In today’s installment of our Black History Month celebration, we’ll be exploring Harlem. The first wave of African Americans landed in Harlem after World War I, when hundreds of thousands left the Jim Crow South in search of safety and opportunity. In 1914, only 50,000 blacks lived in Harlem, but by 1930, almost 205,000 had moved to the Big Apple, the majority settling north of Central Park.
Their arrival sparked an artistic movement that we now call the Harlem Renaissance. Poets, musicians, writers, and artists joined forces to create a rich oeuvre reflecting the diverse African American experience. And, for the first time, American society at-large took note, tuning in to black culture. Greats like Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, and Zora Neale Hurston merged prose, poetry, and politics. “Democracy will not come/Today, this year/Nor ever/Through compromise and fear… I do not need my freedom when I’m dead./I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread,” penned Hughes. The renaissance was cut short by the onset of the Great Depression.
But the trying 1930s didn’t squelch growing action against pervasive inequality. And the outbreak of World War II illuminated unresolved racial conflict dating from the Civil War. While President Franklin D. Roosevelt emphasized that the boys overseas were fighting for democracy (more than 1.2 million African American men were in uniform), segregated lunch counters, schools, buses, and military units underlined this hypocrisy. In Harlem, and across the country, African Americans organized and the Civil Rights Movement was born. The neighborhood’s cultural centers—churches, music venues, homes, and restaurants—became political hotspots.
Racial unrest reached a crescendo in Harlem on the summer night of July 16, 1964, when a white New York Police Lieutenant shot and killed James Powell, a 15-year-old unarmed African American. The policeman claimed Powell lunged at him with a knife; a handful of witnesses disagreed. Regardless, a grand jury failed to indict. Powell’s death sparked a six-day race riot during which thousands took to the streets in protest. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Harlem continued to be an organizing hub for racial equality. While some followed the non-violent movement of Martin Luther King, Jr., others championed radical means to achieve justice. Black nationalists like the Black Panther Party and racial separatists including Malcolm X garnered support.
Do you see the similarities between the New York of past decades and today? What do you think has changed? If you want to learn more about Harlem through the ages, be sure to check out our online exhibition showcasing a vibrant collection of Camilo Vergara’s photographs of the neighborhood spanning four decades. Also, don’t miss out on the upcoming book club meeting when New York Times best-selling author Rita Williams-Garcia will discuss her highly acclaimed children’s book, One Crazy Summer, and remember to see our on-going exhibition on the Civil Rights Movement, Freedom Journey 1965.