Today, Harlem is known as a vibrant Manhattan neighborhood that is home to some of New York City’s best black-owned shops and restaurants. How did it get this way, though?
Harlem’s reputation as a Black cultural mecca dates back to the early 20th century. The Harlem Renaissance—the development of this famous neighborhood—lasted from the early 1910s to the mid-1930s.
Learn more about this critical historical period and how it has had a lasting effect on New York City below.
The First Great Migration
Harlem began as an upper-class white neighborhood in the 1880s. However, it became significantly overdeveloped, resulting in numerous empty buildings and leaving landlords desperate to find tenants.
Around the same time, as many landlords were scrambling to find tenants, a considerable number of Black Southerners were relocating to northern and midwestern cities, including New York. Concurrently, some middle-class Black families from another neighborhood, known as Black Bohemia, also chose to move to Harlem.
This migration (which would later become known as the First Great Migration) started around 1910. It intensified in 1917 when the United States joined World War I. At this time, many able-bodied men were sent to Europe to fight, leaving job vacancies that Black Americans filled.
By 1920, approximately 300,000 African Americans from the South had moved north and primarily settled in Harlem. Many of these people went on to make incredible artistic, scholarly, and cultural contributions to the city and the country.
New Businesses Abound
The Great Migration and the kick-off of the Harlem Renaissance brought with it the establishment of numerous businesses.
In addition to the typical shops and restaurants that make a neighborhood complete, many residents also established businesses that were critical to Harlem’s cultural development, including publishing houses, newspapers, music production companies, and playhouses.
Several nightclubs also opened and put Harlem on the map, including the Savoy and the Cotton Club.
The Savoy opened in 1927 on Lenox Avenue between 140th and 141st streets. It has been described as the “heart and soul” of Harlem.
The famous dance hall featured an integrated ballroom with two bandstands, both of which provided spaces for continuous jazz music and dancing.
The Cotton Club
Harlem’s nightlife catered to more than just the Black community who called the neighborhood home. Many white people also traveled to Harlem to experience its clubs and other events.
During this time, some entrepreneurs spotted a controversial yet lucrative business opportunity: They would provide white people with an opportunity to take in Black culture (such as jazz music and dancing) without having to socialize with Harlem’s Black residents.
The result of this idea was a series of clubs that catered specifically to white visitors, the most famous being the Cotton Club. Famous musicians like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway frequently performed in this plantation-themed cabaret.
Not everyone approved of the Cotton Club or its premise. However, some saw it as a sign that Black culture was being more widely accepted.
Numerous Black Americans played a role in the Harlem Renaissance and are known to this day for their talents and historical impacts. The following are some of the most noteworthy contributors:
W.E.B. Du Bois
W.E.B. Du Bois was a critic, editor, scholar, author, and civil rights leader. He helped to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 and served as the editor of the organization’s magazine, The Crisis. The magazine had an impressive readership and, by 1929, was selling 100,000 copies per month.
Langston Hughes was a poet, activist, columnist, novelist, playwright, and one of the most significant contributors to the Harlem Renaissance. He published his first poem in 1921 in The Crisis. He went on to publish his first book of poetry, titled “The Weary Blues,” in 1926.
Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston was an author often described as the “Queen of the Harlem Renaissance.”
Hurston attended Barnard College on scholarship and graduated in 1928 with a B.A. in anthropology. She was the school’s first Black graduate, and much of her research influenced her writing, as well as her activism in Harlem.
Josephine Baker was a famous vaudeville performer who participated in numerous shows during the height of the Harlem Renaissance. She later took her skills overseas and performed in Paris.
Countee Cullen was a poet, novelist, and playwright. He was particularly well-known among and respected by Black intellectuals during the 1920s and published multiple books of poetry throughout the Harlem Renaissance.
Louis Armstrong was a skilled trumpeter, singer, and bandleader, as well as one of the most famous musicians of the 1920s.
In 1925, he formed the band “Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five.” He also became well-known for songs like “La Vie En Rose” and “What a Wonderful World.”
Paul Robeson was revered in the 1920s for his myriad talents. He was a celebrated athlete, actor, author, scholar, singer, and activist. His performance in Othello was the longest-running Shakespeare play in Broadway history and is, to this day, considered one of the country’s most incredible Shakespeare productions.
Aaron Douglas was a celebrated visual artist who moved to the Harlem neighborhood from Missouri, where he worked as an art instructor. When he arrived, he was welcomed by many of the great intellectuals of the time, including W.E.B. Du Bois, who hired him to work in the mailroom of The Crisis and later invited him to work for the magazine as an art critic.
Marcus Garvey was an activist and founder of an organization titled the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). He was committed to the Black Pride movement and encouraged Black Americans to learn about their African heritage. He also promoted Black separatism.
Augusta Savage was a sculptor, art teacher, art program director, and activist. She won many awards for her work and eventually relocated to Paris in the late 1920s to continue her art studies. When she returned from Paris, she opened the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts.
Billie Holiday was a jazz singer who made a name for herself in Harlem as a teen and young adult.
Holiday recorded her first record at 18 as part of a studio group led by Benny Goodman, a famous clarinetist. She eventually became the first Black woman to work with an all-white band.
The End of the Renaissance
Toward the end of the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance also began to die down, primarily due to the 1929 Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression that followed shortly after.
Black-owned businesses fell victim to the effects of the Depression, and there was far less support for the arts during this dark time in American history.
Although Harlem was changed by the Depression, World War II, and the many events that followed, the effects of the Renaissance have lived on for nearly a century.
Harlem’s Present and Future
Today, Harlem offers a wide range of educational, entertainment, and dining opportunities for residents and visitors alike.
From the Studio Museum in Harlem to the Apollo Theater to Sylvia’s, a world-famous soul food restaurant, there is something for everyone here, making Harlem a must-visit for any New York City tourist.