Harlem: Black Capital of the United States

Creators
Erin Lee Barsan, Erin Horanzy, Caleah James, and David Winger

Transcript
In the early 20th century, roughly a quarter million blacks moved to New York City, more than 50,000 of which were living in the neighborhood of Harlem situated in northern Manhattan. They were coming from the formerly slave-holding southern states and as far away as the West Indies and Africa. Fleeing lynching, subjugation and harsh lives, they searched for new opportunities and hope in New York. This migration of blacks sparked a cultural and political movement that is now known as the Harlem Renaissance.

So how did Harlem become the hot spot of the day?

By 1827, slavery had been outlawed in the entire Northeast, making it a safe region for blacks. There was already a healthy-sized black population in New York City, and by 1860, the number of free blacks in Manhattan and Queens had increased by about 1300%. By 1910, only about 14,000 of the 61,000 blacks in New York were actually born there.

What made Harlem so desirable to the black population was the generous amount of quality real estate available there. Due to a lack of mass transit in the early 1900s, whites began moving out of Harlem and landlords, desperate for tenants, were persuaded to begin renting to blacks. By 1919 the population in Harlem had quadrupled. Up until that point, residents of Harlem were almost exclusively former slaves and native New Yorkers. However, by the 1930s, immigrants from the Caribbean comprised more than 20% of Harlem’s total population. This bustling, diverse new community fostered intense pride, self-determination, civil rights activism and creativity.

Many of these cultural activities took place at the Harlem YMCA on 135th street. Since numerous participants in the Harlem Renaissance did not actually reside in Harlem, this YMCA was particularly important because it was one of the few locations that offered hotel accommodations to the black community.

Another element of this vibrant new social hub was the nightlife. Harlem had many “jump joints.” For instance, the Cotton Club was typical of many contemporary dance halls. However, the proprietors let in only whites and light-skinned blacks. Therefore, most blacks sought the lower-priced entertainment available from other establishments such as the Apollo and the Lenox Lounge. Similarly, the Sugar Cane Club was known for its dancing as well as its featured entertainers who would sing blues numbers that were increasingly popular in the community.

Other notable places in Harlem included the idyllic Striver’s Row apartment buildings, the home of the “great Harlem party giver” Mrs. A’Leilia Walker Robinson, and The Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints, which is now known as the Schomburg Center branch of the New York Public Library. Thanks to this coincidental confluence of population and culture called the Harlem Renaissance, Harlem became commonly known as the black capital of the United States.

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