When it was announced that New York’s elevated railway would be extended to northern Manhattan in 1880, the implications proved irresistible to the city’s developers. Soon, surely, the Dutch village formerly known as Haarlem would be a booming district. There was money to be made.
In anticipation, entrepreneurs began to erect apartment buildings and grand row houses in readiness for an influx of affluent new tenants, causing Harlem Monthly Magazine to speculate proudly that “it is evident to the most superficial observer that the centre of fashion, wealth, culture and intelligence must, in the near future, be found in the ancient and honorable village of Harlem.”
It wasn’t to be. Over-speculation led to empty apartments and unsold properties, but one man’s crisis is another’s opportunity. In this case the other man was an African-American real estate agent named Philip A. Payton. This single-minded entrepreneur secured empty apartments for black residents, and would become a force to be reckoned with in the world of New York real estate. When a company bought three tenement buildings in Harlem only to evict the black residents and replace them with white tenants, Payton retaliated in kind. He bought three neighbouring apartment buildings, evicted the white tenants and gave the vacant housing to those black families who had been evicted by the Hudson Realty Company. The New York Times called it “a Real Estate Race War.”
By the time of the Great Migration - “one of the largest and most rapid mass internal movements in history” - Harlem had become a major destination. Between 1916 and 1970, it is estimated that around 6 million African Americans moved north from the southern States where, until 1910, 90% of the African-American population had lived. In Harlem, the huge influx of new residents made the neighbourhood a vibrant melting pot, out of which would pour new ideas, art, literature, poetry, music, philosophy and more.
On March 21st, 1924, the young editor of Opportunity magazine, Charles S. Johnson, held a dinner party. He had initially conceived of a small gathering - around 20 people - to honour the publication of There Is Confusion, a new novel by African-American writer Jessie Fauset. The idea grew. On the night, more than 100 editors, literary critics, black intellectuals, white publishers and young black writers converged at the Civic Club just off Fifth Avenue to highlight not just one author, but all emerging African American talent. It was a crucial moment in a movement that had been gaining momentum since the end of the First World War.
The Civic Club Dinner part of 1924 was a far cry from The Red Summer of 1919, when race riots had swept through more than thirty cities in America. That year, Claude McKay published his defiant sonnet If We Must Die, a call to arms that roared a demand for change at any cost.
If we must die—let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
Six years later, the publication of Alain Locke’s The New Negro marked a milestone in the history of black literature. In this groundbreaking anthology, Locke - the first African-American Rhodes scholar - gathered together the voices of the “New Negro Movement” that would later known as the Harlem Renaissance.
As African-American poetry, literature and music flourished, white composers, novelists and dramatists began to take note. African American themes began to appear in songwriting; lyrics were borrowed from black poets; the rhythms of blues and jazz found their way into new scores. New cultural collaborations between whites and blacks were able to prise open doors that had previously been closed, if not barred: white band leaders defied racist attitudes to showcase the finest African-American musicians; mainstream publishing houses began to list authors including Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston; white New Yorkers flocked into Harlem to drink illegal liquor and hear the latest jazz.
With flourishing creativity came new conflicts. The ‘right way’ to represent African American culture and the black experience became a source of fiery debate. White patronage brought its own complications, as an appetite for the ‘primitive’ and ‘exotic’ was criticised by some African Americans as a derogatory fad based on cultural fetishism rather than unprejudiced regard. As Alain Locke himself wrote, “Art must discover and reveal the beauty which prejudice and caricature have overlaid.”
For all its complexity and conflict, the sudden, rapid development of Harlem transformed the neighbourhood into a cultural powerhouse that fundamentally changed the way African Americans were perceived not just in America but around the world. With its success and in its legacy, a new sense of self-determination, racial pride and defiance was fostered - a foundation that would be needed in the Civil Rights struggles to come.
