An unidentified Black Man stands outside a tent in Tulsa’s previously-affluent Greenwood District. Following the 1921 riot many African American survivors were forced to live for months in tents and other makeshift accommodations. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Gregory E. Brown, Director of the Black Holocaust Society)
While New York City’s Harlem, which the late Dr. Clement Alexander Price referred to as “that most brilliantly lit terrain,” has been rightly celebrated as the focal point of the Harlem Renaissance, there were a number of other communities were African Africans managed to thrive during the “Jazz Age” of the 1920s. One such community was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and June 2016 marks the 95th anniversary of its destruction.
The following excerpt from Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance and the video from “MPortant Films” (with Tulsa Virtual Media Partners) show why the community was so exceptional why what happened there from May 30 to June 1, 1921, should never be forgotten:
“Prior to the massive waves of African Americans exiting the South to head North, many had been lured to the state of Oklahoma as early as the end of the 19th century in hopes of cashing in on its growing oil industry. By 1921, the state could boast the distinction of having more than two dozen towns populated and governed by blacks. Within Tulsa, approximately 15,000 African Americans made up the city’s district of Greenwood. Forced by segregation to rely upon their own means and resources, the citizens of the community became so successful that the district became known as ‘Black Wall Street.’
16 May, 2016
(Continuation from Part 1)
Setting aside for the moment debates about starting dates and end dates, the Harlem Renaissance is now among the most documented and studied events in world history with encyclopedias, biographies, major films, theater productions, and conferences all dedicated to sustaining its legacy and preserving its ideals. One contribution toward that effort, and which hopefully will see a makeover by the time of the event’s centennial, is Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (Facts On File/Infobase Publishing) written by Sandra L. West with this author, and featuring a foreword by Clement Alexander Price.
To write an award-winning volume on the phenomenal Harlem Renaissance is to do a lot more than simply author a good book about African-American history. Any sane author, though, would greatly appreciate the honors that have been bestowed upon Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance for some important reasons. Such recognition provides major validation of the years of labor required to create such a work; and, perhaps more importantly, they pay just tribute to the lives of the volume’s Jazz Age heroes.
Considering that these heroes did what they did at a time when the United States witnessed its second resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups determined to exterminate African Americans (as well as Jews, Europeans, etc.) their accomplishments can never be over exaggerated. As Clement Alexander Price has noted, “They wrote, painted, composed, argued, marched, and protested on a scale not seen, or accounted for, earlier.”
To propose a volume in recognition of such individuals is also to find oneself humbled by the privilege of contributing to a global legacy established by the likes of: historian W.E.B. Du Bois, author Ralph Ellison, journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, jazz-master Duke Ellington, blues empress Bessie Smith, the great artist Romare Bearden, iconic poet Langston Hughes, renaissance man Paul Robeson, and many extraordinary others. These were the individuals who comprised African America’s “Greatest Generation.”
Closing in on the 100th Anniversary
As we approach the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, the gifts it showered upon humanity grow more and more relevant. The combination of music technology and musical genres it gave us in the 1920s and 1930s has since evolved into the cross-cultural powerhouse known as hip-hop. Seeds of tenuous literary beginnings have blossomed into strong ongoing traditions. Strategic protests against American apartheid, including the routine brutal lynching of African Americans, developed into a movement that eventually saw the election of the United States’ first African-American president: Barack Obama .
The men and women of the Harlem Renaissance made up a kind of peaceful army of agents of change. Their creative genius as literary artists, musicians, visual artists, social theorists, educators, and political leaders helped move the world forward from times of war, oppression, and poverty, to times of greater political cooperation, racial equanimity, and economic growth. Much of the world is struggling with such issues at this very moment. And, also at this very moment, many of those who are creatively inclined are trying to help humanity weave its way around the bloodshed to more life-enhancing solutions.
Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance has come to serve as one of the fundamental works for understanding the wider scope of the much-celebrated movement. Its publication helped to inspire further studies of the period and readers can find it cited in numerous biographies and reference books that were published later. It is a title that is much bigger than the authors who produced it and one that continues to add to the discovery, and re-discovery, of one of humanity’s great cultural heirlooms.
author of The Wisdom of W.E.B. Du Bois
and The American Poet Who Went Home Again
Supporter of principles advocated by PEN American Center and the Academy of American Poets, Aberjhani is also the Choice Academic Title Award-winning co-author of the world's first Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.