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已有 1421 次阅读2023-2-2 10:54 |个人分类:US|系统分类:转帖-知识

The world above 110th Street, from Marcus Garvey to Madam C. J. Walker.
When some nineteenth-century New Yorkers said “Harlem,” they meant almost all of Manhattan above Eighty-sixth Street. Toward the end of the century, however, a group of citizens in upper Manhattan—wanting, perhaps, to shape a closer and more precise sense of community—designated a section that they wished to have known as Harlem. The chosen area was to be bordered on the north by 155th Street, on the south by 110th Street, on the west by Morningside Drive and St. Nicholas Avenue, and on the east by the East River. This was the Harlem to which blacks were moving in the first decades of the new century as they left their old tenements and settlements on the middle and lower blocks of the West Side.

By 1930, most of Harlem’s white population had fled, and blacks inhabited virtually the entire district. “The old Harlem is dead,” a former white resident lamented in the mid-twenties. “I lived there all my life until not long ago, when I was squeezed out by the Negro population invading the old section. All the Gemütlichkeit of it is gone. Gone are the comfortable Weinstuben where one could smoke his pipe and peacefully drink his glass of Rhine wine. Gone is the old Liedertafel and the hundred-and-one social organizations, and the Turnvereine and the singing clubs where one could pass the evening peacefully. They have all moved elsewhere, and the new places do not have the atmosphere of the old ones. . . . It used to be so pleasant to pass a Harlem street on a summer evening. The young ladies were accompanying their Lieder with the twanging of the soft zither, and the stirring robust melodies from the Lutheran churches used to fill the air on a Sunday. It is all gone now.” And in a 1929 issue of The New Yorker Arthur Gerald Goldberg, an old resident of Harlem, wrote of his childhood in the district:

I can remember, back in the fabulous golden nineties, when Harlem was neither Negro nor Italian. . . .

Harlem had a social life all its own. Our parents, I suppose, used to go downtown occasionally, but my recollection is that there was a self-sufficiency to our life up there that made us somewhat independent of the rest of the city. When my mother went shopping she used to go to Koch’s in 125th Street, Harlem’s main business thoroughfare. When we went to the theatre we would go to Hammerstein’s Columbus Theatre in 125th Street near Park Avenue, or to the magnificent Harlem Opera House.

I still believe that the Harlem Opera House was the handsomest theatre in New York City. It had a large gilded foyer, the like of which is not seen nowadays, in which the Harlem elite would stroll between the acts. Harlemites used to subscribe for Monday night seats much as their more aristocratic neighbors downtown did for the opera. I saw everything there: Irving in “The Bells,” Joseph Jefferson in “Rip Van Winkle,” Stuart Robson in “A Comedy of Errors,” Mansfield in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “Beau Brummel”—“San Toy,” “The Geisha,” “The Runaway Girl,” the Bostonians in “Robin Hood”—those were the days!

After the show we would go over to the Harlem Casino and watch our parents drink genuine Pilsner beer while we were allowed the luxury of lemonade or ginger ale. These places are dim, almost forgotten names to me now, the Harlem Casino, Hollanders’, and, years later, Pabst’s.

On Sunday morning my father took me driving up Seventh Avenue, past farms and rocky shanty-covered cliffs, across Macomb’s Dam Bridge to Jerome Avenue, where we would watch the trotting races. Then we would drop in to Huber’s Road House. . . .

That was Harlem—the vanished Harlem of the pleasant, placid nineties.

As the community became predominantly black, the very word “Harlem” seemed to lose its old meaning. At times, it was easy to forget that “Harlem” was originally the Dutch name “Haarlem;” that the community it described had been founded by people from Holland; and that for most of its three centuries—it was first settled in the sixteen-hundreds—it had been occupied by white New Yorkers. “Harlem” became synonymous with black life and black style in Manhattan. Blacks living there used the word as though they had coined it themselves—not only to designate their area of residence but to express their sense of the various qualities of its life and atmosphere. As the years passed, “Harlem” assumed an even larger meaning. In the words of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Harlem “became the symbol of liberty and the Promised Land to Negroes everywhere.” In August of 1925, a writer for The Saturday Evening Post reported, “Harlem . . . draws immigrants from every country in the world that has a colored population, either large or small. . . . Ambitious and talented colored youth on every continent look forward to reaching Harlem. It is the Mecca for all those who seek Opportunity with a capital O.” The sight of Harlem, said a black novelist in the nineteen-twenties, “gives any Negro security.” And in 1930 Eslanda Goode Robeson wrote, in a biography of her husband, Paul Robeson, “Only Negroes belong in Harlem. . . . it is a place they can call home.”

A “Promised Land to Negroes everywhere” was bound, in time, to become overcrowded; and this squeeze occurred during the nineteen-thirties, when it seemed as though blacks from every part of the country and every part of the globe were living there. “The most populous city block in the United States and probably in the world is bounded by Seventh and Lenox Avenues and 142nd and 143rd Streets,” A. J. Liebling wrote in 1937. “For number of human beings to the cubic foot, the block in Harlem is without a serious rival.” As the black population spilled across one or two of the borders that had been defined by those former white residents—as it extended west, across Morningside Drive and St. Nicholas Avenue, and north, toward Washington Heights—people began to say that Harlem was spreading. This only meant, of course, that blacks were moving into areas that were previously all white, and into sections of Washington Heights, west of Amsterdam Avenue, that were not formally regarded as being parts of Harlem. As a black businessman said in 1920, “the natural boundaries of Harlem will be the limits of Negro property expansion.” In other words, Harlem would be almost any place uptown, above 110th Street, where there were noticeable concentrations of blacks. This remained true as late as 1966. That year, the novelist Ralph Ellison—a native of Oklahoma who moved to Manhattan in 1936—appeared before a congressional committee, and he began his testimony by saying, “I live in New York City, on Riverside Drive at 150th Street. It isn’t exactly Harlem, but Harlem has a way of expanding. It goes where Negroes go, or where we go in certain numbers. So some of us think of it as Harlem, though it is really Washington Heights.”

In 1911, Harlem was still a good way from being all black. Negroes then lived in a relatively small section—on various blocks from 130th to 140th Streets between Fifth and Seventh Avenues. Much of the area east of Fifth, and as far south as 110th Street, was called East Harlem, and was occupied mostly by Italian and Jewish immigrants. Years later, it became one of the main centers of Manhattan’s Hispanic community. The small black section in central Harlem shortly before the First World War was generally described as the black belt—especially by whites who still hoped that it could be kept from expanding. They hoped in vain.

The success of men like John M. Royall, John E. Nail, Philip A. Payton, Jr., and Henry C. Parker—black real-estate brokers who prospered from having opened the gates of Harlem to blacks—fathered a host of black real-estate agents, who exploited and accelerated the movement uptown. Between 1911 and 1922, almost all the major black churches moved to Harlem. So did social and theatrical clubs; college fraternities and sororities; the black Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A.; black Democratic and Republican politicians and their clubhouses; and black branches of such fraternal organizations as the Masons, the Elks, the Pythians, and the Oddfellows. Migrants from the South and other parts of America streamed in, as did thousands from the West Indies, Africa, and Latin America. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League, and Socialist and black nationalist organizations opened offices in Harlem. Major black newspapers—notably the Age and the Amsterdam News—moved their plants and editorial offices to the district. Along with them came such leading black journalists as Fred R. Moore, Jerome B. Petersen, George Harris, T. Thomas Fortune, James Weldon Johnson, Lester Walton, and William Melvin Kelly, Sr. Musicians, actors, popular entertainers of all sorts, lawyers, doctors, preachers, and businessmen moved uptown to live and work.


As whites surrendered to the “invasion” and gradually abandoned Harlem for areas more to their liking, the black belt broadened further. In 1914, according to the historian Gilbert Osofsky, “Negroes lived in some 1,100 houses within a twenty-three block area of Harlem.” He was using figures from a National Urban League survey, which estimated the black population to be nearly fifty thousand. That year, the magazine The Outlook, in an article titled “A Negro City in New York,” carried this report:

In one district in New York City a Negro population equal in numbers to the inhabitants of Dallas, Texas, or Springfield, Massachusetts, lives, works, and pursues its ideals almost as a separate entity from the great surrounding metropolis. Here Negro merchants ply their trade; Negro professional men follow their various vocations; their children are educated; the poor, sick, and orphan of the race are cared for; churches, newspaper, and banks flourish heedless of those, outside this Negro community, who resent its presence in a white city. . . .

If one stands at the corner of One Hundred and Thirty-fifth Street and Fifth Avenue, in four directions can be seen rows of apartments or flat houses all inhabited by Negroes. This is eventually the center of the community. The houses are in good repair; windows, entrances, halls, sidewalks, and streets are clean, and the houses comfortable and respectable inside to a degree not often found in a workingman’s locality. The ground floor of the buildings in every case is occupied by a store or business office. Here and there one sees the name of some Nationally known firm whose agent, always a Negro, has opened a branch business among the people of his own race.

The Age was then one of the oldest and certainly the largest of the black newspapers in New York City. (Founded as the Rumor, it had later been renamed the Globe and then the Freeman before becoming the Age.) Possibly, it was the largest journal of its kind in the country, for it called itself “The National Negro Weekly.” It was also one of the main forces behind the growth of a black community in Harlem. In 1914, the Age had not yet moved uptown—it did so in 1919—but from its offices, at 247 West Forty-sixth Street, in the Tenderloin district, it had been calling Negro attention to the new frontier of Harlem, running almost all the real-estate advertising aimed at blacks, lecturing them on the advantages of building a fine neighborhood of their own, and training a severe eye on all forms of conduct that it deemed harmful to the kind of community it wished to see develop. When the Age urged its readers to look to the wonderful opportunities that Harlem presented, it was not addressing the common people. It spoke to ordinary blacks only when it was displeased or embarrassed by aspects of their conduct—as when, in June of 1910, the paper declared itself “mortified” by the news that immoral people were moving into apartments and tenements in Harlem. They “should be driven out by whatever means necessary,” the paper said, and it went on to denounce the amount of loitering, loud and vulgar talk, and “skylarking and other disgusting amateur athletics” that took place on street corners. Such behavior, the Age said, “hurts the race.”

The Age appears to have been written chiefly for those blacks who were being “hurt” by the conduct it criticized—the people it liked to call “the better element of the race.” These were the professionals, the businessmen, the conspicuous achievers, and others of exemplary social, moral, and religious background. One of its readers wrote to the editor in October of 1912, “The New York Age . . . finds men of value in the great heaps scattered all about us; it recognizes ability; it crowns merit; it contends that only the highest and the best in our civilization shall be given prominence, and never falters to do honor to the men who can do things honorably.” It was mainly to such people that the Age was speaking when it encouraged blacks to migrate to Harlem—when it promoted Harlem as a sedate community of homes and “a gold mine” for enterprising black professionals and businessmen. As such, the paper represented one of the prevailing tendencies in the black cultural and political leadership of that era. The Age, conservative and Republican, was one of the major Northern advocates of Booker T. Washington’s practical programs for black self-reliance and economic progress—or “uplift,” a term that was then commonly used. Washington, who until 1915, the year of his death, was the nation’s most powerful black Republican, was a shareholder in the Age—although Fred R. Moore, its editor, did not wish the fact to be publicly known. The paper made no attempt, however, to conceal its enthusiasm for Washington and his policies. “The Age,” it said of itself in 1923, “has always believed with Booker T. Washington that the future development of the race is in large measure dependent upon economic development of the individual, and for this reason has given much space in its news and editorial columns to the need of business development within the race. . . . It has never been a sensational paper, and believes in cleanliness and accuracy. . . . It numbers among its subscribers and readers the better element of the race.”


Moore, a self-made man, was a good example of the old-style newspaper editor, full of fight, right-mindedness, and stern Victorian sermons. But he was primarily a businessman, excited by dividends and other results of efficient management. Light-skinned, and of medium height and build, he was born in Virginia in 1857 and grew up in Washington, D.C., where, as a young man, he worked as a messenger in the Treasury Department. On moving to New York around 1888, he worked as a messenger in the Western National Bank and then as a delivery clerk for the New York Clearing House. In 1893, he turned to real estate, and founded the Afro-American Investment & Building Company. In this position, he displayed abilities that caught the eye of Booker T. Washington, who appointed him an organizer of the National Negro Business League, which Washington formed in 1900 to encourage commercial enterprise among blacks. Moore, who had been a student of Washington’s philosophy for some time, could hardly have been better suited to his new job. Blacks must “learn to value money and study thoroughly the plan of investment,” he told a convention of the Business League in 1904. Three years later, in partnership with Washington, Moore acquired control of the Age from T. Thomas Fortune, its founding editor.


