Left: Singer Mamie Smith (center), one of the first recording stars, with her band in New York in 1920; Right: a group of boys in Harlem around 1930 

© Rue des Archives/AGIP/The Granger Collection (Mamie Smith); Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images (Stoop)

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, RH.6-8.9, WHST.6-8.4, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.3, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, RI.6-8.9, W.6-8.4

NCSS: Culture • Time, Continuity, and Change • Individual Development and Identity • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

U.S. SPOTLIGHT

Welcome To Harlem!

Travel back in time to a vibrant period in U.S. history known as the Harlem Renaissance, when Black artists, writers, and musicians created work that continues to dazzle the world today.

As You Read, Think About: What made Harlem such an exciting place in the 1920s?

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

“I can never put on paper the thrill of that underground ride to Harlem.” So wrote poet Langston Hughes about a day in 1921 when the then 19-year-old African American, originally from Missouri, got on a New York City subway train for the first time and rode uptown to Harlem.

“I went up the steps and out into the bright September sunlight,” Hughes wrote. “Harlem! I stood there, dropped my bags, took a deep breath, and felt happy again.”

Amazing things were happening in Harlem. In just a few years, it had been transformed from a sleepy section of upper Manhattan into what was being called the capital of Black America. Its residents had formed a community where they were making music, literature, and art that was their own—and uniquely American. Harlem was the place for an ambitious young Black creator to be.

What was special about Harlem? For many generations, it was considered the countryside, a place where wealthy New Yorkers owned estates. By the late 19th century, immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and other European countries had also settled in the 1.5-square-mile area. Sensing opportunity, real estate developers built many houses and apartment buildings there. They were hoping to lure middle-class White families into a freshly created neighborhood. 

Instead, Harlem became a magnet for African Americans. Black New Yorkers from other parts of the city went there to escape discrimination and overcrowding. Many people also arrived from Southern states during what became known as the Great Migration. That was when millions of Black Southerners, fleeing racial violence and segregation, relocated to cities in the North and Midwest to seek economic and educational opportunities. Black immigrants from Jamaica and other Caribbean countries came to Harlem too, making the area even more diverse.

By the early 1920s, Harlem was home to the country’s highest concentration of Black people. In its cafés, churches, and homes, in theaters and on the streets, some of the era’s most talented musicians, writers, and artists found inspiration—and the freedom to express themselves. The result was a new cultural identity for Black Americans. It would come to be known as a renaissance, or rebirth. And thanks to new means of communication—including radio, records, and movies—its influence would extend far beyond the city blocks where it began, notes John Reddick. He’s a Harlem historian and scholar at Columbia University in New York City.

The Harlem Renaissance, Reddick says, “crossed all boundaries, to both Black and White Americans, and to an international audience.” Read on to experience some of the magic of Harlem for yourself!

“I can never put on paper the thrill of that underground ride to Harlem.” So wrote poet Langston Hughes about a day in 1921 when the young African American from Missouri, age 19, first took a New York City subway train. He rode it uptown to Harlem.

“I went up the steps and out into the bright September sunlight,” Hughes wrote. “Harlem! I stood there, dropped my bags, took a deep breath, and felt happy again.”

Amazing things were happening in Harlem. In just a few years, it had been changed from a sleepy section of upper Manhattan into what was being called the capital of Black America. Its residents had formed a community. They were making music, literature, and art that was their own—and uniquely American. Harlem was the place for an ambitious young Black creator to be.

What was special about Harlem? For many generations, it was considered the countryside, a place where wealthy New Yorkers owned estates. By the late 19th century, immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and other European countries had also settled in the 1.5-square-mile area. Sensing opportunity, real estate developers built many houses and apartment buildings there. They were hoping to draw middle-class White families into a freshly created neighborhood.

Instead, Harlem became a magnet for African Americans. Black New Yorkers from other parts of the city went there to escape discrimination and overcrowding. Many people also arrived from Southern states during what became known as the Great Migration. That was when millions of Black Southerners fled racial violence and segregation. They moved to cities in the North and Midwest to find economic and educational opportunities. Black immigrants from Jamaica and other Caribbean countries went to Harlem too, making the area even more diverse.

