Sad Men

What Writers Can Learn from the Great Depression

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Richard Wright & Forgotten Harlem

The young novelist Richard Wright joined the Federal Writers Project in 1937, working on New York Panorama, a book of essays about the city. Wright assumed control of the project’s work about Harlem. He took over for the scholar and poet, Claude McKay—another writer who found salvation in the Writers Project. Their work still stands in the “Portrait of Harlem” essay.

My favorite passage outlined long-forgotten dance-steps from 1930s Harlem:

Harlem’s boast that it is an area where new dance steps are created is indisputable. Just who initiated the “truck” is not known. Cora La Redd of the Cotton Club, “Rubber Legs” Williams, Chuck Robinson, and Bilo and Ashes have all put forward their individual claims. It is interesting to note that there are many kinds of “trucking,” the “picket’s truck,” the “politician’s truck,” the “Park Avenue truck,” the “Mae West truck,” and the “Hitler truck.” Among other contemporary Harlem dances is the “shim-sham,” a time-step featuring the “break” with a momentary pause; and the “razzle-dazzle,” which involves a rhythmic clapping of hands and a rolling of hips. The riotous “Lindy Hop” is a flying dance done by couples in which a girl is thrown away in the midst of a lightning two-step, then rudely snatched back to be subjected to a series of twists, jerks, dips and scrambles. All of these and many more can be seen in Harlem’s dance halls, at house parties, on beaches, and in the streets in summer to the tune of WPA Music Project bands.

The essay outlined the literary movements, actors, soldiers, religious leaders, theaters, bands and community centers that flourished in the neighborhood. It contains decades of forgotten history, cataloging everything from the names and beats of long-forgotten steps to race riots that shattered the city in the early days of the 20th Century.

After the Great Depression, Wright became one of the most important writers of the 20th Century. To celebrate this great writer, I’ve unearthed a copy of his FWP essay—you can download a free digital copy of New York Panorama at this link.

A Portrait of Harlem
By Richard Wright and Claude McKay

Although always restricted by tradition to certain residential areas, trades and professions, the Negro has lived and labored in New York for more  than three hundred years. He is one of the most vivid figures in the city’s history; and in terms of progress and chronology, his continuous adjustment to New York’s ever-changing environment, the manner in which he has reacted to the handicaps and penalties imposed upon him because of class and color, make a record of dramatic interest and social challenge.

In 1930, 327,706 Negroes were residents of New York, the largest  single concentration of Negro population anywhere in the world. Though  Negroes are to be found in all five boroughs of the city, by far the largest  number some 250,000 in all live in Harlem, an area of Upper Man  hattan roughly circumscribed by 15 5th Street on the north, noth Street  on the south, the Harlem and East Rivers on the east, and Amsterdam  Avenue on the west. In addition, the Manhattan area also contains small  Negro colonies in Greenwich Village, Chelsea, the East Side, San Juan  Hill and Yorkville. Brooklyn has the largest Negro population outside of  Manhattan, with more than 68,000 residents centered for the most part  in the Stuyvesant Heights and Brownsville sections. Negroes are also scattered in many small settlements throughout Queens, Bronx and Richmond.
Before the depression, economic security afforded a few the opportunity to migrate from Harlem to the comparatively luxurious Merrick Park development in Jamaica.

The earliest available records show that u Negroes were brought to  the settlement of New Amsterdam in 1626 in the capacity of slaves. For nearly one hundred years thereafter, the majority of Negroes in the  settlement were either indentured servants or slaves. Under the rule of the  Dutch colonists, many Negroes were granted freedom, for the Dutch often  did not know what to do with them and a rigorous system of slavery had  not yet been established. Though regarded as slaves, Negroes had the right
to travel, assemble, marry and own property; and they were also afforded  some degree of legal protection. It was not until 1664, when the English  conquered the Dutch, that slavery became a profitable, flourishing and oppressive institution modeled upon the slave system of Virginia. In 1694 the colony possessed about 2,170 slaves, and in 1709 open slave-markets  were operating in New York. Living for the most part in the center of the city, in Greenwich Village near Spring and Broome Streets, and near the  establishments that employed them, most of the Negroes in early New York labored as domestics, chimney sweeps and ship calkers. A few, who had obtained freedom from their masters through determination and frugality, owned small businesses.

The first school for Negroes in New York was opened in 1704 by Elias Neau for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. It was intended for religious instruction only as was a school opened in 1760 by several clergymen. The first secular educational institution was the African Free School, organized chiefly by the New York Manumission Society and opened in 1787. Forty-seven years later, when Negro children were transferred to the public school system, there were seven African Free Schools in the city.

An early protest indicating spirit on the part of the Negro population was registered in 1710, when a slave brought suit against his master for wages. Another incident of the Negroes’ early struggle for human rights occurred in 1712, when a group of slaves, smarting under a sense of in tolerable wrong, met in an orchard in Maiden Lane and planned an insurrection against the whites. Severely suppressed by the militia, the insurrection brought savage retaliation. Out of it, however, grew fear and respect
for the Negroes which found expression, on the one hand, in legislation to control them, and on the other, in many attempts to abolish the slave trade.