Two-Spirit: A Trans Woman’s Struggle for Acceptance

Moore and the Age were not alone in advocating business enterprise among blacks in Harlem. Clergymen—and Moore might so easily have been one—also preached the gospel of investment and profit. In October of 1912, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., urged members of his Abyssinian Baptist congregation to “go into business on a larger scale in Harlem.” Powell “produced figures showing that $4,500,000 is spent in the Harlem district for food, clothes, and shoes alone, twenty per cent of which . . . is profit,” the Age said. “Dr. Powell stated that no race can ever become rich by saving its money.” To some degree, the appeals to Negro business enterprise were successful. In 1914, as The Outlook reported that year, several black professionals and entrepreneurs were operating in Harlem. On West 135th Street, George Harris, who was a graduate of Harvard, and later became the first black alderman elected from Harlem, edited the News, a weekly paper he had founded. Its staff of twelve included graduates of Dartmouth and the University of Chicago. There were twenty physicians, fifteen lawyers, eight dentists, twenty-five registered nurses, four pharmacists, and two architects in the black community. “From the juncture of One Hundred and Thirty-fifth Street and Fifth Avenue can be seen the business signs of Negroes and Negro firms whose holdings and interests reach an aggregate of four million dollars,” the magazine said. But there was less to the picture than met the eye. A number of the “business signs of Negroes and Negro firms” were just signs, for though such businesses may have been run by blacks, they were in fact owned by whites. In 1916, the Age reported, there were a hundred and forty-five businesses on the Negro stretch of Lenox Avenue, only twenty-three per cent of them owned and operated by blacks. The percentage increased gradually, however, and in 1921 the Age was able to report that “about eighty per cent” of the businesses on 135th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues were owned by blacks. Though the early black-owned businesses were small in size and number, never before had so many of them sprung up in any one section of Manhattan. Along 135th Street (from Fifth to Seventh Avenues) and Lenox Avenue (from 130th to 140th Streets), there were grocery stores, meat markets, restaurants, bakeries, and candy and cigar stores; barber shops, beauty parlors, dress and shoe shops, tailor shops, drugstores, and real-estate and employment agencies; furniture movers, ice-coal-and-wood dealers, small hotels, laundries, and whitewashing and calcimining outfits. In 1920, three of the larger businesses were the Verbena Perfumery Company, on Lenox Avenue, which exported to Central America and the West Indies; the Lafayette Dress Company, on Seventh Avenue; and Thomas & Thomas, on 135th Street, which imported cocoa, nutmeg, cinnamon, sarsaparilla bark, and other spices from the West Indies.

The leaders of the church and the press who had urged blacks to open businesses in Harlem, as a means of advancing themselves and the cause of the race generally, had neglected to appeal to black customers for their support. That was a mistake. Several black businesses offered services that could not be obtained elsewhere in Harlem. But wherever black customers had a choice a considerable number of them turned to white establishments, even when—as was often the case—such establishments did not welcome their patronage. A Harlem newspaper reported at one stage, “Many of the white businessmen boast of the fact that Negroes will support their businesses whether they are discriminated against or not, and although some of the drygoods merchants on 7th and 8th Avenues receive the bulk of their business from the colored customers, they often tell advertising solicitors from the colored papers that they are not interested in colored trade and want no more of it than they now have.” One black resident noted in 1914 that every nationality was “making money out of Negroes in Harlem—except Negroes.”

Various reasons were given for this circumstance. “One great handicap is that our people have never been accustomed to trading with Negro merchants,” the president of the Colored Men’s Business Association said in 1916. “That has created a prejudice which it is hard to overcome. There are many loyal and truehearted race men and women who would give their custom to Negro merchants, but it never occurs to them that a race merchant can supply their needs.” But black customers had reasons of their own for dealing with white businessmen. “In patronizing the Negro merchant,” one of them said, “we often have to accept an article different from the kind wanted . . . his stock is not complete, and in most cases we are simply informed that the article wanted is not in stock and no effort is made to cater to the prospective customer by securing it.” Another customer felt that “the Negro merchant does not appreciate our trade,” and explained, “He seems to think that simply because he is a Negro all Negroes must trade with him, and he becomes rude and insulting if you are not satisfied with his attitude.” A third said, “I am willing to patronize Negro merchants, even to the extent of paying a few cents more than the same article would cost elsewhere; but he has no conception of the courtesy due customers, and in most cases he is absolutely unreliable in fulfilling his promises, especially of delivery.”

The Harlem that black clergymen and editorial writers envisioned—a sedate, industrious, and morally upright community of businesses and homes—was not wholly the one that took shape. Along with businessmen, professionals, and other “better” elements of the race, there migrated to Harlem much of the vice and crime from the Tenderloin and San Juan Hill districts downtown, where the majority of blacks had been living. In April of 1911, when the “unwelcome” elements in Harlem were increasing, the Age devoted two editorials to the subject, both titled “Clean ’Em Out.” The first said:

Street-walking women and the animals that live upon their dirty money and boldly loaf in the path of good people must go. And decent people who harbor low characters and sustain their crimes, they must go. . . .


Take Harlem. What could be made the ideal city of law-abiding, frugal, industrious, decent Negroes, is infested by the dance-hall harlot and the diamond-decked lover. . . .

Information reaches us that one of the notorious sporting-house keepers in this city, whose houses are already places of shame, seeks to lease a beautiful private house in a recently acquired block in Harlem for “hotel” purposes. . . .

We seek no unnecessary struggle. We seek no fame. We seek no title of reformer, but we do set our sign against the effrontery of vice and the insolence of crime.

The second editorial, a week later, said:

The princes of shame . . . boldly unfurled their banner . . . marching in triumph from the deserted Tenderloin to Harlem, there to parade, unafraid, in the highways.

Our seeming deeper concern for Harlem is due to a desire to check the spread of evil in that section. . . . Harlem must be saved, because Harlem, an important section of it, is to be always the center of the colored population of our city. Our churches will someday be planted there. The home-owners are already there, and thousands of good people have taken apartments there. . . . The children are there, the business houses are there. The social workers are there. Therefore, Harlem is worth fighting for. It deserves the jealous protection of all good men.

A month earlier, the Harlem Home News, a white publication, observed that “Harlem is evidently the burglar’s as well as the holdup man’s ‘meal ticket.’ ” The paper did not disclose the racial identity of any specific offenders, but there may have been a clue in what it quoted a white resident as saying: “I favor lynching the scamps.” An investigator employed by the National League for the Protection of Colored Women found in 1911 that black street gangs were springing up in Harlem—“organized for the defense of the colored boys against similar gangs of poor white boys.” These gangs went by names like the Harlem Rats, the Harlem Black Devils, the Broad Shoulders and Caps, and the Harlem Hoboes.

Saloons were among the “unwelcome” elements that accompanied the migration from the black Tenderloin to Harlem. Though Harlem had always had some saloons, they multiplied when the black “invasion” began. Blacks were opening saloons of their own, and, to exploit the growing black trade, more whites than before were entering the saloon business. In 1914, the Age noted that Harlem was “infested” with saloons and that they prospered by catering chiefly to blacks. A year later, Eugene Kinckle Jones, a leading official of the National Urban League, estimated that there were ninety-eight saloons and liquor stores in Harlem. It was bad enough that there were so many of them—doing business even on Sundays—but they also served women, and this, in the minds of community leaders, was the worst aspect of the liquor trade.

Black saloonkeepers had more than moral censure to worry about: their drinking places were not doing nearly as well as the white-owned ones, for, as the white saloonkeepers and other white businessmen discovered, many black customers preferred to spend their money in white establishments. One of the few black saloons that did well among black patrons was Barron Wilkins’ Astoria Café, on 134th Street at Seventh Avenue. John W. Connor, who ran an ailing business at the Royal Café, on West 135th Street, was heard to complain, “If those who drink liquor would only visit colored saloons in large numbers as they do white saloons, the colored saloon men would soon be in a position to compete with any bar in New York. They say we do not carry this brand or that brand; neither did some of the white saloons in the beginning. But colored people, in buying from their own people, do not seem to be as lenient and patient as with the white tradesmen. . . . Today I can show you saloon after saloon in Harlem where colored men congregate in large numbers all day, and only a few years ago the Negro’s money was not wanted under any circumstances. But as soon as the proprietors of these places found it would be necessary to cater to the colored people to make money . . . Negroes forgot all about past discriminations. . . . The colored barbershops are loyally supported, but I should hate to see Italians open barbershops for colored in Harlem. You would find them crowded with Negroes.” To stimulate business, black saloonkeepers began offering nonalcoholic inducements to potential customers. Reorganizing their establishments, they set aside special rooms where groups were invited to gather for small social affairs, sip light beverages, and listen to music—an innovation that evolved gradually into the great Harlem cabarets of later years. In 1914, Connor announced that in the afternoons and evenings, from two to eight, his Royal Café would be serving tea and cocoa, and patrons would be entertained with ragtime music. These affairs were called afternoon teas, and were so successful that other saloons began presenting them as well. The Harlem branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was said to be jubilant at this sober turn of events.


Not long after Connor introduced his afternoon teas, Barron Wilkins took the experiment a step further. At his Astoria Café, he began presenting tango teas, which were livelier than the afternoon teas. Guests were free to sip, chat, and listen to music, if that was all they cared to do, but if they were inclined to try more active forms of enjoyment they were welcome to take a turn on the dance floor, where professionals had been hired to demonstrate and teach one of the latest dances, the tango. Although the beverages remained nonalcoholic, the ladies of the Temperance Union cannot have been pleased with the new arrangement; they must surely have felt that wherever popular dancing appeared liquor was not far behind. In fact, considering where the tango teas were being held—in the side rooms of saloons and cafés—liquor was virtually there already.

Tango teas, which spread to other drinking places, gave employment to a number of up-and-coming black performers. In 1914, the young Goldie Cisco—who in 1921 danced in the chorus line of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle’s all-black Broadway musical “Shuffle Along”—was one of those who demonstrated the tango at Barron Wilkins’ café. At Leroy’s Café—which was on West 135th Street, and was owned by Leroy Wilkins (a brother of Barron Wilkins)—Mamie Sharp, a popular song stylist of the period, was to be heard singing “I’m Crazy About My Tango Man.” And on other tango evenings, in other cafés, other vocalists were to be heard in renditions of “That’s Why I’m Loving Someone Else Today,” “When You Play in the Game of Love,” “Back to the Carolina You Love,” and “Every Girl Is My Girl.”

Tango teas were only one of the symptoms of Harlem’s infatuation with the tango. Dance fans were flocking to the Palace Casino, at 135th Street just off Fifth Avenue, and the Manhattan Casino (later renamed the Rockland Palace), at 155th Street and Eighth Avenue, to attend tango picnics, tango contests, and tango balls. New York, in a heady prewar fling, was embracing what were called “modern” dances. Especially among white socialites downtown, these dances were replacing the old polka, schottische, and cakewalk. And what was true of white socialites downtown was true of black ones uptown as well. But among the masses of Harlem the tango was more of a fad—a fashionable diversion, or classy respite, from such animated and risqué rhythms of the popular dance floor as the black bottom, the grizzly bear, the eagle rock, the turkey trot, the bunny hug, the Texas Tommy, scratchin’ the gravel, and ballin’ the jack. It was to these that the decorous, white citizens of Harlem were referring when they used the term “nigger” dances. Willie (the Lion) Smith, one of the pioneering jazz pianists of Harlem, recalled several years later, “Some of these dances were pretty wild. They called them ‘hug me close,’ ‘the shiver,’ ‘hump-back rag’ . . . ‘the lovers’ walk.’ These were just some of the frantic dances that were beginning to replace the dignified cakewalking struts.” The masses of Harlem took to the tango partly because it was new, partly because they liked its association with high society, partly because they realized that black musicians had contributed something to its development and popularity, and partly, no doubt, because they wished to show that they, too, were capable of meeting its demand for controlled and elegant movement at a quick tempo.

Today, the dance steps that the masses once preferred may be as extinct as the cakewalk, the polka, and the schottische. They survive mainly in the heads of people, now quite old, who used to dance them or in the history books of popular dancing. In one of these books—“Jazz Dance,” by Marshall and Jean Stearns—the turkey trot is described as “a fast, marching one-step, arms pumping at the side, with occasional arm flappings emulating a crazed turkey.” Of the Texas Tommy, another book—“Dancing and Dancers of Today,” by Caroline and Charles Caffin—says, “Dancers are perhaps more acrobatic than eccentric . . . the whirl which spins his partner towards the footlights with such momentum that without aid she must assuredly fly across them, must be nicely adjusted so that in neither force nor direction shall she escape the restraining grasp of his hand outstretched just at the right moment to arrest her.” (From this description, the Texas Tommy seems to have prefigured the Lindy Hop, which was invented in Harlem in the late nineteen-twenties, and was one of the most famous dance steps associated with the history of the community. In fact, according to Ethel Williams, a black performer who did both dances, the Texas Tommy “was like the Lindy.”)

A number of the vernacular steps that the black masses favored were also popular in the clubs and cabarets of downtown Manhattan, where the prewar “modern” dances enjoyed their strongest vogue. The meeting of these cultural styles and their impact on the social conventions of the period are described by Lloyd Morris in his book “Incredible New York”:

In a cabaret, little tables were massed around a large central space, where a show was put on by singers and teams of professional dancers, and where the patrons also danced. No matter where you went, you saw couples leaving their tables, their food and champagne to push onto the dance floor. There, locked in a tight embrace, they moved through the startling figures of the Texas Tommy, the bunny hug, the grizzly bear, the turkey trot, the one-step, or the tango. Never before had well-bred people seen—much less performed—such flagrantly salacious contortions. Yet, as a popular song declared, “everybody’s doing it. . . .”


The cabarets and the scandalous “modern dances” set off a hurricane of protest. Outraged conservatives, clergymen, educators, social workers, editors of newspapers joined in a massive attack. They were stirred to wrath by “vice,” by “immorality,” openly condoned and participated in by New York’s “best people.”. . . Few of these enraged protesters foresaw that the new night life and the new dances were to help bring about a revolution in morals, manners, fashions in clothes, social customs. . . . At all the cabarets you saw lines of men and women, in full evening attire, held back by a velvet rope and a stern head waiter who was busily checking their names against his list of advance reservations. . . . You heard “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” wherever you went, and its snappy rhythm made you want to shake your shoulders and your feet.

