African-American History and Related Works in the Library of Congress
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In the process, it introduced white New Yorkers to black music, theater, and entertainment and helped generated the white fascination with Harlem and the African American arts that was so much a part of the Harlem Renaissance.
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For the young Hughes, just arrived in the city, the long-range impact of Shuffle Along was not on his mind. In , it was all about the show, and, as he wrote in his autobiography, it was "a honey of a show:". Swift, bright, funny, rollicking, and gay, with a dozen danceable, singable tunes. Besides, look who were in it: The now famous choir director, Hall Johnson, and the composer, William Grant Still, were a part of the orchestra.
Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle wrote the music and played and acted in the show. Miller and Lyles were the comics. Florence Mills skyrocketed to fame in the second act. Everybody was in the audience—including me. People came to see it innumerable times. It was always packed. Shuffle Along also brought jazz to Broadway.
It combined jazz music with very creatively choreographed jazz dance to transform musical theater into something new, exciting, and daring. And the show was a critical and financial success. It ran performances on Broadway and spawned three touring companies.
It was a hit show written, performed, and produced by blacks, and it generated a demand for more.
Within three years, nine other African American shows appeared on Broadway, and white writers and composers rushed to produce their versions of black musical comedies. Music was also a prominent feature of African American culture during the Harlem Renaissance. The term "Jazz Age" was used by many who saw African American music, especially the blues and jazz, as the defining features of the Renaissance. However, both jazz and the blues were imports to Harlem.
They emerged out of the African American experience around the turn of the century in southern towns and cities, like New Orleans, Memphis, and St. From these origins these musical forms spread across the country, north to Chicago before arriving in New York a few years before World War I. Blues and black blues performers such as musician W. Handy and vocalist Ma Rainey were popular on the Vaudeville circuit in the late nineteenth century.
The publication of W. Handy's "Memphis Blues" in and the first recordings a few years later brought this genre into the mainstream of American popular culture. Jazz reportedly originated among the musicians who played in the bars and brothels of the infamous Storyville district of New Orleans.
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Jelly Roll Morton claimed to have invented jazz there in , but it is doubtful that any one person holds that honor. Johnson described the band there as "a playing-singing-dancing orchestra, making dominant use of banjos, mandolins, guitars, saxophones, and drums in combination, and [it] was called the Memphis Students—a very good name, overlooking the fact that the performers were not students and were not from Memphis. There was also a violin, a couple of brass instruments, and a double-bass. During World War I, while serving as an officer for a machine-gun company in the famed th U. Infantry Division, James Europe, fellow officer Noble Sissel, and the regimental band introduced the sounds of ragtime, jazz, and the blues to European audiences.
Following the war, black music, especially the blues and jazz, became increasingly popular with both black and white audiences. Europe continued his career as a successful bandleader until his untimely death in Ma Rainey and other jazz artists and blues singers began to sign recording contracts, initially with African American record companies like Black Swan Records, but very quickly with Paramount, Columbia, and other mainstream recording outlets. In Harlem, one club opened after another, each featuring jazz orchestras or blues singers.
Noble Sissle, of course, was one of the team behind the production of Shuffle Along , which opened Broadway up to Chocolate Dandies and a series of other black musical comedies, featuring these new musical styles. The visual arts, particularly painting, prints, and sculpture, emerged somewhat later in Harlem than did music, musical theater, and literature.
Early the next year W. Du Bois published Douglas's first illustrations in The Crisis. Due to his personal association with Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and other African American writers, his collaboration with them in the publication of their literary magazine Fire!! And while these connections to the literary part of the Renaissance were notable, they were not typical of the experience of other African American artists of this period. More significant in launching the art phase of the Harlem Renaissance were the exhibits of African American art in Harlem and the funding and exhibits that the Harmon Foundation provided.
