration became so widespread that it also swept up many blacks arriving from the West Indies, including Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay and Bob Douglas, founder of the world champion Renaissance Big Five (the Rens) basketball team (see the chapter “ ‘Fairness Creeps out of the Soul’: Basketball Comes to Harlem”). In Harlem, these artists, authors, and entrepreneurs were not only welcomed, but they flourished, achieving the kind of success that would not otherwise have been possible. In Harlem, they had more than a home—they had a purpose.
But once again, there were two Harlems sharing the same space. One was the Harlem that the writers, intellectuals, and artists envisioned as a shining city on the hill, a black Camelot in which they were valiant knights fighting for the cause of “might for right” instead of the usual “white might makes right.” The other Harlem was the microcosm of what life in America was like for the average workaday African-American. Those that saw the black Camelot were imagining the black America that they hoped would someday be. Writer Max Ewing rhapsodized, “Harlem is the one place that is gay and delightful however dull and depressing the downtown regions may be. Nothing affects the vitality and the freshness of Harlem.” But others would have snorted at such romanticized words, especially those who struggled for their daily bread unaware of any damn Renaissance, seeing only the microcosm, black America as it now was. Yet, what made Harlem so unique and so influential was that it embraced both visions and, as a result, actually was able, at least in part, to make all of black America a little more like black Camelot.
Harlem was much too complex to be characterized by any one group of people or their visions of what Harlem should or could be. Physically, Harlem was about two square miles that resembled the shape of Utah. St. Nicholas Avenue between 114th Street and 156th Street formed the west border, 114th Street the south border, and the Harlem River the border to the north and east. Contained within these borders were the five major neighborhoods of Harlem, each with a distinctive personality: Seventh Avenue, Lenox Avenue, Strivers’ Row, 135th Street, and 125th Street.
The Great Black Way
Seventh Avenue, the widest and most attractive of Harlem’s avenues, was also known as the Great Black Way because it represented all that was attractive and cultured about Harlem. One could stand on the bricks of 125th Street and gaze all the way up to 145th Street. The lush trees and flowers planted on the median presented a virtual Garden of Eden. This paradise included not only the most prestigious churches in Harlem but also its greatest theaters, such as the Alhambra, the Lafayette, and the Roosevelt. It also boasted Harlem’s ritziest hotel, the Teresa. Seventh Avenue also had its intellectual side, housing the offices of several leftist magazines as well as prominent bookstores: the Blyden and the National bookstores, both specializing in African and African-American books. Ironically, paradise’s music was provided by the famed nightclub Connie’s Inn at Seventh Avenue and 131st Street, which featured music by Fats Waller, but which also catered only to white patrons.
So beautiful was Seventh Avenue that it was Harlem’s most popular parade route. Civic leader Marcus Garvey led the followers of his Universal Negro Improvement Association down this street, as did Father Divine, who was not only a popular civil rights activist, but also one of Harlem’s wealthiest landlords. A funeral procession down Seventh Avenue proved the deceased had been a person of some prominence.
Sundays on Seventh Avenue brought out the best in people. Residents from all classes dressed in their finest clothes to simply stroll down the street. As Harlem Renaissance writer James Weldon Johnson wrote, “This was not simply going out for a walk; it is like going out for an adventure.” Activist Malcolm X, a onetime resident of Harlem, echoed that sentiment: “Up and down along and between Lenox and Seventh and Eighth Avenues, Harlem was like some technicolor bazaar.” Harlem Renaissance writer Wallace Thurman’s 1928 account of Seventh Avenue in “Negro Life in New York’s Harlem” still provides the most vivid description:
Negro Harlem is best represented by Seventh Avenue…. It is a grand thoroughfare into which every element of Harlem population ventures either for reasons of pleasure or of business…. Seventh Avenue is majestic yet warm, and it reflects both the sordid chaos and the rhythmic splendor of Harlem. From five o’clock in the evening until way past midnight, Seventh Avenue is one electric-lit line of brilliance and activity, especially during the spring, summer and early fall months. Dwelling houses are close, overcrowded and dark. Seventh Avenue is the place to seek relief. People everywhere. Lines of people in front of the box offices of the Lafayette Theater at 132nd Street, the Renaissance motion picture theaters at 138th Street and the Roosevelt Theater at 145th Street. Knots of people in front of the Metropolitan Baptist Church at 129th Street and Salem M.E. Church, which dominates the corner at 129th Street. People going into the cabarets. People going into speakeasies and saloons…. It is a civilized lane with primitive traits, Harlem’s most representative street.