Negro syncopation—the music as well as the men who played it—had no small influence on the evolution of styles that was taking place in prewar Manhattan, or on the early development of Irving Berlin, the composer of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” It was from black stage shows that some of the lively dance steps had found their way into white cabarets. One of these shows was “Darktown Follies,” which opened at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem in 1913. The production, James Weldon Johnson wrote some time later, “drew space, headlines, and cartoons in the New York papers; and consequently it became the vogue to go to Harlem to see it . . . the beginning of the nightly migration to Harlem in search of entertainment.” One of those who went up to Harlem to see “Darktown Follies” was Florenz Ziegfeld, and, impressed by the production, he bought the rights to part of the show in order to use it in his downtown Follies. What chiefly captured Ziegfeld’s fancy was a number titled “At the Ball,” in which the entire cast appeared and danced a rousing version of ballin’ the jack. Ethel Williams, one of the stars, said later, “I’d ‘ball the jack’ on the end of the line every way you could think of—and when the curtain came down I’d put my hand out from behind the curtain and ‘ball the jack’ with my fingers.”

The moral spokesmen for the black community were as severely outraged by the dance craze as were those in the rest of Manhattan. “The Negro race is dancing itself to death,” Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., said in 1914. “You can see the effect of the tango, the Chicago, the turkey trot, the Texas Tommy, and ragtime music not only in their conversations but in the movement of their bodies about the home and on the street. Grace and modesty are becoming rare virtues.” These virtues were very much on the mind of the Age two years later, when it commented on women entertainers who were “extremely careless about their attitudes and actions in dancing” and men who were “equally careless as to the character and nature of the songs they sang.”

The leaders of the “modern”-dance movement in Manhattan—especially among the ballroom and parlor set—were a white couple, Vernon and Irene Castle. As the Texas Tommy prefigured the Lindy Hop, so the Castles, especially Irene, foreshadowed the gaiety and social mutinies of the jazz age. According to Lloyd Morris, the Castles “transformed the dance craze from a transient mania into a permanent element of American civilization.” In “Incredible New York” the author continues:

The Castles were not only national idols, but national arbiters of etiquette. You went to study them at their small, smart supper room, Sans Souci, or at Castles in the Air, a cabaret where they danced once every evening. . . . The cult of joy was a serious matter, and it involved the elderly and middle-aged as well as the young. . . . Meanwhile, dainty Irene Castle was setting sartorial fashion. Because Castle dances were mildly acrobatic, she had bobbed her hair, replaced unyielding corsets by an elastic girdle, substituted silk bloomers and a slip for petticoats, adopted short, light, flowing frocks. Imitated on Fifth and Park Avenues, these radical innovations soon produced a nationwide revolution in feminine attire. The final collapse of a whaleboned morality was signalized by “the new lingerie, in which everything is combined in one garment, easily slipped on.” And—as the wild younger generation soon discovered—just as easily slipped off.

The orchestra of James Reese Europe, the best-known of the black bands in New York, was almost the only one that the Castles danced to—at Harlem’s Manhattan Casino, in the clubs and cabarets downtown, at society balls, or on extended tours of the United States. The partnership was mutually profitable: the Castles attracted as much attention to Europe’s orchestra as they gained from dancing to it. Europe not only played the Castles’ favorite music, he also wrote much of it—compositions like the innovation trot, the lame-duck waltz, the half and half, the Castle-house rag, the Castle walk, and the foxtrot (the last arranged from a composition by W. C. Handy). Europe’s music, Irene Castle said near the end of her career, “was the only music that completely made me forget the effort of the dance.”


The orchestra was then called the Tempo Club, an offshoot of the Clef Club, which Europe founded in 1910. Noble Sissle, who joined the group in 1916, once said that James Europe was “the Duke Ellington of his time.” In March of 1914, the Evening Post called him “one of the most remarkable men, not only of his race, but in the music world of this country.” Though Europe was not the handsome and urbane figure that Ellington was, he did have a striking appearance. He was strongly built, often sported a white suit and white shoes, and, wearing small, round, wire-framed glasses, had the look of a starchy rural schoolmaster—grave, studious, businesslike, and censorious. Irene Castle thought he was “a very commanding figure when he faced his men.”

Like many of the successful and influential blacks then living in Manhattan, Europe was not a native New Yorker. He was born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1881, and grew up in Washington, D.C. He studied the violin under Enrico Hurlei, an assistant director of the United States Marine Band, and in 1904 he moved to New York and settled on the West Side. There he played and conducted for some of the popular black musical comedies of the time and was a member of a black vaudeville élite that gathered at the Marshall Hotel, on West Fifty-third Street.

On West Fifty-third, in a building opposite the Marshall, Europe formed the Clef Club, an organization of New York musicians. (Noble Sissle, who knew a number of the original Clef Club men, said they “were wonderful musicians and singers, but very few of them read music.” A writer in Harlem was to wonder why Europe had given the name Clef Club to “a musical association of colored men who could not read notes.”) In 1910, when Europe founded the club, he wanted merely to provide a central hiring place for the black musicians of the city. They were then badly disorganized and were poorly paid by the ballrooms, hotels, restaurants, clubs, and private families that hired them from time to time. Calls for their services would be sent in to various barbershops, saloons, and poolrooms of the Tenderloin, where their names were well known. The Clef Club not only served as a main booking office for these musicians but also fixed the contractual terms of their work.

From among those who registered, Europe picked the men who made up his Clef Club Orchestra, a pioneering big band and the most remarkable group of its kind that New York had yet seen. Of its first public performance, at Harlem’s Manhattan Casino, in 1910, the Age’s theatre critic wrote, “Never has such a large and efficient body of colored musicians appeared together in New York City in a concert . . . nearly one hundred in all.” A flyer advertising another concert, also at the Manhattan Casino, listed almost a hundred and fifty instruments. They included fifty mandolins, thirty harp guitars, ten banjos, twenty violins, a saxophone, ten cellos, five clarinets, five flutes, five bass violins, three timpani and drums, two organs, and ten pianos. In 1913, in a concert that brought ragtime to Carnegie Hall, the Clef Club drew these raves from the magazine The Craftsman:

Few white people had ever heard of the orchestra . . . a band of a hundred and twenty-five members . . . this concert really formed an epoch in the musical life of the Negro and also in the development of Negro music. . . .

It was an astonishing sight . . . that filled the entire stage with banjos . . . eloquent in syncopation. . . . As one looked through the audience, one saw heads swaying and feet tapping in time to the . . . rhythm, and when the march neared the end and the whole band burst out singing as well as playing, the novelty of this climax . . . brought a very storm of tumultuous applause.

In 1914, when certain conflicts developed among the Clef Club’s membership, Europe resigned as leader and organized a smaller orchestra, which he called the Tempo Club. This was the group to which the Castles danced, and which entertained some of New York’s and America’s richest families.

Just as Duke Ellington later hesitated to describe his music as jazz, James Reese Europe had an aversion to the term “ragtime.” He preferred to say he played “syncopated rhythms” or “the music of the American Negro.” In 1909, when the Age quoted John Philip Sousa as saying that ragtime was dead, Europe replied that “there never was any such music as ragtime.” That term, he said, was “merely a nickname or a fun-name given to Negro rhythm by our Caucasian brother musicians many years ago.” Whether this was so or not, Europe was among the few black musicians of his time who shunned the word “ragtime.” His dislike for it may have been influenced by his background. He came from a household of classically trained musicians and from a section of the black middle class that strove to gain the highest standing for black cultural endeavors. To such people, the word “ragtime” was low-life in sound and meaning, and tended to relegate the music it described to an inferior status. They also felt that blacks who consented to the use of such a word were, however unwittingly, lending support to the view, widely held among whites, that no art form springing from black life was worthy of critical esteem.

As far as is known, Scott Joplin, the greatest of all ragtime artists, did not object to the use of the term. What he did object to were the lyrics of most ragtime songs. Joplin thought of them as vulgar, as preventing serious and respectable audiences from appreciating the true merits of the music itself. Some of his own classic compositions—“Maple Leaf Rag,” “Pineapple Rag,” “The Entertainer,” and “Euphonic Sounds”—had, along with compositions by James Scott and Joseph Lamb, helped to raise ragtime music in public esteem, though not high enough, apparently. Joplin, who is generally said to have been born in Texarkana, Texas, in 1868 (other sources give his birthplace as either Texarkana, Arkansas, or Marshall, Texas), moved to Manhattan during the first decade of the century. He then settled on the West Side, near the music-publishing district. A number of his famous pieces were released by John Stark, one of the leading promoters of ragtime music, whose publishing house was in the area. In 1915, Joplin joined the migration to Harlem, where he lived on West 131st Street. Two years earlier, speaking to a reporter from the Age, he had deplored the crudely worded ragtime songs that were still being written:

I have often sat in theatres and listened to beautiful ragtime melodies set to almost vulgar words . . . and I have wondered why some composers will continue to make people hate ragtime because the melodies are set to such bad words.

I have often heard people say, after they had heard a ragtime song, “I like the music but I don’t like the words.”. . .

If someone were to put vulgar words to a strain of one of Beethoven’s beautiful symphonies, people would begin saying, “I don’t like Beethoven’s symphonies.” So it is the unwholesome words and not the ragtime melodies that many people hate.

Ragtime rhythm is a syncopation original with the colored people, though many of them are ashamed of it. But the other races throughout the world are learning to write and make use of ragtime melodies. It is the rage in England today. When composers put decent words to ragtime there will be very little kicking from the public about ragtime.


Joplin had an especially urgent reason for praising the finer possibilities of ragtime. He had recently completed the most ambitious work of his life—“Treemonisha,” a folk opera (Joplin insisted it was grand opera) in syncopated rhythm. “Treemonisha” contained a number of lovely melodies, with some of the most “decent words” that had yet been set to syncopated music, and Joplin did not wish his opera to be associated with the worst connotations of the word “ragtime.” “I am a composer of ragtime music,” he told a journalist in Harlem, “but I want it thoroughly understood that my opera ‘Treemonisha’ is not ragtime . . . the score complete is grand opera.”

But “Treemonisha” was already being hurt by the prejudices he feared. Even before he settled in Harlem—where his wife, Lottie, ran a boarding house to help support the family—Joplin had been trying to attract serious public attention to his opera. The public, however—or, at any rate, the entrepreneurs of music and theatre—had dismissed it as a work of no serious merit. No music house cared to publish it, and no producer wanted to stage it. All of those who heard about it may have shared the feeling of a black journalist who—upon hearing, in 1908, that Joplin was composing grand opera—said, “From ragtime to grand opera is certainly a big jump.” But Joplin’s faith in “Treemonisha” remained unshaken, and in 1911 he published the score at his own expense. The public’s response was hardly more encouraging than it had been earlier. About the only magazine that took note of the published score was The American Musician, whose reviewer wrote that Joplin had “created an entirely new phase of musical art and has produced a thoroughly American opera.” No financial backers came forward, however.

In 1915, Joplin decided to stage the work himself—no doubt as a means of revealing its dramatic possibilities to any major producer who happened to attend. Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, the authors of “They All Played Ragtime,” record the outcome:

A single performance . . . took place in a hall in Harlem in 1915. The performance was by full cast, but without scenery or orchestra. Joplin played the orchestral parts on the piano. The musical drama made virtually no impression. Without scenery, costumes, lighting, or orchestral backing, the drama seemed thin and unconvincing, little better than a rehearsal, and its special quality in any event would have been lost on the typical Harlem audience that attended. The listeners were sophisticated enough to reject their folk past, but not sufficiently to relish a return to it.

Not only was the performance a disaster but it also appears to have broken Joplin’s spirit. His health, which had been failing, worsened rapidly, and less than two years later he was dead, at the age of forty-eight. As Blesh and Janis put it, Joplin did not recover “from the blow that completely crushed the hopes of a lifetime.” The future would be kinder to him and to the work on which he had staked his life. In the nineteen-seventies—during a furious revival of interest in ragtime music and a joyous reappraisal of Joplin’s genius—his opera achieved something of the status he had believed it to deserve. His shorter compositions became popular again, and in 1975 “Treemonisha” was produced by the Houston Grand Opera and had a reasonably successful run on Broadway. Vera Brodsky Lawrence, a musicologist, who had labored indefatigably to bring Joplin’s neglected opera to modern attention, wrote in 1975 that “Treemonisha” was a work “of as great quality as Joplin had believed it to be.” She added, “But perhaps most significant amid this universal furor of recognition is the vindication, at long last, of Joplin’s unquenchable belief in his beautiful opera. Exactly sixty years after the shattering fiasco at that Harlem rehearsal hall, ‘Treemonisha’ is finally receiving the rapturous acclaim that Scott Joplin so passionately desired for it but that he was destined never to realize.”

Watchdogs of morality in pre-war Harlem kept a sharp eye on “the better class” of women, observing whether and how they were adapting to the changing social fashions of the city. The vigil was not always rewarding or reassuring. In 1910, these guardians were appalled to hear what certain women in Harlem were doing at their wine parties and soirées—smoking cigarettes. Some of them were even prominent church members. From his pulpit at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., let it be known that he had heard what was going on—“our best women” sitting with their feet up on chairs, smoking cigarettes. “What a spectacle!” the preacher declared. “What a defilement of pure womanhood, What a desecration of sacred motherhood. What a damnation of childhood!” Reverdy C. Ransom, from his pulpit at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, was equally reproving. He could only conclude, he said, that black society women were trying to copy what white society women on Fifth Avenue were doing.

By 1914, black society women, like their white counterparts, were also doing the tango and other “modern” Castle dances. But there is no evidence that they descended to the likes of the turkey trot, the grizzly bear, the Texas Tommy, and all the other vernacular steps that were done to the funkier versions of ragtime music.

