Not Just a Harlem Thing

Today’s post was written by Joshua Cain, Archives Technician at the National Archives in College Park, MD

In the 1920s, the neighborhood of Harlem in Manhattan was the epicenter for a new movement that empowered African Americans to express themselves and their experiences in various facets of the arts. New poems, books, paintings, and literature were created during this time period that reflected the struggles and accomplishments of African Americans. Not to mention the ever growing popularity of jazz music across the country. 

Notable individuals of the time were Alain Locke (often referred to as “The Father of the Harlem Renaissance”), poet Langston Hughes, performer Josephine Baker, writer Zora Neale Hurston, actor Paul Robeson, sculptor Augusta Savage, musician Louis Armstrong, sociologist W.E.B. DuBois, and political activist Marcus Garvey. 

While the movement was called the Harlem Renaissance, it was not just contained to the 1.4 square mile neighborhood in Manhattan. Other areas and locations around America partook in the movement and served as havens for African Americans to showcase their artistic talents. 

photo showing the boarded up Howard Theater
Howard Theater, December 1997 from National Register of Historic Places Form for Greater U Street, Washington, DC (NAID 117692200)

One area of importance was Greater U Street in Washington, D.C (NAID 117692200). Jazz artist Duke Ellington lived there as a teenager, and after moving to New York City in the early 1920s he would return and play at the clubs along the U Street strip. Poet Georgia Douglas Johnson hosted a weekly literary salon, the “Saturday Nighters”, where guests would read their work, offer criticism, and discuss art and politics of the time. While teaching in the philosophy department at Howard University, Alain Locke started the literary magazine The Stylist which local writers from the Greater U Street area contributed to as well as outsiders such as W.E.B. DuBois and Countee Cullen. 

view of a street with buildings on either side of the road, Henry Street
View of Henry Street from National Register of Historic Places Registration Form (NAID 41683327)

Further south in the neighborhood of Gainsboro in Roanoke, Virginia, Henry Street (NAID 41683327) was the central business and entertainment district for African Americans in the first half of the 20th century. Its participation in the Harlem Renaissance can be found in the Hotel Dumas and Strand Theatre. Often being used in tandem, the theater provided a venue for travelling artists who would then stay at the hotel for the duration of their time in Roanoke. Oscar Micheaux, one of the first African American filmmakers with his own production and distribution company, established an office in the Strand Theatre from 1924-1925 and took up residence at the Hotel Dumas. He made a total of eight movies that featured both national and local actors. The Gainsboro neighborhood was used as the setting in the films. 

text describing significance to Jazz of 18th and Vine St in Kansas City
Statement of Historic Significance regarding Jazz on 18th & Vine (NAID 63817609)

Out in the middle of America, jazz took a central role in the eight city blocks that comprise Kansas City, Missouri’s 18th and Vine area (NAID 63817609). This area had the highest concentration of buildings that featured jazz music in the city. It was played in nightclubs, music halls, theaters, and restaurants. New Orleans is the home of jazz, but in Kansas City it began to take on a new style. In the early 1920s, musicians Bennie Moten and Walter Page started to construct their own bands consisting of 10 to 15 pieces that helped create Kansas City jazz. By the late 1920s, the 18th and Vine area became its own epicenter for jazz musicians who heard the call of “goin to Kansas City” to play their music and make it big.

The Harlem Renaissance’s goal of promoting more art and intellectual discussion was shared by many African-American. It became an empowering movement around the nation; It was not just a Harlem thing.

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