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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art


Harlem Renaissance

A Cultural Awakening

Soon after the Dutch first settled in New York in the early 1600s, black former slaves established a community in Manhattan. Though they suffered persecution and injustice once the British took over the region later in the century, their growing presence on the island allowed them to contribute to the struggles of the American nation. Black New Yorkers fought in the Revolutionary War, played key roles in the Underground Railroad to free southern slaves, supported the Civil War in spite of violent opposition by white New Yorkers, and fought with distinction in World War I. Once the war ended in 1918, black soldiers from around the country returned home only to find white hatred and mob violence against their communities as virulent as ever. In response to this entrenched racist brutality, African-Americans in the South migrated northward en masse, many to New York City.

By the 1920s, the black population in Manhattan had settled into the northern part of the island known as Harlem, and included native New Yorkers, southern newcomers, and Anglophone immigrants from the Caribbean. The combination of new black perspectives, the experimental atmosphere of modernism, and the cosmopolitanism of New York all contributed to the artistic flowering of black writers in this small community. Meanwhile, advances in scholarship on black culture, supportive publishing companies, the ideological thrust of the N.A.A.C.P., and the help, if sometimes intrusive, from white promoters and patrons like Charlotte Mason, Carl Van Vechten, H. L. Mencken, and Fannie Hurst also created a nurturing environment for this intensely productive period of American cultural history.

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Maps of Harlem, New York from <em>Black Manhattan</em>
Maps of Harlem, New York from Black Manhattan
James Weldon Johnson

In Black Manhattan (1930), James Weldon Johnson's history of African Americans in New York, two demographic maps of Harlem show its quick flourishing in the early decades of the century.

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