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The Harlem Renaissance: Art of a Cultural Movement Part 1

Updated on September 25, 2015

Advocates of this movement wanted to separate themselves from the stereotypes that whites had placed on them, as well as remove themselves from the old-fashioned, strict Victorian morals and values that shame African Americans for leading the lives that they do. Overall, the artistic movement sought to put an end to some of burdening racist beliefs.[1]

As the Civil War came to a close in 1865, black Americans were offered the right to educate themselves and gain employment. Many took advantage of this new and thrilling opportunity and it was not long before America witnessed blacks obtaining a middle class status and living a lifestyle equivalent to those of white Americans.[2]

Unfortunately in 1896, the equal rights blacks were once afforded were quickly snatched away as the infamous Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court case made racial segregation legal. The southern states were particularly fond of this new law and went out of their way to make African Americans feel inferior to their white counterparts.

Living conditions for blacks became tougher, especially as the southern economy began to falter. In response to this mistreatment and the lack of employment opportunities, African Americans moved to the Northern states. More than seven million African Americans relocated to the North and historically became known as the Great Migration:[3]

“The social foundations of this movement included the Great Migration of African Americans from rural to urban spaces and from the South to North; dramatically rising levels of literacy; the creation of national organizations dedicated to pressing African American civil rights, ‘uplifting’ the race, and opening socioeconomic opportunities; and developing race pride, including pan-African sensibilities and programs. Black exiles and expatriates from the Caribbean and Africa crossed paths in metropoles such as New York City and Paris after World War I and had an invigorating influence on each other that gave the broader ‘Negro renaissance’ (as it was then known) a profoundly important international cast”[4]

Harlem became a safe haven for many of these migrating African Americans. This New York neighborhood was originally designed for white Americans. They could live on the outskirts of New York City and use the subway to transport to work.

However, transportation from Harlem into the metropolitan areas was limited, therefore many were not interested in moving into Harlem. As a result, New York's metropolitan areas began expanding and re-developing to make room for more housing, thus forcing black Americans to find another place to live.

Between 1900 and 1920 African Americans moved into the neighborhood of Harlem, which would become the heart of the Harlem Renaissance:[5]

Harlem is north of Central Park and a borough within Manhattan. Prior to the 1920s it was predominantly a white neighborhood; by the early 1920s the majority of Harlem was composed of African Americans.

“While the renaissance was not confined to the Harlem district of New York City, Harlem attracted a remarkable concentration of intellect and talent and served as the symbolic capital of this cultural awakening…As its symbolic capital, Harlem was a catalyst for artistic experimentation and a highly popular nightlife destination. Its location in the communications capital of North America helped give the “New Negroes” visibility and opportunities for publication not evident elsewhere." [6]

Black intellectuals that had settled in other cities, such as Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Chicago and so forth, frequently met within Harlem where they attended intellectual meetings, reading groups, theaters or gathered at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library for private events. "New York City had an extraordinarily diverse and decentred black social world in which no one group could monopolize cultural authority. As a result, it was a particularly fertile place for cultural experimentation”[6]

Introduction to the Harlem Renaissance


[1] George Hutchinson. "Harlem Renaissance (American Literature and Art)," Encyclopedia Britannica Online, <> (31 January 2013)

[2] “Harlem Renaissance,” Bio Classroom, 1996-2013 <> (2 February 2013).

[3] “Harlem Renaissance,” Bio Classroom, 1996-2013 <> (2 February 2013).

[4] George Hutchinson. "Harlem Renaissance (American Literature and Art)," Encyclopedia Britannica Online, <> (31 January 2013)

[5] “Harlem Renaissance,” Bio Classroom, 1996-2013 <> (2 February 2013).

[6] George Hutchinson. "Harlem Renaissance (American Literature and Art)," Encyclopedia Britannica Online, <> (31 January 2013)


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