Seventh Avenue was indeed Harlem’s Garden of Eden, filled with people trying to show what was best about their community. And every Sunday it paraded the spiritual hopes of Harlem for all to see—and emulate.
Lenox Avenue: Jungle Alley
Seventh Avenue may have represented Harlem’s spirit and soul, but it was Lenox Avenue that was Harlem’s loins, exuding sensuality from every street corner and alleyway. When the sun went down, every deadly sin came out and danced openly in the streets. Brightly lit nightclubs and speakeasies tempted all within sight to enter and taste the forbidden fruits. This was the place Collier’s magazine was referring to when in the twenties it described Harlem as “a national synonym for naughtiness” and a “jungle of jazz.”
Yet, apart from the glitzy nightclubs, the rest of Lenox Avenue was mired in a sweaty struggle for daily survival. All those wonderful new apartment buildings that had been erected during the building boom were now being rented at rates much higher than comparable apartments anywhere else in Manhattan. These extortionary rates were being charged by both white and black landlords. To make things worse, the apartments were being rented to people who, on average, made less money than whites who were paying less in rent. To afford to live in these apartments, the tenants subdivided their apartments, subletting rooms or even floor space to other families. The result was massive overcrowding that left entire blocks with inadequate sanitation, high rates of unemployment, and even higher rates of crime. Once again, Harlem Renaissance writer Wallace Thurman provides a vibrant account:
Lenox Avenue knows the rumble of the subway and the rattle of the crosstown street car. It is always crowded, crowded with pedestrians seeking the subway or the street car, crowded with idlers from the many pool halls and dives along its line of march, crowded with men and women from the slum district which it borders on the west and Fifth Avenue borders on the east. Lenox Avenue is Harlem’s Bowery. It is dirty and noisy, its buildings ill-used, and made shaky by the subway underneath. At 140th Street it makes its one bid for respectability. On one corner there is Tabb’s Restaurant and Grill, one of Harlem’s most delightful and respectable eating houses; across the street is the Savoy building, housing a first-class dance hall, a motion picture theater and many small business establishments behind its stucco front. But above 141st Street Lenox Avenue gets mean and squalid, deprived of even its crowds of people, and finally peters out into a dirt pile, before leading to a carbarn at 147th St.
But that wasn’t the part of Lenox Avenue that visitors came to see. White tourists were drawn to Harlem to experience not the Garden of Eden of Seventh Avenue, but Lenox Avenue’s Jungle Alley, with all the dark moral chaos the word jungle implies. This is where eager whites and blacks alike came in large numbers to have their most sensuous desires fulfilled, from the simple thrills of gambling and illegal speakeasies (during the Prohibition era, 1919–33), to the darker needs of hard drugs and harder prostitutes. Thurman explained the attraction: “To call yourself a New Yorker you must have been to Harlem at least once. Every up-to-date person knows Harlem, and knowing Harlem generally means that one has visited a night club or two. These night clubs are now enjoying much publicity along with the New Negro and Negro art. They are the shrines to which white sophisticates, Greenwich Village artists, Broadway revellers and provincial commuters make eager pilgrimage.”
