Welcome to Harlem World!
The Harlem Renaissance was a Black culture, social, and artistic movement that peaked around the 1920s and was centered in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, Britannica reports. As a result of the Great Migration, African-Americans came from all over the South to settle in Harlem. With New York serving as the financial capital of the United States at the time, Harlem was a great place for Black people to venture into new creative works with organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People amplifying them.
In 1925, Alain Leroy Locke, largely considered the “Father of The Harlem Renaissance,” published an anthology of work entitled “The New Negro.” The work included writings from scholars like Locke and Langston Hughes, emphasizing an ideological shift of Black consciousness and artistic temperament, proving that African-Americans were equal societal contributors as evidenced by their extraordinary work.
“So for generations in the mind of America, the Negro has been more of a formula than a human being - a something to be argued about, condemned or defended, to be ‘kept down,’ or ‘in his place,’ or ‘helped up,’ to be worried with or worried over, harassed or patronized, a societal bogey or a social burden,” Locke wrote in his essay.
Dagmawi Woubshet, a University of Pennsylvania Associate Professor, said it was Locke’s anthology that shifted an entire generation to introduce an opposing ideology around Black America into the academic and societal rhetoric.
“Locke and a group of Black artists and intellectuals proposed otherwise. That Black people were not just a problem of the social sciences or a racial conundrum, but agents, makers of American civilization. And moreover, agents who can create their own individual and collective self-image in different art forms and do so with exceptional talent and innovation,” said Woubshet.
Locke’s essay and various other journals, such as the NAACP’s The Crisis and the National Urban League’s Opportunity, helped publish young Black writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance, thus pushing a national and international movement that created the groundwork for unprecedented growth in the African-American literary arts, blues, and the Jazz Age. The unity of the Harlem Renaissance set the stage for many other movements to come, but it’s not the only great thing to have come out of Harlem. In honor of New York’s famed neighborhood, here are 6 other things Harlem gave us besides the Renaissance:
The 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters, is one of the most celebrated African-American regiments in World War I. They confronted racism, helped bring jazz to France, and battled Germany longer than any other American regiment. Most of the soldiers were from Harlem, among the first Black troops to enroll in the state’s National Guard. After years of lobbying on their behalf by civic leaders in Harlem, Governor Charles Whitman formed the all-Black unit, originally known as the 15th New York National Guard Regiment in 1916, Smithsonian Magazine reports.
Recently, Buffalo unveiled a historic monument honoring Black service members which includes a homage to the legendary Harlem Hellfighters.
The Apollo Theater
First opening its doors in 1914, the legendary Apollo Theater became a safe place for emerging Black artists over the years. Its Amateur Night contests were introduced originally in 1934, and the theater played a critical role in the emergence of several Black art forms including jazz, swing, bebop, R&B, gospel, blues, and soul. Many world-renowned artists got their start at the Apollo including Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown, Gladys Knight, Luther Vandross, D’Angelo, and Lauryn Hill. Today, the Apollo is an esteemed non-profit, continuing its tradition of holding space for a number of arts productions while also providing education and community outreach initiatives.
Civil Rights Pioneers
As a result of the migration of Black people to Harlem and its rising cultural influence created by the Renaissance, the neighborhood became a platform for a number of civil rights movements. Many civil rights leaders like Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, and Cicely Tyson all called Harlem home, the arts movement intertwined with the Civil Rights movement. Malcolm X also regularly frequented the area, his last speech where he was murdered taking place at the Audubon Ballroom.
Harlem is also home to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, founded in 1925 by historian and activist Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. It is “one of the world’s leading cultural institutions devoted to the research, preservation, and exhibition of materials focused on African-American, African Diaspora, and African experiences.” In 2020, the Schomburg made the archives of couple Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis available to the public as a part of its Home to Harlem initiative.
Harlem was also home to a number of sports pioneers, including tennis icon Althea Gibson, the first Black tennis player to receive an invitation to Wimbledon, the first Black player to win Wimbledon and the first to play in the French and U.S. Opens, making history as the first Black Grand Slam Winner ever.
New York recently celebrated what would have been Gibson’s 95th birthday by renaming a Harlem street in her honor.
No surprise here, Harlem was also the home of several fashion icons. From designers like Ruby Bailey, a Bermuda-born Harlem socialite, to the elevated street fashion of Dapper Dan, the first Black designer to receive the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s (CFDA) lifetime achievement award, Harlem’s fashion icons are plentiful.
Today, agencies like Harlem’s Fashion Row serve as a bridge, creating opportunities for a new generation of Black talent in the fashion industry.
Harlem stand up! Because of you, we can!
6 other things Harlem gave us besides the Renaissance. Photo Courtesy of Tiago Chediak/Elle Brasil