Though by 1929 some strides towards equality had been made - an African American had once again been elected to congress after a gap of almost 60 years; boycotts of white businesses had led to increased job opportunities; the Congress of Industrial Organisations had admitted its first black union members - racial equality remained a distant dream. Then, on October 29th 1929, the Great Depression began. Harlem was the New York neighbourhood into which it sank its teeth.
Author Cheryl Lynn Greenberg explains, “Harlem endured greater levels of poverty, illness, overcrowding and crime than virtually every other city neighborhood in the 1930s,” a situation which - though hardly new - worsened considerably as the depression took hold. By 1923, unemployment in America had risen from 3 to 25 percent. In Harlem, it was 50. African Americans were the first to be fired and the last to be hired, while higher rents, nightclub closures and discriminatory aid made life in Harlem more difficult than ever.
In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt responded to the crisis with a series of experimental projects collectively known as The New Deal, signed within 100 days of his election and designed to create more jobs, stabilise the economy and provide support to those in need. While black needs were explicitly addressed in the provisions, in reality discrimination and racism were rife when it came to delivery. The gulf between what had been promised and what was delivered brought Harlem to breaking point. On 19th March 1935, a riot swept through the neighbourhood.
The riot was sparked by a rumour. A 16-year-old Puerto Rican boy named Lino Rivera had been caught stealing a 10-cent pen-knife from a Five and Ten. Word began to spread that he had been beaten, some said by the police, some said to death. That evening, a crowd began to simmer outside the store, drawn by wildfire rumours and hastily produced handbills splashed with outrage. Eventually a rock was thrown, smashing the store’s window and signalling the beginning of a riot that would see three people killed, hundreds injured, and an estimated $2 million in damages.
New York Mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, made considerable effort to implement positive change in Harlem in the wake of a report which cited “injustices of discrimination in employment, the aggressions of the police, and the racial segregation” as key contributors. In reality the root causes of Harlem’s difficulties went unaddressed.
At a time when many American banks were refusing black customers, Harlem developed its own underground economy, enabling Harlemites to invest money - and mobsters to make it. The entrepreneurial criminals of Harlem had created as many as thirty “Banks” by 1924, enabling Harlemites to invest money in a way that discrimination had made impossible. The most successful bankers were known as the “Kings and Queens” of Harlem.
One particular daily pastime swelled the coffers of Harlem’s clandestine economy like clockwork, and even during the Great Depression there were always enough nickels and dimes for the neighbourhood’s favourite flutter - Playing The Numbers.
Since its invention in around 1921, the Numbers Game had become a cultural institution indulged in by hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers every day. Each morning at the New York Clearing House - the downtown financial institution made up of New York’s elite banks - three numbers would be written on a chalkboard. The numbers were used as economic indicators for the financial industry, but what mattered to Harlem were the numbers themselves.
By 1924 the Bankers were turning over tens of millions of dollars every year. Each morning, ‘runners’ fanned out across the city to collect the day’s bets, rushing to get them on the books before 10am sharp. By the late 1920s Harlem novelist Wallace Thurman estimated that no fewer than a thousand bet collectors swept the city each morning.
The Kings and Queens may have been criminals, but they were also champions of Harlem. None were richer than Casper Holstein, the inventor of the game. Holstein may have boasted a fleet of cars, ample Harlem real estate and a home on Long Island, but he also helped to fund the Harlem Renaissance (Langston Hughes called him “a great help to poor poets”), built dormitories at black colleges and financed aspiring businessmen .
In a world of banking Kings, the Queen of Harlem was Stephanie Saint-Clair. Like Holstein, Saint-Clair - known as Madame Saint-Clair in Harlem and ‘Queenie’ everywhere else - was much more than just a money-minded mobster.
Regularly taking a full-page in the local newspaper to highlight the legal rights of Harlem residents, advocate voting rights, turn the spotlight on police brutality or accuse the authorities of corruption, , Madame Saint-Clair was not afraid to make enemies. Before long, a trumped-up charge saw Queenie arrested and sentenced to eight months hard labour. The sentence seems merely to have provoked Madame Saint-Clair. On her release, she promptly testified against the police, revealing precisely how much protection money they had accepted from her between 1923 and 1926.
