A Glimpse of the Harlem Renaissance

A Glimpse of the Harlem Renaissance

The African American Historical Society of Rockland County in collaboration with Rockland Community College’s Performing Arts Department will present an engaging, cultural and educational program called “A Glimpse of the Harlem Renaissance.”  In recognition of African American History Month, this program will highlight an unprecedented era in U.S. history when Harlem, NY, became the center of African American cultural expression and when Black artists excelled in every genre. The multi-disciplinary event introduced audiences to major influential figures of the period, generally agreed to be during the 1920’s, and will showcase music, dance, art, literature and style of the era.


Harlem, NY, has always been a special place, but it was arguably never more famous and influential than it was during the 1920’s and early 30’s, when many historians refer to the period as the Harlem Renaissance.  It was in this period that Harlem became a magnet for people from diverse backgrounds and a center for cultural creativity by and about Black people.  There was an explosion of population in Harlem as immigrants from Africa and the West Indies traveled to this city space that was 50 blocks long and 8 blocks wide.  New Harlemites, such as soldiers returning from the war, came also from Southern states seeking jobs, opportunities, better living conditions as well as freedom from racism and oppression.  There was an explosion of opportunities for African Americans as rents were cheaper, housing better and jobs were available. 

There was an explosion of culture as the environment attracted Black artists of every genre whose number, talent and influence at this singular time in American history was unprecedented –poets like Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, singers like Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, artists like Aaron Douglas and Palmer Hayden, composers like H. Lawrence Freeman, James Weldon Johnson and his brother Rosamund Johnson, photographers like James Van Der Zee, novelists like Jessie Fauset and Zora Neale Hurston, musicians such as Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway, and dancers like The Nicholas Brothers and Josephine Baker.  There was an explosion, too, of Black-owned businesses like the hair care business started by one of the first female African American millionaires, Madam C.J. Walker.  There was an explosion of philosophy and ideas—politically, socially, and artistically, owing to W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Alain Locke, Hubert Harrison and others. And there was an explosion of interest in Harlem as a destination—not just on the part of people of color but also whites began to flock to Harlem for the excitement of its nightlife, made all the more intriguing because it often defied the laws of Prohibition, and because of its creativity and experimentation.  Wealthy whites became patrons of black artists and supported the artists while they created their poems or music or art.  There were literary salons, gathering in the parlors of wealthy people’s homes, where the so-called “intelligentsia” met to discuss politics, philosophy and art, and where literary artists shared their latest poetry, essays and such.  Then there were the clubs like the Cotton Club and the Savoy where ragtime and jazz music were the draw and where frenzied dances like the Lindy Hop, the Black Bottom, the Shimmy and the Charleston delighted audiences.  There were the theaters like the Lafayette and huge musicals like Shuffle Along featuring Black artists giving a depiction of Black life.  Indeed, Harlem was a special, if not a perfect place, and here is a taste of it.  Welcome to   —A GLIMPSE OF THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE. 

Reflections of the Harlem Renaissance Exhibit Introduction

The African American Historical Society, the Rockland Community College Performing Arts Department and the RCC African American History Month Committee proudly present the photo exhibit: Reflections of the Harlem Renaissance.  This exhibit features photos from the archives of the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress.  The great volume of the photos were produced between1919 – 1929, the period most often referred to as the Harlem Renaissance.  However, some scholars note the continuation of the Renaissance until the late 1930’s. Although a number of the photos included in the exhibit were produced during the 1930’s, they all provide a glimpse into the daily lives of Harlemites and give a sense of the communal spirit existing throughout Harlem neighborhoods during the 20’s and 30’s. Also, some of the images portray individuals who were popular figures or leaders of the era, leaders whose artistic creativity, musical genius, and intellectual points of view started trends and movements. Certainly, many of these ideas that flourished during the early years of the Harlem Renaissance influenced artistic and cultural movements in the decades that followed despite the stock market crash in 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. 

Artist Aaron Douglas suggested that the “Silent Protest Against Lynching,” which propelled eight to ten thousand people to go to New York’s Fifth Avenue on July 28, 1917, marked the true beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. Known as the “New Negro Movement” this explosion of cultural and intellectual ideas expanded beyond the boundaries of Harlem and into the Northeast and Midwest United States as the greatest migration of black people from the Southern states was taking place.  The Harlem Renaissance also influenced artists outside of the United States, such as many French speaking black writers from Africa and the Caribbean who were living in Paris.  This era had a significant affect upon the artistic, intellectual, political, social and economic lives of African Americans and should be viewed as one of the most important developments in African American history during the 20th century. 

Jamila Brathwaite, Photo Exhibit Curator
Wylene Branton Wood, Coordinator:  A Glimpse of the Harlem Renaissance 2014

This exhibit is funded by grants from the Town of Ramapo and from the Arts Council of Rockland through the DEC program of the New York State Council of the Arts.

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