In the early 20th century, mass migration from the US’s southern states, and the experience of black soldiers fighting in the First World War, led to a social, cultural, and artistic movement that formed the intellectual centre of debate about the future of African Americans. This Black History Month in the UK, the British Council’s Paul Howson explains how the Harlem Renaissance turned disillusionment into pride.
African Americans in pre-war American society
During the early 20th century, disenfranchisement, discrimination and violence against the black population were rife in the Deep South of the US. The economy in the northern states was booming, with thousands of new jobs opening up in industries supplying goods to a Europe embroiled in what we now know as the First World War. As a result, black sharecroppers migrated en masse to the north in 1915 and 1916. By 1920, an estimated half a million African Americans had moved north.
While the legal systems in the northern states were less oppressive, many soon found that they had not escaped segregation and discrimination. They were confined mainly to overcrowded and dilapidated housing, and were largely restricted to poorly paid, menial jobs. Nevertheless, economic and educational opportunities for African Americans were incomparably greater in the northern cities than they had ever been in the rural south.
African American involvement in the First World War
Some 350,000 to 400,000 African Americans served in the American Expeditionary Forces, which fought on the Western Front between 1917 and 1918. They made up the largest minority group in the American military contingent involved in the First World War, hoping to gain recognition and respect for their service to their country.
When the first all-black regiment — known as ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ — returned from the battlefields abroad and paraded up 5th Avenue into Harlem in February 1919, a quarter of a million people came out to greet them. The parade became a marker of African American service to the nation, a frequent point of reference for those campaigning for civil rights.
Many who came to New York from the Deep South had settled in Harlem. Black churches spurred its development as an African American community by buying space there; community groups financed home ownership and business development; and black New Yorkers moved there from other areas of the city.
With racial prejudice still prevalent — the post-war recession led to race riots and lynching, including of black veterans still in uniform — Harlem became a place where black people could express themselves freely.
The Harlem Renaissance: cultural and artistic creativity as a means of self-assertion
Harlem brought together writers, artists, musicians, photographers, poets, and scholars. Common experience in their past and their uncertain present circumstances gave rise to a strong sense of racial pride, and encouraged an assertive social activism as well as political movements championing civil rights, black nationalism and pan-Africanism.
It was also a place where women could play an active and influential role, at a time when black women held arguably the lowest position in American society. Jessie Fauset, literary editor of the influential Crisis magazine, the novelist Zora Neale Hurston, entertainers and performers such as Josephine Baker and Ma Rainey who made Harlem a musical and dance capital, and the sculptor May Howard Jackson were hugely influential figures.