The success and longevity of the Numbers Game made the lottery central to African-American economics in Harlem, but by the early 1930s the Great Depression and the end of Prohibition were taking a financial toll on the underworld. Mobsters like Dutch Schultz and Lucky Luciano were looking for new streams of revenue and they wanted in on the daily Harlem gamble that was making millions. One by one, willingly or otherwise, the Harlem Kings gave way as New York’s gangsters made their move. Profits poured away from Harlem and into the Bronx.
Just one of Harlem’s bankers held out against the white mobsters - Madame Saint-Clair. In 1917 she had invested $10,000 in a clandestine lottery that would become The Numbers Game. Since then, she had risen to be The Queen of Harlem, and it was not a crown she would part with lightly. “I’m not afraid of Dutch Schultz or any other man living” she declared. No one could suspect her of false bravado. This was a woman who, when a boyfriend tried to prostitute her at age 23, responded eloquently by sticking a fork in his eye. She then ‘accidentally’ killed another boyfriend when he tried to strangle her. And when Schultz was shot in 1935, she sent a farewell telegram to his deathbed: As ye sow, so shall ye reap.
In 1932 the illustrator E. Simms Campbell - considered the first African-American illustrator to find commercial success - created a map of Harlem. Filled with handy tips, caricatures, nightclubs and the latest musicians, the map paints Harlem as a raucous haven for those seeking to dodge Prohibition, dance the ‘snakehips’ or track down some street-corner marijuana. All over the map people can be seen asking “What’s the number?” in a bid to discover the latest results in The Numbers Game.
“Nothing happens before 2 a.m.!” the map forewarns eager New Yorkers, who flocked to Harlem to partake of its jazz and liquor. It confesses that while “the only omission is the location of the various speakeasies”, as “there are about 500 of them you won’t have much trouble.”
If the map is to be believed, a good time was being had by all in Harlem. In reality, the appeal of Harlem’s nightlife to white New Yorkers was a source of conflict for many. Nobody explains this better than Langston Hughes, one of the period’s most influential writers.
“White people began to come to Harlem in droves. For several years they packed the expensive Cotton Club on Lenox Avenue. But I was never there, because the Cotton Club was a Jim Crow club for gangsters and monied whites. They were not cordial to Negro patronage, unless you were a celebrity... So Harlem Negroes did not like the Cotton Club and never appreciated its Jim Crow policy in the very heart of their dark community. Nor did ordinary Negroes like the growing influx of whites toward Harlem after sun- down, flooding the little cabarets and bars where formerly only colored people laughed and sang, and where now the strangers were given the best ringside tables to sit and stare at the Negro customers—like amusing animals in a zoo.
At the Cotton Club, the new sound of Harlem had been discovered, admired, and then safely repackaged: white New Yorkers were given all the appeal of the latest jazz and the finest African-American musicians, without the need to socialise with the local population - who weren’t invited.
Still, when it came to music, Harlem was the only place to be. The line-up of talent at Harlem’s favourite venues makes for a Who’s Who of music history - at the Apollo, Count Basie ; Louis Armstrong at Connie’s Inn; Duke Ellington at the Lafayette Theatre; Ella Fitzgerald at the Savoy Ballroom; Billie Holiday at the Cotton Club. Between them, they would fill the Great American Songbook.
Duke Ellington (1899 - 1974)
Composer, pianist, bandleader
By and large, jazz has always been the kind of man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.
The star of Harlem’s exclusively white Cotton Club from 1927, Duke Ellington wrote over 1000 compositions during his lifetime, many of which became jazz standards. He was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1999.
Ella Fitzgerald (1917 - 1996)
Did I do alright?