Even more important to the nurturing and promotion of African American art were the activities of the Harmon Foundation. Beginning in the Foundation awarded cash prizes for outstanding achievement by African Americans in eight fields, including fine arts. Additionally, from through , the Harmon Foundation organized an annual exhibit of African American art. Situating the Harlem Renaissance in space is almost as complex as defining its origins and time span.
Certainly Harlem is central to the Harlem Renaissance, but it serves more as an anchor for the movement than as its sole location. In reality, the Harlem Renaissance both drew from and spread its influence across the United States, the Caribbean, and the world. Only a handful of the writers, artists, musicians, and other figures of the Harlem Renaissance were native to Harlem or New York, and only a relatively small number lived in Harlem throughout the Renaissance period.
And yet, Harlem impacted the art, music, and writing of virtually all of the participants in the Harlem Renaissance. Nicholas Avenue. Originally established in the seventeenth century as a Dutch village, it evolved over time. Following its annexation by the city in , urban growth commenced. The resulting Harlem real estate boom lasted about twenty years during which developers erected most of the physical structures that defined Harlem as late as the mid-twentieth century.
They designed this new, urban Harlem primarily for the wealthy and the upper middle class; it contained broad avenues, a rail connection to the city on Eighth Avenue, and consisted of expensive homes and luxurious apartment buildings accompanied by commercial and retail structures, along with stately churches and synagogues, clubs, social organizations, and even the Harlem Philharmonic Orchestra.
By , Harlem's boom turned into a bust. Desperate white developers began to sell or rent to African Americans, often at greatly discounted prices, while black real estate firms provided the customers. At this time, approximately sixty thousand blacks lived in New York, scattered through the five boroughs, including a small community in Harlem. The largest concentration inhabited the overcrowded and congested Tenderloin and San Juan Hill sections of the west side of Manhattan.
When New York's black population swelled in the twentieth century as newcomers from the South moved north and as redevelopment destroyed existing black neighborhoods, pressure for additional and hopefully better housing pushed blacks northward up the west side of Manhattan into Harlem. Harlem's transition, once it began, followed fairly traditional patterns.
As soon as blacks started moving onto a block, property values dropped further as whites began to leave. This process was especially evident in the early s. Both black and white realtors took advantage of declining property values in Harlem—the panic selling that resulted when blacks moved in. Addressing the demand for housing generated by the city's rapidly growing black population, they acquired, subdivided, and leased Harlem property to black tenants.
Year by year, the boundaries of black Harlem expanded, as blacks streamed into Harlem as quickly as they could find affordable housing. By , they had become the majority group on the west side of Harlem north of th Street; by , the population of black Harlem was estimated to be fifty thousand. By black Harlem had expanded north ten blocks to th Street and south to th Street; it spread from the Harlem River to Amsterdam Avenue, and housed approximately , blacks. The core of this community—bounded roughly by th Street on the south, th Street on the north, the Harlem River and Park Avenue on the east, and Eighth Avenue on the west—was more than 95 percent black.
By , Harlem, by virtue of the sheer size of its black population, had emerged as the virtual capital of black America; its name evoked a magic that lured all classes of blacks from all sections of the country to its streets. Impoverished southern farmers and sharecroppers made their way northward, where they were joined in Harlem by black intellectuals such as W.
Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson. Although the old black social elites of Washington, DC, and Philadelphia were disdainful of Harlem's vulgar splendor, and while it housed no significant black university as did Washington, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Nashville, Harlem still became the race's cultural center and a Mecca for its aspiring young. It housed the National Urban League, A.
Marcus Garvey launched his ill-fated black nationalist movement among its masses, and Harlem became the geographical focal point of African American literature, art, music, and theater. Its night clubs, music halls, and jazz joints became the center of New York nightlife in the mids. Harlem, in short, was where the action was in black America during the decade following World War I. Harlem and New York City also contained the infrastructure to support and sustain the arts. In the early twentieth century, New York had replaced Boston as the center of the book publishing industry.
