Langston Hughes: Poems

Langston Hughes: Poems The History of Harlem from the 1600s to the 1970s

Harlem gained international renown during the cultural and artistic explosion that took place there in the 1920s, known as the Harlem Renaissance. This era remains extremely significant in American cultural history as the time of great innovation in jazz, art, poetry, and politics. Ultimately, it was also a time of self-actualization for many of the country's African American citizens.

Before the Dutch arrived in what is now Manhattan, Harlem was occupied by the Lenape Indians and the Manhattans. Franco-Dutch travelers created the first European settlement there. The great wave of Dutch immigrants in the early 1600s brought men, women, and children to Harlem, and in 1630, Jochem Pietersen Kuyter established a homestead along the Harlem River. The Native American population decreased steadily as immigrants moved into this territory and brought with them deadly guns and diseases. The settlement was officially named Haarlem after the Dutch city of the same name and was formally incorporated into New Netherland in 1660. The Dutch rule lasted for only four more years, however; in 1664, the English triumphed over the Dutch and established the colony of New York.

English rule led to the Anglicized version of the village's name (Harlem) and the population grew steadily. In the mid-1700s, rich New Yorkers began migrating to the area. During the same period, the Revolutionary War brought George Washington's army to Harlem so they could fortify the northern part of the island against the British. The Battle of Harlem Heights took place on September 16th, 1776. American troops eventually triumphed and forced the British to retreat. Unfortunately, the British got their revenge and burned Harlem to the ground a year later.

In the 1800s, Harlem was known as an elegant, fashionable area. Farmland estates dominated the landscape. In 1820, there were only 91 families, a church, a school, and a library there. Upon the invention of the steamboat and the stagecoach, people living in other parts of New York gained easy access to the outskirts of Harlem, leading to the creation of the New York and Harlem Railroad in 1831. The railroad brought more wealth to the area and infrastructure started to develop. In particular, wealthy politicians favored Harlem as a country retreat, although a substantial poor population also lived there.

Harlem benefitted from the economic boom in the North that occurred during the Civil War. The village remained a refuge for the rich but a great deal of poor immigrants migrated there as well. The Panic of 1873 hit Harlem hard, and as a result, it was annexed into the City of New York. Row houses and elevated railroads sprung up following the annexation and the subsequent economic recovery. Soon, sports and culture emerged in the neighborhood, increasing its reputation as a vibrant and exciting place. Jewish and Italian immigrants flocked to Harlem because they were attracted to the cheap property prices, but they were mostly gone by the middle of the 20th century. African Americans had lived in Harlem since the 1600s, but the great wave of migration began in 1904, when thousands of African Americans from all over the country moved north. Many of Harlem's new residents were trying to escape the poverty, discrimination, and oppression of the Jim Crow South. This Great Migration, as it is known, resulted in Harlem's population being 70.18% black by 1930.

The early 20th century is the most famous time period in Harlem's history because of the explosion of literary, artistic, and politics. During this brief time, the NAACP became active and Marcus Garvey's "Back to Africa" ideas gained traction. Writers and poets penned novels and verses about the experiences of black men and women in America. The "New Negro" movement soon gave way to the Harlem Renaissance. Prohibition made Harlem's jazz clubs and speakeasies more popular than ever, attracting both white and black audiences. By 1929, though, Harlem had begun to deteriorate. The Great Depression of the 1930s brought economic devastation to the area; housing and consumer goods became scarce, and crime rose.

Riots in the neighborhood in the mid-1930s and early 1940s brought turmoil and tension to Harlem's citizens, and Robert Moses's public works projects did not reach them. In the 1950s, rent strikes were common, so various groups tried to improve the conditions in the area, but to little avail. In the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement brought activists and agitators to Harlem. Some improvements to public infrastructure occurred during this time; old structures were torn down and replaced. However, schools continued struggle, and conflicts between police officers and residents were common. Frequent riots occurred in the 1960s, both as a result of police brutality and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Harlem's African American residents were victims of their landlords' prejudice, leading many to move to the outer boroughs. The 1970s is considered the worst time in Harlem's history. Infant mortality was high, poverty was rampant, public safety and sanitation was nonexistent, the quality of education was dismal, and jobs were scarce. Crime proliferated. The situation began to improve slightly as the 1980s began, and the neighborhood's reputation as the cultural and political capital of black America became more entrenched. Recently, Harlem has been experiencing an upswing in gourmet dining, dance, music, and museums.