The fancy nightclubs of Lenox Avenue were the painted face of Harlem that most white outsiders saw. To many, Lenox Avenue was a nonstop party celebrating all things African-American, from the music to the food to the dance. This aspect of the black lifestyle inspired important artists of the time, including Archibald Motley and Palmer Hayden. Many blacks believed that the whites that came to Lenox Avenue to experience this joyous and artistic side of black culture could not help but see just how rich and diverse of a people they truly were. Surely that would go a long way toward promoting better race relations. Unfortunately, beneath the romanticized frivolity of Jungle Alley lurked a harsher, more terrifying truth. There were indeed two Harlems: one that did celebrate African-American culture and heritage, and one that exploited and abused it.
Jungle Alley, also known as The Street, Paradise Valley, and The Stroll, had the highest density of nightclubs and cabarets in New York City. And certainly nightclubs filled with dancing girls, famous jazz musicians, mobsters, illegal booze, and international celebrities are much more romantic than some intense young writer quietly sitting in his room scribbling about the unjust plight of the Negro. But these famous, and infamous, clubs did as much damage as good to the cause of the African-American. While they promoted and celebrated the original music of black Americans, they also promoted a false, rose-colored image that kept white America from recognizing the real problems faced by African-Americans in Harlem and across the country.
This was the notorious area that had become popularized in literature because anything was for sale here, and to keep the customers flocking in, Lenox Avenue maintained a Picture of Dorian Gray persona. If visitors focused on the many ritzy nightclubs that featured dynamic jazz and dancing revues, this section of Harlem seemed giddy with innocent celebration of life. But if they looked in on the buildings where the locals lived, they’d catch a glimpse of the nastier soul of the place—the run-down apartment houses and dilapidated buildings hidden in the dark shadows cast by the bright lights of the resplendent nightclubs.
But no one was interested in looking in those shadows.
These two Harlems were characterized by two of Jungle Alley’s most famous, but radically different, clubs: the Cotton Club and, a couple blocks to the west, the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom. The two clubs came to define the two Harlems—Harlem Light and Harlem Dark—as clearly as the blue and gray uniforms of the Civil War. The Cotton Club symbolized how white America perceived African-Americans: as happy, dancing children, obsessed with sensuality and therefore incapable of sophisticated thoughts or actions. The Renaissance Casino and Ballroom symbolized the ideals of self-reliance and community values that the Harlem Renaissance was preaching.
The Cotton Club was part of a bizarre tradition in Harlem that included other fancy clubs such as Connie’s Inn and Small’s Paradise. These clubs, though operating in the heart of black Harlem, catered exclusively to white customers. Yet, in their shows and decor they still promoted an idealized but wholly inaccurate black lifestyle similar to those in minstrel shows. Menacing bouncers were stationed at the doors to make sure no black faces were admitted to the establishments, located on the same blocks where these black men and women lived. Eleven such segregated clubs were listed in Variety, but the most famous and popular of the group was the Cotton Club, the largest, fanciest, highest-priced, which featured the most extravagant shows.
Originally, the club was owned by a black icon who, in the eyes of other African-Americans, stood for defiance of white racism. Former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson—an amateur cellist and fiddler and frequenter of Harlem’s raucous nightlife—bought the struggling Douglas Casino in 1920, changing the name to the Club Deluxe. But Johnson was unable to make the club any more successful than the predecessor. By 1923, Johnson sold it to mobster Owney Madden, who was in prison at the time for manslaughter. Madden, who also owned the popular Stork Club and Silver Slipper, which were frequented by the rich and famous from around the world, wanted the Cotton Club to be equally renowned, so he poured a significant amount of money into renovation. For its decor, he chose to re-create, in the middle of Harlem, the plantation South and its attitude, from which so many Harlemites had fled. From their elegantly appointed tables, white patrons could view the three nightly stage shows. The shows were written exclusively for the club and they were so extravagant that they rivaled even Broadway shows. In fact, some of the shows did move on to Broadway. The revues featured some of the most famous black performers of the day, including Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Ethel Waters, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Edith Wilson, and Earl “Snakehips” Tucker. Duke Ellington and his orchestra were the house band from 1927 to 1931, and again in 1933. Between 1931 and 1933, Cab Calloway took over as bandleader. Most important, the club served as the principal East Coast outlet for “Madden’s No. 1” beer.