A much more important insurrectionary event in the colonial period was the plot of 1741. It is clear from available records that this insurrection was planned, and Negroes as well as poor whites took part. The population of New York at that time numbered some 10,000, about one-fifth of whom were Negro slaves; there were also several hundred white indentured servants whose lot was no less harsh. With the outbreak of nine fires in different parts of New York, rumor spread that the slaves were trying to burn the city and murder the entire population. During the ensuing terror, every Negro seen on the streets was arrested. Whites became implicated when a search for stolen goods led to the tavern of John Hughson, whose servant girl was arrested and made to confess knowledge of the insurrection under torture. Her story was so fantastic as to involve all of  the Negro population and a considerable portion of the white. A special session of the Grand Jury was held, and the ensuing trial lasted through out the summer. Public hysteria and panic, intense in New York, spread throughout the country. Of 154 Negroes cast into prison, 13 were burned at the stake, 18 hanged, and 71 transported to the West Indies. Twenty whites were arrested, John Hughson, his wife, and John Ury, an unfrocked Catholic priest, being later executed.

Between 1741 and 1766, increasing numbers of Negroes succeeded in purchasing their freedom. During the Revolution they were accepted  for military service by both America and England. New York was one of the few States to reward Negro soldiers with freedom; and in 1799 an act  was passed conferring gradual emancipation and ending slavery in the  State on July 4, 1827. Free Negroes had the rights of citizens, including
the right to vote.

Barred from the professions and most of the trades, Negroec found that whites accepted them more readily as owners of taverns and inns. Samuel Fraunces, a master steward, operated a famous tavern (still standing at  Broad and Pearl Streets) where on December 4, 1783, Washington delivered the “Farewell Address” to his army. “Black Sam,” as Fraunces was called, owned the “Mason’s Arms” on Broadway from 1759 to 1762; and he later purchased the Delancy Mansion on the site of New York’s first
hotel where he conducted an inn known as the “Queen Charlotte.”

Fraternal lodges, churches and mutual aid societies began early to play a prominent part in the social and educational life of New York’s Negroes.  Most of the freedmen belonged to the New York African Society for  Mutual Relief, founded in 1808. Negroes made an appeal to the American Odd Fellows for a charter, which was refused. After a special dispensation granted by the English branch, the Philomathean Lodge of the
Grand United Order of Odd Fellows was formed in 1843. A fusion of social welfare work with the operation of the Underground Railroad came about through the establishment of the Moral Reform Societies.

One sign of cultural advance manifested itself in 1821 with the establishment of the first Negro theater, at the corner of Mercer and Bleecker Streets. The company gave performances of Othello and other Shakespearean dramas. The National Advocate of September 21, 1821, reported that James Hewlett was acting his most famous role, that of Richard III. The authorities finally enjoined the company from playing Shakespeare,
doubtless because of growing antagonism toward the Negro.

After the abolition of slavery in New York State in 1827, the struggle  of the Negroes to improve their status and to help their enslaved brothers  in the South changed gradually from intermittent outbursts to a planned  movement. The struggle for human rights, equality and liberty which was  agitating the minds of men in the post-Revolutionary period had its effect upon the Negro. The latter, having made some cultural progress, began to see his problems in realistic terms and organized accordingly.

A number of New York Negroes were ardent and prominent workers  in the abolitionist cause. In 1827, nearly four years before the appearance of William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, a group gathered in the home of  M. Boston Crummell and launched the first Negro newspaper in America, Freedom’s Journal, under the editorship of John Russwurm and the Rev. Samuel E. Cornish. This journal not only helped to shape the ideas of Negroes on the burning question of slavery, but also appealed to many anti-slavery whites and influenced the policies of the abolition societies that were organized soon after.

In 1830, Peter Williams published an eloquent protest against racial discrimination in New York City. Theodore S. Wright, a graduate of Princeton, also wrote on the subject with vigor and logic. David Ruggles published The Genius of Freedom, a quarterly magazine called The Mirror of Liberty, and several sardonic anti-slavery pamphlets under such titles as “The Extinguisher Extinguished” and “An Antidote for a Poisonous
Combination Recently Prepared by a ‘Citizen of New York’ Alias Dr. Reese.” Ruggles was one of the first promoters of the Underground Railroad in New York, officially termed the Vigilance Committee, and he was later connected with the New York Reform Society. By means of the “Underground,” he is said to have aided 600 fugitive slaves to freedom.  One of these, destined to become much more famous than his benefactor,
was Frederick Douglass, who in 1838 was sheltered in Ruggles’ home at the corner of Church and Lispenard Streets.

Other Negro leaders in the struggle for human rights were Henry Highland Garnett, preacher, orator and pamphleteer, who issued the first call for a general strike among the slaves ; Samuel Ringgold Ward, son of fugitive parents, one of the most effective lecturers for the Anti-Slavery Society; J. W. C. Pennington, who in 1841 wrote A Text Book of the Origin and History of the Colored People, a pioneer contribution on this subject; James McCune Smith and Charles Bennett Ray, who published the weekly
Colored American; and Alexander Crummell, son of M. Boston Crummell, who became a prominent scholar and agitator against slavery. Well known in anti-slavery circles were two Negro women Harriet Tubman, who brought slaves out of the border states and worked as well in western New York, and Sojourner Truth, who took part not only in the anti-slavery struggle but in the woman’s suffrage movement.

