In 1932, on a steamy summer evening in Harlem, a 17-year old Billie Holiday starts her waitressing shift at the Alhambra Ballroom. The Alhambra offers a three-in-one show with a movie, a cabaret revue and a dramatic reading. Outside, where West 126th Street meets 7th Avenue, the sidewalk is bustling. Women spill out of brownstones in short, swingy flapper dresses that fall just below their knees, adorned with long strands of pearls. They left their cloche hats and berets at home, choosing to wear their cropped hair in tight, finger-waved curls. Their dates are sharply-appointed in the zoot style, with angled-shouldered suit jackets and baggy pants. A man pulls out an ever-present pocket watch to check the time. They can’t be late to see Bessie Smith perform just blocks away.
After the first World War and before the second, Harlem was the largest black community in the nation. The Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North and an influx of Caribbean immigrants to New York City came to this neighborhood in northern Manhattan, leading to the creation of the social movement that changed art, literature and music, while along the way redefining what it meant to be black in America. Before the Great Depression and the Civil Rights Movement, Harlem was home to the New Negro Movement, a transformative period in American history that showcased the new black voices in literature and art, and a burgeoning interest in black heritage. And from nightclubs on Lenox Avenue and ballrooms on 125th Street, Harlem gave the world jazz and swing, and a grateful nation rejoiced. This period was later referred to as the Harlem Renaissance.
From 1918 to 1937, black artists and writers flocked to Harlem to join a movement that created some of the best know and critically-acclaimed work in the in the 20th Century. Langston Hughes was a prolific poet and cultural critic during his time in Harlem as was his friend, Zora Neale Hurston, whose masterwork Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937. Countee Cullen spent his time in Harlem creating poems that with African-American themes in an English poetic tradition. At this time, Aaron Douglas became celebrated for his painting style that imbued Christian iconography with black faces and African themes. And after creating seminal works of literature and art, they joined each other in Harlem’s clubs and lounges where it was common to catch Jelly Roll Morton or Louis Armstrong performing.
And if they went to the Alhambra, they could grab a table and be served by a singing waitress with a large flower in her hair and a melancholy voice. Before she was “Lady Day,” she was Billie Holiday, a star-to-be in a constellation of greats and a witness to one of the most intellectually and creative periods in American history. Even on a steamy night in 1932, Harlem was the epitome of cool.
Check out the Harlem Renaissance’s best and the brightest in music and literature in our collection.