Other Harlem clubs trying to compete with the Cotton Club were sometimes met with violence. The Plantation Club tried to imitate the Cotton Club’s style and venue by hiring Cab Calloway and his orchestra away from the Cotton Club. Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” routine was famous and a big attraction. Cotton Club owner Madden was not pleased, so he sent a few of his men over to the Plantation Club to break up the place. They destroyed tables and chairs, shattered glasses, and dragged the bar out to the curb. Calloway returned to the Cotton Club.
Despite the Cotton Club’s gangster origins—in fact, because of it—this became, in Lady Mountbatten’s words, “The Aristocrat of Harlem” for the white elite of New York. The wealthy patrons, bedecked in their finest jewelry, hoped to be thrilled with a glimpse of Al Capone or Owen Madden. Mob bouncers met patrons at the door, enforcing the strict color code of whites only. Inside, the waiters, dancers, musicians, and stage performers were black, but were not permitted to socialize with the customers. The young girls of the chorus line had to be under twenty-one, over five feet six inches tall, and of light complexion. This discriminatory policy gained even more respectability because of the white celebrities who frequented the Cotton Club, including Mayor Jimmy Walker and singer Jimmy Durante. In his autobiography, The Big Sea, Langston Hughes comments on the growing resentment within the black community: “Nor did ordinary Negroes like the growing influx of whites toward Harlem after sundown, flooding the little cabarets and bars where formerly only colored people laughed and sang, and where now the strangers were given the best ringside tables to sit and stare at the Negro customers—like amusing animals in a zoo.”
Rather than be outraged, the white public embraced the Cotton Club and its Uncle Remus vision of African-Americans. In 1927, CBS began broadcasting live shows from the Cotton Club, sometimes five or six a week. This created an unexpected opportunity: while the cartoonish portrayal of black culture made the Cotton Club popular enough to have a radio show, the show also provided a platform for the innovative jazz music of Duke Ellington, which led many white listeners to embrace authentic black culture and led to the dispelling of the silly stereotypes from the Cotton Club.
The Cotton Club and other segregated nightclubs didn’t just slap local residents in the face, but promoted and gave respectability to a vision of African-Americans that the Harlem Renaissance was desperately combating. They not only confirmed humiliating stereotypes, but led significant numbers of blacks to embrace those same self-deprecating ideals. The conventional wisdom was that white culture and white perceptions of beauty, including lighter skin and straight hair, were somehow superior. These were the physical requirements for many of the performers at the segregated clubs. Consequently, many Harlemites chose to emulate, rather than reject, the twisted perceptions embodied by the Cotton Club.
This obsession with copying white ideals of beauty was most evident in the practices of lightening skin color and hair straightening, or conking. Even the most politically conscious magazines advertised creams that promised to lighten dark skin (products that are still widely advertised today). Ironically, one of the Harlem Renaissance’s most important figures was socialite and heiress A’Leila Walker, who inherited her money from her mother, Madame C. J. Walker, the child of ex-slave sharecroppers, who built a hair-straightening empire that had made her over $2 million by her death in 1919. A’Leila Walker spent much of her hair-conking inheritance promoting African-American artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance. In Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple (part of which is set during the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance), the character Shug comments on blacks’ self-perception as symbolized by conking hair: “Somewhere in the bible it say Jesus’ hair was like lamb’s wool, I say. Well, say Shug, if he came to any of these churches we talking bout he’d have to have it conked before anybody paid him any attention. The last thing niggers want to think about they God is that his hair kinky.”
The intellects of the Harlem Renaissance realized that before whites would see blacks as equals, first blacks had to see themselves that way—and not try to pretend to be white or adopt white ideals of beauty. And the Cotton Club, which promoted the inferiority of black identity, was a major obstacle that had to be overcome.
