Harlem has multiple and layered meanings in our world of black art, history, and socio-political activism. Recent events surrounding attempts to rescue and preserve Langston Hughes’ Harlem brownstone from encroaching gentrification raise questions, and hopefully will evoke more interest in a powerful legacy that should be preserved for us all—no matter our race or location.
Over 800 people have donated to a nonprofit arts group that plans to turn Hughes’ long-time home into an arts collective. Money and supported flooded in over the weekend after CNNMoney highlighted the effort to save the home from gentrification on Friday. The story went viral. Journalist Dan Rather and African-American magazine The Root shared the story on Facebook, among others. “We are so grateful for the outpouring of support. We will be able to sign a three year lease with the option to buy or renew,” says Renee Watson, a writer in Harlem who is leading the campaign.
Hughes lived on 20 E. 127th Street in East Harlem from 1948 until his death in 1967. It was an epicenter of the Harlem Renaissance, with jazz and poetry regularly heard by anyone passing by.Today, the home sits silent. No one lives there. The current owner has attempted to sell it before. With property values in the area skyrocketing, Watson figured it was only a matter of time. The owner told Watson she would hold off on putting the home up for sale again and even sign a three-year lease, if Watson could raise $40,000 by September 1 to show the effort had momentum. That goal has now been met — and exceeded.
The home has been on the auction block in the recent past.
Born in Missouri in 1902, Hughes befriended young writers involved in the Harlem Renaissance while studying at Columbia University in 1921.He began writing and traveled the globe, working in Europe, Africa and Russia. But he was always drawn back to East Harlem. In the 1930s, Hughes met Emerson and Toy Harper, an older couple who treated him like a son. While living in a W. 141st St. studio apartment, he would often eat dinner at the couple’s house nearby.After Emerson Harper found the house at 20 E. 127th St. between Madison and Fifth Aves. in 1947, Hughes bought the home with the Harpers. Using the top floor as a workroom over the next two decades, he penned 20 books, including “Simple Speaks His Mind” and “The First Book of Negroes,” four plays and hundreds of poems, including “Montage of a Dream Deferred.”
Hughes lived in the house until his 1967 death at age 65 after undergoing abdominal surgery at Polyclinic Hospital in Midtown Manhattan.The Harpers’ son, James Emerson Harper, sold the house in 1985 to Prince and her then-husband Albert Davis. Two business partners, Shon Miller and Marc Cary, leased the house in 2007, opening it to the public and starting a non-profit dedicated to the writer’s memory. Miller and Cary were evicted in 2008 and Prince put the house on the market with an initial asking price of $1.2 million in May 2009. A total renovation is needed before moving in. The house’s listing begins with a message to would-be buyers: “Bring your architect and contractors!”
Paul Lusignan, historian at the National Register of Historic Places, which added the Hughes house to its list in 1982, hopes its character will be maintained. “When property owners take it on themselves to renovate to bring a place back toward its original quality, we see it as a very positive thing,” he said. “Hopefully, if there’s a new owner, they’ll be working to preserve those qualities.”
I have written about Langston Hughes here in the past, most recently in “Simply Langston” on the occasion of a google doodle in his honor which kicked off Black History Month in 2015, and Justice Putnam has frequently featured his poetry.
Hughes was a key player in what would bring Harlem into pre-eminence on the world stage. Now — that Harlem is disappearing.
Michael Henry Adams, historian and author of “Harlem Lost and Found” with photographer Paul Rocheleau, wrote an op-ed last May for The New York Times: “The End of Black Harlem: Newcomers say gentrification is about wealth, not race. But that’s a distinction without a difference.”
