Ladies in Harlem
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Related PBS Sites:
Duke Ellington's Washington
I'll Make Me a World
Ken Burns' Jazz
New York Online
Images from LIFE IN HARLEM, National Museum of American History
Historical Background to The Old Settler
"In 1943 Harlem there was a great energy," says playwright John Henry Redwood. "We are 10 years removed from the end of Prohibition, we are in the war years. African-American soldiers are chomping at the bit to prove themselves again as good citizens by waiting to fight for the Democracy they share very little in. We are just coming out of the Harlem Renaissance. It's the Harlem of Malcolm X, and of Duke Ellington and Count Basie and all of these giants in music and literature, such as Zora Neale Hurston. Soldiers and sailors walking around in uniform, the Cotton Club going, the Savoy going...
"This is the Harlem that my parents would go to when they wanted to go out. Born and raised in Brooklyn, they were the first generation from the South. Elizabeth and Quilly, you have two generations there. And then a generation after, you have Lou Bessie and Bucket and Husband coming up from the South. It's like the second of the great migrations. The [Harlem] churches still have remnants of the Southern black church. We are still at that point where we speak of our life in the South. All these things make for a colorful people trying to make that transition from rural South to urban America."
Dating back to Colonial America, the Upper Manhattan enclave of Harlem (extending from 110th to 168th Streets) has been, by turn, a Dutch, German and Jewish neighborhood. The influx of African-Americans for which Harlem is more widely known didn't occur until 1904 when black entrepreneur Philip A. Payton Jr. opened the Afro-American Realty Company and began leasing apartments to blacks at slightly higher rents than those charged to other ethnic groups. Black Harlem emerged as landlords opened their doors to this new market sector. Considered a ghetto by some, a sanctuary by others, this neighborhood was home to the Harlem Renaissance, incubator of the Jazz and Swing Eras, and witness to two World Wars. Harlem's history is intricately woven into the experience of African-Americans, who migrated by the thousands to what Harlem Renaissance poet and writer Claude McKay called "the Negro Metropolis":
"[Harlem] is the Negro capital of the world. And as New York is the most glorious experiment on earth of different races and diverse groups of humanity struggling and scrambling to live together, so Harlem is the most interesting sample of black humanity marching along with white humanity."
The Great Migration
In 1896 the Supreme Court's ruling in Plessy vs. Ferguson upheld the "separate but equal" concept that provided justification for the South's segregationist Jim Crow laws that would continue into the 1960s. Beginning in the early 1900s, thousands of blacks sought relief in Harlem from the institutionalized racism and violence below the Mason-Dixon line. In the 1920s artists, intellectuals and reformers flocked to Harlem seeking an atmosphere that was both socially tolerant and conducive to the creative expression of the black community. Others made their pilgrimage after a series of natural and economic disasters (worst of all, the Great Depression in the 1930s) left them without any form of agricultural work. By the end of World War II, Harlem had become the terminus for hundreds of thousands of blacks that had begun their northern exodus four decades earlier.
The Harlem Renaissance
Emerging in the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance was a creative movement grounded in the belief that race relations could be improved -- and society reshaped -- through art. Using black experiences and disappointments to mirror a "democratic society" that did not treat its citizens equally, writers such as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston made up the literary arm of the movement. Visual artists such as Aaron Douglas, William H. Johnson and Malvin Gray Johnson contributed unforgettable images that emphasized the emotional and daily realities of black life. The musicians Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Earl Hines and Louis Armstrong -- to name just a few --brought Jazz to Harlem. Less self-reflective, but infinitely more pervasive, Jazz's immense popularity infuriated the mainstream cultural sentinels. African-American music was the golden goose in nightclubs that would eventually become centers for integration. However, the energy and exuberance of these and many other Harlem Renaissance artists buckled in the 1930s under the weight of the Great Depression. The social changes that the movement had hoped for would not be realized until World War II pulled America, both black and white, out of its economic morass.
