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No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn't a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.
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Outside of the Apollo Theater. (Photo: Dr. Wendy Longo/Flickr)

Outside of the Apollo Theater. (Photo: Dr. Wendy Longo/Flickr)

Without New York City, would there have been no Harlem Renaissance? History says otherwise. "In Whose Garden Did the Harlem Renaissance Grow?"

Like the more recent migration of talented entrepreneurs to Silicon Valley, those flocking to Northern cities in the interwar years were looking for unprecedented economic opportunity. But unlike the tech elite, those black working and middle-class people also were seeking an escape from the dehumanizing confines, petty insults, racial profiling, lynchings and other harsh brutalities of the Southern color line.

However, while Harlem may have been celebrated in legend and song as the world’s “black mecca,” as Alain Locke put it, the Harlem Renaissance had roots and branches extending far beyond Upper Manhattan. It was a state of mind that connected a community of artists all across the country, the descendants of both slaves and free black people. They searched for new forms of expression—for freedom itself—throughout the major industrial areas of the North, from Chicago and Detroit through Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Boston, even (or especially) in Jim Crow’s backyard, segregated Washington, D.C.

Wherever African-Americans migrated, creativity flourished. Musicians in particular were nomadic. "The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America."

Southern cities had a role to play in this musical system. Atlanta, Birmingham, New Orleans, Houston, Dallas, and Memphis each had numerous and important jazz clubs and blues cellars. In the mid 1920s, after race records had proved their market, the invention of portable electric recording machines made it possible for the record companies to send teams to these and other southern cities looking for new talent. But the southern recording tours, which ended in 1931 when the Depression gutted the record industry, did not alter the fundamental geography of musical opportunity. The southern cities served as unofficial farm teams for the Black Metropolises (just as they would in the system of Negro baseball that was developing contemporaneously). Southern musicians got started on Atlanta's Decatur Street or Memphis's Beale Street and the best of them then headed for New York, Chicago, Kansas City, or Los Angeles hoping for a chance in the majors. Alphabetically we can list a hundred names of blues and jazz greats from Perry Anderson to Muddy Waters and all will tell the same story: grew up in the South, honed their skills in the bordellos or clubs of a southern city, went on to fame, if rarely fortune, in one of the music capitals of the North or West.

Emphasis added. All the greats were migrants. This journey of talent refinement was no accident, itself a product of the Jim Crow South. Cultivating the Harlem Renaissance in Lynchburg, Virginia:

In the American South, ironically, segregation, by choking off hotels for whites only, forced black travelers to look for “tourist homes” with the aid of others similarly situated. (This history generated a memorable driving segment with migration chronicler Isabelle Wilkerson on my PBS documentary series The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, Episode 4, “Making a Way Out of No Way”). Essentially, such abodes were hotels, bed-and-breakfasts and friends-of-friends’ homes all rolled into one. You never knew who you were going to bump into in a tourist home, or what talented fellow boarders you might discover there.

On the road, shared circumstances and chance had a way of creating conditions for interconnectivity and encouragement, enriching to any artist, but especially those confined by color. Segregation-induced reading clubs, literary societies and middle-class cultural salons and arts contests sponsored by the Crisis and Opportunity magazines were at one end of the spectrum. At the other: juke joints, speakeasies and late-night integrated jazz clubs.

All were the soil in which the full range of the arts of the Harlem Renaissance—from the finest poetry and fiction and achievements in the plastic and visual arts to gut bucket blues, verbal signifying street rituals, the more refined classic blues and the emerging art form of jazz—grew. (Always remember that the renaissance was a multifaceted cultural phenomenon, ranging through all of the arts, and that jazz was one of its most remarkable legacies.)

Fertile soil literally nurtured the growth of the poetic branch of the Harlem Renaissance, tended by the movement’s leading African-American female poet, Anne Spencer. Spencer’s enchanting house and garden in Lynchburg, Va., now a landmark museum, was black America’s version of Monet’s garden in Giverny, France. Anybody who was anybody in the black arts and letters scene made a point of stopping by to “smell the roses” of her hand-crafted artistry instead of the usual foul air of Jim Crow segregated rooming houses and “hotels.” From the earth she tilled in central Virginia, and the generous hospitality she offered other black writers lodging in her salon-like home, Spencer encouraged and cultivated some of the Harlem Renaissance’s most profound and enduring poetry, much of it her own.

As I have stressed in this passage, being on the road connected minds. Anne Spencer hosted African-American genius in her Lynchburg garden. The Harlem Renaissance wasn't a place, but an era of migration. Spencer, not New York City, was the catalyst.