By the early 1920s, Harlem was home to the country’s highest concentration of Black people. In its cafés, churches, and homes, in theaters and on the streets, some of that time’s most talented musicians, writers, and artists found inspiration and the freedom to express themselves. The result was a new cultural identity for Black Americans. It would come to be known as a renaissance, or rebirth. And thanks to new means of communication, including radio, records, and movies, its influence would extend far beyond the city blocks where it began, notes John Reddick. He is a Harlem historian and scholar at Columbia University in New York City.

The Harlem Renaissance, Reddick says, “crossed all boundaries, to both Black and White Americans, and to an international audience.” Read on to experience some of the magic of Harlem for yourself!

THE SCENE

© Detroit Institute of Arts  Gift of Dr. Delano A. Willis/Bridgeman Images

James Van Der Zee’s portraits, including this one of a stylish couple, captured the energy of life in Harlem.

What was it like to stroll the streets of 1920s Harlem? In the morning, they were full of people going to work, including Black doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. Throughout the day, on blocks densely packed with apartment buildings, neighbors stopped to chat. On the area’s wide avenues, Harlemites flocked to stores, theaters, and churches. The air buzzed with talk of society, politics, and more.

Photographer James Van Der Zee was there to capture it all. He took hundreds of pictures documenting the energy of life in Harlem, from weddings and parades to studio portraits of people dressed in stylish evening clothes. Those photos appeared in newspapers and magazines nationwide, helping spread the excitement of Harlem to other Black communities, Reddick says.

What was it like to walk the streets of 1920s Harlem? In the morning, they were full of people going to work, including Black doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. Blocks were densely packed with apartment buildings. During the day, neighbors stopped to chat. On the area’s wide avenues, Harlemites flocked to stores, theaters, and churches. The air buzzed with talk of society, politics, and more.

Photographer James Van Der Zee was there to capture it all. He took hundreds of pictures of the energy of life in Harlem. He took wedding and parade pictures and studio portraits of people in stylish evening clothes. Those photos appeared in newspapers and magazines nationwide, helping spread the excitement of Harlem to other Black communities, Reddick says.

THE MUSIC

Anthony Barboza/Getty Images (Bessie Smith); Gilles Petard/Redferns/Getty Images (Louis Armstrong)

Bessie Smith (left) sang with a power that earned her the nickname the Empress of the Blues; Louis Armstrong (right) honed his skills in Harlem as one of the greatest jazz soloists.

Throughout Harlem, the sounds of pianos, horns, and singers practically poured into the streets. Musicians from far and wide flocked to dozens of the neighborhood’s theaters, clubs, and dance halls to contribute to a new form of music that would come to be called jazz. Pianists like James P. Johnson strove to out-dazzle their peers in feats of skill called “cutting contests.” Trumpeter Louis Armstrong—a native of New Orleans, Louisiana—displayed his emerging genius as one of music’s greatest soloists. Meanwhile, Duke Ellington and other bandleaders raised popular music to an art form.

Throughout Harlem, the sounds of pianos, horns, and singers practically poured into the streets. Musicians came from far and wide. They went to the neighborhood’s theaters, clubs, and dance halls to contribute to a new form of music that would come to be called jazz. Pianists like James P. Johnson tried to out-dazzle their peers in feats of skill called “cutting contests.” Trumpeter Louis Armstrong, from New Orleans, Louisiana, showed his emerging genius as one of music’s greatest soloists. Meanwhile, Duke Ellington and other bandleaders raised popular music to an art form.

It’s no wonder Harlemites packed into venues like the Savoy Ballroom to show off their moves. Locals invented popular dances that later swept the country, including the Charleston and the Lindy Hop. 

Harlem also spawned some of America’s first important recording stars, most of them women, including Bessie Smith. Called the Empress of the Blues, Smith sang of good times and bad with pride, humor, even defiance—insisting on living as an independent woman in a male-dominated world. Her big sound and bold attitude have been passed down through countless singers, including Queen Latifah (who played her in a movie), Aretha Franklin, and Beyoncé.

It is no wonder Harlemites packed into venues like the Savoy Ballroom to show off their moves. Locals invented dances like the Charleston and the Lindy Hop that later became popular nationwide.