During this period, and for some time afterward, the pages of black newspapers were crowded with the advertisements of beauty culturists and manufacturers of beauty products. Black-No-More was a cream for “bleaching and beautifying” the complexion. Fair-Plex Ointment made the “skin of women and men . . . bright, soft and smooth.” The makers of Cocotone Skin Whitener advised, “Don’t envy a clear complexion, use Cocotone . . . and have one.” And—as if replying to Cocotone’s claim—an ad for Golden Brown Ointment declared, “Don’t be fooled by so-called ‘skin whiteners.’ But you can easily enhance your beauty, lighten and brighten your dark or sallow skin by applying Golden Brown. . . . It won’t whiten your skin—as that can’t be done.” Though there was a brisk trade in these creams and ointments, it was chiefly light-skinned Harlemites—constituting almost a distinct social class—who bought them. Of course, a few dark-skinned Negroes used these “lighteners” as well, in the hope of gaining social acceptance among their fair-skinned brethren, but most of them ridiculed the promise of the ointments. Besides, they feared one of the worst accusations which could be made against them—that they were ashamed of their color.

The Age had been advertising skin-lighteners since at least 1909. But as a leading black publication it seemed to have doubted the wisdom of its policy in encouraging the use of such mixtures. The paper betrayed a tone of defensiveness when it said, in January of 1909, “Prominent white women of New York have always used cold cream for the face, but since Complexion Wonder Creme [which the Age advertised] was discovered, colored people use it as much as white people.”

Eight months later, the Times reflected the views of people who were not impressed by the Age’s argument:

In the columns of our contemporary which professes to be devoted to the best interests of the negro race appears a large advertisement inviting its readers to buy seven cosmetic preparations by the use of which colored men may obtain “better situations in banks, clubs, and business houses” and colored women may “occupy higher positions socially and commercially, marry better, get along better.” One of the preparations purports to be a cream that makes “dark skin lighter colored. . . .” The advertisement implies that negroes should be ashamed of their own features and should by all means mask them into some resemblance to the Caucasian race. . . .


But whether genuine or not its admission to the columns of the organ of negro uplift affords a revelation of racial psychology that is both curious and saddening. The exhortation to stand proudly upon nature’s endowments—to be a man, or a mouse, or a long-tailed rat—is not needed by most races. While the negro disesteems himself and seeks to be something else will he be respected as he is?

Complexion Wonder Creme was manufactured by the Chemical Wonder Company, among whose other products, which the Age also advertised, was Wonder Uncurl, a pomade that “tends to keep the hair straight and pliable so that it will dress well.” Another product was a “magnetic-metallic comb which helps straighten the hair.” These were early signs of the great hair-beautifying industry that developed in Harlem. As had happened with skin-lighteners, the advertising columns of black newspapers were loaded with information about anti-kink ointments, hair-growing preparations, special soaps and shampoos, combs, wigs, beauty parlors, and competing hairdressing schools and systems.

Although the hairdressing industry catered chiefly to women, it gratified aspirations of certain men as well. In 1911, one newspaper, reporting on “the latest fad,” said:

“Have you had your hair straightened yet?” This question can be heard many times during the day up in Harlem where the colored population is large. . . . Up around 135th Street and Lenox Avenue . . . colored men can be seen in large numbers who are wont to take off their hats repeatedly, even on the street when the temperature is far from freezing, and stroke their glossy hair with their hand in an affectionate manner.

This may have been the beginning of a practice that came to be known as conking. Recalling the early years of the practice, James P. Johnson, one of the originators of Harlem jazz piano, once said, “Up on 153rd Street there was a former barber named Hart who had invented a hair preparation named Kink-No-More, called Conk for short. His preparation was used by all musicians. . . . You’d get your hair washed, dyed and straightened then trimmed. It would last about a month.”

Among the persons of wealth and social influence in Harlem were the community’s great beauticians. Mme. J. L. Crawford, who moved from the middle West Side to Harlem in 1911, was probably the first of them to settle there. She was followed by, among others, Mme. Anna Malone, who introduced the Poro Beauty System; Mme. Estella, the founder of the Nu-Life School of Beauty Culture; and Mme. Sarah Spencer Washington, who originated the Apex Beauty System. The greatest, wealthiest, and most influential of them all was Mme. C. J. Walker, the creator of the Walker System. This system claimed two unique distinctions: it used “no curling irons or straightening tongs,” according to one of the Walker advertisements in the black press, and, unlike other systems, which emphasized hair-straightening and hairdressing, it emphasized hair-growing, thanks to a formula whose ingredients were known only to the founder.

When Mme. Walker settled in New York, in 1914, she was already a woman of considerable wealth—nearly a millionaire. Her Walker Manufacturing Company, in Indianapolis, had been producing her hair-growing mixture for several years and distributing it exclusively among a chain of beauty parlors she had set up across the United States and in parts of Central America and the West Indies. Mme. Walker’s beauty headquarters in Harlem—managed by her only child, a daughter named A’Lelia—occupied two adjoining brownstones on 136th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues. The buildings accommodated not only beauty parlors but also the Walker College of Hair Culture and private apartments that were splendidly furnished. No beautician in New York was qualified or authorized to practice the Walker System unless she had received a diploma from the college—“a passport to prosperity,” the Walker people claimed. Mme. Walker’s enterprise, the black novelist and poet Claude McKay later said, “became essential to Negro society.” McKay went on, “Her schools of beauty attracted students from the most cultivated Negro families. Around her gathered some of the most arresting types of Negro beauty.”

Mme. Walker shared a residence with her daughter on West 136th Street. Before arriving in Manhattan, she had bought a house in Flushing, Queens, but she appears never to have lived there. Perhaps she preferred to stay in Harlem while awaiting the completion of a mansion that was being built for her in the Westchester village of Irvington, overlooking the Hudson. Harlemites were fascinated by Mme. Walker, a woman who had risen from nothing to become one of the richest blacks anyone had ever heard about. They knew the means by which she had amassed her wealth, and that was fascinating enough. But everyone wondered what she might be worth and what the size of her annual income might be. “Well,” she said in 1916—replying to one of many inquiries on the subject—“until recently it gave me great pleasure to tell . . . the amount of money I made yearly, thinking it would inspire my hearers. But I found that for so doing some looked upon me as a boastful person who wanted to blow my own horn. And then again I received so many requests for money that I concluded it was best to keep mum on that score. I will say, however, that my business last year yielded me an annual income which runs into six figures and I’m going to try to eclipse my 1915 record this year.” A year later, she replied to another inquiry, “I am not a millionaire, but I hope to be someday.”


In one respect, at least, Mme. Walker’s appearance did not reflect her great wealth and success: her face, wide and roundish, with an open and kindly expression, gave her the look of a retiring and matronly sort whose main enjoyments were children, the church, and passing pleasant afternoons playing cards with friends. In other respects, however, she both looked and acted as important and rich as she was. She was built along grand lines—about six feet tall, and generously proportioned—and in some of the roomy and heavy-bosomed dresses of the day she had the appearance of a formidable queen mother. She owned expensive cars, supported charities generously, gave scholarships to needy black young men and women, contributed to the Tuskegee Institute—whose founder, Booker T. Washington, she admired—and lived in splendid surroundings.

Still, it was not until 1917, when her mansion at Irvington was completed, that Mme. Walker could be seen in all her magnificence. When the mansion was receiving its finishing touches, a reporter from the Times looked the place over and wrote this description of it:

The structure is a three-story and basement affair with roof of red tile, in the Italian Renaissance style of architecture, and was designed by V. W. Tandy, a negro architect. It is 113 feet long and 30 feet wide and stands in the centre of a four-and-a-half-acre plot. It is fireproof, of structural tile, with an outer covering of cream-colored stucco, and has 34 rooms. In the basement are a gymnasium, bath and shower, kitchen and pantry, servants’ dining room, power room for an organ, and storage vaults for valuables.

The visitor enters a marble room, whence a marble stairway leads to the floor above. On the first floor are the library and conservatory, a living room 21 x 32 feet, and a dining room with a hand-painted ceiling. Adjoining the two drawing rooms is a chamber for an $8,000 organ. . . . Mme. Walker likes music. When the organ is played, sounding pipes will carry the strains to different parts of the house.

The second floor contains bedrooms, bathrooms, showers, dressing rooms, sewing rooms, and two sleeping porches. On the third floor are servants quarters. The owner employs eight servants, including a butler, sub-butler, chef, and maids of all work. In addition, she has a social secretary and a nurse. On the third floor are also bathrooms, a billiard room and a children’s nursery. Mme. Walker loves children. They are frequent guests at her house. . . .

Plans for finishing the house call for a degree of elegance and extravagance that a princess might envy. There are to be bronze and silver statuary, sparkling cut-glass candelabra, paintings, rich tapestries, and countless other things which will make the place a wonder house.

Villa Lewaro, as the house was called, became a center for grand entertainments. Blacks of high standing—professors, lawyers, doctors, journalists, businessmen, clergymen, and what were then called race leaders—vied for invitations to her receptions, dinner parties, and balls. Passing such stylish evenings in her mansion, how could they not have been impressed by her wealth and acquired position? Few among them, however, would have exchanged their origins for those from which she sprang.

The hair-growing formula on which Mme. Walker built her fortune had come to her, she said, in a dream one night after a day of toiling over her washtub. Born Sarah Breedlove in Louisiana in the mid-eighteen-sixties, she married when she was fourteen and was widowed at twenty, at which point, in order to support herself and her young daughter, she became a washerwoman. She later gave at least two accounts of what occurred then. “I was at my tub one morning with a heavy wash before me,” she said in the first of these. “As I bent over the washboard, and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds, I said to myself, ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who’s going to take care of your little girl?” This set me to thinking, but with all of my thinking I couldn’t see how I, a poor washerwoman, was going to better my condition. . . . One night I had a dream, and something told me to start in the business in which I’m now engaged. This I did. I went to Denver, Colorado, and began my business with a capital of $1.25.” In the second account, she said that in 1903, when her hair began falling out, she prayed “to the Lord” for a cure. “He answered my prayer, for one night I had a dream, and in that dream a big black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair. Some of the remedy was grown in Africa, but I sent for it, mixed it, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out. I tried it on my friends; it helped them. I made up my mind I would begin to sell it.” Reflecting, in 1917, on what she had subsequently made of herself, she added, “Perseverance is my motto. It laid the Atlantic Cable; it gave us the telegraph, telephone, and wireless. It gave to the world an Abraham Lincoln, and to a race freedom. It gave to the Negro Booker T. Washington and Tuskegee Institute. It made Frederick Douglass the great orator he was, and it gave to the world Paul Laurence Dunbar, and to poetry a new song.”

In 1916, Charles Martin, a minister of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, wrote an article titled “The Harlem Negro,” which appeared in one of the publications of his church. It was in part a typical clergyman’s piece—preachy and morally querulous in much of its tone, and biased and selective in its presentation of the desirable and undesirable features of life in Harlem. But, despite these quirks, the article renders a reasonably representative portrait of what Harlem had become in the first sixteen years of its development as a black community.

Blacks in Harlem, the preacher said, loved “good things, plenty to eat, often too much to drink,” and were “blessed or cursed with a wonderful optimism.” They were “caught and held in the flightiness and gay life,” and they seemed reluctant to patronize their “own.” There were too many saloons, too many gamblers, too many pickpockets, pocketbook snatchers, burglars, and spurious diamond dealers—some feeding on “the credulity and superstition of the hardworking Harlemite.” Certain blacks liked nothing better than to gather on sidewalks and around street-corner lampposts. “To stand aside and look at the laughing, hilarious crowds that the theatres belch forth, you would think that there is never a care in Harlem.” But that was not true. The “foppishly dressed young man,” the “gayly dressed young woman,” the “well-groomed gentleman,” and the “tastily gowned lady” did not mean that all Harlemites were “a thoughtless people, living only for the day, eating, drinking, and dressing.”


Harlem, he went on, was full of preachers who claimed to be Doctors of Divinity, but only they themselves seemed to know how they had come by their degrees. The preacher you addressed in the morning as the Reverend Mr. So-and-So could very well be the Reverend Dr. So-and-So by nightfall: “No spot like Harlem for conferring titles.” Harlem was also full of beautiful churches, large and small, Although there were various “fads and fallacies in religion,” Harlemites “turning out for . . . religious exercise on Sunday” were “a beautiful sight.” Sunday schools were well attended, but some of the children were “wise beyond their years,” and this “presented a serious problem.” For example: “A teacher in one of the Sunday Schools . . . was questioning his class on love, I Corinthians 13 being the lesson. He asked for a definition of love, expecting that Paul’s description [concerning charity] would be given as an answer. What was his surprise when the boy said, ‘Love is a fire without insurance.’ ”

In 1916, orators of a radical and “socialistic” bent were beginning to appear on the street corners of Harlem, Martin wrote. The West Indians were increasing in numbers, and were forming societies “to cement old friendships and retain local traditions.” Harlem was “lodge mad and procession wild”—encouraged partly by the many fraternal societies that had sprung up there. Mourners in Harlem seemed to emphasize the funeral parade over the funeral ceremony: “The grand funeral is the rage today, and our undertakers, artists in their line, cannot be expected to counsel economy.” Harlemites loved “expensive house weddings,” which probably had something to do with “the frequency of divorce.” The “most skillful physicians of the race” were living and practicing uptown. There were now black policemen on the streets (the first was Samuel Battle, who later rose to the position of lieutenant), and newspapers and printing presses were becoming “plentiful.” A few blacks sold tickets in the subway, though it appeared that their “real job” was cleaning the station. “Formerly, it was said that the colored man and oftener the woman frequented white bookstores for Bibles and dream books, and more dream books than Bibles; but now we boast a Negro bookstore. . . . We love flowers, we have our own florists. . . . There are banks but no colored clerks as yet. . . . We also own a few private houses. . . . We have our composers and musicians of no mean order. Tennis, cricket, baseball, football, basketball, athletics in general . . . and it is reported that [the black Harlemite] has even invaded the golf links. Some of our ladies own and drive their own automobiles. . . . Private libraries are on the increase and there are fine collections on racial lines. . . . A colored regiment has lately been organized in Harlem and the colored man is marching under the flag that often fails to protect him when alive but honors him when dead.”

