Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

"I was in love with Harlem long before I got there." - Langston Hughes

Harlem is the black culture center of the world. It has been home to the indigenous people of the Lenni Lenape tribe, a 17th Century Dutch farmland, a neighborhood of many nationalities, a residence for Alexander Hamilton (Hamilton Grange) as well as African American jazz legends, a wealthy white affluent suburb, a refuge for southern blacks fleeing the segregated South, the birthplace of bebop, and the site of a Revolutionary War battle and the tavern where George Washington waited to hear that British troops had forever left Manhattan.

Harlem represents hope and freedom from bigotry to African-Americans. Its history is a vivid illustration of the diversity of New York City. Poet, Claude McKay, described it as: "the Negro capital of the world. And as New York is the most glorious experiment on earth of different races of diverse groups of humanity struggling and scrambling to live together, so Harlem is the most interesting sample of black humanity marching along with white humanity." To Langston Hughes it was a "Melting pot Harlem-Harlem of honey and chocolate and caramel and rum and vinegar and lemon and lime and gall. Dusky dream Harlem rambling into a nightmare tunnel where the subway from the Bronx keeps right on downtown."

"New Haarlem," as it was named by Dutch settlers in 1658, was originally an urban outpost. Coincidentally, the distance from downtown New Amsterdam to New Haarlem was 11 miles, the exact same distance as that between the original Dutch cities of Amsterdam and Haarlem in Holland. Getting to Harlem at one time required taking a steamboat (a ride of approximately one and a half hour) or a stagecoach along the Boston Post Road (now Van Cortlandt Avenue East). Obviously, taking the A Train, as Billy Strayhorn's song suggests, was not then an option.

Harlem has been home to Irish, Italian, German, Russian, Danish, Swedish, Polish, Jewish and black immigrants. Dutchman, Nedrick De Forest, built a farm there as early as 1637. Italian immigrants first came to Spanish Harlem in the 1870s when they were hired to build the tracks for a First Avenue trolley. Eastern European Jews settled there in 1917.

As early as 1880, there were black tenements in Harlem, but a large black migration did not begin until 1904. Blacks moved uptown from the neighborhoods of the Tenderloin (an entertainment, red light district from 24th to 42nd Streets), Hell’s Kitchen (34th to 59th Streets between Eight Avenue and the Hudson River), and San Juan Hill (now the Lincoln Center area).

To construct Penn Station (1906 to 1910), four blocks of housing were destroyed in that neighborhood and many black residents there relocated to Harlem. Still, only 10% of Harlem's population was African-America in 1910. The majority of Harlem was made up of Jewish and Italian Americans. Between 1920 and 1930, African-Americans fled the South and moved to urban areas in the North. By 1930, the population was 70% African-Americans with the world's largest concentration of black people. Harlem’s black population peaked in the 1950s as blacks from the American southern states and the West Indies arrived.

A period known as the Harlem Renaissance occurred in Harlem after the first World War in the 1920's and early 1930's. It was a celebration of African-American heritage and literature. It produced writers such as poet Langston Hughes (The Negro Speaks of Rivers), Zola Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God), Claude McKay (Home to Harlem, Harlem: Negro Metropolis, Harlem Shadows, If We Must Die) and Jean Toomer (Cane). Two books defined the movement: The New Negro by Alain Locke and The Book of American Negro Poetry by James Weldon Johnson. Popular salons for literary figures were held at the Harlem home of A'Lelia Walker Robins, the daughter of Madam C.J. Walker, the founder of the very successful hair product company for black women.

There is a National Jazz Museum in Harlem that honors many of the greatest African-Americans jazz performers. Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers, got their start at Harlem’s Cotton Club (1926). Ethel Waters, introduced Harold Arlen’s classic, Stormy Weather, there. Charles Parker and Dizzy Gillespie often performed at Minton’s Playhouse, a jazz club at the Cecil Hotel, operated by Henry Minton, a clarinet player. The birth of bi-bop is said to have occurred at Minton’s. At the Apollo Theater (built in 1913 to 1914), Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Sammy Davis, Jr., Aretha Franklin, and James Brown got their start. Other Harlem jazz spots were: Clark Moore’s Uptown House, Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, Dan Wall’s Chili House, Brandy House, the Cave, Harlem Uproar House, the Hoofers Club, the Kit Kat Club, the 101 Club, the Plantation Club, and Bert Hall's Rhythm Club. Prohibition only increased the popularity of these clubs.

