Before the arrival of European settlers, the flatland area that would become Harlem (originally: Nieuw Haarlem after the Dutch city of that name) was inhabited by the indigenous Munsee speakers, the Lenape. The first settlers from the Low Countries arrived in the late 1630s.
Harlem was an agricultural center under British rule (attempts to change the name of the community to “Lancaster” failed and the authorities reluctantly adopted the Anglicised name of Harlem). During the American Revolutionary War in September 1776 it was the site of the Battle of Harlem Heights. Later, rich elites built country houses there in order to escape from the city’s dirt and epidemics (Alexander Hamilton built his Harlem estate in 1802).
The nineteenth century brought waves of immigrants from Germany, Italy, Ireland, and Eastern Europe to this increasingly urbanized area. In a mix of cultures extraordinary wealth co-existed with extreme poverty. In the course of the 1900s Harlem was taken over by families who had left the rural South to find work in urban areas.
The district then established itself as a center of African-American culture. It proudly assumed the role of black America’s capital.
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway. . . .
He did a lazy sway. . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
(Langston Hughes, ‘The Weary Blues’, 1925)
Harlem became a destination for the summer’s “convention season.” A variety of organizations and church federations met there for meetings and parades. For much of the 1920s, the annual convention of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), headquartered in Harlem, drew thousands of members from across the United States. These large events transformed life in the neighborhood. Harlem’s major avenues, bedecked with flags, bunting, decorations and electric lights, offered a festive sight.
Academics, writers, and musicians traveled from across the country to participate in an eruption of cultural activity. Harlem could barely cope with this influx of visitors as it struggled with a problem of accommodation. Segregation laws did not allow black and white Americans to share the same hotel. Other than a few boarding houses, there were no establishments that offered suitable places to stay. The Hotel Theresa at Seventh Avenue, colloquially known as the “Waldorf of Harlem,” remained a citadel of exclusion and, until 1940, served white clients only.
The situation changed in 1919 when Edward Wilson bought a three-story hotel at auction known as The Dolphin (built in 1898; demolished 2019) on the corner of West 145th Street & Lenox Avenue. He opened the renamed Hotel Olga in December 1920, providing rooms for an exclusively African-American clientele. Equipped with mahogany furnishings and providing a select library and reading room to its clients, Olga became the unofficial sanctuary of Harlem’s revival.
The hotel offered safe accommodation for male and female African-American professionals while visiting New York City. Wilson warmly welcomed representatives of organizations fighting for civil rights at the time, particularly those associated with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The hotel attracted musicians and performers who participated in the flourishing of black culture. Whilst living in New York, Louis Armstrong called Olga home for most of the 1930s. Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” stayed at the hotel in 1927. In that year she released such signature songs as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
Whenever Alain LeRoy Locke visited New York he would stay at the Olga Hotel. A highly valued guest from Washington, this academic was revered as the “Dean” of African-American literature. Even though the physical building no longer stands (one can only regret such an act of vandalism), the hotel remains an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance story.
Born in Joplin, Missouri, traveler and poet Langston Hughes served a brief tenure as a crewman aboard the freighters S. S. Malone and McKeesport. Having docked in Rotterdam in February 1924, the temptation to visit Paris became overwhelming. With only a few dollars in his pocket, he jumped ship and caught the night train to the city’s Gare du Nord.
Desperately short of money, he worked as a dishwasher in Le Grand Duc at 52 Rue Pigalle, Montmartre. He later recalled that all culinary staff and entertainers at the club were ‘American Negroes.’ Although he complained about the hardship of making a living in Paris, he suffered no racist obstacles. When working at the club, he welcomed Ada “Bricktop” Smith who had just arrived in Paris to embark on what would be a glittering career. The Parisian cult of African-American entertainment had not yet started, but there were plenty of singers and musicians who had made their way from Harlem to Paris.
One summer morning in 1924, an unexpected visitor knocked on the door of Langston’s dingy flat. He introduced himself as Alain Locke, a middle-aged homosexual brown man with a cultured accent. The first African-American to be selected a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford University in 1907, he held a PhD from Harvard, and was Professor in Philosophy at Howard University, Washington.
During the next two weeks Locke took the starving young poet on a cultural tour of Paris, introducing him to ballet and opera performances and guiding him around the Louvre. To Langston Hughes this was more than just an intellectual friendship: Locke offered him an entrée into the emerging world of black American writing.
In March 1925 Locke acted as guest editor for an issue of Survey Graphic that focused on “Harlem, Mecca of the New Negro.” In December, he expanded this work into The New Negro: An Interpretation. This collection of essays, poems, and drawings by himself and other African-Americans (including Langston Hughes) would become a landmark in black literature. Published in New York by Albert & Charles Boni, it was later acclaimed as the “first national book” of African America.
