Sugar Hill Between Edgecomb and Amsterdam Avenues,
and between 145th and 155th Streets
Looming above the rest of Harlem was the of
the wealthy Sugar Hill district. The stately apartments of Sugar Hill
were home to many of the most prominent figures in black society,
including Duke Ellington, singer Ethel Waters, and writer Ralph Ellison.
To gauge the prominence of a Sugar Hill address, one need only look
at the inhabitants of a single apartment building at 409 Edgecomb
Avenue: Walter Francis White (Chief Executive of the NAACP), concert
singer Jules Bledsoe, painter and illustrator Aaron Douglas, and scholar
W. E. B. Du Bois. At another residence, the posh 580 St. Nicholas
Avenue, Charles S. Johnson's secretary Ethel Nance offered a couch
in her apartment to promising writers and artists visiting New York.
A Place Called
In New York City, Harlem is located in northern
Manhattan, stretching from 114th Street to 156th Street, and flanked
by St. Nicholas Ave. to the west and the East Harlem River on the
east. Visit one cross-section of the neighborhood to explore both
the physical landmarks and the mood, energy, and spirit that brought
Harlem to life.
This map is a snapshot of Harlem during the Renaissance,
providing a glipse of just a few of its important public and private
places and the people who frequented them.
Roll your mouse over the map to highlight a block
and see its name; click to learn more about each place. To see a larger
picture, click on 'image detail' for a pop-up view.
Apartments 7th to 8th Avenue at West 149th to
Though middle- and upper-class African-Americans
had ample housing opportunities in Harlem, poor families found affordable
dwelling places tough to obtain there. To remedy the situation, the
well-to-do Rockefeller family financed the construction of the Dunbar
The five-acre Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments
complex (named in honor of the prolific black poet) stood in the valley
below Harlem's wealthy "Sugar Hill" district. In 1928, 511
moderately priced rental units—as well as a playground, several
stores, and a branch of the Dunbar National Bank—welcomed newcomers
to the premises.
Rockefeller's intentions notwithstanding, the
Dunbar proved beyond the means of most Harlem residents. Instead,
the complex came to house members of the so-called Talented Tenth
(the black upper crust). As the buildings bulged with renowned residents—poet
Countee Cullen, labor organizer Asa Philip Randolph, musician Fletcher
Henderson, actor Paul Robeson, scholar W. E. B. Du Bois—a steady
stream of distinguished visitors came and went. A weekly bulletin,
Dunbar News, kept tabs on Dunbar apartment dwellers and their
Cotton Club 644 Lenox Avenue
The Cotton Club—Harlem's most famous
nightspot—drew headlining singers, dancers, and jazz musicians.
Yet it remained virtually unknown to African Americans of the day.
New York society swells packed the seats of
the club, whose shows were often broadcast over the radio. Ironically,
African Americans were not allowed inside the Cotton Club. Thus they
missed bravura performances by black entertainers such as Bill "Bojangles"
Robinson, Cab Calloway and his Missourians, Earl "Snakehips"
Tucker, Ethel Waters, and Adelaide Hall.
This disconnect was hardly unusual in the 1920s.
From the time the all-black revue Shuffle Along won over
white audiences in 1921, black art and music soared in popularity
among the white population. Though willing to trek to Harlem to hear
black music played live, most whites expected their fellow listeners
to be like-skinned individuals.
Still, music became the battering ram
that smashed the barriers of segregation. In 1927, when Duke Ellington
and his orchestra began to play the Cotton Club amid an explosive
spectacle of feathered "black and tan" dancers, white patrons
thronged the club—and opened their wallets to black musicians.
Savoy Ballroom 596 Lenox Avenue
Spanning an entire block of New York City,
the Savoy Ballroom was one of Harlem's best-known nightclubs. Nicknamed
"The Home of the Happy Feet," it became the hottest dance
spot in town, drawing throngs of Harlem residents and well-known dancers
like "Shorty George" Snowden and Earl "Snakehips"
Many jazz-dance crazes of the 1920s and 1930s—including
the "lindy" or "Lindy Hop," a jitterbug inspired
by Charles Lindbergh's historic solo transatlantic flight in May 1927—originated
there. After being "exported" from Harlem, the lindy spawned
many local variants as it caught on around the country.