In matters of the flag, 1916 could well be called the end of one era in Harlem, and 1917 the beginning of another. The “colored regiment” that Martin, the A.M.E. clergyman, referred to in his review of Harlem life was the 15th Regiment of the New York National Guard, formed in 1916, which was to become one of the most famous regiments in black American history. All its commissioned officers—Colonel William Hayward and his top command—were white and all its rank and file black. A number of the black troops had been recruited from the West Side of Manhattan, but the majority came from Harlem, which was the regiment’s headquarters. Many Harlemites could not have been prouder that their community had been chosen as the base for the first black military unit ever recognized in New York State; indeed, they thought of it as Harlem’s own regiment, and saw it as a sign of the district’s growing importance and prestige as a black community. Other Harlemites saw the regiment as a sign of something troubling. A war was being fought in Europe, and there was a general feeling in this country, shared in Harlem, that it was only a matter of time before the United States intervened. If that happened, there was every likelihood that the New York 15th would be sent overseas to fight. Those who applauded the existence of a black regiment in Harlem were in no way disturbed by the prospect of its soldiers’ being sent to Europe. Their feeling was that it could only be helpful to the Negro cause for blacks to serve with the armed forces of their country—to demonstrate their loyalty and patriotism during what was called the world crisis. Those who were troubled by what the regiment signified argued that blacks owed no such obligation to a country that denied them their full rights as citizens. It would not be the first time, they said, that blacks had borne arms on the side of their country. Look at how well they had fought in the Spanish-American War. And what difference had that made in the way their country treated them?

After the New York 15th had had a year or so of training, crowds were coming out on weekends to watch its crisp march-pasts and to listen to the lively syncopated airs of its musicians—led by James Reese Europe, who, at Colonel Hayward’s invitation, had given up his society orchestra to organize a regimental band. In one of the parades uptown, a group of Harlem’s “best people”—ministers, newspaper editors, civil-rights spokesmen, businessmen—strutted proudly along. They were showing the pride that one section of the Harlem community took in its regiment. But a report in the Age about a later parade showed how the other side felt. The soldiers made a “splendid showing,” the report said. “The sight of these colored men marching with the easy swing of veteran soldiers to the music of their magnificent band, while the national and regional colors fluttered above them in the bright sunlight of a perfect spring morning, was indeed thrilling. The spell, however, was broken by a young man standing on the sidewalk who said, ‘They’ll not take me out to make a target of me and bring me back to Jim Crow me.’ ”

The regiment’s “splendid showing” in the spring of 1917 bore witness to a remarkable transformation. Months earlier—when it was newly organized, and its first recruits were striving to look and act like the real soldiers they weren’t—most onlookers had found it merely amusing. Many of the early recruits were Pullman porters, hotel waiters, railroad redcaps, apartment house and theatre doormen. Owing, no doubt, to the habits of their previous occupations, such men took more readily to saluting than to almost any other form of military conduct. One of their white leaders said later that the men “would walk out of their way to approach officers so as to find an excuse to salute.” And, recalling an early parade of the regiment, a Harlem businessman said, “It was amusing to see a group of colored soldiers marching through 134th Street with broomsticks on their shoulders and responding to the sharp commands of their superior officers.” Late in 1916, the regiment had staged a march down Fifth Avenue. At its head was Bert Williams, the great black comedian, astride a magnificent white horse. Surveying the scene—Williams on his horse and the men following in mismatched uniforms and with their broomsticks on their shoulders—bystanders on Fifth Avenue could not help snickering at “these darkies playing soldiers,” according to one report. They returned three years later, however—and their reception then was of a quite different sort.

In July of 1917, three months after the United States entered the war, the men from Harlem were mustered into the regular Army. They sailed for France that November, leaving behind—in Harlem and in black communities throughout America—the fiercely debated question of black participation in the war. Such a debate might have been triggered by almost any war—for nothing attracts more attention to the contradictions of black American citizenship than the call to military service. In 1917, however, the discussion seemed less avoidable than at any other time. It was President Woodrow Wilson who had described American intervention as necessary to the survival of democracy abroad, and had reminded Americans that they were the “champions of the right of mankind.” Such a description fell strangely on the ears of many black citizens, for they had come to regard Wilson—despite his admirable qualities of mind and spirit—as one of the more racist Presidents to occupy the White House. Among these blacks there was a feeling that Wilson could hardly have been more insensitive to their struggle for equal citizenship. During his Presidency, even the token gains they had made under previous Republican Administrations were being revoked. Prominent blacks who had been appointed to important federal positions—especially during the Administration of Theodore Roosevelt—were being thrown out of office. Of the Wilson Administration’s “generally indifferent, even hostile, regard for blacks,” David M. Kennedy writes in his “Over Here: The First World War and American Society”:

The South, Woodrow Wilson once remarked, was the only place he felt really at home, the only place where nothing had to be explained to him—including the traditional Southern race system. He had screened the film “The Birth of a Nation” in the White House, and had endorsed its pro-Ku Klux Klan interpretation of post-Civil War Reconstruction as “history written with lightning.” The President had raised no objection when Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson had in 1913 widened the practice of segregation among federal employees. When a delegation of black leaders called at the White House to protest Burleson’s policy, they were brusquely dismissed because Wilson found their language “insulting.” In the election of 1916, Wilson had personally helped to stir racial hatreds in East St. Louis. . . . In the face of such attitudes at the highest political level, it took a truly vaulting leap of faith for Afro-American leaders to persist in the belief that the war could somehow be made to serve the advancement of their race.

How, then, were they to answer or applaud Wilson’s call to defend democracy elsewhere? They surely believed it was necessary to defend “the right of mankind.” But how were they to defend that right abroad when some of the few rights they enjoyed at home were being annulled under a President who scarcely lifted a finger in their behalf? “One colored man came into a Harlem barbershop where a spirited discussion of the war was going on,” James Weldon Johnson later wrote. “When asked if he wasn’t going to join the Army and fight the Germans, he replied amidst roars of laughter: ‘The Germans ain’t done nothin’ to me, and if they have, I forgive ’em.’ ”


Among those in Harlem who held the opposite view—that blacks would have to bear arms, regardless of their treatment in America—were a number of the black clergymen. As ministers, they doubtless felt that it was part of their calling to invoke faith wherever the grounds of belief were uncertain; and as guides to civic conduct they must have considered it their duty, especially in times of crisis, to assert the preëminence of national interest. Thus, on a Sunday morning in March of 1917, F. M. Hyden, minister of the St. James Presbyterian Church, in Harlem, read from Genesis 15:14, “And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance.” Basing his sermon on that passage, Hyden said, “The future historian when he comes to set down the facts in connection with the world war should have before him the fact that colored men went to war not, as an endorsement of the President, but as a measure of national defense. . . . Volunteered service in such a time as this constitutes . . . the strongest argument and the noblest appeal for political and economic rights which colored men could present to the nation after the war is over.”

Not all the black ministers agreed, however. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., for example, appears to have interpreted his calling and his duty in more defiant terms. Despite his collar and robe, he was a restless secular moralist, always champing at his religious bit—especially when burning public issues arose. On such occasions, he tended to speak his mind rather than yield to the temperate commands of the Gospels. Also preaching on a Sunday in March of 1917, Powell told his Abyssinian Baptist congregation, “This is the proper time for us to make a special request for our constitutional rights as American citizens. The ten million colored people in this country were never so badly needed as now. . . . As a race we ought to let our government know that if it wants us to fight foreign powers we must be given some assurance first of better treatment at home. . . . Why should not the colored Americans make a bloodless demand at this time for the rights we have been making futile efforts to secure [from a] government that has persistently stood by with folded arms while we were oppressed and murdered?”

In 1917, blacks were victims of more than Wilson’s neglect. In parts of the country, hundreds were being beaten to death, lynched, or murdered in other ways by white—many of whom were probably encouraged by the silence of the White House. This was during an early stage of the great migration from the rural South to the munitions centers of the Southwest, the Middle West, and the North, where blacks were seeking wartime employment. One writer said, “The cup overflowed with the East St. Louis massacre of July 2, 1917, in which four hundred thousand dollars’ worth of property was destroyed, nearly six thousand Negroes driven from their homes, and hundreds murdered, a number of them burned alive in houses set afire over their heads.”

A few weeks later, some eight thousand blacks, mostly from Harlem—organized by churchmen and other civic leaders of the district—staged a silent march down Fifth Avenue, to protest the violent events in East St. Louis. Carrying picket signs, and dressed as finely as Harlemites then did, they strode to the sound of muffled drums while thousands of white New Yorkers looked on from the sidewalks. But despite the misgivings that the East St. Louis events aroused, established black leaders continued to argue that it was the Negro’s patriotic duty to serve his country during wartime. One such leader was W. E. B. Du Bois, the editor of The Crisis—the organ of the N.A.A.C.P. As a founder of the modern protest movement, Du Bois’s credentials as an aggressive spokesman for black rights were unchallengeable, yet he sounded very much like the Reverend Mr. Hyden when, in a Crisis editorial, he argued, “Let us not hesitate. Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow-citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy. We make no ordinary sacrifice, but we make it gladly and willingly with our eyes lifted to the hills.”

Much tougher arguments—more like Powell’s—were being made from Harlem soapboxes and stepladders, most often and most strongly at the corner of Lenox Avenue and 135th Street. This intersection looked much like a small-town square, with people sauntering and lingering to see and hear what was going on—but it was also one of the major radical forums of black America. It was chiefly here that the political and race radicals—young firebrands like Hubert Harrison, Wilfred A. Domingo, Chandler Owen, and A. Philip Randolph—made their speeches. No black citizen, they declared, should think of bearing arms in France, and certainly not as a condition to gaining his rights at home. Freedom, they said, was unconditional. And there were socialists among them who posed this question to their listeners: What business do Negroes have fighting a “capitalist” and “imperialist” war? These men later founded and edited magazines to promote their views on socialism and the world conflict, and the relevance of both to the black struggle in America. To Du Bois’s call for unity and the postponement of “special grievances,” Harrison replied in his magazine, The Voice, “America cannot use the Negroes to any good effect unless they have life, liberty, and manhood assured and guaranteed to them . . . the so-called leaders . . . have already established an unsavory reputation by advocating this same surrender of life, liberty, and manhood, masking their cowardice behind the pillars of wartime sacrifice.” In The Messenger, the magazine Randolph and Owen edited, they asked, “Since when has the subject race come out of a war with its rights and privileges accorded for such a participation? . . . Did not the Negro fight in the Revolutionary War, with Crispus Attucks dying first . . . and come out to be a miserable chattel slave in this country for nearly 100 years?”


These young agitators, who migrated to Harlem from the South and the West Indies (Randolph from Florida; Owen from North Carolina; Harrison from the Virgin Islands; Domingo from Jamaica), typified Harlem’s first generation of radical political thinkers. Calling themselves “New Crowd Negroes,” they consigned almost all their more conservative elders to “the Old Crowd.” These elders not only considered the younger men brash and impudent—an “affliction”—but pointed out that they were also relatively unschooled. None of them had graduated from a university. The Age, an organ of the older leadership, described them as “loud-lunged orators, with more voice than brains.” Loud-mouthed they were, but they certainly did not lack brains. Even without college degrees, they were about the brightest intellectuals in Harlem—with the possible exceptions of James Weldon Johnson and Du Bois himself, when he was living in the community. In night schools and in private study, they had trained themselves in literature, history, economics, philosophy, and political theory—all of which they spouted with a natural gift of oratory and, it seemed, a natural talent for pamphleteering. In one capacity or another, they exerted a significant influence on aspects of the racial and political militancy that later evolved in Harlem.

When the regiment from Harlem arrived in France, in December, it was renamed the 369th Infantry and was assigned to the 161st Division of the French Army. It may seem odd that these men were not placed with the armed forces of their own country, but what is perhaps even more odd is that, considering the segregation and the racial hostility within the American Army then, they had escaped into a freedom that few other black soldiers enjoyed. Serving with the French Army, they were able to fight in the front lines instead of working as stevedores on piers and supply ships—the role that was assigned to most black units of the American Army. In May of 1918, a month after the 369th Infantry went into action, Captain Hamilton Fish, Jr., one of its white officers, wrote home to his father:

Our regiment is the most envied American regiment in France, and has the greatest opportunity to make a wonderful record. We are with the French Army and have the incomparable advantage of the instructions and experience of the French. We are, to all intents and purposes, a part of the French Army, and supplied by them with all of our rifles, bayonets, helmets, gas masks, knapsacks, food, and ammunition. The men looked splendid in the American khaki uniforms and French leather equipment and brown helmets. I wonder what the Germans will think when they take one of our boys prisoner and find that he cannot speak French and comes from Harlem. I am a great believer in the fighting quality of the educated American Negro. . . . I believe (if the censorship regulations were abolished) the 15th New York (now the 369th U.S. Infantry) would be as well known as the Rough Riders were in the Spanish-American War.

Still, in such a campaign no thoughtful black soldier could fail to reflect on the contradictions of his position as an American fighting man. In November of 1918, during one of the climactic battles of the war, a soldier from Harlem wrote in his diary, “I seem to feel that the Germans (who have done so much to destroy the high ideals for which we have fought so hard and were willing to sacrifice so much), after the coming of peace, will enjoy more privileges and will have the door of opportunity opened to [them] more heartily than to the American Negro, whose patriotism is above question, and who has given his life’s blood on every field of honor, in order to keep the flag which stands for such noble ideals from touching the ground.”