White abolitionists worked side by side with their Negro comrades in Underground Railroad service and in propaganda activities. Important among these were James Birney, who freed his slaves in Kentucky and  became secretary of the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York ; Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune; Richard Hildreth, historian and author of the first anti-slavery novel; Charles A. Dana, editor of the New York Sun; Sydney Howard Gay, who conducted the Anti-Slavery Standard and was an effective “underground” agent; William and John Jay, two jurists who by their anti-slavery services nobly upheld an eminent name; Theodore Weld, one of the most devoted workers in the Anti-Slavery Society ; Angelina Grimke of South Carolina, a forceful speaker at the women’s anti-slavery auxiliaries in New York City; and the Tappan brothers, Arthur and Lewis, prominent merchants and philanthropists.

But the Negroes’ economic and educational progress was checked in 1850 by the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law, and many of the anti-slavery leaders fled to Canada and Europe to escape being subjected again to bondage. Though there existed in New York no definite laws restricting Negroes, the general attitude was so strongly pro-southern that prejudice acted in place of law. Anti-abolitionist feeling grew rapidly, in spite of efforts of the churches and the Anti-Slavery Society.

At a time when slave rescues were common throughout the North, New Yorkers were sending fugitives back to the South. The debts of southern planters to New York merchants, the pro-slavery influence of Governor Horatio Seymour, the increasing antagonism between the slaves and the newly arrived immigrants these factors served to intensify anti-Negro feeling up to the very brink of the Civil War. As the war progressed, anti-abolitionist feeling heightened in New York, and during the early part
of the conflict the army refused to enlist Negro troops. When emancipation was proclaimed as a war measure in 1863, the bitterness grew. In spite of this, however, Lincoln authorized the recruiting of Negroes.

The draft law of 1863 created such resentment that a three-day riot followed the first efforts to enforce it. During the riots hundreds of Negroes were killed or badly beaten. Business stopped, and mobs controlled the city. The Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue was burned. Conditions became so appalling that the Merchants’ Committee had to grant relief to nearly 11,000 Negroes.

After the war, the nation centered its attention upon the ex-slaves of the  South, and the problems of northern freedmen were more or less neglected. Many of the New York leaders went South to work among their freed brothers. Frederick Douglass moved to Washington in 1869. The failure of New York State to ratify the i5th Amendment caused many northern Negroes to realize that emancipation was but a first step toward

Business establishments conducted by Negroes became fairly common in New York during the last two decades of the 19th century. Hotels, restaurants, “honky-tonks,” saloons, professional clubs and small stores were opened. In 1881, the Nail brothers operated a well-known restaurant and billiard parlor at 450 Sixth Avenue. Jockey Isaac Murphy, three times winner of the Kentucky Derby, Pike Barnes, winner of the 1888 Futurity, the pugilist Joe Cans, and many other Negro celebrities of turf and ring were
patrons of this resort.

The fields of amusement and personal service offered the Negro his most promising opportunities for advancement. Ford Dabney led the sing ing Clef Club orchestra at Ziegfeld’s Roof Garden ; Williams and Walker, Cole and Johnson, and Ada Overton were notable successes in New York and London. Oriental America, with an all-Negro cast, opened at Palmer’s in 1896, displaying the talents of Sidney Woodward, Inez Clough, William C. Elkins and J. Rosamond Johnson, all of whom were destined for star
dom in the years to come. Will Marion Cook’s Clorindy, with lyrics by Paul Laurence Dunbar, starred Ernest Hogan at the Casino Roof Garden. Although minstrelsy was originated by white actors in the 1830*5, it was in this field that the Negro distinguished himself most highly and made an indubitable contribution to the American theater.

One of the worst “of Manhattan’s several race riots occurred in August 1900, following a quarrel between a Negro and a white man in which the latter was killed. Negroes were seized and beaten throughout the city, with policemen often assisting in the assaults. In the following year, more than a hundred Negroes were lynched throughout the United States. The response of Negro leadership was immediate and impassioned. W. E. B.
Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk, a sensitive interpretation of the Negroes’ plight at the beginning of the 2oth century. The book proved a turning point in the history of Negro thought, and had a tremendous influence upon the Negroes of New York. In it, Du Bois took sharp issue with the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, who at that time was the recognized leader of his race.

Growth of Negro leadership during the early years of this century was evidenced by the organization of business men’s leagues, in New York and other large cities, by Fred R. Moore, editor of the weekly Colored American. But while the Negro middle class was developing measures of organization and self -protection, the larger part of New York’s Negro population, numbering some 60,000 in 1901, was excluded from trade unions, and Negro workers had to compete for jobs with newly-arrived immigrants at unequal odds.

For several decades after the Civil War, most of New York’s well-to-do Negroes enjoyed a fairly stable community life in Brooklyn. But on Manhattan Island, where the poorer class predominated, the Negro population was scattered and shifting, though with its largest numbers in the blighted areas of the lower West Side. Moving slowly northward as the city expanded in that direction, the chief center of Negro population was by 1900 in the region of West Fifty-Third Street and the neighboring San Juan Hill district. But it was not long before the region became so congested that many Negroes were seeking homes still further north.

At this time, scores of modern apartment houses that had been built in Harlem for white tenants were largely empty, owing to a lack of adequate transportation facilities. Philip A. Payton, a shrewd and enterprising Negro realtor, persuaded the owners of one or two buildings on 134th Street to fill them with Negro tenants. Before long, other buildings were taken over and filled. This invasion, as it was termed by white residents of Harlem, evoked an organized social and economic war. As though they were fighting plague carriers, the Hudson Realty Company, acting for white property owners, purchased all West Side property owned or rented by Negroes and evicted the tenants. Payton, with J. B. Nail, Sr., in retaliation organized the Afro- American Realty Company, which purchased buildings occupied by white tenants and in turn evicted them. Also St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, one of the oldest and wealthiest Negro churches in New York, purchased 13 apartment houses on West 135th Street, and rented them to Negroes.