The Savoy often featured two bands, one at
either end of the hall. In a sort of musical relay race, one band
would kick in just before the other quit playing, guaranteeing a nonstop
sound. This arrangement sparked the Savoy's signature musical innovation,
the famous "Battle of the Bands," which pitted against one
another combos led by legends such as Chick Webb ("King of the
Savoy"), Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington.
In the arid desert of Swing Era segregation,
the Savoy was a welcome oasis of integration. The storied ballroom
enjoyed international renown until finally closing its doors in 1958.
Strivers' Row 138th and 139th Streets, between 7th
and 8th Avenues
named the St. Nicholas Historic District, the stretch between 7th
and 8th Avenues on 138th and 139th Streets became known as Strivers'
Row. The moniker was bestowed on the area to describe its residents—African-American
doctors, dentists, and bandleaders who were striving for a better
lifestyle. These individuals were successful despite the economic
and social hardships faced by African Americans at the time.
The houses in this district were designed by some of America's most
prominent architects, including the celebrated Stanford White, who
designed the neo-Italian Renaissance houses on the north side of W.
139th Street. Although the homes were originally designated for middle
class black families, only the wealthy could afford to live there.
Musicians Eubie Blake and Fletcher Henderson both lived in Strivers'
Pace Phonograph Company 257 West 138th Street
The popularity of "race records"—recordings
of black performers issued by white-owned firms—had been growing
steadily when singer Ethel Waters walked into Pace Phonograph Company
for a recording session in 1920. The tracks she laid down there began
to sell rapidly in stores, grabbing the attention of company founder
Harry Pace. In 1921 he sent Waters out on tour with Pace recording
manager Fletcher Henderson to promote Black Swan—Pace's new
label showcasing the talents of African-American singers and musicians.
Black composer William Grant Still was hired to be the music director
of the new label; in fact, all employees at Black Swan were African
The name "Black Swan" had originally
applied to Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, an African-American concert
singer popular in the 19th century. Every Black Swan record bore a
circular sticker trumpeting the label as "The Only Genuine Colored
Record—Others Are Only Passing for Colored." Apparently
"genuine" had its limits: The label rejected some musicians—including
Bessie Smith, the "Empress of the Blues"—as "too
Black Swan had been created with the avowed
purpose of advancing the African-American race. Its board of directors,
which included scholar W. E. B. Du Bois, decreed that no record it
issued could subvert this mission—not even from the Empress
of the Blues. Despite robust sales of Ethel Waters records, the board
grew leery of blues records; it began to seek out more "elevated"
forms of music.
Pace's star performer, Ethel Waters, had already
decided to quit the tour mid-swing due to musical differences with
Henderson. Her replacement, singer Trixie Smith, was a talented singer
but could not match Waters in popularity. When race records from other
labels began competing with those put out by Pace, the company sold
the Black Swan catalogue to Paramount.
Abyssinian Baptist Church
132-142 W. 138th Street
The Abyssinian Baptist Church was constructed
in lower Manhattan in 1808. Among its founders were a group of wealthy
Ethiopian traders who refused to accept the segregation policies of
other New York churches of the day. (The name "Abyssinian"
is a reference to ancient Ethiopia.)
In 1908, Rev. Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. became pastor of the church.
His charismatic preaching style mesmerized the congregation and drew
many new members. In 1922, the congregation moved to Harlem, in a
newly constructed Neo-Gothic style church.
Rev. Powell was a fervent proponent of civil
rights, and an active participant in the National Urban League and
the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He
worked aggressively to improve social conditions for African Americans,
and established the church as both a religious and social center for
the community. Under his Depression-era leadership, the Abyssinian
fed thousands of Harlem's poor residents.
Other notable preachers at the Abyssinian
included the father of musician Fats Waller (with the young Waller
himself playing piano at the church) and Rev. Adam Powell, Jr. who
eventually succeeded his father as pastor.
Renaissance Casino and
Ballroom 150 W. 138th
Built in 1924, the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom
was one of the only upscale reception halls in New York available
for events sponsored by African Americans. Thus, it earned the distinction
of hosting the first awards ceremony for The Crisis (a publication
edited by W. E. B. Du Bois).
The Renaissance Casino and Ballroom entertained
patrons with such varied diversions as cabaret acts, concerts, and
gambling. On the second story, couples danced the Lindy Hop, Black
Bottom, and Charleston to the sounds of Chick Webb's and Fletcher
Henderson's orchestras. The dance floor doubled as home court for
a basketball team named the Harlem Renaissance. Dubbed the "Harlem
Rens," it was the first all-black basketball team to win a World
The extent to which the Renaissance Casino
and Ballroom was woven into the fabric of Harlem nightlife is evidenced
by its appearance in literature of the day, such as "College
Formal: Renaissance Casino," a poem by Langston Hughes.