The other Harlem—the one that was inhabited by the black residents—was represented by nightclubs like the Lenox Club, the Plantation Inn, the Savoy Ballroom, and the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom. These establishments served the black community and were the places that Harlemites frequented for entertainment or to hold social, political, or family events. Many major local events were held at the Savoy, which boasted not only a large mixed-race clientele, but was also famous as the home of the trendy dance the Lindy Hop.
The club that in many ways most represented the ideals of the Harlem Renaissance was over on 150 West 138th Street—a two-story redbrick building called the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom. This was the place that the Cotton Club building had first been erected to compete against. And just as the name implies, this establishment embodied the heart and soul of what the Harlem Renaissance was all about. While the corrupt, mob-operated Cotton Club flaunted its patronizing attitude toward African-Americans, the black-owned-and-operated Renaissance Casino celebrated African-American achievements. This is where many of Harlem’s more dignified events took place, including the annual awards dinners held by the NAACP’s periodical, the Crisis, the magazine that had done the most to define and develop the ideals of the New Negro. Meetings of black unions and clubs were common, including the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Business and Professional Men’s Forum. Patrons danced to the jazz licks of the house band fronted by Vernon Andrade, as well as other renowned musicians and entertainers such as the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, Louis Armstrong, Elmer Snowden’s band, Rex Stewart, Dickie Wells, Cecil Scott, Roy Eldridge, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. While the Cotton Club rejected the black community, the Renaissance clientele reflected the black community. But most important, it celebrated the black community, from its workers to its artists to its writers.
And the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom had one other thing that the Cotton Club didn’t have: an all-black championship basketball team, the Rens (see the chapter “ ‘Fairness Creeps out of the Soul’: Basketball Comes to Harlem”). Between band sets, the dance floor would be cleared and the Rens would play basketball to the enthusiastic cheers of the patrons. When the game was over, the hoops would be stored away and the dancing would continue, sometimes with team members joining the customers on the dance floor. More important, the team barnstormed throughout the Midwest, South, and Northeast. Through the team’s athleticism and courage in the face of constant racism, they helped spread the gospel of the Harlem Renaissance without even knowing it.
Strivers’ Row and Sugar Hill:
The Street of the Elite
Officially named the St. Nicholas Historic District, the stretch between Seventh and Eighth avenues on 138th and 139th streets was commonly known as Strivers’ Row. The nickname was bestowed on the area to describe its residents—African-American doctors, dentists, and bandleaders who were “striving” for a better lifestyle. These individuals were successful despite the economic and social hardships faced by African-Americans at the time. Strivers’ Row specifically refers to the three rows of town houses constructed between 1891 and 1893 and developed by the first African-American architect, David H. King, who also built Madison Square Garden and the base of the Statue of Liberty. Other houses in this district were designed by some of America’s most prominent architects, including the celebrated Stanford White, who planned the neo–Italian Renaissance houses on the north side of West 139th Street. Each building has a rear courtyard and gated alleyway where the owner’s horses could go directly to the stables.
Despite the classy design and pedigree of the architects, the development company was at first unable to sell the houses. Black influx into Harlem and white flight left them empty for years. Finally, out of desperation, the houses were sold to blacks, but only ambitious professionals—“strivers”—were able to afford them. Musicians Eubie Blake, Fletcher Henderson, comedian Stepin Fetchit, preacher/congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and W. C. Handy, the “father of the blues,” all lived on Strivers’ Row. Wallace Thurman barely conceals his contempt for the place in his 1928 description: “Between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, is 139th Street, known among Harlemites as ‘strivers’ row.’ It is the most aristocratic street in Harlem. Stanford White designed the houses for a wealthy white clientele. Moneyed Negroes now own and inhabit them. When one lives on ‘strivers’ row’ one has supposedly arrived. Harry Rills resides there, as do a number of the leading Babbitts and professional folk of Harlem.” Today, the buildings are all designated landmarks.