The white tenants gave way, and block after block of apartment houses stood deserted. Reluctantly, the landlords leased them to Negroes. As the years passed, the “black blocks” spread and the present “city within a city” took form. The migration to Harlem was immensely augmented by the large-scale influx of southern Negroes who came North during the World War in search of higher wages. At the end of the war, the Negro population of New York was estimated to be four times greater than when the movement to Harlem began.

But after the larger part of New York’s Negro population had settled in Harlem, owners of apartments elsewhere refused to rent them to Negroes; consequently, rents in the highly congested Harlem area are often twice as much as in other comparable sections of the city. This district’s density of population and the extremely high rentals have created alarming conditions. In 1935 it was found that as many as 3,871 Negroes lived in a single city block, and that many families were paying half or more of their incomes for shelter. Eighty-four percent of the residential buildings are from 20 to 34 years old. These conditions account in some part for a death-rate that has reached 15.5 per thousand. Early in 1934, exasperated tenants organized the Consolidated Tenants’ League to combat high rents and improve living conditions. The Federal-built Harlem River Houses, a Public Works Administration project accommodating 527 families, has shown the way to better things although it has accomplished little in relieving the congestion of Harlem’s wide-spread slums.

But not all of Harlem is slum area. Scattered throughout the district are many well-built homes. The section on 138th and 139th Streets between Seventh and Eighth Avenues is known locally as “Strivers’ Row,” because so many middle-class Negroes desire to live there; and “Sugar Hill,” on upper Edgecombe and St. Nicholas Avenues, possesses the newest and tallest apartment buildings in Harlem, as well as many fine private homes.

The Negro’s restriction to certain trades and professions has made him particularly vulnerable to suffering during times of depression. As early as 1910, when Negroes comprised less than two percent of the city’s population, the majority were employed in domestic service. The labor shortage caused by the World War, however, enabled a few to enter the fields of transportation, mechanics and manufacture. When the depression struck in 1929, many actors, musicians, messengers, porters and domestic servants
were thrown out of work. The extent to which Negro income depends upon domestic employment is evidenced by the fact that more than 85 per cent of employed Negro women are in domestic and personal service.

Though today they account for only a little more than five percent of the city’s population, Negroes comprise more than 20 percent of the total number of persons on relief rolls.

Although Harlem is the largest Negro community in the world, most of its restaurants, hotels, saloons and retail shops are owned by Greeks, Germans, Jews, Italians, Irish, and other white groups. In business, more than in any other field, the Harlem Negro has shown a lack of initiative that puts Harlem in sharp contrast with many Negro communities through out the country. Negro boys and girls are rarely employed as clerks in Harlem stores, but work downtown as maids, porters, elevator and errand boys. Most of Harlem’s Negro-owned businesses are in the field of personal service. The community contains more than 2,000 Negro barber shops and “beauty parlors.” On the other hand, Harlem has proved a haven for the professional class, which numbers about 5,000. Physicians and dentists are especially numerous.

Catering to the inner man is one of Harlem’s chief industries, and eating-places are to be found everywhere throughout the district. These range from tiny Negro-owned restaurants in private homes and basements to large chain-cafeterias controlled by white capital and the cafes and cabarets that play a prominent part in New York’s night life. Prominent in this field are Father Divine’s 15 restaurants, where a meal featuring chicken or chops is served for 15 cents.

During the Prohibition era, many of the Negro-owned saloons passed into Italian hands, and remained open in spite of the law. Most of Harlem’s saloons are still Italian-owned; but some of the better known tap rooms and cabarets are conducted by Negroes.

Playing the central role in the life of the Harlem Negro is not the cabaret or cafe, as is commonly supposed, but the church. Thousands of the early southern migrants met for religious services in apartments and homes. Later they purchased the existing churches of white Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians in the Harlem region. The actual surrender of a white church to Negroes was done with something approaching ritual: a joint service would be held at which the out-going white congregation would welcome the in-coming black.

It is difficult to say which is the more numerous of Harlem’s two largest religious sects, the Baptists or the Divinists. The Baptists have the largest churches, such as the Abyssinia and Mt. Olivet, but it is possible that Father Divine has more followers in his many “Heavens” throughout the city. There are two general types of churches in Harlem: the conventional, which embraces the long-established organizations, including the Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Congregationalist ; and the unconventional, consisting of the tabernacles of “prophets,” the “storefront” meeting places, the synagogues of Black Jews, and the houses of various sects and cults.

The “Church of the Believers of the Commandments” may be across the street from a Daddy Grace “House of Prayer.” The “Metaphysical Church of Divine Investigation” may be a few doors from the Black Jews’ “Commandment Keepers.” Add to these the Moorish Temples, Sister Josephine Becton’s churches, the tabernacles of Prophet Costonie, the “Heavens” of Father Divine, and the sanctuaries of Mother Home,
and some conception of Harlem’s many diverse religions and cults may be

Because of its highly sensitive social and political temper, Harlem has been termed the “focal point in the struggle for the liberation of the Negro people.” It was but natural that the long effort to free the Scottsboro boys should begin in Harlem, and the greatest demonstration in connection with the release of four of them occurred when thousands of Negroes jammed the Pennsylvania Station to welcome them to New York.

During Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, anything concerning Italy on the movie screen brought forth immediate hisses and catcalls. In the consciousness of this oppressed community, current events are commonly interpreted as gains or set-backs for the Negro people. This social restlessness results in many public demonstrations. Harlemites in increasing numbers attend street meetings protesting evictions; picket stores to compel the hiring of Negroes, or WPA offices to indicate disapproval of cuts in pay or personnel; parade against the subjection of colonial peoples, or to celebrate some new civic improvement; and march many miles in May Day demonstrations.

Harlem’s peculiar susceptibility to social and political propaganda is well illustrated in the case of Marcus Garvey, a West Indian, who for a few years in the early 1920*5 was known as “provisional President of Africa.” He advocated the establishment of a Black Republic in Africa, and preached racial chauvinism. As head of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, Garvey was the first Negro leader in America to capture the
imagination of the masses, and no one else has so stirred the race consciousness of the Negroes in New York and elsewhere. The Negro World, once powerful organ of his Universal Negro Improvement Association, attracted such contributors as Edgar Grey, Hubert Harrison and William Ferris to its pages. Garvey’s financial manipulations in connection with his steamship company, the Black Star Line, led to his downfall. He was indicted by the Federal Government for using the mails to defraud, served a term in the Atlanta penitentiary, and was later deported.

The most serious rioting that Harlem has known occurred in the spring of 1935, at a time when many of the white-owned business establishments on West 1 2 5th Street were being boycotted for their refusal to employ Negroes. A leading figure in the attendant agitation was a person calling himself Sufi Abdul Hamid, who in gaudy Egyptian uniform preached anti-Semitism on the street corners and was regarded by Harlem’s Jewish merchants as a “Black Hitler.” On March 19 a Negro boy was caught stealing in one of the boycotted stores. Rumors immediately spread throughout Harlem that the boy had been beaten and killed by the white proprietor; large crowds gathered in and near West 12 5th Street, and in spite of police efforts an orgy of window-smashing and store-looting followed. As emphasized in the report of an investigating committee appointed by Mayor La Guardia, the outbreak had its fundamental causes in the terrible economic and social conditions prevailing in Harlem at the time.

When the Federal Emergency Relief Administration began operations, it found a majority of Harlem’s population on the verge of starvation, as a result of the depression and of an intensified discrimination that made it all but impossible for Negroes to find employment. Landlords, knowing that their tenants could not move to other neighborhoods, had raised rents exorbitantly, and wholesale evictions followed. The FERA, with its successors the Civil Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration, brought a new lease on life to Harlem’s underprivileged. WPA’s monthly checks constitute a considerable part of the community life-blood, and white storekeepers are quick to join with Negro relief workers in protesting against any threats to their jobs. Today one notes a very decided lessening of the dangerous tension that pervaded Harlem in the dark winters of 1934 and 1935.

Although New York had had a few scattered Negro writers before that time, what is sometimes termed the “literary renaissance” of Harlem dates from about 1925. The movement was in large part initiated by the publication of the Survey Graphic’s special “Harlem Number” and of Alain Locke’s interpretative anthology entitled The New Negro. A host of young writers made their appearance in the middle and late 1920’s, among
them Walter White, Eric Walrond, Rudolph Fisher, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, George Schuyler and Arna Bontemps. Confined almost exclusively to Harlem, this literary movement was notable in that for the first time the American Negro depicted his own life with a wide and varied range of talent and feeling. For a few years Negro writers created more than they ever have before or since that period. Joyce’s Ulysses influenced some of them; and even the gospel of Gertrude Stein claimed a number of Negro adherents.

Some members of the movement were apotheosized in Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven, a novel that New York read with avidity. The poetry of McKay, Cullen and Hughes expressed in new rhythms and beauty and vigor the bitterness and despair of Negro life in America. Toomer, in Cane, sounded a new and lyric note in American prose ; and Walter White, in The Fire in the Flint and Flight, dealt with the Negro’s struggle in both South and North against the barriers of color. Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen and Claude McKay frequently depicted Harlem life in their novels. James Weldon Johnson, long a Harlem resident, and later a professor at Fisk and New York Universities, elaborated in Black Manhattan the description of Harlem that was a prominent feature of his earlier Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Rudolph Fisher, Wallace Thurman, George Schuyler and W. E. B. Du Bois wove fantasy and satire into their descriptions of Negro life. With the beginning of the national depression in 1929, the movement largely disintegrated.

Among the Negro artists of Harlem are Augusta Savage, Aaron Douglas, Richmond Barthe, Charles Alston, E. Sims Campbell, Vertis Hayes, Bruce Nugent, Henry W. Barnham, Sara Murrell, Romare Beardon, Robert Savon Pious, and Beauford Delaney. Of these Aaron Douglas, painter and mural artist, Richmond Barthe, sculptor, Augusta Savage, sculptress, and E. Sims Campbell, painter and cartoonist, are the most prominent. Many Negro artists are employed on the Federal Art Project, under whose direction they have executed murals for the new wing of the Harlem Municipal Hospital. Harlem now boasts of 15 art centers, in churches, the Y.M.C.A., the Y.W.C.A., and neighborhood houses, where classes are conducted in painting, ceramics, carving and sculpture. Best known for its exhibitions is the Uptown Art Laboratory. The Federal Art Project in New York has discovered an immense amount of latent artistic talent among the Negro children of Harlem.