Harlem also produced some of America’s first important recording stars. Most were women, including Bessie Smith. Called the Empress of the Blues, Smith sang of good times and bad with pride, humor, even defiance. She insisted on living as an independent woman in a male-dominated world. Her big sound and bold attitude have been passed down through countless singers, including Queen Latifah (who played her in a movie), Aretha Franklin, and Beyoncé.

What’s on the Playlist?

These songs were all the rage during the Harlem Renaissance.

  • “Downhearted Blues” by Bessie Smith
  • “The Mooche” by Duke Ellington
  • “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic” by James P. Johnson
  • “Ain’t Misbehavin’” by Thomas “Fats” Waller
  • “How Come You Do  Me Like You Do?” by Louis Armstrong and the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra
  • “I’m Just Wild About Harry” from the musical Shuffle Along

  • “Downhearted Blues” by Bessie Smith
  • “The Mooche” by Duke Ellington
  • “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic” by James P. Johnson
  • “Ain’t Misbehavin’” by Thomas “Fats” Waller
  • “How Come You Do  Me Like You Do?” by Louis Armstrong and the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra
  • “I’m Just Wild About Harry” from the musical Shuffle Along

THE INFLUENCERS

IanDagnall Computing/Alamy Stock Photo

W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)

A scholar, historian, and activist, Du Bois played a key role in shaping a new sense of Black pride in the early 20th century. His landmark 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk, examined the experience of struggling for equal rights in the U.S. In 1909, Du Bois co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored* People (NAACP), an organization that would help lead the fight for equality during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. As editor of the NAACP’s magazine, the Crisis, he helped establish a body of Black literature by publishing the young writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)

A scholar, historian, and activist, Du Bois played a key role in shaping a new sense of Black pride in the early 20th century. His landmark 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk, examined the experience of struggling for equal rights in the U.S. In 1909, Du Bois co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored* People (NAACP). That organization would help lead the fight for equality during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. As editor of the NAACP’s magazine, the Crisis, he helped establish a body of Black literature by publishing the young writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

*The term Colored was once used to describe Black people, but it is now considered outdated and offensive.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

Ellington was one of jazz’s great pianists and its most influential composer. His job as the bandleader at the Cotton Club in Harlem allowed his genius to soar. Directing an orchestra that grew to more than 14 musicians, he turned out increasingly complex music. In a career that spanned more than 50 years, Ellington toured the globe repeatedly while creating more than 2,000 musical works. Musicians worldwide still play his many tunes, including “Mood Indigo” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”

Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

Ellington was one of jazz’s great pianists and its most influential composer. His job as the bandleader at the Cotton Club in Harlem allowed his genius to soar. He directed an orchestra that grew to more than 14 musicians. He turned out increasingly complex music. His career spanned more than 50 years. Ellington toured the globe repeatedly. He created more than 2,000 musical works. Musicians worldwide still play his many tunes, including “Mood Indigo” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”

Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Augusta Savage (1892-1962)

As a kid, Savage used the red clay of Florida, where she grew up, to sculpt animals and other small figures. She later studied at New York City’s Cooper Union School of Art and made a name for herself by creating sculptures of Harlem leaders and residents. She was also a respected art educator in her community and one of the first sculptors to depict the features of Black people in fine art.

Augusta Savage (1892-1962)

As a kid, Savage used the red clay of Florida, where she grew up, to sculpt small figures like animals. She later studied at New York City’s Cooper Union School of Art. She made a name for herself by creating sculptures of Harlem leaders and residents. Savage was also a respected art educator in her community. She was one of the first sculptors to depict the features of Black people in fine art.

Smithsonian American Art Museum

This sculpture by Augusta Savage was modeled after her young nephew.

This sculpture by Augusta Savage was modeled after her young nephew.

Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Aaron Douglas (1899-1979)

Douglas was Harlem’s most influential visual artist. He combined modern styles of painting with geometric shapes inspired by African art. His major themes were the importance of Black people in history, their struggle for political and creative freedom, and their aspirations to be recognized as Americans.

