James Weldon Johnson: “Harlem: The Culture Capital”

(1925)

Context

The migration of hundreds of thousands of African Americans from the mostly rural South to northern industrial centers in the two decades before World War I helped change in dramatic ways the black experience in American life. It began as early as the 1890s, with a trickle of black families seeking better economic conditions, and reached flood tide with World War I and the subsequent restrictions on immigration, which would create job opportunities in unprecedented numbers. Some families simply relocated to cities in the South, but many, especially those from the Southeast, chose to move northward to Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Those further west, in states like Arkansas and Tennessee, were more likely to find new homes in Chicago, Detroit, or Cleveland. But the most spectacular growth in black urban populations occurred in New York City in Harlem. By 1905 there were already sixty thousand African Americans in the city, and most of them were in the crowded...

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Harlem River in the first decade of the twentieth century (Library of Congress)

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