When the war ended, the 369th Infantry (now nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters) had indeed made “a wonderful record.” For its part in the Battle of Meuse-Argonne, its regimental colors and more than a hundred and fifty of its men were decorated with the Croix de Guerre. In New York, the Age, proud of how well the boys from Harlem were doing, had printed almost every available detail of their activities in battle—and very little about the doings of other black regiments. A black soldier wrote to the Age:

I have seen many of your papers since I have been in France. But every time I look at it, I do not see anything about any outfit but the 15th of New York. Did you know that there were more colored troops in France?. . . it looks as if you all should put a little in about the poor old stevedores who have been over here going on 13 months, and struggle to and from these docks singing and rejoicing because they think they are playing their part. When it is raining and snowing, they go on just the same with their smile. So when one picks up a paper and sees nothing about the stevedores it makes one feel like they are overlooked. If it was not for the work the stevedores did behind the lines the boys with the guns could not have whipped the Germans as they did.


The Age admitted its error. But, it added, its partisanship was understandable, in view of “the peculiar fact” that the 369th was “made up of the men from New York.” The regiment’s “record of achievement and endurance,” the Age said on a later occasion, “has not only won fame for the organization, but reflects everlasting credit on the race with which it is identified and the city whence it came.”

Until about 1914, the theatres of Seventh Avenue and 125th Street were off limits to blacks. Their theatres were the Lincoln and the Crescent, on 135th Street between Lenox and Fifth Avenues. This was Harlem’s “Off Broadway.” Harlem’s “Broadway” was Seventh Avenue and 125th Street, and, in its own fashion, it was a great white way. Only patrons of that color were admitted to the Lafayette and the Alhambra (on Seventh Avenue), and to such places as the Harlem Opera House, Hurtig & Seamon’s Music Hall, and Proctor’s (on 125th Street). But as the black belt spread west to Seventh Avenue, and beyond, and south toward 125th Street, the major theatres found it increasingly difficult to maintain their all-white policy. In place of exclusion they instituted segregation. Blacks were now welcome, but only to the balcony (or, as it came to be called, “nigger heaven”)—an arrangement that lasted for some time. Recalling his days in Harlem just after the First World War, the journalist George S. Schuyler wrote, “Aside from the Lincoln and Lafayette theatres, none of the considerable number of theatres welcomed Negro patrons in their orchestra sections. [A. Philip] Randolph and I would stroll south on Seventh Avenue to catch the vaudeville show at the Alhambra. . . . Entering the lobby, he would flatten himself against the wall near the ticket window, toss in the money, and ask for two orchestra seats. Sometimes the deception worked, but when it didn’t, we would be sold tickets for the back balcony.”

The Lafayette, at Seventh Avenue and 132nd Street, was the first of the major theatres to desegregate, partly because it fell sooner than the others within the widening perimeter of the black community. In November of 1912, soon after the Lafayette was built, Lester Walton, who was the theatre critic of the Age—and a son-in-law of its editor, Fred Moore, inquired of the owners what their policy toward “colored patrons” would be. The policy, he was told, would be “white.” The Lafayette would consider seating “highly respectable colored people” in the orchestra, but all others would be sent to the balcony. The trouble was that those colored people who considered themselves highly respectable were not respectable enough, according to the Lafayette’s standard. Hence they, too, were being directed to the balcony. A week after Walton’s interview with the management, the Age reported that “prominent Negroes” were being barred from the orchestra section of the Lafayette. One such Negro was employed in a white bank downtown—a distinction that in those days ought surely to have qualified him for a place among the “respectable.” Another of the “prominent Negroes” turned away was Edward E. Lee, a leading Tammany politician (an official of the United Colored Democracy, the black arm of the Democratic Party organization in Manhattan) and a deputy sheriff of New York—but then the Lafayette may have found it hard to believe that anyone respectable could have belonged to the notorious Tammany Hall machine. The Lafayette appears to have overestimated its potential white support. Its orchestra section was hardly ever full, and the owners soon disposed of the theatre as a losing enterprise. In 1914, when the theatre passed into new hands, Lester Walton was appointed manager—a sign that the policy of segregation would be abolished—and it was at this point that the Lafayette became what it would remain for several years: the most stylish black showplace in Harlem. Under Walton’s management, the Lafayette stirred the revival of black musical-comedy productions—shows that had gone out of fashion since the great Williams and Walker entertainments of the eighteen-nineties and early nineteen-hundreds. In October of 1915, when “Darkydom”—the black musical-comedy hit of that year—opened at the Lafayette, a Harlem writer called it “the biggest and best colored attraction since Williams and Walker’s ‘Bandana Land,’ ” and saw it as an indication that “the colored musical show is once more on the ascendancy.”

The Lafayette helped to nurture an even more important development in the realm of drama. In 1916, black Harlem’s first legitimate-theatre group was organized there. Charles Gilpin, a native of Richmond, Virginia, was then considered one of the most gifted actors on the American stage, but since there were virtually no serious parts for blacks, he had been reduced to playing vaudeville and touring with small black road companies. When one of these companies, called the Negro Players, disbanded, in 1913, soon after making an appearance at the Lafayette, Gilpin remained in Harlem and founded the Lafayette Players. Though it was a black company, it did not present black plays, for there were almost no such plays at the time. It presented Shakespeare and revivals of such popular Broadway productions as “Madame X,” “The Servant in the House,” “On Trial,” “Within the Law,” “Very Good Eddie,” and “The Divorce Question.”

The subject matter of these plays was connected only remotely, if at all, with black American experience, and the Lafayette Players were often criticized by Harlem intellectuals for staging them before all-black audiences. Yet the plays filled a gap both in the lives of those who performed them and in the cultural experience of those who came out to see them. They gave the performers the only chance they then had of appearing on the legitimate stage, and they enabled Harlem audiences to see black actors and actresses in something other than the usual song-and-dance routines. According to George S. Schuyler, “This was a boon to the Negro public which was not available elsewhere in colored America. These Lafayette Players were tops and I spent many pleasant evenings watching them play to packed houses.” For the players, there was this additional advantage, described by James Weldon Johnson:

The Negro performer in New York, who had always been playing to white or predominantly white audiences, found himself in an entirely different psychological atmosphere. He found himself freed from a great many restraints and taboos that had cramped him for forty years. . . . One of the well-known taboos was that there should never be any romantic love-making in a Negro play. . . . So, with the establishment of the Negro theatre in Harlem, coloured performers in New York experienced for the first time release from the restraining fears of what a white audience would stand for; for the first time they felt free to do on the stage whatever they were able to do.

Among the intellectuals who criticized the Lafayette Players for reviving and producing defunct Broadway shows was Theophilus Lewis, who wrote theatre reviews for A. Philip Randolph’s radical Messenger. In his book “No Crystal Stair,” Theodore Kornweibel, Jr., a young scholar, sums up Lewis’s feelings about the Lafayette Players and their relationship to black theatre:

Noticing that . . . Gilpin, probably the finest black actor then playing, had transformed his part into a thing of beauty, Lewis despaired that Gilpin was condemned to perform in such trash. Blacks simply would not write enough good theatre to keep a fine artist like Gilpin well employed. . . .

Lewis went to the heart of the matter when he noted that one of the fundamental causes of weakness in the black theatre was its unwritten philosophy that the only “legitimate” theatre was the white stage, particularly Broadway. The black theatre had wrongly tried to excel at the things Broadway did, even though the white stage usually portrayed blacks only in caricature. The Lafayette Players, the only permanent company of adult performers in Harlem, took their cues from Broadway and performed ten-year-old castoff plays. . . . Lewis asked, why not produce black drama on the black stage for black audiences?

What Lewis overlooked was that there were no such dramas then. Moreover, when plays using black life and experience as their subject matter did come into being, they were neither written by blacks and produced by blacks nor performed before predominantly black audiences. Such dramas first appeared in the spring of 1917, when three one-acters—“Granny Maumee,” “The Rider of Dreams,” and “Simon the Cyrenian”—were staged at the Garden Theatre, on Broadway. They were written by Ridgely Torrence, a white poet and playwright from Xenia, Ohio, and produced by Emilie Hapgood. The casts, however, were predominantly black, and Broadway critics praised the event, calling it one of the most important developments in the history of American theatre. According to the Globe, “at certain moments” the program “reached depths of vivid, full-blooded drama that Broadway at its best but feebly imitates,” adding that “it opened up that sadly neglected storehouse of dramatic material, the life of the American Negro.” The Evening Post said, “Here at last, we have the beginnings of something like a folk theatre, entirely domestic if not altogether national.” And The New Republic welcomed “the emergence of an artistic Cinderella into the palace where she belongs.”


Though one publication called Torrence’s plays the first steps toward the building of a national black theatre, there were not soon to be further steps—not until the production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones,” in 1920, and “All God’s Chillun Got Wings,” in 1924. Once again, progress in the building of a black theatre had been made through the efforts of a white playwright. O’Neill’s plays made another vital contribution as well: they brought to national attention two of the finest black actors to have yet appeared on the American stage—Charles Gilpin (in the first of the two plays) and Paul Robeson (in both).

In 1920, there was hardly an actor more deserving of national exposure than Gilpin, who had gone virtually unrecognized while appearing in roles that were either inappropriate or inferior to his gifts. Gilpin was rescued from obscurity when the Provincetown Players, in casting Brutus Jones, the lead role in “The Emperor Jones,” decided, after some debate, to use a black actor rather than a white actor in blackface. Gilpin, who still lived in Harlem, was not unemployed when the call came from the Provincetown Players, but, all the same, he may be said to have been out of work. According to Louis Sheaffer, O’Neill’s biographer, Gilpin was “tracked down to Macy’s,” where he was found running an elevator, and where this dialogue took place:

“Are you Charles Gilpin?” a deputized Provincetowner inquired as he got on the elevator. “Yes. Corsets, ladies’ underthings—second floor.” “Are you an experienced actor?” “Yes. Glassware, silverware, household furnishings.” “We have a good part for you in a play by Eugene O’Neill.” “How good? Draperies, upholsteries, linens.” “The leading part. Would you like to act again?” “Yes, what’s the pay? Furniture, bed clothing, bathroom supplies—fifth floor.” “The best we can pay is fifty dollars.” “It’s a deal. Going down. Where do I go?”

On opening night, Sheaffer writes, “the place rang with cheers for Gilpin—the audience refused to leave.” Heywood Broun, of the Tribune, wrote, “Gilpin is great. It is a performance of heroic stature.” A year later, The New Republic said, “It has remained for Charles Gilpin in The Emperor Jones to be ranked with the greatest artists of the American stage.” If Gilpin had “not been a Negro,” Moss Hart later said in his autobiography, “he would have been one of the great actors of his time.” And a few years before O’Neill died he remarked to a friend, “I can honestly say there was only one actor who carried out every notion of a character I had in mind. That actor was Charles Gilpin.” But while Gilpin was carrying out every one of O’Neill’s notions about Brutus Jones, he was injecting others of his own; he was also tampering with the playwright’s lines—often substituting words for some in the script that he considered racially offensive. And on certain nights it was clear that Gilpin had had too much to drink—though he had so mastered the role that his drinking did not seriously affect his performance. O’Neill eventually lost patience with him, however, and before the play opened in London he replaced Gilpin in the leading part. “I’d be afraid to risk him in London,” O’Neill said to an acquaintance. “So I’ve corralled another Negro to do it over there . . . a young fellow with considerable experience, wonderful presence and voice, full of ambition and a damn fine man personally with real brains.”

O’Neill was referring to Paul Robeson. Like Gilpin, Robeson lived in Harlem. He had settled there in 1919, when, after graduating from Rutgers, he entered Columbia Law School. Harlem had taken quickly to the young Robeson, as his wife, Eslanda, wrote in her biography of him:

He soon became Harlem’s special favorite . . . everyone knew and admired and liked him. . . . No matter how great his achievements then or later, his easy good-natured simplicity kept him from being regarded with awe. . . . When Paul Robeson walks down Seventh Avenue he reminds one of his father walking down the main street of Somerville [New Jersey]: it takes him hours to negotiate the ten blocks from One Hundred and Forty-Third Street to One Hundred and Thirty-Third Street; at every step of the way he is stopped by some acquaintance or friend who wants a few words with him. And always Paul has time for those few words. In 1919, Paul strolled the “Avenue,” and soon became one of its landmarks; he was often to be seen on the corner of One Hundred and Thirty-Fifth or One Hundred and Thirty-Seventh Street, the centre of a group. He could talk to anyone about anything. He had spent so much time with his father and in the Church that he had sympathy and understanding for the elderly, old-fashioned Negro. . . . He could talk fascinatingly about games by the hour. He had a gorgeous bass voice, and could always be counted upon to carry the low voice part in harmonizations when “the fellows” got together at parties, or even on street corners.


When Robeson took over the title role in “The Emperor Jones,” in a 1924 revival of the play, he was praised almost as highly as Charles Gilpin had been. George Jean Nathan, in the American Mercury, called him “one of the most thoroughly eloquent, impressive, and convincing actors that I have looked at and listened to in almost twenty years of professional theatre-going.” Laurence Stallings wrote in the World, “A great many competent judges have said that he rose to a power and dignity overshadowing Gilpin’s.” In January of 1925, O’Neill wrote in The Messenger, “My experiences as author with actor have never been so fortunate as in the cases of Mr. Gilpin and Mr. Robeson. . . . I would say that the Negro artist on the stage is ideal from an author’s standpoint.” It was a wonderful tribute, and augured well for the future of the black theatre. But, as O’Neill went on to say, an important ingredient of black theatre was still missing: “Where are your playwrights?” No plays of any consequence had yet appeared, or, at least, none had yet been produced.