Most Harlem clubs were white-only establishments. The Cotton Club and the fashionable 13-story Hotel Theresa, at 125th Street, were for white guests only (it was integrated in 1940). At one time, the area around West 133rd Street was known as "Jungle Alley" because of the jazz clubs located there. Among them were Connie's Inn, Small's Paradise, the Cotton Club, and Jungle Alley. There were some clubs on Harlem's Swing Street where blacks were allowed and where they congregated.

Lena Horne, Roy Wilkins, Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. Du Bois, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Sugar Ray Robinson, and A'Lelia Walker Robinson all once had homes in the wealthy black Sugar Hill section of Harlem.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Harlem became a symbol of urban decay to many Americans. There was a great deal of crack/cocaine trade in parts of Harlem in the 1980s and 1990s. Harlem is now more integrated and its current population is about 40 percent black.

Talented photographers recorded the history of the people of Harlem by photographing Harlem's celebrities, entertainers, and every day people. Some were:

  • James VanDerZee, an African-American photographer, set up his own studio in Harlem in 1916. His photographs were usually indoor portraits of Harlem residents but he also photographed weddings and funerals. The Metropolitan Museum of Art created a Harlem on My Mind exhibit of his work in 1969 and photographs from that exhibit were published in a book with the same title.

  • Marvin and Morgan Smith, twin brothers, established a portrait studio on 125th Street near the Apollo Theater in 1934 and photographed local residents and celebrities for over 30 years.

  • Carl Van Vechten, an American photographer and writer, documented the faces of Harlem with his portraits of black jazz artists, celebrities, and a series of women portraits beginning in the 1930s. His portraits are a Who's Who of the period and his subjects included: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Zora Neale Hurston, Marlon Brando, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Orson Welles and many others. He was also a good friend of Langston Hughes and Richard Wright and promoted their works. Van Vechten was a white, gay, married man who was known for the parties he and his wife gave at their East Side apartment. Bessie Smith, a good friend, often performed at them. An extensive collection of his portraits can be found at The Library of Congress.

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black labor union, the NAACP, and Universal Negro Improvement Association all had offices in Harlem. A movie studio, Cosmopolitan Productions, was built in Harlem by publisher William Randolph Hearst. Located on Second Avenue (between 126th and East 127th Streets), it had four stages, 32 dressing rooms and a 30-by-70-foot pool. Actress Marion Davies, Hearst's mistress, starred in many movies filmed there. Architect Joseph Urban, the designer of the Paramount Theatre Building and the Hearst Magazine Building, was a set designer for the studio.

Africans were first brought to New Amsterdam to be enslaved peoples in 1625 or 1626 and the Dutch profitted off of the theft of humans. Africans were sold at wharves along the waterfront and at local taverns and traded at a market on Wall Street beginning in 1711. A cage, whipping post and stocks were built for disciplining them at the old City Hall at Wall and Broad Streets. Before the Revolutionary War, there were more enslaved people in New York City than in any other American city except Charleston, South Carolina. The history of slavery and its eventual abolishment in the city of New York is not as progressive as Americans might think. Forty percent of New York City's households owned enslaved people. A Gradual Emancipation Act, freeing enslaved children, was passed in 1799. Slavery was abolished in 1827 but illegal trade of enslaved people continued, and complete abolishment did not come until 1841. By 1810, the largest community of free blacks in the entire country was in New York City. It is ironic that free black soldiers served in an integrated Continental Army -- the only time before the Korean War when the American army was integrated.

Black abolitionist, David Ruggles, founded the New York Committee of Vigilance in 1828 to help fugitive blacks, including Frederick Douglas, escape to freedom. Ruggles also owned a book store that sold anti-slavery book. During the Civil War, Wall Street played a part in defeating the South by loaning money to the federal government. On the other hand, New York City's economy had profited by the selling of cotton and the labor of enslaved people.

The Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture was founded in 1991. It is the largest center for black culture in the world. Located on West 135th Street, it is a part of the New York Public Library system. Langston Hughes' ashes are buried within a floor medallion near the entrance to an auditorium at the Schomburg Center.