Like Strivers’ Row, Sugar Hill became the place to live for those who had arrived at the good life. Perched on a bluff above Harlem Plains, Sugar Hill is not a hill and never had anything to do with sugar. The “sugar” nickname is thought to imply that the residents here were living the “sweet life.” Jazz musician Duke Ellington, who was on the road and missing his home in Sugar Hill—“where life is sweet”—made the place famous when he cowrote, with fellow Sugar Hill resident Billy Strayhorn, “Take the ‘A’ Train (Up to Sugar Hill in Harlem),” which became Ellington’s theme song. This upscale neighborhood was part of Hamilton Heights, extending from Edgecombe Avenue to Amsterdam Avenue, and from 145th Street to 155th Street. Harlem historian Levering Lewis (When Harlem Was in Vogue) described Sugar Hill as “a citadel of stately apartment buildings and liveried doormen on a rock, [that] soared above the Polo Grounds and the rest of Harlem like a city of the Incas.” From those exalted heights gazed the elite of the black community, including Harlem Renaissance intellect W. E. B. Du Bois, NAACP leaders Walter White and Roy Wilkins, and civil rights leader the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Sr.; writers Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and Zora Neale Hurston; singer/actor Paul Robeson; artists Aaron Douglas and Hale Woodruff; jazz musicians Cab Calloway, Luckey Roberts, and Jimmie Lunceford; and other notables such as socialite A’Leila Walker and special counsel to the NAACP Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court justice. Ebony magazine described the residents of Sugar Hill as Harlem’s most prominent men and women in law, sports, civil liberties, music, medicine, painting, business, and literature.
The Boulevard of Brains
If Seventh Avenue was the beautiful face of Harlem, and Lenox Avenue was its loins, then 135th Street was its brains. This is where the New Negro of the Harlem Renaissance would learn how to come into being. Here on 135th Street many of the literary elite lived, wrote, and performed. The Harlem YMCA provided not only a place to live for Langston Hughes and many other writers (before they became successful enough to move to Sugar Hill), but it also made rooms available for literary groups to share their latest creations. Harlemites would gather at the YMCA to listen to the latest works of Langston Hughes or Countee Cullen.
One of the most formative places in encouraging these artist/warriors was the 135th Street Library, which was the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library. In 1926, Arthur Schomburg, a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, donated his vast collection of ten thousand books, manuscripts, and artworks to the library. This magnanimous gesture resulted in the renaming of the library as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Here, many of Harlem’s literary elite studied the past—and forged their future. Nearly every writer to come out of the Harlem Renaissance did research at this library. (And it was here, thirty-eight years after its founding, a seventeen-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would wander into the building and discover the wonders of the Harlem Renaissance. See the chapter “ ‘Mad Medley’: How Harlem Influenced My Life.”)
The Schomburg Center was more than a passive repository of the past, it was an active participant in making history. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the library promoted various cultural activities, including commissioning African-American art for its walls. One of its most renowned commissions was Aaron Douglas’s murals called Aspects of Negro Life. While 135th Street nurtured the Harlem Renaissance’s most famous communicators, it also housed its most popular means of communication among the community. Here, among the barbershops and beauty salons immortalized by Renaissance photographers James Van Der Zee and Morgan and Marvin Smith, word of literary events, political rallies, and social gatherings were passed along.
Basking in the Light of the Apollo
Just a few blocks away from the literary neighborhood was Harlem’s commercial hub: 125th Street. Here, among the many shops and department stores, is where much of Harlem shopped. And when they were done shopping, there was entertainment of all kinds: from the classical operas at the Harlem Opera House, to the jazz and blues at the Apollo Theater.
The 1,750-seat Apollo, “America’s Finest Colored Theatre,” was Harlem’s most prestigious theater, featuring performers such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday. A 1937 article from the New York World-Telegram described the Apollo:
The theatre stands behind a gaudy neon sign between a haberdashery and a leather goods store…. You can buy your ticket at a sidewalk booth (from fifteen cents mornings to a fifty cent top Wednesday and Saturday nights) and enter through a narrow lobby lined with bathroom tiles, glistening mirrors and photographs of such Harlem idols as Ethel Waters and Louis Armstrong…. On the rear wall hang three large oil paintings, each featuring several square feet of female flesh…. The wallpaper has a recurring motif of a nude young woman.