Aaron Douglas (1899-1979)

Douglas was Harlem’s most influential visual artist. He combined modern styles of painting with geometric shapes inspired by African art. His major themes were the importance of Black people in history, their struggle for political and creative freedom, and their desire to be recognized as Americans.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Art and Artifacts Division/The New York Public Library

In his mural Song of the Towers, Aaron Douglas used symbols of the life, work, and art of Black people in America. What specific images can you identify? Why do you think Douglas included the Statue of Liberty in the center?

Fotosearch/Getty Images

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)

Originally from rural Florida, Hurston arrived in New York City in 1925 after receiving a scholarship to study anthropology at Barnard College. But she often returned to the South, making note of its peoples’ stories and songs, its children’s games and ministers’ sermons. Her book Mules and Men was the first record of African American folklore published by a Black person. She would go on to write other groundbreaking books and numerous essays. 

Hurston also used the tales she heard on porches and in parlors as inspiration for many short stories and four novels. The novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, considered her greatest work, examined one woman’s determined struggle to find love and maintain her independence.

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)

Originally from rural Florida, Hurston arrived in New York City in 1925 after receiving a scholarship to study anthropology at Barnard College. But she often returned to the South, making note of its peoples’ stories and songs, its children’s games and ministers’ sermons. Her book Mules and Men was the first record of African American folklore published by a Black person. She later wrote other groundbreaking books and numerous essays.

Hurston also used the tales she heard on porches and in parlors as inspiration for many short stories and four novels. The novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is considered her greatest work. It examined one woman’s determined struggle to find love and keep her independence.

THE WORDS

Despite the community they’d found in Harlem, Black people still lacked fundamental rights as Americans—and would for decades to come. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, for example, that Black Americans’ right to vote was protected by law.

Even in their own neighborhood in the 1920s, Harlemites felt the sting of discrimination. For instance, White people flocked to legendary Harlem nightspots like the Cotton Club, where they were entertained by Ellington’s tuxedo-clad band. Yet in that and other places owned by White businessmen, African Americans could not enter as customers—only as employees or performers. 

The writers of Harlem fought this injustice with their words. From the beginning of the 20th century, the neighborhood had been home to journals and newspapers that took on the political and social battles of the day. During the Harlem Renaissance, poets and novelists spoke with a bold new voice. In 1919, poet Claude McKay responded to a wave of anti-Black violence around the country with his sonnet “If We Must Die,” which calls for action in the face of injustice.

“Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,

Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!”

Black people found a community in Harlem. But they still lacked basic rights as Americans. And they would continue to for decades to come. Not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, for example, was Black Americans’ right to vote protected by law.

Even in their own neighborhood in the 1920s, Harlemites felt the sting of discrimination. For instance, White people went to legendary Harlem nightspots like the Cotton Club, where they were entertained by Ellington’s tuxedo-clad band. Yet in that and other places owned by White businessmen, African Americans could only be employees or performers, not customers.

The writers of Harlem fought this injustice with their words. From the beginning of the 20th century, the neighborhood had been home to journals and newspapers that took on the political and social battles of the day. During the Harlem Renaissance, poets and novelists spoke with a bold new voice. In 1919, poet Claude McKay responded to a wave of anti-Black violence around the country with his sonnet “If We Must Die.” It calls for action in the face of injustice.

“Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,

Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!”

SKILL SPOTLIGHT: Analyzing a Primary Source

A Leading Voice

Langston Hughes is often considered the most influential poet of the Harlem Renaissance. In “I, Too,” one of his most famous works, he refers to a classic poem from 1860 by Walt Whitman, “I Hear America Singing.” Whitman’s poem had celebrated ordinary people, including carpenters and shoemakers—who, in his America, were White. With that in mind, what is Hughes saying in his poem? How does it refer to the way Black people were often treated? Why is the last line significant? 

Langston Hughes is often considered the most influential poet of the Harlem Renaissance. In “I, Too,” one of his most famous works, he refers to a classic Walt Whitman poem from 1860, “I Hear America Singing.” Whitman’s poem had celebrated ordinary people, like carpenters and shoemakers, who in his America were White. With that in mind, what is Hughes saying in his poem? How does it refer to the way Black people were often treated? Why is the last line meaningful?

“I, Too”

Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photo