Famous Figures From The Harlem Renaissance Period

July 16, 2021

In New York City, at the turn of the century from around 1910 up until 1935, the Harlem neighborhood had developed into something of a black cultural mecca. 

It attracted artistic, musical, and other up-and-coming social butterflies. It was the golden age in African American culture.

We saw iconic stage performances, music, art, and literature that would be remembered forever. It began in the 1880s when Harlem was built as an upper-class neighborhood for white people. However, there was far too much overdevelopment, and landlords could not find tenants.

Prices were then lowered, as the search became desperate. By the early 1900s, people living in black Bohemia started migrating over to Harlem, causing the white population to leave, resulting in the emergence of the Harlem Renaissance. But who were some of these famous figures from this era?

Casper Holstein

The Harlem Renaissance period played a crucial part in gambling’s fascinating history. This is thanks to Casper Holstein and his rival Stephanie Saint Clair who brought illegal gambling to the area. Holstein was a mobster and one of the leading figures in the number’s rackets in Harlem. This was a type of unlawful lottery, where residents tried to win money.

But, of course, there was nothing ethical about how Holstein did business. His life was colorful, and it included a kidnapping that saw a figure of $30,000 placed on his head for release. However, he was only held for a few hours, and in a version of events that he recounted later, he stated that no money needed to change hands for them to come to their senses and release him. 

Louis Armstrong

Of course, not everyone from this period was of dubious intent. Considered to be one of the founding fathers of jazz music, Louis Armstrong is a well-known household name and spent time in the area. Armstrong was brought up in New Orleans, which is the jazz capital of the world. Unfortunately, he had a single-parent upbringing, which proved to be too much for his mother, and Armstrong was moved to an orphanage.

In 1924, he made a move to New York City so that he could join the Fletcher Henderson orchestra. The rest, as they say, is pretty much history. From 1925 through to 1928, he made recordings that set him up to become one of the most influential musicians ever to grace the genre. Most people will remember Louis Armstrong for his rendition of What a Wonderful World.

Bessie Smith 

If Armstrong takes the title of a best male jazz singer, then Bessie Smith takes the Empress of the Blues title. Her powerful vocals are captivating, and her first hit, Downhearted Blues, went straight to the top of the charts. As you might expect, the pair worked together when they were both in Harlem. She was born in Chattanooga, TN, and the Blues was all she ever wanted to do.

So by the time she was 18, she was already singing her heart out. Her first group was the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, and it was there that she met up with Blues legend Ma Rainey, who was quite happy to take this young starlet under her wing. She was famous for quite some time, but sadly her life was cut short when she was just 43 years old. At the time of her accident, she was enduring a period where her music was not welcomed. And then fate intervened, and the car accident caused such severe injuries that she later died in 1937.

Sterling A Brown

Of course, the singing was not all about music. Sterling A Brown was a Harlem Renaissance poet, and his first book, called Southern Road, received massive praise and critical acclaim. Brown was born in Washington DC and educated at high-profile establishments, including Harvard University and Williams College.

He lectured at Howard University sometime later. His poetry was always well received, although there was something of a gap in publishing because of the Great Depression.

Alice Dunbar Nelson

Born in New Orleans, she was mixed race, which later became a large part of everything she did as an adult. She was an activist and a poet, and her first book was called Violets and Other Tales, which was published in 1985. She was just 20 years old when this was first sent to print. Her activism led her and others to set up the White Rose mission in Harlem.

This was a non-sectarian and Christian home for any ‘colored’ girls and women in trouble. After the civil war, the mission extended its help to African Americans arriving during the migration, helping them to find job placements. Her writing was frank and to the point. She was happy to tackle topics others avoided, including sexuality, racism, and family.

Countee Cullen

Another poet famous for the Harlem Renaissance was Countee Cullen, and he was the adopted son of the pastor of Harlem’s largest congregation. He was adopted late in life, aged 15, but Frederick Asbury Cullen was the perfect father for this young lad. His poetry was accepted to many different national magazines, and he was already writing before he even graduated from New York University.

His first book of poems, called Color, was published in 1925. He was another one who did not shy away from important issues and talked at length about modern racial injustice. He was determined to break down some of the barriers. In 1928, he married Yolanda Du Bois, the daughter of WEB Du Bois, the civil rights leader. This union catapulted Cullen into black high society.

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