Until very recently the doors of the American theater have not been open to the Negro playwright, who has therefore had no opportunity to master the technique of the stage. Only in rare instances have producers presented plays written by Negroes. Willis Richardson’s one-act plays were produced in some of the little and commercial theaters; and in 1925, Garland Anderson’s Appearances ran in the Frolic Theatre. Wallace Thurman collaborated on Lulu Belle and Harlem, both well known on Broadway. In 1937, Langston Hughes entered the field of the drama with his Mulatto. The Krigwa Players were pioneers in the little theater movement.

Today Harlem’s thespians are for the most part associated with the New
Theater League and the Federal Theatre Project.

Prominent among those plays written by whites in which Negro actors have had an opportunity to depict the lives of their people are Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings, produced in 1920 and 1924; Edward Sheldon and Charles MacArthur’s Lulu Belle, which opened in New York in 1926; Paul Green’s Pulitzer Prize play, In Abraham’s Bosom, produced in 1926 at the Provincetown Playhouse; Marc Connelly’s The Green Pastures, which started in 1929 on its long career of sensational success; and Paul Peters’ and George Sklar’s Stevedore, first presented in 1930.

New York, like Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, has its celebrated music schools and opportunities for musical expression, which have always attracted Negro artists. The successes of Hall Johnson, Roland Hayes, Paul Robeson, Jules Bledsoe and Marian Anderson are nationally known. Many of Harlem’s Negro musical artists are now associated with the Federal Music Project.

Of all the popular personalities whom Harlem has shared with America, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson has evoked the most lasting and genuine affection. As the world’s ace tap dancer, he has appeared on the stage or screen of every city and town in this country, and has earned a reputation as a philanthropist in his private life. In 1934, he was elected “unofficial mayor” of Harlem.

By adoption, Harlem claims the Negro show girl, Josephine Baker, who came out of the slums of St. Louis and earned the title of “Empress Josephine” during her stay in Paris in 1931 with the “Dixie Steppers,” a company that had begun by touring the South in a series of one-night stands. She became a European celebrity as star of the Folies Bergere, and married Count Pepito De Albertini.

The late Richard B. Harrison, whose theatrical career knew only one role, made his debut at the age of 66 and achieved the greatest fame of any Negro actor. His life was closely bound up with “De Lawd” of Marc Connelly’s play, The Green Pastures, and little is recorded of his earlier career. When the play was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1930, Lieutenant Governor Herbert Lehman presented “De Lawd” with the Spingarn medal at the Mansfield Theater before an enthusiastic audience. In 1936, the entire nation mourned the death of the man who “brought God to Broadway.”

Florence Mills, who ranks as one of America’s greatest musical comedy stars, came to New York after a Chicago cabaret career, and was featured by Paul Slavin at the Plantation Cafe. She made her first Broadway appearance in the popular Shuffle Along, and achieved her first European triumph in Dixie to Broadway. She died in 1927, shortly after a successful European tour in Blackbirds.

Paul Robeson, a graduate of Rutgers College who achieved national reputation in his student days as a football star, made his first appearance on the professional stage in Mary Hoyt Wiborg’s Taboo. Later he replaced Charles Gilpin in Roseanne, and in 1924 he became a national figure in the American theater by starring in Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings. After appearing in Show Boat in London, he played the title role of O’Neill’s Emperor Jones in Berlin in 1930. In 1926 he appeared as the star of Jim Tully’s Black Boy. He has sung and acted throughout Europe, has played prominent roles in many motion pictures, and is the outstanding Negro actor of today.

Though Negroes are considered to be an exceptionally musical people, Harlem’s general interest in music is largely limited to those popular jazz orchestras that originated within its boundaries. Some of the greatest of Negro bands Will Vodery’s, Leroy Smith’s, Duke Ellington’s and Fletcher Henderson’s acquired their initial fame in downtown New York, It was through their often startling innovations in jazz and swing music that Negro orchestra leaders held sway. Whether it was jazz as it was “jazzed” by Cab Calloway in the 1920*5, or swing as it was “swung” by Jimmie Lunceford in the 1930s, the white popular jazz and swing orchestras took most of their cues from Harlem orchestras and their Negro leaders. Most of the prominent Negro bands have reached a large public through their phonograph recordings, and Negro band-members are protected by the powerful Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, affiliated with the American Federation of Labor though there are evidences of discrimination against Negroes in the matter of wages.

Harlem’s boast that it is an area where new dance steps are created is indisputable. Just who initiated the “truck” is not known. Cora La Redd of the Cotton Club, “Rubber Legs” Williams, Chuck Robinson, and Bilo and Ashes have all put forward their individual claims. It is interesting to note that there are many kinds of “trucking,” the “picket’s truck,” the “politician’s truck,” the “Park Avenue truck,” the “Mae West truck,” and the “Hitler truck.” Among other contemporary Harlem dances is the “shim-sham,” a time-step featuring the “break” with a momentary pause; and the “razzle-dazzle,” which involves a rhythmic clapping of hands and a rolling of hips. The riotous “Lindy Hop” is a flying dance done by couples in which a girl is thrown away in the midst of a lightning two-step, then rudely snatched back to be subjected to a series of twists, jerks, dips and scrambles. All of these and many more can be seen in Harlem’s dance halls, at house parties, on beaches, and in the streets in summer to the tune of WPA Music Project bands.