The Savoy Ballroom
Lenox Avenue was the heart of Harlem and the site of the many of entertainment venues that made Harlem's nightlife famous. One of these clubs, the Savoy Ballroom, would emerge as a focal point, in part, because it allowed interracial dancing, unlike other famous Harlem nightspots such as the Cotton Club, which did not welcome African-American patrons. Opened in December of 1926, the "home of happy feet" spanned a full city block and boasted a 10,000-square-foot dance floor. Two bands, perched on each of the Savoy's bandstands, "battled" one another for audience approval. "Lindy Hoppers" and "Shim-Shammers" gathered on the wooden dance floor to elect one band as the evening's winner, or to compete in athletic dance contests. Raucous and festive, the Savoy hired black performers and kept admission reasonable so the less affluent could enjoy its festivities. Hot, progressive and always happening, the Savoy Ballroom thrived through the Harlem Renaissance, the Jazz Era and the Wartime Swing Era, finally closing its doors in 1958.
Economic Reality And The Harlem Race Riot Of 1935
Even during the early '20s, when it seemed that Harlem blacks might be overcoming the insults of a racist society, they were still shut out of skilled jobs. Educated professionals were relegated to positions as elevator operators and housekeepers. That is, until the Crash of 1929 when the economic meltdown forced them from these menial positions. They joined 16 million other Americans who were also unemployed during The Great Depression, but the economic resources of the African-American community could not be contrasted favorably with even the poorest of whites. The Harlem Race Riot of 1935 was not only an eruption in response to the rumored murder of a young black shoplifter by white police, but the culmination of years of humiliation and miserable poverty. The riot would be a defining moment for Black Harlem. In the years that followed, the New Deal's public works projects initiated a halting economic recovery. During WWII, almost full employment for New York City accompanied unprecedented social and economic changes for Harlem.
World War II
Harlem swarmed with uniformed black soldiers on leave, many of whom frequented clubs like the Savoy Ballroom. Some 750,000 African-Americans served in WWII in segregated all-black units. But at home, the war proved to be a meaningful back-drop for civil-rights initiatives. Black labor organizer A. Philip Randolph assembled a March on Washington that compelled the federal government to respond to black interests. On June 25, 1941, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, forbidding racial discrimination "in the employment of workers in defense industries." New York, which became a center for the war industries, opened up jobs in shipbuilding and other trades that had previously been barred to blacks.
The twist to this story is that people began to have money but nowhere to spend it. Goods ranging from coffee to automobiles were rationed or unavailable for civilian purchase. The government urged cutting back and recycling to help in the war effort. There were 'dim outs' on Broadway and in Grand Central Station. Posters warned of 'idle talk' because gossip and speculation about the war or about one's job in a factory could be overheard by spies. Billboards said, 'Is this trip really necessary?' to remind people to conserve gas. Even fashion was affected: people were encouraged to wear clothes that used less fabric -- short skirts for women and cuffless pants for men. The entire nation was subject to a kind of self-control that had previously been associated with poverty, but was now a great show of patriotism.
Although the daily reports of the dead, missing and wounded traumatized Americans, this war of wars managed to end the Depression and pull Harlem out of economic devastation. Also, the government propaganda that raised public consciousness about the value of freedom and human rights abroad created a vocabulary and awareness that would later be used to address racial oppression at home. In 3,000 Miles To A Hospital, Elizabeth M. Phillips, the first African-American female war correspondent, writes about American race relations that "a trip to the European Theatre of War could never be any worse. Over there I'll not be shot at because I'm colored, but because I am an enemy." Together the Depression and WWII became the great social levelers of the 20th century and paved the way for the civil rights movements of the '60s.
The Immigrant Experience
It can be said that Black Harlem was one of New York's most famous examples of the immigrant experience -- in this case, immigrants in their own country. Beginning around 1915, transplanted Southerners -- grandchildren of slaves -- moved north in droves in search of a viable society, trading rural lives for the gritty urban environment of Harlem. Although the North proved to be a disappointment in terms of racial equality, there was a transforming energy that came from living in a teeming African-American community. Harlem Renaissance writer-editor Alain Locke captured the atmosphere in 1925:
"Harlem has attracted the African, the West Indian, the Negro American; has brought together the Negro of the North and the Negro of the South; the man from the city and the man from the town and village; the peasant, the student, the business man, the professional man, artist, poet, musician, adventurer and worker, preacher and criminal, exploiter and social outcast. Each group has come with its own separate motives and for its own special ends, but their greatest experience has been the finding of one another."