The Harlem Renaissance

Day One Instructions:
1. Read the introduction and the biographies. As you read through each person's information, write down 3 facts about the person on your "People of the 1920s" worksheet
2. Using the additional links provided, find three more facts about the person

3. Upon finishing, take the quiz that is located at the bottom of the page.

The Harlem Renaissance was a time period in which many African Americans celebrated art, literature, and music that expressed their roots and their culture.
The Harlem Renaissance Review:

The Cause of the Harlem Renaissance

Before World War I, a large number of African Americans in America lived in the South. Although slaves were given their freedom after the Civil War, many had no place to go or no money to leave the plantations that they had been working on. For this reason, many former slaves continued to work in the South, doing the same type of job they had been doing before. Some African Americans were able to move west and acquire land through the Homestead Act (160 acres of land given to anyone who is willing to farm it for five years). Others moved to the North, where jobs were plentiful (factory work) and major cities had been developing.

During World War I, many of the factory workers in the North left their jobs in order to join the military and fight overseas. This left an enormous number of job openings. While women helped to fill these vacancies, there was still a large demand for workers in the North. Seeing this as an opportunity for a better lifestyle, thousands of African Americans moved from the plantations in the South to the cities in the North. This movement was known as the "Great Migration."

One city that saw an increase in its African American population was New York City--specifically, the area of Harlem. In this area in the 1920s, people began creating new works of art, literature, and music to celebrate their culture and their roots. Among the famous artists, poets, and musicians were: Jacob Lawrence; Langston Hughes; Bessie Smith; Ella Fitzgerald; Duke Ellington; and Louis Armstrong.

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The Harlem Renaissance



The Artists

Jacob Lawrence
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Jacob Lawrence, painting a scene from the Great Migration

Although Jacob Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, his family moved to the area of Harlem at a young age. Influenced by other artists in his neighborhood, he took up painting at an early age. Although he dropped out of school at 16, he was able to enroll in an art institute, where he developed his skill. His style, "Cubism," tries to show a mood through vivid colors and shapes rather than trying to display a realistic portrait. During his career, he became one of the most well-known African American artists, and his unique style was in high demand throughout the United States. Lawrence often painted scenes depicting African-American struggles. His paintings of the "Great Migration" are still very popular today.

Later in high life, Jacob Lawrence would serve in the military (during World War II), and in 1970 would become an art professor at the University of Washington. Lawrence died in the year 2000, at 82 years old.

Jacob Lawrence Links:
Wikipedia Entry on Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence Exploring Stories
Jacob Lawrence Online

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Painting of the Great Migration: What major cities are they going to?
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Another painting from the Great Migration


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This painting depicts the injustices that African Americans often faced in the court system
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This painting shows the excitement and community in a Harlem neighborhood





The Writers

Langston Hughes
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Langston Hughes, 1930


Langston Hughes, a famous poet of the Harlem Renaissance, was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902. After spending his childhood in a variety of places (Cuba, Mexico, Kansas, Illinois, Ohio), he would eventually end up in New York City, where he went to school at Columbia University. Although he maintained a B+ average, racial prejudices at the school caused him to drop out and move from the area to the nearby neighbordhood of Harlem, where many writers and poets were beginning to develop their talents.

Hughes began writing poetry at a young age, and although his father wanted him to study engineering, he pursued his dream of becoming a poet while in Harlem. During this point, he worked odd jobs, moved to Washington D.C., and then re-enroll in school, this time at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Upon his graduation, he returned to Harlem, where he stayed for the remainder of his life.

During his lifetime, Hughes won several awards for his poetry, including, in 1960, the NCAAP's Spignarn Medal for outstanding achievements by an African American.

In 1965, complications in a surgery led to his death. He was 63 years old.

Links to sites on Langston Hughes:
WIkipedia Entry on Langston Hughes
Poets.org Entry on Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes: Teacher Resource File


Selection from "I, too, Sing America," by Langston Hughes
I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
Then.

Besides,
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--

I, too, am America.

Selection from "A New Song," by Langston Hughes

I speak in the name of the black millions
Awakening to action.
Let all others keep silent a moment
I have this word to bring,
This thing to say,
This song to sing:
Bitter was the day
When I bowed my back
Beneath the slaver's whip.

That day is past




The Music

Duke Ellington
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Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington, born in 1899 in Washington D.C., would ultimately become one of the most influential Jazz artists in American history. Although he began taking piano lessons at the age of seven, his main interest was in baseball. He could recall his youth, when then-President Theodore Roosevelt would ride by on his horse, and stop to watch the young Duke and his friends play. His first job was selling peanuts for the Washington Senators, then a professional baseball team.

