African American Odyssey Introduction | Overview | Object List

Exhibit Sections:
Slavery | Free Blacks | Abolition | Civil War | Reconstruction
Booker T. Washington Era
| WWI-Post War | The Depression-WWII | Civil Rights Era |

World War I and Postwar Society

Part 1
Part 2: The Harlem Renaissance and the Flowering of Creativity

The Harlem Renaissance and the Flowering of Creativity

The Harlem Renaissance: Shuffle Along

In literature and the visual arts, the Harlem Renaissance--insofar as it can be defined--is described principally by a series of novels, books of poetry, paintings, and sculpture. Although African Americans wrote symphonies and sonatas in the period between the world wars, it was the nightclub music that seems to capture the period. The musical show Shuffle Along, which opened on May 23, 1921, and ran for over 500 performances, was written by Eubie Blake, with lyrics by Noble Sissle, and the book by the vaudeville team Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lines. Both Josephine Baker and Ethel Waters served in the chorus line. Paul Robeson was briefly in the cast as a member of a barbershop quartet. The libretto is open to the scene containing, "I'm Just Wild about Harry," the hit of the show.

Image: Caption follows

Eubie Blake.
Shuffle Along.
Lyrics by Noble Sissle.
Carbon copy of typescript by authors' typing service, [1922].
Music Division. (7-18)

Nella Larsen--Identity Crisis
James Allen.
"Nella Larsen."
Harmon Foundation Records, Manuscript Division. (7-14)

Born in 1891 in Chicago to a Danish mother and a West Indian father, Nella Larsen keenly sensed the difficulty of being a child of two worlds, especially after the death of her father and her mother's marriage to a Dane. Educated at Fisk University in Nashville, the University of Copenhagen, the Lincoln Hospital Training Program in New York, and the New York Public Library Training School, Larsen worked as a nurse and as a children's librarian but also wrote articles and novels including Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929). She received the Harmon Foundation Bronze Award in 1929.

To Make a Poet Black and Bid Him Sing

Countee Cullen was another gifted poet during the Harlem Renaissance. Adopted son of a New York Methodist minister and trained at New York University and Harvard, he was the author of several volumes of poetry, including Color (1925), The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927), and Copper Sun (1927). In this letter Cullen acknowledges the announcement that he was named the first recipient of the Harmon Foundation literature award for his volume, Color.

Image: Caption follows

Wingold Reiss.
A photograph of Wingold Reiss's drawing of Countee Cullen.
June 1, 1941.
Silver gelatin print.
Harmon Foundation Collection, Manuscript Division. (7-9)
Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

The Harmon Foundation--Providing Wings for the Artists
Countee Cullen to George H. Haynes, December 7, 1926.
Holograph letter.
Harmon Foundation Records, Manuscript Division. (7-10)
Courtesy of the Countee Cullen Papers
Amistad Research Center
Tulane University
New Orleans, LA

The Harmon Foundation, established by endowments in 1922, provided playgrounds throughout the country, tuition payments and vocational guidance for students, educational programs for nurses, and awards for "constructive achievements among Negroes." The areas of competition for monetary awards to African Americans included business, education, farming, fine arts, literature, music, race relations, religious service, and science. The nomination files for these awards provide a rich source of information about African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance period.

Marian Anderson--World-Famous Contralto

Like many African American artists, Marian Anderson, born in Philadelphia in 1902, achieved fame in Europe before doors of opportunity were opened in the U.S. In 1939 when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington, D. C., first lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her D.A.R. membership, and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes offered Anderson the use of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. She accepted and more than 75,000 people attended the event. Later in the year, when the NAACP awarded their Spingarn Medal to Anderson, Mrs. Roosevelt made the presentation. Anderson's concert and other assaults against unjust treatment of African American performers ultimately led to the lowering of barriers in the arts.

Image: Caption follows

[Marian Anderson receives the Spingarn Medal from Eleanor Roosevelt].
Silver gelatin print.
NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division. (8-12) Courtesy of the NAACP.

Harlem Renaissance--The Quest for Artistic Freedom
Langston Hughes.
"Ballad of Booker T."
Poem, second and final drafts, 1941.
Miscellaneous Manuscript Collection. Manuscript Division. (7-8)
Courtesy of Harold Ober Associates, New York, NY.

During the 1920s African American art and literature gained recognition as a significant component of world culture. Numerous people of color from the South and the Caribbean moved to Harlem in New York City, where the blending of cultures helped foster a flowering of the arts. Such a prodigious amount of poetry, novels, other literary writing, music, and art was produced during the era between the world wars that it is now known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Langston Hughes was one of the foremost and versatile writers of this talented group. Although Hughes was quite critical of Booker T. Washington's accommodationist philosophy, this poem also evinces his understanding of the circumstances under which Washington labored.

Multi-Talented Zora Neale Hurston
Alan Lomax.
[Zora Neale Hurston. Eatonville, Florida, 1935].
American Folklife Center. (7-12)

Zora Neale Hurston, born in Eatonville, Florida, was a writer, anthropologist, and folklorist who received her training at Morgan Academy in Baltimore, Howard University in Washington, and Barnard College and Columbia University in New York. Included among Hurstons many writings are three novels, Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), and Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939), and an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942). Some of the materials Hurston collected as a folklorist are included in the Library's motion picture, photographic, manuscript, and sound recording archives.

Death Sentences in Scottsboro, Alabama
Prentiss Taylor.
Scottsboro Limited,
(Rose and Quiroz, no. 7)
inscribed for Langston Hughes, November 1931.
Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-4717 (8-18)
Courtesy of Roderick S. Quiroz.

In 1931 nine young black males, one of whom was only fourteen years old, were convicted of raping two white females in a freight train passing through Alabama. Eight of them were sentenced to death. At the trial in Scottsboro, Alabama, the black youths declared their innocence. The case generated much national and international attention. Several years later, after numerous legal battles, the courts reversed the convictions against the men. Scottsboro Limited includes four poems protesting the treatment of the group widely known as the "Scottsboro Boys," and a play in verse by Langston Hughes, with illustrations by Prentiss Taylor, a white artist.

World War I and Postwar Society:   Part 1 | Part 2

Exhibit Sections:
Slavery | Free Blacks | Abolition | Civil War | Reconstruction
Booker T. Washington Era
| WWI-Post War | The Depression-WWII | Civil Rights Era |

African American Odyssey Introduction | Overview | Object List