In 1919, “Harlem had a complete life of its own,” Paul Robeson’s wife wrote. “There were young and old Negro physicians and dentists, with much larger practices than they could comfortably look after themselves; Negroes owned beautiful houses and modern apartments; there were many fine churches; . . . there were Negro graduates from the finest white universities in America; there were Negroes in every conceivable profession, business, and trade.” George S. Schuyler recalled in 1966, “The Harlem of 1919 was a small community amid a sea of whites. It extended from 130th Street to 143rd Street, from Seventh to Madison Avenue, with some blocks extending to Eighth Avenue. Lenox Avenue was much more attractive than it is now, with more trees and fewer people. There were more private houses and fewer storefront churches, less loitering and more decorum, and the people were well-dressed in contrast to the shabbiness one sees today.” And A. Philip Randolph said some years later, “There was a certain standard, social standard, in the life of Negroes in Harlem then, different from today. You had a little gloss. There was a greater sense of respectability within the Negro group. They were trying to do things, trying to achieve status for the race. You had the underworld, to be sure, but you had some good types of people. They set the tone of the community. . . . A lot of these people were in the churches, and you saw them in the so-called better-class restaurants that Negroes would go to. All of these churches had great preachers, great spiritual strength.”

Harlem may still have been a “small” community in 1919, but during the war its population had grown by several thousand. It had received its share of wartime migration from the South, the Caribbean, and parts of colonial Africa. Some of the new arrivals merely lived in Harlem: it was New York they had come to, looking for jobs and for all the other legendary opportunities of life in the city. To others who migrated to Harlem, New York was merely the city in which they found themselves: Harlem was exactly where they wished to be. The Harlem of 1919 was certainly a livelier and more populous district than the one that the men of the 369th Infantry had left in November of 1917, when they sailed to fight in France.

On the morning of February 17, 1919, when the Hellfighters, laden with military decorations, returned from France, some two thousand of them received a rousing welcome from New Yorkers as they marched up Fifth Avenue on their way to Harlem—no longer darkies playing soldiers. The Times reported, “The negro soldiers were astonished at the hundreds of thousands who turned out to greet them, and New Yorkers, in their turn, were mightily impressed with the magnificent appearance of these fighting men, which looked the part of a regiment that had been cited as a whole for bravery. . . . They marched with the careless, natural precision of men who had long ago mastered the technique of their profession.” They were stepping smartly to the tempos of James Europe’s ragtime military band. Major Arthur Little, a white officer, who marched in the front ranks of the parade, later recalled:

The multitude of fellow citizens who greeted us that day—the tens of thousands who cheered, the women who wept—the men who cried “God bless you, boys!”—all were united to drown the music of Jim Europe’s Band. They did not give us their welcome because ours was a regiment of colored soldiers—they did not give us their welcome in spite of ours being a regiment of colored soldiers. They greeted us that day from hearts filled with gratitude and with pride and with love, because ours was a regiment of men, who had done the work of men.

After marching past the reviewing stand, at Sixtieth Street—where Governor Al Smith, former Governor Charles Whitman, Acting Mayor Robert L. Moran, and William Randolph Hearst took the salute—the regiment continued up Fifth Avenue, turned west on 110th Street, and proceeded north up Lenox Avenue. As they took the turn onto Lenox, one of Harlem’s main boulevards, Europe’s band swung into “Here Comes My Daddy Now.” The “multitude went wild with joy,” the Times said. The Age noted, “The Hellfighters marched between two howling walls of humanity. . . . from the rooftops thousands stood and whooped things up. . . . so frantic did many become that they threw pennants and even hats away.” And, according to Major Little, “Mothers, and wives, and sisters, and sweethearts recognized their boys and their men; and they rushed right out through the ranks to embrace them. For the final mile or more of our parade about every fourth soldier . . . had a girl upon his arm—and we marched through Harlem singing and laughing.”

It had been a splendid day in New York. “We wonder how many people who are opposed to giving the Negro his full citizenship rights could watch the Fifteenth on its march up the Avenue and not feel either shame or alarm,” James Weldon Johnson wrote later in the Age. “And we wonder how many who are not opposed to the Negro receiving his full rights could watch these men and not feel determined to aid them in their endeavor to obtain these rights.” On such a day, there could not have been many. The march, one eyewitness said, had taken place “under a canopy of blue, with not a cloud in the sky. . . . the February sun, usually cold and unfriendly, beamed down . . . with springtime cordiality.”

The “springtime cordiality” ended that summer. “Eight months after the armistice, with black men back fresh from the front, came the Red Summer of 1919, and the mingled emotions of the race were bitterness, despair, and anger,” one black historian wrote. “There developed an attitude of cynicism that was a characteristic foreign to the Negro. There developed also a spirit of defiance born of desperation.” More than twenty race riots broke out that year, in which hundreds of blacks, including soldiers who had recently returned from France, were shot, lynched, or beaten to death. In Europe, as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has written, “The experience of victory now suggested that men had within them the resources for salvation.” In America, among the black masses, the end of the war brought not only violence and despair but also the further debasement of a civilization. Which faction in Harlem had been right in 1917? Was it the established leadership, who had hoped or believed that black participation in the war would result in full citizenship rights at home? Or was it the obstreperous young radicals, one of whom had asked, “Since when has the subject race come out of a war with its rights and privileges accorded for such a participation?”

Nowhere in America was there a stronger black reaction to the postwar developments than in Harlem. The little magazines that the street-corner radicals had founded during the war became more bellicose and irreverent in tone than at any time earlier. The Crusader, edited by Cyril Briggs, a former writer for the Amsterdam News, announced that now it feared “only God.” Hubert Harrison’s The Voice called itself the “journal of the new dispensation.” The Challenge, edited by William Bridges, was just that—a debunker of almost every conventional attitude and idea in America. Wilfred Domingo’s The Emancipator declared that it had come “to preach deliverance to the slaves.” And Randolph and Owen’s The Messenger was cited by the Justice Department in 1919 as “by long odds the most dangerous of all the Negro publications.”

No political organization thrived more on the postwar disillusionment and despair than Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association—the largest and most dramatic black mass movement ever to exist in America. Most of its original adherents in Harlem—where it was founded, in 1917—had been the Southerners and West Indians who streamed into the community during the war. Many of them had joined the U.N.I.A. while the war was still going on. But it was in 1919—when, as one Harlemite put it, there “recurred the feeling on the part of some Negroes that there was no future in the United States for them”—that the majority began pouring into Garvey’s movement. This was as much because of their sense of their plight as because Garvey, who was one of the most brilliant speakers in Harlem, played enchantingly on the postwar discontent. From the U.N.I.A.’s platform in Liberty Hall—the movement’s auditorium, on West 138th Street—and in its weekly newspaper, Negro World, he exhorted blacks to be proud of their color, to build social and economic institutions of their own, and to look to Africa as their once and future homeland. Tens of thousands, not only in Harlem but in other parts of America and the world, found instant solace in his black-nationalist message. In America, writes his biographer, David Cronon, blacks were “ready for any program that would tend to restore even a measure of their lost dignity and self-respect.” When the U.N.I.A. held its first annual convention, in the summer of 1920, Garvey claimed an international following of two million, and though this figure was probably inflated, it does not seem beyond the bounds of possibility.


Garvey was himself a wartime migrant to Harlem. A native of Jamaica, he arrived in Harlem in 1916, at the age of twenty-eight, bringing with him the rudiments of the racial program for which he became famous. In his homeland, he had been an admirer of Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of black self-improvement and had formed the Jamaica Improvement Association. In America, however, his ideas veered in the direction of black nationalism—or, as his critics put it, black racism. He became what was then described as a race radical, while other protégés of Washington, like the Age’s Fred Moore, remained what can best be described as conservative progressives. Among Garvey’s early acquaintances in Harlem were other radicals of his age group—men born in the eighteen-eighties—who preached on the street corners. They were not strictly race radicals, however, but socialist and antiwar ideologues. On occasion, these soapboxers were willing to yield a few minutes of their speaking time to any member of the audience who wished to present his own program for black progress—though, irrepressible polemicists that they were, they often set to work to demolish his arguments as soon as they reclaimed their platform. This was the sort of reception they accorded Garvey, the West Indian newcomer. Many years later, A. Philip Randolph recalled, “I was on a soapbox speaking on socialism when someone pulled my coat and said, ‘There’s a young man here from Jamaica who wants to be presented to this group.’ I said, ‘What does he want to talk about?’ He said, ‘He wants to talk about a movement to develop a Back-to-Africa sentiment in America.’ I said, ‘Yes, I’ll be glad to present him.’ ” Being Socialists, men like Randolph were not taken with Garvey’s doctrine; and, being an emergent black nationalist, he was not impressed by theirs. Drifting away from their gatherings, Garvey went fishing for disciples of his own. He had poor success, however, for, according to his biographer, “skeptical Harlemites paid scant attention to him,” dismissing him as “just another West Indian carpetbagger.”

Garvey’s fortunes began to improve in June of 1917, when Hubert Harrison, the eldest and most learned of the radical group, invited him to share a platform at the Bethel A.M.E. Church, on West 132nd Street. Harrison, having become unhappy with the Socialist Party, had renounced some of his former beliefs and was translating the remainder into his own version of black militancy. No longer as certain as he had once been that socialism contained the answer to the race problem, Harrison, in his magazine, addressed the Socialist Party: “The roots of Class-Consciousness inhere in a temporary economic order; whereas the roots of Race-Consciousness must of necessity survive any and all changes in the economic order.” Thus, Harrison said—expressing a view that would be especially appealing to a man like Garvey—black socialist radicals should sever their ties to the Party, thereby freeing themselves to pursue their own racial strategies and programs. Harrison was the senior radical in Harlem; and as he had been an inspiration to younger men like Randolph who took up socialism, so he now became a theoretician of the black-nationalist strategies to which Garvey was inclined. To pursue his program, Harrison had founded an organization called the Liberty League; and, because he was familiar with Garvey’s views, he had invited the Jamaican to speak at his inaugural meeting. Bringing his “magnetic personality, torrential eloquence, and intuitive knowledge of crowd psychology” into play, Garvey, according to one observer, “swept the audience.” He endorsed Harrison’s movement and pledged to support it. “But,” this observer added, “Garvey was not of the kidney to support anybody’s movement.”

Not long after his performance on Harrison’s platform, Garvey launched his Universal Negro Improvement Association, and by the middle of 1919, when, because of race riots all over the country, blacks turned to his organization in droves, it had become the largest movement of its kind in the United States. In August of the following year, Garvey, addressing the first convention of the U.N.I.A., declared:

We are striking homeward toward Africa to make her the big black republic. And in the making of Africa the big black republic, what is the barrier? The barrier is the white man: and we say to the white man who dominates Africa that it is to his interest to clear out now, because we are coming, not as in the time of Father Abraham, 200,000 strong, but we are coming 400,000,000 strong, and we mean to retake every square inch of the 12,000,000 square miles of African territory belonging to us by right Divine.

Partly because of his West Indian origin, the popularity of his movement, the nature of his program, and his attacks on the indigenous black protest organizations, Garvey was resented, even hated, by almost all the protest leaders and a major segment of the black middle class. J. A. Rogers, a Jamaican-born journalist and historian who was then a resident of Harlem, wrote, “Such opponents held that the Back-to-Africa program was diverting attention from the fight for justice here in America and disrupting its course. [Garvey] opposed the joining of white trade unions by Negroes and those organizations fighting for rights here at home. As for the Negro church, he practically rejected it and had his own rituals and Sunday services.” For these reasons, as well as Garvey’s homely physical appearance and what some called his arrogance, his critics were unsparing in the epithets they used to describe him—“jackass,” “ignoramus,” “pig,” “buffoon,” and, of course, “ugly.”


One of the less mocking sketches of him was written by Lucien White, of the Age—although its conservative and middle-class editors were no admirers of Garvey. “The massive head and big-boned torso serve to mislead one as to the man’s actual physical development, for they are of almost giant proportions, judging from the photographs,” White wrote. “Close personal contact reveals that he is only of medium height, sturdy of lower limb . . . but possessing the physical development indicated by photos of the upper body . . . small feet, slightly built legs, large trunk . . . topped with head that has ample room for developed brain. Small, rather close set eyes sparkle as he chats, but become grim and icy when he is not pleased.” Another portrait devoid of invective was written by Herbert Seligman, for the World. Garvey, Seligman said, “might, to judge by his appearance, be a politician or a professional man.” He continued, “Of medium height, his head set close down upon broad shoulders, his slender, longish arms terminating in narrow hands, he presents a sedentary, almost studious type. . . . His manner is easy and his voice agreeable, with a slightly English intonation that falls strangely upon the ears of Americans unaccustomed to natives of the British West Indies. Nor is there anything bizarre in Marcus Garvey’s talk. It is fluent, even compelling if one does not stop to check him up.” Garvey’s imagination, Seligman said, was “capacious.” To walk into his business offices—on 135th Street between Lenox and Fifth Avenues—was to enter “a fantastic realm in which cash sales of shares and the imminence of destiny strangely commingle.” The reference was to shares in the Black Star Shipping Line, the centerpiece of Garvey’s several business enterprises and perhaps the most ambitious of his conceptions. He had founded the Black Star Line to show that blacks were capable of owning and managing major business ventures and to give substance to his idea that blacks should one day return to Africa—preferably in ships of their own. The Black Star Line, Garvey’s biographer writes, was “a supremely audacious move that aroused the greatest excitement in the colored world.” He adds, “Here was an enterprise belonging to Negroes, operated by and for them, that gave even the poorest black the chance to become a stockholder in a big business enterprise.”