There is but one legitimate theater in Harlem, the Lafayette, upon whose stage the greater part of Harlem’s theatrical tradition was made. For years the Lafayette was the home of the Lafayette Stock Company ; and together with the Lincoln Theater, home of the Anita Bush Company, it catered to Harlem’s smart set. Andrew Bishop, Inez Clough, Rose McClendon, Abbie Mitchell, Anita Bush, Laura Bowman and Leigh Whipper were
among the most popular of Harlem’s matinee idols.

Gradually the Lafayette’s legitimate drama gave way to vaudeville, movies replaced vaudeville, and finally in 1935 the house closed its doors altogether. In 1936, the Federal Theatre, working with a Negro cast, opened the Lafayette again to legitimate drama, producing Frank Wilson’s Walk Together Chillun, Rudolph Fisher’s The Conjure Man Dies, and Orson Welles’ production of Macbeth, which attracted national attention
because of its Haitian locale and unusual interpretation by Negro actors. Macbeth was followed by Gus Smith’s and Peter Morrell’s Turpentine, Carlton Moss’s adaptation of Obey’s Noah, George .Kelly’s The Show Off, George McEntee’s The Case of Phillip Laivrence, Dorothy Hailpern’s Horse Play, four of Eugene O’Neill’s one-act plays of the sea, and William Du Bois’ Haiti.

A number of prominent motion picture actors have come from or been associated with Harlem notably Bill “Boj angles” Robinson, who has appeared with Will Rogers, Shirley Temple, and other screen favorites. Beginning in 1910, before the industry moved to Hollywood, West Jenkins appeared in many pictures over a period of years. The cast for King Vidor’s Hallelujah was entirely recruited and organized in Harlem, then trans
ported to Los Angeles. Nina Mae McKinney, star of the picture, was a Harlem chorus girl. The first effort of Negroes to produce their own pictures was made by the Micheaux Corporation of Harlem, which has more than 30 pictures to its credit.

Negroes have participated in sports and athletics in New York since 1800. Tom Molyneaux, a Negro ex-slave who became champion boxer in 1809, made the old Catherine Market his headquarters. Almost all the Negro boxing champions and near champions Joe Jeanette, Sam Langford, Joe Cans, Tiger Flowers, Battling Siki, Jack Johnson, Harry Wills, and Kid Chocolate lived for most of their fighting careers in New York. Canada Lee, now an actor, and Buddy Saunders were born in New York.
Joe Louis, the present heavyweight champion, is an adopted citizen of Harlem.

The most popular of Harlem sports is basketball, and during the long season various expert Negro teams, among them the famous Renaissance quintet, provide entertainment for many thousands. The sporting consciousness of Harlem is evidenced by the huge Negro attendance at baseball games in the Yankee Stadium and at the Polo Grounds. Thousands acclaimed John Woodruff, Jesse Owens, Eulace Peacock and Cornelius John son when they broke world records at the new Randall’s Island Stadium; and other Negroes have been prominent in New York track meets from the days of Howard Drew down to Ben Johnson. Bicycling and horseback riding are popular among the theatrical and sporting sets, while golf is played to some extent. Cricket is popular among the West Indians, who are so adept that they meet many of the world’s leading teams.

For the most part, Harlem gains its knowledge of current events in the outside world from the Negro weeklies of New York and other large cities rather than from the metropolitan dailies. The leading Negro weeklies published in New York are the New York Age, a Republican journal which under this and various other names has appeared continuously since 1880; the Amsterdam News, a supporter of the New Deal; and the New York News, which is widely read among Father Divine’s followers.

Harlem’s best known and most widely used library is the 13 5th Street branch of the New York Public Library, which houses the famous Schomburg Collection of material relating to Negro life. This collection is the result of 30 years of research by Arthur Schomburg in the United States, Central and South America, the West Indies, Haiti and Europe. It comprises more than 8,000 volumes and 1,500 manuscripts, numerous engravings and specimens of primitive African art.

The community’s facilities for public education are woefully inadequate.  Although the population of Harlem has more than tripled since the World War, not one new school building was constructed in this region during the post-war period until 1937. Many of the buildings are antiquated fire-traps, without playgrounds or auditoriums. In one school, lunch is served to 1,000 children in a room designed to seat only 175. There are no specialized or nursery schools, and because of discriminatory zoning Negro
students are not permitted to attend newer and better-equipped schools in adjacent areas. According to Mayor La Guardia’s Commission on Conditions in Harlem, one of the contributing factors in connection with the rioting of March 1935 was the deplorable conditions prevailing in the public schools.

Harlem’s importance in New York politics has grown along with its increase in population. In 1897, Tammany Hall gained dominance over the Negro vote through “Chief” Lee, a noted Negro leader, and until recently it has retained control by dispensing political patronage. Of the nine Negroes elected as New York aldermen, seven have been Democrats and two Republicans. But because of the depression, increasing economic and racial discrimination, displacement in jobs, and the rise of workers’ organizations, thousands of Negro voters have deserted the two older parties to join or support the Labor, Socialist, or Communist groups.

