Around 1910s in Harlem, New York City became an area where many black immigrants settled from various parts of the country. Where they running from something? Yes and No.
The civil war had ended in 1865 with the Confederates (the south) defeated. Slavery was over – physical bondage that is. The next stages of the Afro-American man’s life didn’t get much easier. Jim Crow’s laws were introduced throughout the country which meant that millions of blacks in the were restricted mentally, physically, emotionally by segregating blacks and whites from each other – purposely to make the distinction to keep the “inferior race” (blacks) below/in line/controlled by the “superior race” (whites). Jobs were limited and even if there were jobs available, blacks probably didn’t them or had to work in certain areas. Education wasn’t the greatest either since the black schools had limited resources. There was a glass ceiling for many blacks. And so it was this glass ceiling that pushed many – let’s say millions of black people north or west bound to a life where, though there were still restrictions, they still had an opportunity to make a change in their lives if not for them, for their children.
Those that landed in New York City came to the realisation that segregation was also in the city.
However, that didn’t stop a generation hungry for education and a new life from forming a new community. In this developing community of black Americans in Harlem, migrants had opportunities to gain an education, a better job – or simply a job without being discriminated against – as much. It was, in fact, the educated ones who were at the heart of forming an Afro-American culture where there was such status as a black middle class person.
‘Great numbers of blacks seemed to mean new power’ -Nathan Irvin Huggins
Education men and women became notable for being the first or notable Afro-Americans in modern history to accomplish achievements that had been wrongly prohibited from them. Men and women such as W.E.B DeBois – the first Afro-American to earn a doctorate from Harvard university, Jessie Redmon Fauset a notable novelist during the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes a notable novelist, poet, social activists were finally able to express and discuss in a voice that everyone could clearly hear what they and their ancestors had gone through. There was no excuse for the world not to listen; these Americans and many other educated ones now had the same education as any other American. Through music, literature, art both visual and performing arts the world was hearing a silenced voice of a people who’d been seen for centuries as inferior, stupid – lacking intellect. The Harlem Renaissance was indeed a prominent artistic and cultural movement during the early 20th century where, from it, emerged many entertainers, intellectuals, authors/poets, dramatists, musicians/composers and artists. This was their voice not only a voice for those during the time, but for us to look at what they’d really gone through. A peek into the life of an early 20th century black man or woman who’d gone through situations we could only imagine.
Sadly, many aren’t really known about today.
Every day citizens, men and women in Harlem or black communities in America could go to lots of places in the city for entertainment for example, but they’d have to sit in certain areas. The Cotton Club and Connie’s Inn was off limits to any black person – though many of the best black entertainers had performed there.
It must have been frustrating to still experience a similar kind of treatment having recently left the south. Yet these Afro-Americans didn’t get too upset. They used their talents and created their own forms of entertaining themselves such as the Apollo Theater and with help from white Americans, the Savoy Ballroom was established and very successful.
But firstly, let’s clear one thing up – not every white person was a blatant racist and ignorant to the ‘t’. Many such as photographer Carl Van Vechten, Fanny Hurst who was associated with Zora Neale Hurston, co-founders of the NACCP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) Henry Moskowitz, Mary White Ovington, William English Walling (many being of Jewish origin) also contributed to the Harlem Renaissance’s wealthy status.
There is so much in this movement to discuss but I’ve tried to highlight – simply surface the juicy parts. Most of what I’ve come across is from researching this era for my dissertation in my last year at undergraduate. I focused mainly on the literary side but there’s so much more in this movement.
So much… but it’s up to us to dig it out since it’s just gathering dust otherwise.
Anyways, here’s a short video – based on the Savoy Ballroom