Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1051

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The Great Migration
The Great Migration involved huge numbers of African Americans moving from the rural southern United States to northern industrial cities during the first few decades of the twentieth century in search of better jobs. This shift in population helped foster the cultural richness that became known as the Harlem Renaissance.

For most of the nineteenth century, the southern United States, like most of the rest of the country, was primarily an agricultural society. By the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, the northern economy began to shift to a more industrial base. The southern economy became stagnated and provided a strong impetus for black (and white) farm workers to consider moving north, where the jobs were. Southern blacks considered a move to the north as a step toward economic independence and a better life in a region of the country where they believed they might be treated more fairly.

In addition to the worsening southern economy, blacks were attracted to the north by the fact that during World War I, the United States began limiting the number of immigrants allowed in the country. This created a labor shortage in the north just at a time when the factories were expected to increase production to fulfill orders in support of the war effort. Companies that had rejected the idea of hiring blacks were forced to recruit them actively, even sending labor agents into the South to find workers and offer training in areas such as shipbuilding. Soon, family members were returning to their southern homes from New York, Detroit, Chicago, and other urban centers, telling stories of better jobs and higher salaries. Between 1916 and 1919, about half a million blacks moved to the north; roughly one million blacks made the trip in the 1920s. Between 1910 and 1920, New York City’s African-American population jumped 50 percent.

The New Negro
“New Negro” was the term white Americans had used to refer to a newly enslaved African. However, during the first few decades of the twentieth century, the phrase denoted an African American who was politically astute, well educated, and proud of his cultural heritage—the very opposite of a docile slave. Booker T. Washington’s view of a New Negro was outlined in his 1900 book, A New Negro for a New Century and encompassed education, self-improvement, and self-respect.

During the Harlem Renaissance, Locke used the term in the title of his anthology of African- American poetry and prose, The New Negro: An Interpretation. Locke believed that African-American writers and artists should participate in the leadership of their people and should be involved in showing white America a new vision of blacks as productive and creative forces to be reckoned with. The New Negro, in Locke’s estimation, should be an African American who asserted himself or herself economically, politically, and culturally. In his role as the disseminator of the New Negro philosophy, Locke organized a series of traveling African- American art exhibits and helped launch a national black theater movement.

Red Summer of 1919
In the years immediately following World War I, relations between blacks and whites were strained. White war veterans returning to northern cities felt threatened by the increased population of blacks and their stronger economic position—at least when compared to the prewar years. Many blacks returned from the war wondering why, after fighting for their country and receiving commendations for their bravery from the French, they were still treated as second-class citizens at home. Southerners sensed a heightened level of self-confidence among the blacks visiting their families from their jobs in northern cities. Economic pressures hit the general American population after the war when the government lifted price controls and unemployment and inflation rates jumped.

During the summer and early fall of 1919, twenty-five race riots erupted across the nation in Chicago; Charleston, South Carolina; Omaha, Nebraska; Washington, D.C., and other cities. In the space of six weeks, seventy-six lynchings were reported; a dozen of the lynchings were perpetrated on black men still wearing their service uniforms.

Johnson coined the term “Red Summer” while investigating these incidents for the National As- sociation for the Advancement of Colored People. Racial tensions were exacerbated by the nation’s postwar fear of the newly formed Bolshevik, or “red,” regime in Russia. Many efforts by blacks to improve their economic and political status were met with white suspicions that they were as “radical” as the Russian Bolsheviks.

Life in Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s
Harlem, a neighborhood in New York City, became the preeminent black urban enclave in the United States early in the twentieth century, when thousands of blacks migrated primarily from southern and rural regions. Previously, the area had been a wealthy white neighborhood, but economic hard times and skyrocketing real estate values at the start of the twentieth century created a situation in which clever entrepreneurs began leasing vacant rooms in white-owned buildings to black newcomers to the city. Harlem’s black population in 1914 was about fifty thousand; by 1930 it had grown to two hundred thousand.

The neighborhood also attracted black intellectuals, artists, and others interested in participating in Harlem’s increasingly vibrant cultural environment. Black political organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League, established offices in Harlem, as did major black newspapers such as The Messenger and The New York Age. Marcus Garvey, leader of the “back-to- Africa ” movement, set up his Universal Negro Improvement Association in Harlem. Garvey and others energized Harlemites with their messages of black pride and self-sufficiency.

Harlem also became an entertainment capital early in the century. Musical performers moved to Harlem, drawn by the atmosphere and the hundreds of nightclubs and other venues where the jazz sound was wildly popular. Performers Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, and others played to appreciative crowds at nightspots like Smalls’s Inn and the Savoy Ballroom. But not only locals patronized the free-spirited nightclubs that began to give Harlem a wild reputation; whites from other parts of New York City “discovered” Harlem and made it the place to be on a Saturday night. Ironically, some of the nightclubs were off-limits to blacks, including the famous Cotton Club, until 1928 catering to a wealthy white clientele intent on experiencing the “exotic” Harlem atmosphere.


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