Quick History of Harlem

by G.Keith Alexander

history of harlem

Harlem, often dubbed the Mecca of black culture, has history bursting out of every brownstone. So many people, places, and events that sparked global conversations and movements came from this neighborhood in NYC.

From writers and philosophers to jazz artists and civil rights leaders, Harlem is a place that is never imitated with a community that is often underestimated.

Let’s take a look at some of the events and people that made Harlem famous.

The Great Migration

In 1914, World War I began in Europe, and the northern United States saw a shortage of industrial laborers. To fix this, they started advertising job opportunities in black newspapers in the South, offering black people a chance to make more money and escape the harsh laws of the South. And thus began the Great Migration.

Between 1910 and 1920, the black population of New York City grew by 66%. Rising housing tensions led the black community to create their own neighborhoods, like Harlem. As this city within a city grew, black residents began to speak out about their experiences.

1910s-1930s: Harlem Renaissance

Free from the overt and inescapable racism of the South – but still facing great oppression in the North – black citizens in Harlem found a new sense of cultural pride in their shared experiences. And in that place, many things like jazz and the civil rights movement were born.

The Harlem Renaissance had many faces. One of the most notable contributions to American culture was the birth and popularization of jazz music. Harlem’s Cotton Club was taken over by bootlegger and gangster Owney Madden in 1922 and turned into a cabaret lounge where jazz greats like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, Fats Waller, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, and Billie Holiday rose to fame.

1930s-1940s: Gangster Era

But this time was also filled with many struggles. The black population of Harlem was often unwelcome in many of the famous nightclubs and venues they had helped to build and popularize. The Cotton Club, like many entertainment venues in the area where many jazz stars played and sang, catered to a whites-only audience. Many Harlem stories and traditions exist because of this deterioration.

And because nearly all black residents of Harlem weren’t able to enjoy or profit off the wealth of talent and culture being exploited in these iconic spots, the neighborhood became poorer and poorer – so poor, in fact, that many households took in lodgers and held rent parties to help make ends meet. As poverty increased, so did crime.

Organized crime was a part of the fabric of Harlem long before it became the black Mecca we know today. The Genovese crime family gained control of the Harlem territory in 1931 and kept it for the next fifty years. While this went on, Stephanie St. Clair, originally from the Caribbean, became a powerful player in the mob world as the leader of a local gang, the 40 Thieves, and as a “policy banker” – someone who profits off a numbers racket. Stephanie and her lieutenant, the famed Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, fought hard to keep their claim on the Harlem numbers game, which often ended in bloodshed. By the mid-30s, St. Clair had lost her claim as a mafiosa to the Luciano crime family, went on to marry a cult leader, and then ended up in prison after being convicted of trying to murder her husband.

Bumpy Johnson went on to be dubbed the Godfather of Harlem for his strong control of the area, his intelligence at anticipating Mafia family moves, and his willingness to go after white mobsters who dared venture into Harlem. And, just like a Harlem Al Capone, when he wasn’t engaging in shootouts to protect his territory, it’s also been said that he “paid rent for the down and out, bought school clothes for financially struggling children, and put them through college.”

The Harlem Riots and Civil Rights

Though the Great Migration brought thousands of black Americans fleeing the intense racism in the South, New York City wasn’t free of racial tension and conflict itself. In 1935, the first of the Harlem Race Riots took place, highlighting the black community’s frustration about rampant unemployment and police brutality. The second riot was in 1943, caused by housing and racial issues coupled with wartime tensions. And the 1964 Harlem Race Riot was part of a larger civil rights movement-inspired set of “race-based uprisings/protests that took place…during the 1960s.”

The Harlem Renaissance created a new spirit of pride and determination for black Americans everywhere, which provided the momentum to start the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Writers and activists like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and Malcolm X let the soul of Harlem help guide their voices as they led the fight for racial equality.

Decline: 1960s to 1990s

By the 1960s and 1970s, Harlem was struggling because almost no substantial or beneficial investments in community housing or businesses had taken place on a large scale from 1911-1990s.

Drugs, crime, and poverty – all issues that went largely unaddressed for decades –  helped to increase infant mortality rates and tank the economic value of the area.

Revival: 1990s to Now

In the early 1990s, federal and city policies began to chip away at the high crime rates and low housing markets that had plagued Harlem since its inception. In the 90s, Central Harlem property tripled in value due to these new policies having attracted investors looking to “gentrify” Harlem and update many of the area’s economic trouble spots.

With this revival comes new opportunities to highlight powerful black voices and driven entrepreneurs in Harlem. HarlemAmerica wants to preserve the history and admiration the black community has for Harlem’s roots, while also helping amplify black voices as they embark on their own Renaissance in creative and business journeys. Click here to learn more about what the HarlemAmerica Digital Network can do for you.

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