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Harlem Renaissance had deep roots in Washington, D.C. a walking tour showed

The Harlem Renaissance was actually born in Washington, D.C., where Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and other literary greats were writing and publishing before they went to New York, according to a "Literary Walking Tour: U Street and the Harlem Renaissance" May 24.

Harlem Renaissance had deep roots in Washington, according to a literary walking tour and new app by D.C. Public Library and Humanities Council of D.C.
'The New Negro' anthology (1925) launched the Harlem Renaissance. First edition Knopf
Harlem Renaissance had deep roots in Washington, D.C. a literary walking tour showed May 24
Courtesy of The Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. and the D.C. Public Library

The tour, led by literary historian and award-winning poet Kim Roberts, launched an app "DC By the Book", featuring Washington sites depicted in significant literary works.

"Harlem Renaissance was a horrible name for that movement," Roberts told the 60 tour members. "If you remember nothing else, remember that D.C. was one of the most significant places for the movement -- you could even claim that Washington is actually where the movement was born."

A better name would have been the "New Negro Move

ment", Harlem Renaissance author and poet Sterling A. Brown wrote in "The New Negro in Literature (1925-1955)". He argued that "Washington was the more serious city for artists during the Harlem Renaissance than New York," Roberts noted.

D.C. native Brown, with a masters from Harvard, was the first Washington Poet Laureate, and a professor at Washington's Howard University for 40 years.

The Harlem Renaissance arguably began with the 1925 publication of "The New Negro" anthology, edited by Alain Locke, who wrote the title essay. Locke, like Brown, was also a Harvard-educated, 40-year Howard University professor. Locke was also the first African American Rhodes Scholar, historian Roberts added.

"'The New Negro' is still in print, and it's still terrific," she added.

The tour's first reading was from Locke's foreword to "The New Negro". It notes "an unusual outburst of creative expression...a renewed race-spirit that consciously and proudly sets itself apart."

Howard University fostered creative expression for many of these writers. Howard student Zora Neale Hurston termed it "the capstone of Negro education in the world. It is to the Negro what Harvard is to the whites," she wrote in her autobiography, "Dust Tracks on the Road".

Howard's literary magazine, "The Stylus", published her first story, "John Redding Goes to Sea", in 1921.

Hurston's "Why Negroes Are Black", a segment of her novel "Mules and Men" (1935) was read aloud by a very enthusiastic tour member. Each participant who volunteered to "deliver" one of the 13 excerpts from books featured on the tour, was given a book.

Hurston's anthropological research was funded by a grant from the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, created and funded mostly by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who also briefly hired Langston Hughes as a clerk, said historian Roberts.

Before Dr. Woodson, known as the "Father of Black History", there was very little accurate written history about African Americans. He was the second trained black historian, after W.E.B. du Bois (both earned doctorates at Harvard).

At one of the Association's former sites, now a Starbucks, Roberts said that when Woodson established Negro History Week, now African American History Month, he "created a whole new field. All African American studies, women's studies, gay studies -- it all grew out of that."

Other stops and readings included:

  • Jean Toomer lived on 1351 U Street, N.W, when his "Cane", an "early masterpiece" of the movement was published in 1923. "That really electrified a lot of young writers," Roberts said.

Toomer, a D.C. native, was the grandson of P.B.S. Pinchback, Louisiana's first black Senator, and also the first governor of African-American descent of any state (and the only one in more than 115 years, until Douglas Wilder's 1989 election as Governor of Virginia.)

  • Jesse Redmon Fauset, a writer and teacher, who rented rooms at 1812 13th Street between T and S Streets, N.W., was credited by Langston Hughes in his autobiography "The Big Sea" as one of "the people who midwifed the so-called New Negro Literature into being. Kind and critical ... they nursed us along until our books were born." Alain Locke was another "midwife" Hughes credited.

In Fauset's "Plum Bun" (1928), a woman of "mixed blood" amuses herself by lunching "at an exclusive restaurant whose patrons would have been panic-stricken if they had divined the presence of a 'colored' woman no matter how little her appearance differed from theirs."

  • Langston Hughes rented a single-occupancy room at the 12th Street Y, now the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage, a National Historic Landmark. Hughes moved around D.C. for a mere 14 unhappy months. "I didn't like my job, and I didn't know what was going to happen to me, and I was cold and half-hungry, so I wrote a great many poems," he wrote in "The Big Sea".

Like it or not, in Washington Hughes had his first public reading, had the first publications of poems in two of the most significant journals, the NAACP's "The Crisis" and the National Urban League's "Opportunity", and got the first book contract for his poems, "The Weary Blues", Roberts said. ("The Crisis" and "Opportunity" still exist.)

  • Richard Bruce Nugent, who lived at 1231 T Street, N.W., was the "first openly gay African American writer," Roberts commented. In 1926, in the literary journal "Fire", he published a short story "Smoke, Lilies, and Jade", widely considered the first gay fiction by an African American.

Nugent and Langston Hughes met at Georgia Douglas Johnson’s literary salon, The Saturday Nighters. Hughes and Nugent would have such a good time, "they just didn't want it to end, so Hughes would walk him here, then Nugent would walk Hughes home, and then he'd walk Nugent home," Roberts said. "There was such a sense of ferment and excitement."

Nugent, also an actor and visual artist, is now known for his poetry. His excerpt was from his passionate sonnet "Pattern for Future Dirges". It speaks of love's "fear and joy"; "melancholy and delight".

  • Duke Ellington, when a teenager, lived in two townhouses almost across from each other on 13th Street, N.W. Edward Kennedy (Duke) Ellington lived there "when he first became interested in music. He took piano lessons from a neighbor, and began visiting area clubs when he was underage," Roberts said.

He lived in seven different places in D.C. The renowned composer, band leader, and pianist, in "Music Is My Mistress", wrote lovingly of his parents who let his feet "touch the ground" by introducing him to music.

Ellington formed his first two bands in Washington, and performed the first gig with his own band, "Duke’s Serenaders" at the True Reformers Hall second floor dance hall at 1200 U Street. The 1905 hall is another National Historic Landmark. His second, "Washingtonians", was a leading society band. Ellington moved to Harlem in 1923.

His highest compliment was to say something is "Beyond Category".

The tour ended where it had begun, across from the historic Lincoln Theatre, where Ellington, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald... performed. African American-owned and -managed, it began in 1922 as a first-run movie house. "It was the place to see and be seen," Roberts said. Its Lincoln Colonnade Nightclub was a speakeasy during Prohibition."

Now a National Historic Landmark, it's the centerpiece of U Street. Pearl Bailey, who grew up here, gave it the nickname "Washington's Black Broadway".

The U Street Corridor in the 1940s began a "slow economic decline, and then was decimated in the 1968 riots sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.," the historian said. "It didn't begin to recover economically until the real estate boom in the 1990s -- anyone remember that? And a renewed interest in historic preservation in the past 20 years has brought new investment to the area, and a new interest in the Harlem Renaissance period."

Now, this Washington area is having its own renaissance, and it is "beyond category".

For more info: "Literary Walking Tour: U Street and the Harlem Renaissance". More tours to be scheduled; check dcbythebook.org. App "DC By the Book" for iPhones and Androids. For more about these writers and others in the movement, http://dclibrarylabs.org/blkren/bios. For more photos, taken by a hallowed studio formerly on U Street, see the online exhibit, "Portraits of a City: The Scurlock Photographic Studio's Legacy to Washington, D.C.", by Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, and also the book "The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise" (edited by Paul Gardullo). Humanities Council of Washington, D.C., www.wdchumanities.org. D.C. Public Library, http://dclibrary.org.