Photo Essay - Harlem Renaissance

Charles Spurgeon Johnson, 1948. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In 1924 Charles Spurgeon Johnson, in his capacity as the editor of National Urban League's journal Opportunity, sent invitations to a group of mostly unknown African American poets to attend a celebration of literary talent in Harlem. This Civic Club dinner heralded the emergence of the literary talent bringing together new writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes with established persons such as Eugene O'Neill, James Weldon Johnson, and W. E. B. Du Bois. This extremely successful event is often viewed as one of the watershed moments of the Harlem Renaissance.

Countée Cullen in Central Park, 1941. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Countée Cullen was part of the extensive circle of poets that resided in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1925 Cullen published his collection of poems, Color, to great acclaim and went on to become an assistant editor at Charles S. Johnson's journal Opportunity. Cullen was criticized for wanting to be known as a poet rather than a "negro poet" and soon fell from grace in the eyes of the arts movement where race pride was central. Cullen went on to marry the daughter of W. E. B. Du Bois, win a Guggenheim Fellowship, and publish several works of fiction.

John Bubbles, c.1964. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In 1920, when John Bubbles was only eighteen, he was laughed out of the Hoofers Club. The Hoofers Club, located on 131st Street in Harlem, was the unofficial top tap school in the country at the time and Bubbles did not dance like the other tappers. Unlike other dancers of the time Bubbles concentrated on his foot movements, and today he is credited with changing the face of tap dancing with his rhythm or jazz tap style. Bubbles performed throughout the Harlem Renaissance with his partner Ford Lee "Buck" Washington and became one of the leading dancers at the very club where he was initially ridiculed.

Nella Larsen Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Nella Larsen wrote two of the most famous novels to come out of the Harlem Renaissance—Quicksand and Passing. Both novels explore the psychological aspects of being biracial in the early part of the twentieth century and they are based, in part, on Larsen's experience as the child of a Danish mother and a "colored" father. Passing is set in the world of the upper class in 1920s Harlem.

Louis Armstrong's studio ensemble The Hot Five, 1925. They are (from left to right) Johnny Dodds, Louis Armstrong, Johnny St. Cyr, Kid Ory, and Lil Hardin.

Louis Armstrong is arguably one of the best jazz trumpeters in history. While his early career was based in Chicago, in 1924 Armstrong performed in New York at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City with The Fletcher Anderson Orchestra as well as Clarence Williams's Blue Five. Armstrong moved his band permanently to New York City in 1929 and his impact on the New York music scene continued throughout the Harlem Renaissance.

Bessie Smith Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Bessie Smith, "Empress of the Blues," was part of the soundtrack of the Harlem Renaissance. The popularity of Smith's music, often quite sexual in nature, calls attention to some of the social freedoms that the culture allowed. During the 1930s Smith was based in New York City and performed at the Cotton Club, the Apollo, and the Harlem Opera House. She frequently toured the country sometimes under the name "Bessie Smith and Her Harlem Frolics" or the "Hot From Harlem" revue thus spreading the idea of Harlem as a vibrant and loose community to a wider audience.

Langston Hughes. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The prolific and acclaimed poet Langston Hughes was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes lived in Harlem from 1926 to 1929 and was a strong voice for the younger artists in the movement. Hughes believed that to fully be an artist one must incorporate race into one's art. This idea of the blending of race and art was central to the movement and is seen in much of the art, music, and literature from that time.

James VanDerZee's portrait Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The photographer James VanDerZee spent the 1920s and 1930s documenting the people and streets of Harlem. In 1917 VanDerZee and his companion Gaynella Greenlee opened a photography studio on 135th St. in Harlem and over the next decades took innumerable portraits of the people of the Renaissance including Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Countée Cullen, Jack Johnson, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., as well as Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association parades.