Mother AME Zion Church 140–148 W. 137th Street
Founded in Manhattan in 1796, Mother African
Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (originally called the John Street
Methodist Church) was New York's first African-American church, and
one of the country's oldest. The church served as part of the Underground
Railroad, earning it the nickname of "Freedom Church." In
1925, the church moved to Harlem, where its tradition of social activism
continued under the leadership of Bishop Stephen Gill Spottswood,
the longtime chairman of the board of the National Association for
the Advancement of Colored People.
Many individuals associated with the Harlem
Renaissance attended mass at Mother Zion, including actor Paul Robeson,
whose brother was a pastor, and wealthy businesswoman Madam Walker
(mother of Harlem hostess A'Lelia Walker). One of the most memorable
events at Mother Zion was the funeral of Florence Mills in 1928. Friends
and fans filled the church to capacity, while thousands of others
lined the streets to pay homage to the popular Harlem personality.
"267 House" 267 W. 136th Street
Originally tenement housing, the building at 267
W. 136th Street was renovated by its title-holder Iolanthe Sydney,
owner of an employment agency, to provide rent-free rooms to artists.
Many artists and bohemians of the day lived at "267 House,"
including Wallace Thurman and Richard Bruce Nugent. Others would walk
in and out of its brightly painted rooms to party and socialize, exchange
ideas, create art, or seek temporary lodging. Writers Zora Neale Hurston
and Langston Hughes lived at the house in the summer of 1926.
267 House became known as the center for a younger
generation of artists and writers who revolted against aesthetics
and ideas put forth by the so-called "Talented Tenth." This
older group, which included seminal figures like W.E.B. Du Bois, supported
the use of art as propaganda and steered clear from any aesthetics,
forms, and manners that might jeopardize a "dignified" image
of African Americans.
Rejecting Du Bois' views as elitist, residents and
visitors at 267 House wanted to create art for art's sake. Hurston,
who had coined the term "Niggerati" for the Talented Tenth,
playfully called 267 House "Niggerati Manor."
In this creative and rambunctious environment, Thurman, Hurston, Hughes,
Nugent, artist Aaron Douglas, and writer Gwendolyn Bennett discussed
the need for an avant-garde literary magazine that is not tied to
sociopolitical motivations. Fire!!, published in 1926, was
the result of these discussions.
Liberty Hall On W. 138th Street, between Lenox
and Seventh Avenues
Liberty Hall housed the headquarters for the
Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), an organization dedicated
to promoting self-reliance among African Americans. The space served
as the platform from which UNIA founder Marcus Garvey delivered his
powerful—and sometimes inflammatory—views on racial politics.
On August 1, 1920, Liberty Hall played host
to "The First International Convention of the Negro Peoples of
the World," in which delegates drafted and adopted the "Declaration
of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World." The event, which
marked the pinnacle of Garvey's power, included a month-long series
of meetings, massive parades, and a culminating speech at Madison
Square Garden attended by tens of thousands.
W. 135th Street
Banned from white YMCAs, African Americans
were encouraged to form separate branches. The 135th Street branch
of the YMCA became a major cultural center that offered a variety
of services and resources to Harlem's black residents. It was an outreach
organization for black men, a hotel, a theater venue, a lecture hall,
and a gathering place for Harlem literati. It also was the home of
murals created by the acclaimed artist Aaron Douglas.
As a hotel, the "Y" provided temporary
housing for black visitors who were not allowed in segregated New
York hotels. Some of its short-term residents included acclaimed writers
Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Claude McKay, and James Baldwin.
With such lively visitors, it is not surprising
that the YMCA became a venue for many writers and artists to exchange
ideas and share works. Patrons of the Y were treated to fascinating
lectures by intellectuals such as Professor John Dewey of Columbia
University, as well as plays performed by groups like W.E.B. Du Bois'
One of actor Paul Robeson's performances at
the Y, in Simon the Cyrenian, sent members of Provincetown
Playhouse running backstage to offer him the lead in Emperor Jones,
which became one of his signature roles.
The Dark Tower 108-110 W. 136th Street
Nightlife in Harlem consisted of an electrifying
mix of live jazz and blues, dancing, plays, and literary readings—not
to mention eating, drinking, and conversing. A'Lelia Walker's parties
provided all of these things in one place.