In 1920, Harlem elected its first Negro alderman, George Harris, an Independent Republican. To maintain its prestige among the Negroes, Tammany in the following election ran a Negro candidate for alderman, and regularly since then Harlem has been represented in the Board of Aldermen. When the Tenth Municipal District was created in 1930, two Negro attorneys, James S. Watson and Charles E. Toney, were elected judges. The recent appointments of Myles A. Paige as city magistrate, of Hubert Delany as commissioner of taxes and assessments, and of Eunice Hunton Carter and Ellis Rivers to District Attorney Dewey’s staff have placed Negroes in new and important fields of public service.

Legally, there is no racial discrimination in New York. Negroes were not excluded from or segregated in vaudeville and legitimate theaters until the early 1920*5. Some New York theaters practice discrimination by refusing to sell tickets to Negroes or by maintaining that all seats are sold; others admit Negroes only to certain sections of the house. Except for some of the “little cinemas,” there has never been discrimination on the part of motion picture houses.

Twenty years ago only Negroes of unusual distinction would dare to ask for accommodations in downtown hotels. Gradually, however, the larger hotels have become much more liberal in this respect. But discrimination in restaurants is still common. Of late, law suits have compelled many restaurants to alter their policy, and today a Negro can eat in many down town restaurants without being asked to sit behind a screen or without finding that a cup of salt has been stirred into his soup. In some sections of Harlem itself there are bars and cafes that discriminate against Negroes; and the windows of many rooming-houses carry the familiar southern sign:
"For White Only."

Present-day Negro organizations, both national and local, represent many varying schools of thought. Some advocate amalgamation, passive resistance, colonization, salvation through “art and joy”; others favor collective political and economic action on the part of white and black.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was organized in May 1909, and in the following year Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois became its director of publicity and research and editor of its national organ, The Crisis. In his words, the aim of the Association was to create “an organization so effective and so powerful that when discrimination and in justice touched one Negro, it would touch 12,000,000 … an organization that would work ceaselessly to make Americans know that the so-called
'Negro problem' is simply one phase of the vaster problem of democracy in America, and that those who wish freedom and justice for their country must wish it for every black citizen.” The Association's militant legal struggle against segregation and for civil rights and its long fight against lynching are now known throughout the country. In 1931, James Weldon Johnson resigned as executive secretary of the Association and was succeeded by Walter White.

To assist the thousands of southern migrants coming into the city, and to make investigations into social conditions among Negroes, the National Urban League was organized in 1911. Under its auspices many of the Negro professional social workers in New York have received their train ing; and through its Industrial Department it has aided thousands of unskilled Negroes to equip themselves with trades. More than any other social agency, the League has fought for a better community life among Negroes,
better housing conditions, and against crime, disease and unemployment. Its official organ, Opportunity Magazine, edited by Elmer A. Carter, interprets the changing social and economic scene for the American Negro.

The New York Urban League was organized in 1918 as a separate and distinct branch of the national League. Besides maintaining a playground and a summer camp for Negro children, it has helped to form and guide several WPA projects. The League has emphasized its fundamental concern in securing better working conditions for Negroes, exposing unfair labor practices, fostering unionism and aiding in the education of workers in the lower and unskilled ranks.

The youngest and largest of the mass organizations devoted to the social, economic and political equality of the Negro is the National Negro Congress, a federation of Negro organizations which attempts to unify the activities of all groups, particularly trade unions. The Congress is wide in scope and purpose, and active in the prosecution of its aims. It has held two national meetings, one in Chicago in 1935, the other in Philadelphia in 1937.

Since the founding of the New York African Society for Mutual Relief more than a hundred years ago, Negro fraternal societies have increased so rapidly that they now comprise the greater number of organizations among the Negroes of Harlem. They are motivated by the need for mutual aid and companionship. There are Negro Elk, Odd Fellow, Mason, Pythian, Woodmen and Philomathean lodges, whose large membership makes possible the maintenance of mountain homes, bands, athletic leagues and summer camps, along with various other activities.

The Young Men’s and Women’s Christian Associations in Harlem differ little from the white Associations throughout the country. They are cultural centers, meeting places, educational institutions, as well as centers for sports and recreation. The buildings of both organizations were built recently and are imposing structures, designed to serve the manifold interests of thousands of youths and adults. The forums and debates held
here often emphasize the economic plight of the Negro.

Perhaps the strongest of Negro organizations in Harlem are the trade unions. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, with a national membership of more than 6,000, maintains elaborate headquarters under the leadership of its president, A. Philip Randolph. In 1929 the Brotherhood affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, and in 1936 it was accorded an international charter. Since the depression and the inception of the Committee for Industrial Organization, there is hardly a trade or profession in Harlem that is not organized. Barbers, clerks, laundry workers, newspapermen, bartenders, teachers and domestic workers have all formed unions for mutual protection. Most of these unions are affiliated with the Negro Labor Committee, a representative central body that gives common guidance to Harlem’s trade union activities. The problems of the unemployed are dealt with chiefly through the Workers’ Alliance, which maintains several branches in this area.

Harlem is the home of one of the outstanding units of the New York National Guard, the 369th Infantry, organized in 1913 as the 15th Regiment of State militia. These Negro troops were under fire for 191 days on the western front during the World War, and were the first Americans to reach the Rhine. On December 13, 1918, they received from the French Government a collective citation for conspicuous valor, and the Croix de Guerre was pinned to the regimental colors.

The question of what will ultimately happen to the Negro in New York is bound up with the question of what will happen to the Negro in America. It has been said that the Negro embodies the “romance of American life”; if that is true, the romance is one whose glamor is overlaid with shadows of tragic premonition.

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