Walking Tour: Langston Hughes's Harlem of 1926

Year

2006

Type

Other

Harlem was like a great magnet for the Negro intellectual, pulling him from everywhere. Or perhaps the magnet was New York, but once in New York, he had to live in Harlem.
—Langston Hughes, The Big Sea

The 1920s were an exciting time in Harlem. The end of World War I brought a large migration of African Americans to New York City seeking new economic and artistic opportunities. Musicians, writers, and artists converged on Harlem, living and working together, and developing a thriving artistic scene of literary magazines, cafes, jazz clubs. It was the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance.

During the summer of 1926, Langston Hughes, along with several other writers and artists, including Zora Neale Hurston, began to publish the short-lived, but groundbreaking journal, Fire!! In his autobiography, The Big Sea, Hughes described the venture: "The idea being that it would burn a lot of the old, dead conventional Negro-white ideas of the past, épater le bourgeois into a realization of the existence of the younger Negro writers and artists, and provide us with an outlet for publication not available in the limited pages of the small Negro magazines then existing."

James Weldon Johnson recalled the excitement of the 1920s in Harlem, "[we] hailed with loud huzzas the dawn of the Negro literary millennium. We expected much; perhaps too much. I now judge that we ought to be thankful for the half-dozen younger writers who did emerge and make a place for themselves."


Convent Avenue and West 141st Street

Though many of the landmarks and buildings have since been remodeled or torn down, one can still follow in the footsteps of the artists who once lived in Harlem and imagine the exuberance of the era.

355 West l45th Street, Corner of St. Nicholas
The artist studios of Charles Alston, Louise Jefferson, Augusta Savage, Paul Robeson

108 West l40th Street
Eric Walrond’s home address, 1927

101 West l40th Street
James Weldon Johnson’s home address, 1920–1921

270 Convent Avenue
George Schuyler’s home address

940 St. Nicholas Avenue
Countee Cullen’s home in the 1930s

Walk down Convent Avenue to Nicholas Terrace. Walk to the midpoint from which you can oversee the Harlem panorama.

409 Edgecombe Avenue

This address was made famous by its occupants, among whom were Regina Andrews, Countee Cullen, W. E. B. DuBois, Jessie Fauset, Rudolph Fisher, James Weldon Johnson, Thurgood Marshall, and Walter White.

In those days, 409 Edgecombe, Harlem’s tallest and most exclusive apartment house, was quite a party center. The Walter Whites and the Aaron Douglases, among others, lived and entertained there. Walter White was a jovial and cultured host, with a sprightly mind. . . (and) the most beautiful wife in Harlem, and they were always hospitable to hungry literati like me…
—Langston Hughes, The Big Sea

At the Aaron Douglases,’ although he was a painter, more young writers were found than painters. Usually everybody would chip in and go dutch on the refreshments, calling down to the nearest bootlegger for a bottle of whatever it was that was drunk in those days. . . .
—Langston Hughes, The Big Sea

Walking eastward, note the Paul Lawrence Dunbar apartments at West l49th to West l50th, Seventh to Eighth Avenues, grouped around a green inner court. W. E. B. DuBois, A. Phillip Randolph, Paul Robeson, Bill (Bojangles) Robinson were among its tenants.

Walk down through the park to St. Nicholas Terrace and West l35th Street.

On the Southeast corner of St. Nicholas are three houses. Zora Neale Hurston stayed with friends in the middle house during the 1930s.

580 St. Nicholas Avenue
Regina Andrews’s and Ethel Ray Nance’s apartment, a gathering place for young Harlem writers and artists.

Walk Eastward on West l35th Street.

I can never put on paper the thrill of that underground ride to Harlem. . . . At every station I kept watching for the sign: l35th Street. . . I came out onto the platform. . . and looked around. It was still early morning and people were going to work. Hundreds of colored people. I wanted to shake hands with them, speak to them. I hadn’t seen any colored people for so long—
—Langston Hughes, The Big Sea

230 West l35th Street
Between 8th and 7th Avenues, The New York Age

180 West l35th Street
Between 7th and Lenox Avenues: YMCA.

Here Langston Hughes lived for a time in the 1920s and Claude McKay stayed when he first returned from his travels abroad. Next door was a basement restaurant owned by the actor Dick Huey. The restaurant served as a popular hangout for writers who gathered there every noon, including Paul Robeson and Henry L. Moon, when he worked for the Amsterdam News.