Walker was the heiress to the fortune of Madam
Walker, her enterprising mother, who grew rich on the successful sales
of hair care products for African Americans. A'Lelia Walker used part
of her inheritance to fuel her interest in Harlem's cultural life.
She renovated her brownstone on 136th Street, filled it with posh
furniture, and invited black and white artists, writers, patrons,
scholars, bohemians, and Harlem high society to dance, drink, and
Walker's Harlem home became a popular nighttime
hotspot, drawing guests like Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes,
and James Weldon Johnson, and performances by Alberta Hunter and Adelaide
Hall. Guests sat in a room next to a wall adorned with Langston Hughes's
poem, "Weary Blues." The room was named "The Dark Tower"
after poet Countee Cullen's column in the magazine Opportunity.
Walker originally asked popular Harlem artists Aaron Douglas and Richard
Bruce Nugent to decorate The Dark Tower, but instead hired Manhattan
decorator Paul Frankel.
In one controversial party, Walker supposedly
served her white guests pig's feet and chitterlings, while black guests
dined on caviar, champagne, and pheasant in a separate, more lavish
room. While many Harlemites looked forward to Walker's parties, some
regarded the "Mahogany Millionairess" with disdain, believing
she merely liked to "show off her blackness to whites,"
as writer Richard Bruce Nugent once said.
New York Public Library
and Speakers' Corner W.
135th Street at Lenox Avenue
Situated on the corner of W. 135th Street and
Lenox Avenue, the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library was
more than a repository of books. It was the cultural and intellectual
center for the community. Librarian Ernestine Rose held frequent poetry
readings and book discussions for literature enthusiasts, with Jessie
Fauset (Crisis editor), Ethel Nance (secretary of W. E. B.
Du Bois), and poets Countee Cullen and Gwendolyn Bennett among her
The library regularly showcased the work of
visual artists, and was selected as the exhibition space for The Harmon
Foundation's first juried show of paintings and sculptures by black
artists. Notable among the library's permanent collection was the
mural Aspects of Negro Life (1934), by Aaron Douglas.
Just outside the library was the infamous "Speakers'
Corner," where anyone could stand and extemporize about issues
of the day. It was here that civil rights leader Marcus Garvey delivered
his views on race politics.
Today the library is the home of The Schomburg
Center for Research in Black Culture, which maintains the letters,
manuscripts, prints, playbills, and paintings of Arturo Schomburg,
a collector and historian who chronicled many facets of Harlem's cultural
Theatre 58 W. 135th Street
One of the first theaters in New York to allow
African Americans to pass through its doors, the Lincoln Theatre was
an integral part of Harlem's cultural scene. In 1915, the Lincoln
became the original home of the Anita Bush Players. The all-black
theatrical troupe later moved its base to the Lafayette Theatre, and
became known as the Lafayette Players. The Lincoln went on to thrive
in the 1920s and 1930s, showcasing many of Harlem’s hottest
jazz and vaudeville performers, including Ethel Waters and Florence
Mills. The 1,000-seat venue also featured silent movie screenings
with musical accompaniment by pianist Fats Waller.
Smalls' Paradise 2294 1/2 7th Avenue
Smalls' Paradise began as a speakeasy and went
on to become one of the most prestigious African-American owned Harlem
nightclubs. The popular club was known as much for its jazz performers
as its rollerskating waiters, who could dance the Charleston while
balancing trays. Smalls' drew a mixed race clientele, and was frequented
by such luminaries as scholar Alain Locke and poet Countee Cullen.
Writer/photographer Carl Van Vechten also
frequented Smalls' until the release of his controversial novel Nigger
Heaven. Offended by the novel's depiction of their club and Harlem
life in general, the owners of Smalls' banned Van Vechten from entry.
"Jungle Alley" 133rd Street, between Lenox and 7th Avenues
Individuals interested in experiencing Harlem
nightlife in the 1920s and 1930s headed straight for the Jungle, the
block of 133rd Street known for its large and diverse selection of
bars, clubs, cabarets, and speakeasies. During the Harlem Renaissance,
visitors to the Jungle might encounter singer/musician Gladys Bentley
performing at a smoky speakeasy called The Clam House, or pianist
Willie "The Lion" Smith accompanying Billie Holiday at the
Catagonia Club. At the posh nightspot Barron's, headliners included
stride pianist James P. Johnson and a band called the Washingtonians,
led by a young Duke Ellington.