Alternately known as the Queen of Jazz, Lady Ella and the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald sang on the streets of Harlem before entering a competition at the Apollo Theatre, aged 17. In 1935, she won the chance to perform for a week at the Harlem Opera House, and though ‘gawky and unkempt’ she was finally signed by Chick Webb’s orchestra. When Webb died in 1939, they became Ella and her Famous Orchestra.
Billie Holiday (1915- 1959)
Jazz musician, singer-songwriter
If I’m going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.
Born Eleanora Fagan, the singer that would become Billie Holiday was singing in the clubs of Harlem by the time she was a young teen. She made her recording debut aged 18 with Benny Goodman, signalling the beginning of a celebrated career. In 1939 she silenced the Cafe Society to sing Strange Fruit for the first time.
Alain LeRoy Locke (1885 - 1954)
Writer, philosopher, educator
The pulse of the Negro world has begun to beat in Harlem.
The first African-American Rhodes Scholar, Alain Locke was the “Dean” of the Harlem Renaissance. His 1925 anthology, The New Negro brought together the finest African-American talent in a landmark collection of fiction, poetry and essays which came to be the definitive text of the period.
W.E.B. Du Bois (1868 - 1963)
Writer, sociologist, civil rights activist
Most men today cannot conceive of a freedom that does not involve somebody’s slavery.
Like Locke, W.E.B. Du Bois was a leading light in Harlem. In 1909 he co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which remains active today. The Crisis was the NAACP’s influential magazine, edited by Du Bois for 24 years.
Langston Hughes (1902 - 1967)
Poet, playwright, novelist, social activist
“I will not take ‘but’ for an answer.”
One of the Harlem Renaissance’s most influential leaders, Langston Hughes was the man who wrote about the period during which, as he dryly observed, “the Negro was in vogue.” Hughes was a pioneer of jazz poetry and a champion of distinctive African American art - as opposed to what he described as “the urge within the race toward whiteness.”
Claude McKay (1889 - 1948)
Poet, novelist, journalist
“I know the dark delight of being strange, The penalty of difference in the crowd, The loneliness of wisdom among fools...”
Claude McKay was the revolutionary voice behind the poem If We Must Die. Published in 1919 following the intense racial violence of The Red Summer, the sonnet is considered a landmark publication. McKay became one of the most influential figures of the period, publishing his best-selling novel, Home to Harlem, in 1928.
Zora Neale Hurston (1891 - 1960)
“No man may make another free.”
A native of the rural South, Zora Neale Hurston is celebrated for her writings on the black Southern experience. Arriving in New York in 1925, Hurston was the most prominent female writer of the period. Her 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God is considered one of the most influential works of African American and women’s literature.
Aaron Douglas (1899 - 1979)
To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts - such is the duty of the artist.
Douglas started out as an illustrator for some of Harlem’s most influential magazines - The Crisis and Opportunity - before illustrating Alain Locke’s The New Negro. Famous for his powerful murals, Douglas moved away from traditional landscape painting in favour of a geometric, modern style. He became the signature visual artist of the period.
James Van Der Zee (1886 - 1983)
Somebody would come in and say “I never take a good picture.” I’d say, “Why not? You’ve got two eyes, a nose and a mouth like everyone else.”
Harlem’s portraits, parties, weddings and funerals all fell under Van Der Zee’s lens, providing the finest visual record of Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1969, a researcher visited Van Der Zee’s Harlem studio on the off-chance that he might have some photographs of interest. The photographer’s works subsequently became the core of Harlem on My Mind, an exhibition held at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Jacob Lawrence (1917 - 2000)
I have an assuredness of myself. I never protect myself against it.
One of the most famous African American artists of the 20th century, Jacob Lawrence is best known for his Migration Series, a series of 60 panels painted on cardboard, illustrating the Great Migration. On his death, the New York Times described Lawrence as “among the most impassioned visual chroniclers of the African-American experience.”
The GUYS AND DOLLS editorial was written by Stephanie O’Dea, a freelance writer currently living and working in Paris.