Nearly a century ago, out of the bitter soil of Jim Crow segregation and the First World War, sprang one of the most creative—and socially conscious—artistic flowerings in the history of the United States. The Harlem or “New Negro” Renaissance of the 1920s was enabled by an unprecedented demographic shift. The migrants came from the part of the South known as “the Black Belt,” named both for the color of the region’s rich cotton-growing soil and for the concentration of black people there. The Black Belt was the heart of what had been slave country.
Like the more recent migration of talented entrepreneurs to Silicon Valley, those flocking to Northern cities in the interwar years were looking for unprecedented economic opportunity. But unlike the tech elite, those black working and middle-class people also were seeking an escape from the dehumanizing confines, petty insults, racial profiling, lynchings and other harsh brutalities of the Southern color line.
However, while Harlem may have been celebrated in legend and song as the world’s “black mecca,” as Alain Locke put it, the Harlem Renaissance had roots and branches extending far beyond Upper Manhattan. It was a state of mind that connected a community of artists all across the country, the descendants of both slaves and free black people. They searched for new forms of expression—for freedom itself—throughout the major industrial areas of the North, from Chicago and Detroit through Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Boston, even (or especially) in Jim Crow’s backyard, segregated Washington, D.C.