One of the many reasons people travel is to observe history -- tourists wait for hours in line to see the names of their immmigrant ancestors at Ellis Island. They visit castles or exhibitions of Egyptian artifacts. But some historical eras are not well-marked by monuments or museums. Their secrets dwell in the everyday streetscapes of everyday neighborhoods. Take the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s -- a time of unprecedented cultural achievement for African-Americans. These days it's hard to find evidence of the roaring twenties and the fervor of what was called the New Negro Movement. Unless you have the right tour guide, as did The Savvy Traveler's Marianne McCune.
It's a Sunday morning, and Adams points me toward the imposing facade of a neo-Gothic church near 138th Street and 7th Avenue. An immense stained glass window looms overhead.
Abyssinian is one of several nearby churches that helped transform Harlem into a black community. On this day, hundreds of well-dressed parishioners crowd into its wooden pews and join hands to sing a century old hymn, written by a forefather of Harlem's renaissance, James Weldon Johnson. "Lift Every Voice and Sing" is sometimes called the "Negro National Anthem."
Reverend Calvin Butts is the church Pastor and he welcomes tourists and visitors to the church balcony. Here, you can witness traditions that marry Harlem's history to its present.
We turn onto 139th Street -- a beautiful block of three and four-story brick row houses, with polished wooden doors and elegant cast-iron balconies. These were among the last houses in the neighborhood to admit African Americans as residents. When the stubborn company that owned them finally gave up its quest for white buyers, Harlem's black doctors and dentists and otherwise well-to-do flocked here -- even if it meant they had to take in boarders to survive.
With tiny, gated front gardens and back alleys for parking cars, these houses became known as Striver's Row. Its residents were striving to achieve America's middle class dream. This was the heart of Harlem's new black community -- the so-called New Negroes crowded into apartments all over the surrounding blocks. Neighborhood resident Helen Brown remembers -- she had a room in a yellow brick building on 142nd Street, the home of a widely respected choral arranger (bring up choir music) named Hall Johnson. Brown was a member of Hall Johnson's Negro Choir, among the first to make spirituals popular beyond Harlem.
As a boarder and a member of the choir, Brown met many of the great intellects and talents of her time.
Writer Langston Hughes would never talk with his mouth full, she says, even if it meant going hungry at a soiree. And poet Countee Cullen's shirt was so stiff he couldn't see over it, as Brown remembers it. Then there was singer Paul Robeson.
But the Johnson home was only one of dozens of addresses where Harlemites met to banter. Several blocks East, Adams and I approach a humble red-brick apartment building. If you look up before you cross 7th Avenue, you can see the letters YWCA stenciled above, in weathered blue and white paint.
The Renaissance Casino spans an entire block of Seventh Avenue, right next to the YWCA. Its red bricks and painted tiles are crumbling now, and its cavernous halls empty. But in the twenties, bands like Chick Webb brought Harlem's finest to their feet here.
The ballroom held thousands of people and gave Harlemites a place to celebrate their birthdays and weddings, watch the Harlem Rens play basketball, and dance their nights away to the music that made Harlem swing.
Unlike the New Negro intellectuals, Frankie Manning wasn't interested in literature or high art. For him and for many of his contemporaries, the music and dance of Harlem were what defined its renaissance. Manning learned by watching his mother and friends at rent parties -- parties Harlem's strivers held when they couldn't quite get their rent together.
Manning invented some of the so-called airsteps that made Harlem's Lindy Hop world-famous. At the popular Savoy Ballroom, he literally threw his partner.
Unfortunately, the Savoy Ballroom no longer exists. Most of Harlem's dance halls and theaters have been replaced by grocery stores or modern churches or parking lots or empty lots. But there is hope for the graffiti-ed Renaissance Casino -- a renovation is planned.
You enter through a solemn, gothic archway under painted gold letters.
Practically all of Harlem attended.
Florence Mills was beloved in Harlem -- for her flair and for her rise to world fame as an African-American singer and actress. Helen Brown remembers her return to Harlem after several years spent performing in Paris.
She died soon after -- and suddenly -- of appendicitis. The Hall Johnson Negro Choir and about 600 others sang at her funeral, and 200,000 mourners poured onto the now traffic-filled blocks of 7th Avenue.
We peer into what are now the church offices: the dining room where Cullen ate meals with his family and the study where he must have toiled over his poems. Our footsteps echo through the church auditorium below Romanesque arches -- where Cullen was married to the daughter of the renowned black scholar W.E.B. Dubois. Adams cold go on forever -- we've traveled fewer than ten blocks, and he seems to find a little piece of history in every nook and cranny. But it's almost dark outside and the rest of his stories can wait for another tour -- Harlem's history will still be here.
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