Lafayette Theatre 2235 7th Avenue
The Lafayette Theatre played two starring roles
in the Harlem Renaissance. Not only was it one of the first New York
City playhouses to welcome integrated audiences, but its stage was
among the first to showcase sophisticated performances by African-American
The 2,000-seat theater, dubbed "House
Beautiful" by its fans, was home to Harlem's first professional
stock company, the Lafayette Players. This acting troupe had been
attached to the Lafayette since 1916. It cast black actors in serious
dramatic roles—many of them written for white actors by white
Standout Harlem thinkers such as W. E. B. Du
Bois rebuked the players for failing to promote the work of black
authors. Yet the set-up allowed serious black actors such as Evelyn
Preer, Charles Gilpin, and Paul Robeson to transcend the stereotyped
or comedic roles to which they had once been relegated. The Lafayette
stage also put the public spotlight on such beloved performers as
blues singer Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington and his orchestra, and the
legendary tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
In 1923, new management transformed the Lafayette
into a lively community nightspot. For the next decade or so, the
Friday night late show was a hallowed neighborhood tradition: From
midnight until four in the morning, first-rate professionals shared
the stage with audience members brave enough to get up and deliver
As management changed hands in the aftermath
of the theater's glory days, the Lafayette served first as a movie
house, which showed films by black directors like Oscar Micheaux,
and finally as a church.
Tree of Hope 7th Avenue at 131st Street
Nestled between the Lafayette Theatre and the
popular nightclub Connie's Inn, a tall chestnut tree was rumored to
bring good luck to all who touched it. During the Harlem Renaissance,
aspiring performers such as Ethel Waters, Fletcher Henderson, and
Eubie Blake were rumored to have visited the Tree of Hope.
When the tree was cut down in 1934 during the
expansion of 7th Avenue, it was cut into logs and sold as souvenirs.
One section was salvaged and found a home at the Apollo Theater, where
today's amateur performers continue to rub the trunk in the tradition
of their predecessors.
In 1941, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson
joined New York Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia in a formal ceremony to
rededicate the stump of the original tree.
Connie's Inn 2221 7th Avenue
The intersection of 131st Street and 7th Avenue
was a Harlem hot spot called "The Corner." This was the
site of Connie's Inn, a popular cabaret that was the chief rival of
the famous Cotton Club.
Connie's opened its doors during Prohibition—the
period from 1920 to 1933 when the making and sale of liquor was outlawed
in the United States. No surprise, then, that it hosted a shady clientele
of gangsters and molls, rumrunners, and bathtub bootleggers.
The club's owners—German immigrant brothers
Connie and George Immerman—originally ran the place as a segregated
club. Given the cultural ferment under way all around it, however,
that arbitrary standard of inclusion couldn't last. The Immermans
eventually allowed blacks to patronize the joint late at night, after
the white patrons had gone home. Still, a night out at Connie's was
an expensive proposition that remained beyond the means of most Harlem
Despite its well-earned reputation as a speakeasy,
Connie's made some significant contributions to popular culture. Night
after night, Harlem's hottest black musicians and performers gravitated
and performed there, including Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson,
Earl "Snakehips" Tucker, and Ethel Waters.
Connie's is also famed as the birthplace of
Hot Chocolates (originally Hot Feet), an all-black
revue by composer Fats Waller and lyricist Andy Razaf. The hip, hot
musical (it later moved to Broadway) featured the dance troupe Whitey's
Lindy Hoppers and the songs "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Black
and Blue"—both of which are now jazz standards.
GGG Studio 272 Lenox Avenue
When James VanDerZee worked as a darkroom technician
at the Gertz Department Store in Newark, New Jersey, he would often
substitute for his employer when he was not able to do a scheduled
photo shoot. VanDerZee's creative ways of posing subjects delighted
Gertz patrons, which motivated the photographer to open his own studio
VanDerZee was almost immediately successful, with patrons drawn in
by his inviting window displays. With his popularity growing, he quickly
outgrew his first photography studio, Guarantee Photo, so he opened
the larger GGG Studio in 1932. Hundreds of Harlemites flocked to the
GGG studio and were posed with a variety of props against romantic
VanDerZee's photographs boast such famous subjects
as poet Countee Cullen, heiress A'Lelia Walker, activist Marcus Garvey,
and dancers Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Florence Mills.