This is where Harlemites of all walks of life would go to see the latest African-American entertainers. And every performer knew that his or her career depended on how well he or she was received at the Apollo. Beyond providing a venue for many of the Harlem Renaissance’s most famous performers who would go on to be embraced by white audiences, the Apollo gave Harlemites a sense of pride in their own culture. The theater produced over thirty shows a week and featured an amateur night that launched many careers, including that of Pearl Bailey in 1934.
Surviving in Harlem:
Heaven On a Budget
While the best and brightest of the Harlem Renaissance struggled to create a new image of African-Americans, most of the residents of Harlem didn’t know anything about it and couldn’t have cared less if they did. As Langston Hughes observed, “The ordinary Negroes hadn’t heard of the Negro Renaissance. And if they had, it hadn’t raised their wages any.” Given some time, they might have appreciated the intentions of the Harlem Renaissance: to use the talents of the black artists, musicians, and writers to force white America to see blacks as intellectual, athletic, and moral equals to the whites. If only they weren’t preoccupied with earning their daily bread.
Everyone wanted a piece of paradise. But the constant influx of black immigrants from the South and West Indies caused such overcrowding that residents were forced to face a whole new set of challenges. The density rate for whites in New York City was 222 per acre, while for blacks it was an astounding 336 per acre. Aside from the enormous economic toll, the housing congestion had additional fallout. More people crammed into smaller space resulted in quicker deterioration of the properties, making them less attractive and more dangerous. In addition, the high density of people meant higher rates of communicable diseases and higher mortality rates. Between 1923 and 1927, the death rate from pneumonia for whites in New York City was 124 per 100,000; for blacks in Harlem it was nearly double that, 244 per 100,000. The death rate from tuberculosis for white New Yorkers was 76 per 100,000; for black Harlemites it was 183 per 100,000. Hundreds of Harlem residents died each year for no other reason than color. For some, it was hard to tell the difference between the oppressive old South they had run away from and their new home in the North. The unnecessary death of a loved one was just as heartbreaking, whether at the hands of an angry Southern white mob—or the turned backs of a neglectful Northern white citizenry.
It would be poetic to report that such adversity resulted in the pulling together of Harlem’s African-Americans into a one-for-all-and-all-for-one community. But that, too, would be Disney stereotyping. Human interactions are much grittier and more complicated. In fact, adversity sometimes turned Harlemites against each other. Ironically, much of this internal conflict was based on the color of skin and where you were from. Racism and regionalism of blacks against blacks threatened to destroy the community from within. Jervis Anderson describes the tension in his book This Was Harlem, 1900–1950: “Northern-born blacks looked down on the speech and manners of those who had recently arrived from the rural South; an upper class, consisting mainly of light-skinned professionals, fought to be recognized as Harlem’s most representative social grouping; West Indians and black Americans often glared xenophobically at one another across borders of accent and cultural style.”
The discrimination of American blacks against West Indians was especially significant since they provided so much of the talent and momentum for the Harlem Renaissance. Seventeen percent of blacks in New York City were foreign-born, yet one-third of the city’s black professionals, physicians, dentists, and lawyers were foreign-born. Most of them West Indians. The West Indians who came to Harlem were in general more educated and highly trained than other immigrants. Many had left their homelands less because of racism than because of a static economy. Though they were certainly aware of the blatant racism in the United States, they came from a society in which they were the majority, so the racism was less unrelenting. In their society, people were white, black, or mulatto, so the many mulattoes who came were not prepared to suddenly be referred to and treated as black. In their countries, successful blacks held a higher social status than poor whites. The West Indians had not been raised, as had many American blacks, with an attitude of submission and nonresistance. The result was the rise of many West Indians to prominence in the black community during the Harlem Renaissance, including activist Marcus Garvey, Rens founder and Renaissance Casino and Ballroom manager Bob Douglas, and prominent author Claude McKay.