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Furthermore, new publishing houses in the city, such as Alfred A. Knopf, Harper Brothers, and Harcourt Brace, were open to adding greater diversity to their book lists by including works by African American writers. In the s, when recordings and broadcasting emerged, New York was again in the forefront. Broadway was the epicenter of American theater, and New York was the center of the American art world. In short, in the early twentieth century no other American city possessed the businesses and institutions to support literature and the arts that New York did. In spite of its physical presence, size, and its literary and arts infrastructure, the nature of Harlem and its relation to the Renaissance are very complex.
The word "Harlem" evoked strong and conflicting images among African Americans during the first half of the twentieth century. Was it the Negro metropolis, black Manhattan, the political, cultural, and spiritual center of African America, a land of plenty, a city of refuge, or a black ghetto and emerging slum? For some, the image of Harlem was more personal. Emerging out of the subway at th and Lennox Avenue, Gillis was transfixed:. Clean air, blue sky, bright sunlight. Gillis set down his tan-cardboard extension-case and wiped his black, shining brow.
Then slowly, spreadingly, he grinned at what he saw: Negroes at every turn; up and down Lenox Avenue, up and down One Hundred and Thirty-fifth Street; big, lanky Negroes, short, squat Negroes; black ones, brown ones, yellow ones; men standing idle on the curb, women, bundle-laden, trudging reluctantly homeward, children rattle-trapping about the sidewalks; here and there a white face drifting along, but Negroes predominantly, overwhelmingly everywhere.
There was assuredly no doubt of his whereabouts. This was Negro Harlem. Gillis then noticed the commotion in the street as trucks and autos crowded into the intersection at the command of the traffic cop—an African American traffic cop:. The Southern Negro's eyes opened wide; his mouth opened wider. For there stood a handsome, brass-buttoned giant directing the heaviest traffic Gillis had ever seen; halting unnumbered tons of automobiles and trucks and wagons and pushcarts and street-cars; holding them at bay with one hand while he swept similar tons peremptorily on with the other; ruling the wide crossing with supreme self-assurance; and he, too, was a Negro!
Yet most of the vehicles that leaped or crouched at his bidding carried white passengers. One of these overdrove bounds a few feet and Gillis heard the officer's shrill whistle and gruff reproof, saw the driver's face turn red and his car draw back like a threatened pup. It was beyond belief—impossible. Black might be white, but it couldn't be that white!
Gillis was one of those who sought refuge in Harlem. He fled North Carolina after shooting a white man. Now, in Harlem, the policeman was black.
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Not that this changed his fate. At the end of the story, one of these black policemen dragged Gillis away in handcuffs. The reality of Harlem often contradicted the myth. For poet Langston Hughes, Harlem was also something of a refuge. Following a mostly unhappy childhood living at one time or another with his mother or father, grandmother, or neighbors, Hughes convinced his stern and foreboding father to finance his education at Columbia University. He recalled his arrival:. I stood there, dropped my bags, took a deep breath and felt happy again.
I registered at the Y. When college opened, I did not want to move into the dormitory at Columbia. I really did not want to go the college at all. I didn't want to do anything but live in Harlem, get a job and work there. After a less than happy year at Columbia, Hughes did exactly that. He dropped out of school and moved into Harlem. Low-cost public housing was made available to black families.
The Congress of Industrial Organizations CIO , established in the mids, organized large numbers of black workers into labour unions for the first time. By there were more than , African Americans in the CIO, many of them officers of union locals. However, unemployed whites were generally the first to be given jobs. Discrimination against African Americans in hiring impelled A. Although discrimination remained widespread, during the war African Americans secured more jobs at better wages in a greater range of occupations than ever before.
Once again, serious housing shortages and job competition led to increased tension between blacks and whites. Race riots broke out; the worst occurred in Detroit in June During the war, which the United States had entered in December , a large proportion of African American soldiers overseas were in service units, and combat troops remained segregated. In the course of the war, however, the army introduced integrated officer training, and Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. In , four years after the end of World War II, the armed services finally adopted a policy of full integration.
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