Ellington did have a love for music, and continued to play. By the age of 15, he had composed his first piece, despite not knowing how to read or write music. He began performing at parties and other social functions in D.C. and the surrounding areas, and became more and more popular. When his drummer was invited to play in a Harlem Orchestra in 1920, Ellington's entire band went. Unfortunately, the jazz scene in Harlem was extremely competitive, and it was difficult to make any money. Discouraged, the band went back to D.C. and continued to play.

In early1923, Duke and his band were able to get a job in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Their performance was overwhelmingly popular and led to their return to Harlem, where everyone now wanted to hear them play. In 1927, Duke Ellington and his orchestra were able to play in the Cotton Club in Harlem--the most well known venue in the area. From this period, until 1942, he and his band remained extremely popular. People came from all over to hear them play. In 1943, Duke played in Carnegie Hall, one of the first Jazz musicians to do so. His band continued to play until the 1970s.

Duke died of lung cancer and pneumonia in 1974, just one month after his 75th birthday.

Links to sites about Duke Ellington:
Wikipedia entry on Duke Ellington
Official website of Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington Centennial Celebration



Song and Video of "It don't mean a thing (If it ain't got that swing)"


It Dont Mean A Thing - Ella Fitzgerald & Duke Ellington


The Music

Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong, or Satchmo (as he was known), was born on August 4th, 1901, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Armstrong was born to a very poor family, and was raised by his grandmother for much of his childhood. He worked from an early age, delivering newspapers in a bad neighborhood. Here, he was exposed to a lot of different types of music, which would soon influence his life dramatically.

Armstrong dropped out of school at an early age, so that he could make money and help support his family. He often got into trouble as a young boy. As a teenager, however, Armstrong was able to enroll into a music school, where his director helped set him on the right track. He began to play all throughout the city of New Orleans.

By the age of twenty, Armstrong had been married and divorced, adopted his three year old nephew, and moved to the "Windy City" of Chicago, where he joined "King" Oliver's creole Jazz band. Chicago had been a major destination city for African Americans during the Great Migration, and there was a high demand for musicians in the area. Armstrong would fit the part well. He was well respected in Chicago, and lived like a king.

By 1924, Armstrong, married for a second time, decided to seperate from "King" Oliver and begin his own career in New York City. Here, his popularity would rise even more, as he recorded with Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and many others. In 1925, he briefly returned to Chicago with his new fame and new style. He was more popular than ever, even playing for Al Capone in Capone's Chicago club. By 1929, he would return to New York, where he lived the rest of his life.

Armstrong died in 1971. In his life, he received numerous awards and honors, including being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. Among his most well known hits are: Blueberry Hill and What a Wonderful World.

Links to sites about Louis Armstrong:

Wikipedia entry on Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong--Legacy Recordings
Red Hot Jazz entry on Louis Armstrong



Video and Song of: Blueberry Hill, What a Wonderful World


Blueberry Hill - Louis Armstrong


The Music

Ella Fitzgerald
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Ella Fitzgerald

"Lady Ella," as she would become known, is one of the most famous female Jazz singers in American history. Born in 1917 in Newport News, Virginia, she would move to New York at an early age when her parents separated. As a child, she was placed in the Colored Orphan Asylum in New York City. Here, she often heard music from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and enjoyed singing and dancing to it. She was still in school in 1932 when she found out that her mother had died. Depressed, her grades started to drop. She began to miss more and more school, before eventually dropping out. She began getting in trouble with police, and would eventually end up homeless in the city.

By 1934, she was able to attend the amateur night at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, and her popularity rose dramatically. People began to fill the arena to hear her sing. By 1942, she went solo in her career and would continue singing through the early 1970s.

Fitzgerald died in 1996 at the age of 79.

Ella Fitzgerald Links:
Ella Fitzgerald Entry on Wikipedia
The Official Site of Ella Fitzgerald


How High The Moon

How High The Moon - Ella Fitzgerald



The Music

Bessie Smith
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Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith, born in 1894 in Tennessee, was a well-known Blues singer during the Harlem Renaissance time period.

Smith began her career at an early age--as a child. After losing both of her her parents at an early age, she began to stand on the streets in her city of Chatanooga, Tennessee, and sing and dance for money. When her older brother joined a band in 1904, they hired her as well, but as a dancer rather than singer. Still, this gave her a start to her career. In touring various cities, she gained popularity. Additionally, this experience gave her the opportunity to learn how to act on the stage. By 1913, she was ready to take off on her own career. She began acting, dancing, and singing in a number of productions.

In the 1920s, Smith began singing Blues music. She performed mainly in the South, although she did make it to northern cities as well. She made over 160 recordings, many of which were with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and other well-known musicians of the time period.

Bessie Smith died at an early age (43) in 1937, following a car crash.

Links to Bessie Smith:
Wikipedia Entry on Bessie Smith
Red Hot Jazz Entry on Bessie Smith
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith, St. Louis Blues




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