Locke’s anthology was a call for black artists to demonstrate their cultural maturity through the creation of art and literature, thus undercutting the derogatory racial caricatures that were prevalent in white-dominated media outlets.
Novelist Wallace Henry Thurman was a leading figure amongst a younger generation of authors. Best known today for his novel The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life (1929), he had settled in Harlem in 1925. Working as editor of The Messenger, a politico-literary magazine by and for African-American people, he was the first to publish Langston Hughes’s “adult” stories.
Thurman feared that members of the movement’s “old guard” were distancing themselves from its working-class base. Rejecting what he called “society Negroes,” Wallace challenged such figures as Locke and W.E.B. Du Bois, arguing that they wasted their talent trying to show white Americans that blacks were ‘respectable’ and capable. They ‘degraded’ literature into a means of propaganda for social equality and racial integration. Du Bois would not have denied that statement. In his essay ‘Criteria of Negro Art’ (The Crisis 32, October 1926), he stated that he did not ‘care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.’
Wallace drove home the message that young artists were comfortable with their diversity of gender, skin color and social background. Black artists had a duty to represent the arduous conditions of African-American lives, not pander to the aesthetic preferences of a black middle class or seek white approval.
Langston Hughes had returned to the United States in November 1924 and settled in New York. His first collection of poetry The Weary Blues was published in 1925. At the time, the Harlem Renaissance was in full flow. Young talented writers and intellectuals were exploring the black narrative. Hughes joined forces with them.
It was Thurman who spread the deliberately ironic name of Niggerati (portmanteau using “literati”) in reference to fellow Harlem authors whose stories and poems dealt with racial themes and taboos that challenged the conventions of a white-oriented literary culture. Although many black intellectuals of the era were not amused by the label, it was adopted with glee by others.
The Harlem Renaissance produced some remarkable women, especially in music and performing, but in literature too. Zora Neale Hurston was born in Alabama and made her name as a novelist and anthropologist who portrayed racism and the experience of black womanhood in the early-1900s American South. She dubbed herself “Queen of the Niggerati” (a word coined by her).
Members of the group met in Thurman’s flat at 267 West 136th Street. They named the property Niggerati Manor. The tenement building was owned by Iolanthe Sydney, a black philanthropist who offered rooms rent-free to artists in order to support their work. Painter and writer Richard Bruce Nugent reportedly painted brightly colored phalluses on the red and black interior walls.
Within two years, the inhabitants of Niggerati Manor had all moved elsewhere, but their brief presence left a lasting legacy.
It was at the Manor that in the summer of 1926 the group started an experimental journal named Fire!! which carried the significant subtitle: Devoted to Younger Negro Artists. Thurman was the driving force behind the magazine. He acted as its editor with Nugent as his associate.
Each of the seven founders pledged fifty dollars to the effort (only three ever paid up). Since Thurman was the only one with a steady job, he financed the printing of the first issue. The journal was meant as a medium for showcasing his generation’s innovations. Black language, whether derived from traditional dialect or urban slang, was not used for theatrical effect but served to create a literature that was no longer dependent on white models.
The journal’s contributors focused on controversial features that their predecessors had tried to avoid in an effort to gain reputability. They offered an alternative manifesto to The New Negro. Thurman and friends set out to oppose the “bourgeois” generation of Locke and Dubois who tended to ignore the social realities of African-American life and their choice of subject matter was unconventional.
Nugent’s prose poem “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” was the first homosexual story by an African-American author; Thurman’s “Cordelia the Crude” presents a licentious sixteen-year-old prostitute; Bennett’s “Wedding Day” tells the story of a black man in Paris who beats up white Americans, but is then seduced by a heartless white American girl; Zora’s “Sweat” describes the shocking revenge of a mistreated wife.
The magazine only lasted one issue due to lack of funds and because it was condemned as provocative. Sales were banned in Boston. Even in Harlem it was not widely available. Ironically, hundreds of unsold copies of Fire!! went up in flames after a blaze in the printer’s basement.
Thurman died in 1936. By then the self-proclaimed Niggerati had long since scattered with each member focusing on his/her individual career. In the midst of a devastating Great Depression, the Harlem Renaissance was petering out.
Illustrations, from above: ad for Hotel Olga in: The New York Age, February 3rd, 1923; portrait of Langston Hughes, c. 1925 by Winold Reiss (Smithsonian, National Portrait Gallery); portrait sketch of Alain Locke, 1925 by Winold Reiss (The New Negro: An Interpretation); dust jacket of The New Negro edited by Alain Leroy Locke; Wallace Thurman (photographer unknown); and cover of Fire!!!.