103 West l35th Street
The Schomburg Center for Black Culture, New York Public Library, founded in 1925.

"Here is the evidence." Assembled from the rapidly growing collections of the leading Negro-book-collectors and research societies, there were in these cases, materials not only for the first true writing of Negro History, but for the rewriting of many important paragraphs of our common American history.
—Arthur A. Schomburg, "The Negro Digs Up His Past"

West 135th Street and Lenox Avenue

Yes, it was a rare sensation again to be just one black among many. It was good to be lost in the shadows of Harlem again. It was an adventure to loiter down Fifth and Lenox Avenues and promenade along Seventh Avenue. . . . There was a room for me in the old house on One Hundred Thirty-first Street. . . .
—Claude McKay, A Long Way From Home

Go Northward on Lenox to West l36th Street; turn right.

104 West l36th Street
The Countee Cullen Branch, New York Public Library

Original site of the apartment of Mrs. A’Leilia Walker Robinson, the "great Harlem party-giver" and "joy-goddess of Harlem’s 1920s."

At her "at homes" Negro poets and Negro number bankers mingled with downtown poets… Countee Cullen would be there and Witter Bynner. . . . When A’ Leilia Walker died in 1931, she had a grand funeral. . . . But, just as for her parties, a great many more invitations had been issued than the small but exclusive Seventh Avenue funeral parlor could provide for. . . . That was really the end of the gay times of the New Negro era in Harlem, the period that had begun to reach its end when the crash came in 1929.
—Langston Hughes, The Big Sea

136th to 139th Street
The real Harlem nightclubs

White people began to come to Harlem in droves. For several years they packed the expensive Cotton Club on Lenox Avenue. But I was never there, because the Cotton Club was a Jim Crow club for gangsters and monied whites.
—Langston Hughes, The Big Sea

The first place really popular with my friends was a Chinese restaurant in l36th street, which had been known as Hayne’s Cafe and then became the Oriental. . . . One danced to a piano only, and wound one’s way between linen-clad tables over velvety, noiseless floors. . . . There was the Garden of Joy, an open-air cabaret between 138th and l39th streets in Seventh Avenue, occupying a plateau high enough above the sidewalk—a large, well-laid smooth wooden floor with tables and chairs and a tinny orchestra, all covered by a propped-up roof, that resembled an enormous lampshade, directing bright light downward and outward. Not far away the Abyssinian Church used to hold its Summer camp-meetings in a great round circus-tent. Night after night there would arise the mingled strains of blues and spirituals, those peculiarly Negro forms of song, the one secular and the other religious. . . . I used to wonder if God, hearing them both, found any real distinction.
—Rudolph Fisher, "The Caucasian Storms Harlem"

Follow West l36th Street to Seventh Avenue; turn right and walk uptown.

Seventh Avenue and l38th Street
Near the corner, the site of the Lybia, another cabaret Fisher memorializes.

But Seventh Avenue is the promenade of high-toned dickties and strivers. It breathes a superior atmosphere, sings superior songs, laughs a superior laugh. Even were there no people, the difference would be clear: the middle of Lenox Avenue is adorned by street-car tracks, the middle of Seventh Avenue by parking.
—Rudolph Fisher, "Blades of Steel"

West 138th Street and Seventh Avenue

"Strivers’ Row" —between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, one of New York’s architectural landmarks. In these beautiful houses have lived and still live many of Harlem’s most prominent citizens. Eric Walrond (editor at Opportunity and Negro World) lived on l39th Street and Noble Sissle of "Shuffle Along" lived on Strivers’ Row before moving to Florida.



Selected Bibliography

We recommend the following books to take along on this tour:

The Big Sea (Hill and Wang, 1975) by Langston Hughes
Voices from the Harlem Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 1976), edited by Nathan Irvin Huggins

Some additional library reading:

Selected Poems (1955) by Langston Hughes
Negro: an Anthology (1935) edited by Nancy Cunard and Hugh Ford
The New Negro (1925) edited by Alain Locke

Credits

The original version of this walking tour, prepared in 1981, was made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts, with special thanks to the Harlem Cultural Council. The updated version was made possible, in part, by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. Special thanks for research and photography to Stephanie Anderson, Jocelyn (Josie) Casey-Whiteman, C. J. Evans, and Billy Merrell.