For most of the black residents of Harlem, daily life could be summed up in one frustrating word: rent. Harlemites were paying significantly more money for housing than whites in similar neighborhoods in Manhattan. By 1938, the average apartment rent in Harlem was $30 per month, while a comparable apartment elsewhere in Manhattan went for only $18. Not only were blacks earning less money, they had to pay higher rents. Harlem renters were paying 40 percent of their income on rent alone. And if the rent wasn’t paid by Sunday night, on Monday morning the landlord would have all their furniture on the street and be renting out the rooms to the next eager person. Desperate to keep their homes, residents began throwing paid-admission parties to raise the rent money.
Rent parties became a common fixture in Harlem—and a major source of community entertainment. Usually thrown on Saturday and Thursday nights, when domestics had the night off, these events were often much more elaborate than just inviting a few close friends over. Flyers were printed and distributed through pool halls, Laundromats, and even handed out to people on the street. Rooms were cleared of furniture, except for chairs that had been borrowed from the local undertaker. Strangers and friends alike paid anywhere from ten to fifty cents and were, for that amount, treated to a full night of live music and even livelier companions. And most important: the rent got paid. Wallace Thurman describes the liveliness—as well as the necessity—of the typical rent party:
There may be only piano music, there may be a piano and a drum, or a three or four-piece ensemble. Red lights, dim and suggestive, are in order. The parlor and the dining room are cleared for the dance, and one bedroom is utilized for hats and coats. In the kitchen will be found boiled pigs’ feet, ham hock and cabbage, hopping John (a combination of peas and rice), and other proletarian dishes…. The dancers will use their bodies and the bodies of their partners without regard to the conventions. There will be little restraint…. And in addition to the liquor sold by the house, flasks of gin, and corn and rye will be passed around and emptied. Here “low” Harlem is in its glory, primitive and unashamed.
I have counted as many as twelve such parties in one block, five in one apartment house containing forty flats…. It serves a real and vital purpose, and is as essential to “low Harlem” as the cultured receptions and soirees held on “strivers’ row” are to “high Harlem.”
House rent parties have their evils; it is an economic evil and a social evil that makes them necessary, but they also have their virtues…. House rent parties do provide a source of revenue to those in difficult financial straits, and they also give lonesome Harlemites, caged in by intangible bars, some place to have their fun and forget problems of color, civilization, and economics.
While the rent party was an invaluable economic survival tool for many residents, it was also a community social event that drew the people of Harlem together. In addition, rent parties provided basic training for many of the finest jazz musicians to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance, including Willie “the Lion” Smith, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Luckey Roberts, Mezz Mezzrow, Eubie Blake, and James P. Johnson. Several popular songs were composed about rent parties, the most famous being “The Joint Is Jumpin’” by Fats Waller and Duke Ellington’s “Saturday Night Function.”
Does it Explode?:
The Legacy of Harlem
There could not have been a renaissance without Harlem. So many of the divergent rivers of history—World War I, the boll weevil, the rise of jazz, Jim Crow laws—flowed into one city at the same time, allowing all those elements to mix together and wash through Harlem like a biblical flood, only this time it was a cleansing and nurturing tide. And fed on that water, Harlem grew out of the shadows of white Manhattan—and white America—to become a cultural center that would change the rest of the country.
As it had in the past for African-Americans, change came slowly, and not without reversals. But it did come, and faster than before. Blacks across the country had found a unified voice—a voice that emanated from the neighborhoods of Harlem and spread from coast to coast as if broadcast from a powerful radio station. And, having found that voice, they were willing to raise that voice. Loudly. And often. Harlem had come to represent the distant dream of what life in America might one day be for blacks. And the congregation of minds that created the Harlem Renaissance made it clear that they would not let that dream go gentle into that good night. Langston Hughes expresses that commitment of black voices in his cautionary poem “A Dream Deferred”:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?