I have lived in Harlem for half my life — 30 years. I have seen it in all its complexities: a cultural nexus of black America, the landing place for Senegalese immigrants and Southern transplants, a home for people fleeing oppression and seeking opportunity. Harlem is the birthplace of so much poetry and music and beauty, but in the eyes of many who have never set foot here, it has long been a swamp of pain and suffering. It is also changing, rapidly. A few years ago I was on Eighth Avenue, also known as Frederick Douglass Boulevard, picketing a fund-raiser for a politician who was pushing for denser mixed-use zoning along 125th Street, the “Main Street” of my sprawling neighborhood. Harlem has seen an influx of tourists, developers and stroller-pushing young families, described in the media as “urban pioneers,” attracted by city tax abatements. New high-end housing and hip restaurants have also played their part. So have various public improvements, like new landscaping and yoga studios. In general all this activity has helped spruce the place up. Not surprisingly, on that day a few passers-by shot us ugly looks, as if to say, “Why can’t you accept a good thing?”
But even then, a few boys passing by on their bikes understood what was at stake. As we chanted, “Save Harlem now!” one of them inquired, “Why are y’all yelling that?” We explained that the city was encouraging housing on the historic, retail-centered 125th Street, as well as taller buildings. Housing’s good, in theory, but because the median income in Harlem is less than $37,000 a year, many of these new apartments would be too expensive for those of us who already live here. Hearing this, making a quick calculation, one boy in glasses shot back at his companions, “You see, I told you they didn’t plant those trees for us.” It was painful to realize how even a kid could see in every new building, every historic renovation, every boutique clothing shop — indeed in every tree and every flower in every park improvement — not a life-enhancing benefit, but a harbinger of his own displacement.
In fact, it’s already happening. Rents are rising; historic buildings are coming down. The Renaissance, where Duke Ellington performed, and the Childs Memorial Temple Church of God in Christ, where Malcolm X’s funeral was held, have all been demolished. Night life fixtures like Smalls’ Paradise and Lenox Lounge are gone.
I agree with Adams’ assessment. I didn’t grow up in Harlem, though friends of the family did. My parents took us to events in Harlem. We visited places like the Apollo Theater, and the Schomburg Library, which is now the Schomburg Center, where Langston Hughes’ ashes are embedded in a cosmogram in the floor. Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka once danced there.
I went to High School there, got one of my first jobs there in the black arts hub of the Truth Coffee Shop where I encountered Malcolm X, and later worked for HARYOU Act. I organized, and lived there in the late 60’s and early 70’s in the Young Lords and the Black Panther Party. I partied and went to clubs in Harlem. My husband was born and raised in Harlem. My work as an ethnographer was conducted in Harlem. Harlem is like a second home—a cultural and spiritual mecca, for me. It is painful to see it change, and so much of it being swallowed up by an influx of newcomers who have little or no appreciation for its riches.
The period known as the Harlem Renaissance—with its writers, poets, painters, dancers, musicians, playwrights, filmmakers, philosophers, sociologists and political activists shaped my sensibilities and made me much of who I am today.
Examining a photograph of a young Langston Hughes at a party given in his honor, captured on a Harlem rooftop, I realized I need to re-visit that time period.
“Author Langston Hughes [far left] with [left to right:] Charles S. Johnson; E. Franklin Frazier; Rudolph Fisher and Hubert T. Delaney, on the roof of 580 St. Nicholas Avenue, Harlem, on the occasion of a party in Hughes’ honor, 1924.”
The photo gives just a glimpse of a few of the people who intersected in Harlem to change the course of history.
Charles S. Johnson, was a sociologist, and went on to become the first black president of Fisk University. E. Franklin Frazier, also a preeminent sociologist, wrote an important, and controversial critique of the black middle class — The Black Bourgeoisie. Rudolph Fisher was a physician, orator, music arranger, and writer. Hubert T. Delaney, became one of the first appointed black judges in New York City, and was the brother of Sadie and Bessie Delany, co-authors of Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years.
A snapshot of an era that only scratches the surface of those whom Harlem nurtured. There are so many people to discuss, and not enough space to do so in this one post. Just as Chitown Kev has vowed to explore the black press and black journalists over the next few months, I’ll be bringing you the history of Harlem and its connections to both the greater white world, and blacks both here in the U.S. and globally.
I hope Langston Hughes’ home is preserved, and his legacy continues to inspire new generations.
Also hoping that if we hop on the A Train — we’ll still get to Harlem we can recognize.