Garvey’s imagination was not only capacious but romantic as well. The higher ranks of his U.N.I.A. comprised various levels of African “nobility”—“knights,” “dukes,” and “duchesses”—all created by Garvey, who named himself “the Provisional President of Africa.” African kings and queens there were, just as there were English ones; but no one had ever heard of African knights, dukes, and duchesses. Well, everyone would hear of them now. “Though he was opposing British imperialism, he imitated its forms,” wrote J. A. Rogers, who had known Garvey when they both lived in Jamaica. “Apparently, he had never been able to throw off the impression British folderol and glitter had made on him in his childhood.” Also, it all illustrated Garvey’s gifts for organization and for inspirational propaganda. By surrounding himself with the trappings of royalty and aristocracy, by offering his followers a vision or a fantasy of racial and social grandeur, he attracted a larger and more rapturous allegiance than he might have otherwise.

Harlem, as Garvey knew, loved grand parades and street ceremony, and no parades were grander than the ones he staged as highlights of the U.N.I.A.'s annual conventions. On these occasions, thousands of delegates—from all over the United States, the Caribbean, Central America, and Africa—marched up and down the broad avenues of Harlem, their banners inscribed with tributes to Africa and to great black figures of the past. The rank and file were preceded by various paramilitary units of the U.N.I.A.—the marching band, the African Legion, the African Motor Corps, and the Black Star Nurses. All except the nurses, who were dressed in white, had on uniforms in brilliant combinations of black, red, green, and blue. Large convertibles gaily decorated with bunting carried the V.I.P.s of the movement—all colorfully robed, braided, and beribboned. Riding at the head of this spectacle, in the most impressive of the limousines, was the Provisional President of Africa himself, attired—as Rogers saw him—“in raiment that outdid Solomon in all his glory.”

Within nine years of his arrival in Harlem, Garvey built the largest black mass movement in the nation’s history and became perhaps the most celebrated and controversial black figure of his time. All of this began to unravel in 1925, when—after being convicted on a charge of using the mails to defraud while selling shares in his Black Star Line—he was jailed in the Atlanta federal penitentiary and later deported from the United States. Among his followers—and among thousands of blacks who were not—his major accomplishment was that of arousing a previously dormant sense of racial pride and of nurturing in them an awareness of Africa as their ancestral homeland. Though he hardly needed to have added to so important an achievement, the fact is that he failed in almost all other aspects of his program. Some of his failures resulted from his own mistakes in administration and leadership, including his misreading of black American middle-class society, some from the bitter opposition of his enemies, some from traits of personal character, such as his extraordinary vanity. He was not, however, a crook, not the dishonest man that many of his critics accused him of being. He was, as Rogers wrote, “a poet and a romancer.” His dreams were too large, his conceptions too impractical—at least for the times in which he lived.

During the war, some of the early black saloons and cafés of Harlem continued their evolution into full-fledged cabarets. John W. Connor’s Royal Café had begun catering to what Ethel Waters (who had lately come to Harlem from Chester, Pennsylvania, her home town, to try her luck as a singer) called “the sophisticates, bowed down . . . with culture and ennui.” Barron Wilkins’ Astoria Café drew its usual high-spending interracial crowd from the worlds of sport and show business. But Leroy’s Café seems to have become the best of the night spots. Ethel Waters thought that the proprietor, Leroy Wilkins, was a stickler for good manners and conduct. On weekends, tuxedos were required. Miss Waters was much less impressed by Edmond Johnson, the owner of Edmond’s Cellar, at 132nd Street and Fifth Avenue—where she worked, during and after the war. Johnson, nicknamed the Mule, was a brawling, coarse-mouthed man who had run a similar establishment down in the Tenderloin. Many years after Miss Waters had escaped from Edmond’s Cellar and risen to national stardom, she said of it, “After you worked there, there was no place to go except into domestic service. Edmond’s drew the sporting men, the hookers, and other assorted underworld characters.” It was, she added, “the last stop on the way down in show business.”

In clubs like Leroy’s, Edmond’s, and the Astoria Café, between 1914 and 1920, one of the transitional modes of the jazz piano reached its full development. This keyboard style, bridging the idioms of classic ragtime and jazz, was known as stride, or Harlem stride, piano, and among its major exponents were James P. Johnson, Willie (the Lion) Smith, and Luckey Roberts. Before settling in Harlem, these men—Johnson was from New Brunswick, New Jersey; Smith from Goshen, New York; and Roberts from Philadelphia—had played in many of the rougher clubs and barrooms of San Juan Hill and the Tenderloin, where pianists of their style were called ticklers. According to James Lincoln Collier, a jazz historian, the stride-piano style “was created simply by the players jazzing or swinging the rags, or pseudoragtime music, they had grown up on—that is, pulling the melody away from the ground beat.” George Hoefer, another jazz commentator, says, “New York pianists tried to get an orchestralike effect with their instruments. They assimilated some of the harmonies, chords, and techniques of the European concert pianists. . . . New York striders were, unlike the jazz and ragtime pianists from other parts of the country, steadily in the aura of big-city sophistication and closer to the rhythms of Broadway.” Hoefer also quotes Johnson: “The difference between stride and traditional piano ragtime was in the structure and the precise bass played in a rag style by the left hand, while the characteristic strides were performed by the right hand.”

These stride innovators played to full houses but for small paychecks—as Smith recalled in later years:

To the Harlem cabaret owners, to all night-club bosses, the money was on a one-way chute—everything coming in, nothing going out.

. . . It was your job to draw in the customers. All the owner had to do was count the money.

For all this, they paid you off in uppercuts. That was a saying we got up in those days; it meant you were allowed to keep your tips, but you got no salary. Sometimes they would give us a small weekly amount—like twenty dollars. That was known as a left hook.


When I started at Leroy’s he acted as though he was doing me a big favor by letting me sit at the piano. After I’d been at the club for a couple of weeks I noticed the place was packed. It was time for me to have a little talk with Mr. Leroy. So one night I took time out and sent for an order of southern-fried chicken, the speciality of the house. . . . Instead of the chicken I got Leroy hollering, “What the hell you think you’re doin’ now, Lion? Ain’t you got any food at home? You tryin’ to take advantage?”

I looked calmly around the crowded room. “I want a small left hook, man, or else I’m movin’ on.” It was common practice for a piano player to keep on the go because you weren’t considered too good if you stayed at the same place too long a time. It signified you were not in hot demand.

Smith went on, “I wound up with a salary of eighteen dollars a week plus tips. Old man Wilkins could see which side of the bread had the butter.”

The start of the nineteen-twenties may be seen as the end of the ragtime era and the opening of what came to be called the jazz age. The transition was as inevitable as the passage from one generation to another. Politically, the ragtime years witnessed some of the more radical developments in American life—socialist and antiwar agitation and the beginning of black-nationalist ferment. Musically and socially, however, the ragtime period was relatively circumspect in its mannerisms; it seems now (though it surely did not seem so then) to have been just a livelier extension of the Victorian constraints it wished to escape. For all its syncopated rhythms, its innovations in “modern” dance and female attire—even the vulgar wording of some of its songs—it did not wander far from the scored melodies of the recent past, the authority of traditional forms and opinion. After all, some of the early ragtime music (to which middle-class and upper-class people danced the two-step, the tango, and the foxtrot) was just a syncopated version of the waltz and the march—except, of course, when sections of the black masses were using ragtime music to do the erotic Texas Tommy, the grizzly bear, and the bunny hug.

At all events, the jazz age would be far more irreverent—and in matters like drinking downright illegal. Making use of some of the assertions that had characterized the ragtime era, and reflecting some of the psychological aftermaths of the war, the jazz age ventured into improvisation and spontaneity—pursuing the unwritten variation in melody, decorating the written statement, capturing new styles on the wing, and expressing what was irrepressibly genial in the spirit of the twenties.

Four musical styles appear to have met in Harlem by 1920 and to have influenced the emergence of jazz in the community: ragtime, stride piano, blues, and some of the early dixieland sounds of New Orleans. But until about 1922 the dominant forces in Harlem music were the blues singers and the stride pianists (most of whose styles reflected the clear influence of the progressive or classic ragtime piano). Ethel Waters, who worked with a number of these stride pianists while singing in Harlem during and after the war, later paid them this tribute:

I was learning a lot in Harlem about music and the men up there who played it best. All the licks you hear, now as then, originated with musicians like James P. Johnson. And I mean all of the hot licks that ever came out of Fats Waller and the rest of the hot piano boys. They are just faithful followers and protégés of that great man, Jimmy Johnson. Men like him, Willie (the Lion) Smith, and Charlie Johnson, could make you sing until your tonsils fell out. Because you wanted to sing. They stirred you into joy and wild ecstasy. They could make you cry. And you’d do anything and work until you dropped for such musicians. The master of them all, though, was Luckey Roberts.

Duke Ellington described Willie Smith—whom he met soon after he arrived in New York, in the early nineteen-twenties—as “the greatest influence on most of the great piano players” who were exposed to the “luxury” of “his fire, his harmonic lavishness, his stride.” Ellington’s list of such piano players included himself, Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Count Basie, Donald Lambert, Joe Turner, Sam Ervis, and Art Tatum.

After the war, Mamie Smith was regarded in New York as the first lady of the blues, although it was Lucille Hegamin who was then called Harlem’s favorite. Miss Smith, a native of Cincinnati, had, according to one description, a heavy voice, heavy hips, a light complexion, and wavy brown hair. In 1920, after appearing occasionally at the Lincoln Theatre and at one or two of the cabarets in Harlem, she made what has been called the first recording of an “actual blues performance by a Negro artist with a Negro accompaniment.” The recording was “Crazy Blues,” on the Okeh label, and was backed up by a five-piece band, with Willie (the Lion) Smith on piano. “Crazy Blues,” originally titled “Harlem Blues,” was written by Perry Bradford, an ebullient, cigar-smoking pianist-composer, who also wrote “That Thing Called Love” and “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down.” The recording of “Crazy Blues,” which sold tens of thousands of copies in Harlem and elsewhere, helped make the gorgeous Mamie Smith the highest-paid blues singer in New York. According to Samuel Charters and Leonard Kunstadt, historians of the New York jazz scene, Mamie Smith “made so much money she never really counted it.” They also tell us:

It is estimated that she made nearly $100,000 in recording royalties alone. She was making between $1000 and $1500 a week in the large theatres in New York and Chicago and making nearly as much in the smaller theatres. . . . She bought large houses on 130th Street, St. Nicholas Place, and Long Island. Visitors at 130th Street remember lavish furnishings with an electric player piano in every room. The closets were stuffed with player-piano rolls. She bought ermine robes, silver gowns, gowns of gold cloth. For an engagement at the Bal Tabarin in Atlantic City she spent $3000 for a cape of ostrich plumes. Standing in a spotlight on a darkened stage, the silver gown shimmering, the ostrich plumes gently swaying, the diamonds on her fingers and around her neck glittering, Mamie was a breathtaking sight. She didn’t even have to sing. She just walked grandly across the stage and there were storms of applause.


In 1918, the Pace & Handy Music Company, formerly of Memphis, moved to New York and opened offices on Broadway, downtown—one of a few black publishing houses in that part of the city. The partners were Harry Pace and W. C. Handy, the latter popularly known as the father of the blues. Just before leaving Memphis, their company had published one of the hit songs of that year, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The song, written by Eddie Green, had been introduced by Alberta Hunter at the Dreamland Cabaret, in Chicago, where Miss Hunter had previously introduced Handy’s “Loveless Love” and “Beale Street Blues.” Though relatively unknown at the time, she was later to become one of the brighter night-club stars of black Harlem and white Manhattan. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” was an even greater hit in New York after Sophie Tucker—who had heard Alberta Hunter’s version in Chicago—sang it on Broadway, and it was the success of this number that helped to establish the Pace & Handy Company in New York.

In 1921, when Harry Pace learned that Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” was being played in almost every household of Harlem that owned a Victrola, he set out to exploit its popularity, and founded a recording company of his own—Black Swan Records, with headquarters on Seventh Avenue near 135th Street. Its first successful recording was of Ethel Waters singing “Down Home Blues,” for which she demanded a payment of a hundred dollars. At first, Harry Pace could not see himself meeting so brazen a demand. His company was losing money, for its first few records had failed, and Miss Waters was not then an artist of any stature. At Edmond’s Cellar, where she worked—the bottom of the cabaret heap—she drew little more than thirty-five dollars a week, and she had recently been turned down for a part in “Shuffle Along,” the brilliant black musical of 1921, by a casting director who regarded her as just a cheap honky-tonk singer. Harry Pace relented, however, as Miss Waters later wrote:

Mr. Pace paid me the one hundred dollars, and that first Black Swan record I made had “Down Home Blues” on one side, “Oh, Daddy” on the other. It proved a great success and a best seller among both white and colored, and it got Black Swan out of the red. In those days you sang down into little horns just like the one you see in those ads of His Master’s Voice. My second Black Swan record had “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” on one side and “One Man Nan” on the other. . . . Pace and Handy then suggested that I go out on tour with Fletcher Henderson’s Black Swan Jazz Masters, with Fletcher as my accompanist.

Miss Waters’ records not only helped to get Harry Pace’s company out of the red but also helped her to climb out of Edmond’s Cellar.

In 1919, when the ragtime Army bands returned from France, they began billing themselves as jazz orchestras. Tim Brymm called his group, which had served with the 350th Artillery, the Overseas Jazz Sensation, and James Europe’s Harlem Hellfighters band set out on a tour of major American cities, playing what were advertised as jazz concerts. There were other signs as well that the jazz age was dawning. “By 1919,” one commentator has written, “the growing number of Harlem cabarets, sprouting up like dandelions in the spring, had begun to use four-, five-, and six-piece jazz bands. . . . These jazz bands, featuring improvised blues, were to help usher in a new era in Harlem—the Harlem the world heard about during the Prohibition days.” ♦








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