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Women of the Harlem Renaissance

5 Well-known Women Who Greatly Influenced the Harlem Renaissance

Harlem Renaissance was an intellectual movement that stirred up the African-American community in the 1920s. Primarily a literary movement, it also showed considerable developments in the African-American performing arts and politics. Know more about the women, who played a crucial role during this phase.
Historyplex Staff
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
Calling Dreams
The right to make my dreams come true
I ask, nay, I demand of life,
Nor shall fate's deadly contraband
Impede my steps, nor countermand.

Too long my heart against the ground
Has beat the dusty years around,
And now, at length, I rise, I wake!
And stride into the morning break!

― Georgia Douglas Johnson

The Harlem Renaissance or the New Negro Movement began in the 1920s in Harlem, New York. The movement started after World War I, and lost momentum during the Great Depression of 1935. The middle-class African-American families of the South, moved to the industrial cities after the Civil War, in search of jobs. Many settled in the newly-built suburb of Harlem. These families were educated and socially conscious. During the 1910s, a new wave of racial equality took its foothold. The protests for civil rights by the African-American leaders inspired artists from all walks of life. It was during this period that critics took a serious note of literature and arts of the African-Americans. The Harlem Renaissance was not confined to the American land, but spread its wings all over Europe.

There were dozens of women, who actively shaped the Harlem Renaissance with their contributions in literature and arts. The few of them, who dared make a difference are discussed below.

Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880-1966)
Georgia Blanche Douglas Camp Johnson was born to George Camp and Laura Jackson Camp in Atlanta, Georgia. Her mixed ancestry was a theme in some of her literary works. She completed her graduation from the Atlanta University Normal School in 1896. She also attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in 1902, followed by the Cleveland College of Music. She went on to become a poet, a playwright, and a journalist.

She published her first poem in 1916, in NAACP's Crisis magazine. Her first book of poetry, The Heart of a Woman, was published in 1918. It focused on the experiences of a woman. In the collection, Bronze (1922), her poems based on racial experiences, she had faced in her career, were published. Her best known book, An Autumn Love Cycle, was published in 1925. She had written more than 200 poems, 40 plays, 30 songs, and edited 100 books by the 1930s. Most of her unpublished works were lost, and many of her papers were thrown away after her funeral.

Augusta Savage (1892-1962)
Augusta Savage was born to Edward Fells and Cornelia Fells in Green Cove Springs, Florida. She studied at the Florida State Normal School, and then at the Cooper Union between 1921-24. She studied sculpture under Hermon MacNeil, in Paris, and then at the Academia de la Chaumiere, under Charles Despiau between 1930-31.

Augusta Savage had to struggle to get recognition for her art due to the barriers of race and sex. She had sculpted busts of an African-American leader, "W. E. B." Du Bois, for a New York Public Library branch. She also sculpted the busts of Marcus Garvey, Frederick Douglass, James Weldon Johnson, W.C. Handy, and others. Her piece 'Gamin' brought her recognition and she won a scholarship from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation, which helped fund for her study in Europe in 1930. In 1937, the Harlem Community Art Center appointed her as its first director. In 1939, she opened her own gallery. She was commissioned to sculpt pieces based on James Weldon Johnson's Lift Every Voice and Sing, for the 1939 New York World's Fair. Only a few photos of her exhibits remain, as the pieces were destroyed after the fair.

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)
Zora Hurston was born to John Hurston and Lucy Ann Hurston in Notasulga, Alabama. Her family moved to an all-black town, Eatonville, in Florida, when she was three. In 1901, Hurston began taking interest in literature, after a group of visiting Northern teachers gifted her some books. She considered this period so important that later on, she would often give her date of birth as 1901, to signify her life-changing introduction to literature.

Hurston studied anthropology at the Howard University and later, the Columbia University, all the while carrying on with her writing. Her primary literary work came in the 1930s, when she published three books, Jonah's Gourd Vine, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Moses, Man of the Mountain. Her hometown, Eatonville, was prominently featured in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Her work gained fame primarily after she died, with Their Eyes Were Watching God becoming one of the best-known icons of the Harlem Renaissance.

Nella Larsen (1891-1964)
Nella Larsen was born to a West Indies-born father and a Danish mother. She was a famous writer during the Harlem Renaissance. Her two novels, Quicksand and Passing, were based on gender and racial issues. She became the first African-American woman to win the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship for her creative writing. Her career was cut short with the end of the Harlem Renaissance, and she devoted the next 30 years of her life as a supervising nurse in a New York hospital.

Bessie Smith (1894-1937)
Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Ma Rainey, the famous blues singer, supported Bessie during her early career. After completing her tour of the South, she moved to the New York City in 1923. Her deep, expressive voice had remarkable intensity and power. She recorded with leading jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong, James P. Johnson, and Benny Goodman. She became a popular blues singer, and was reported to earn $2,000 a week during her peak time. She lost most of her fan-following to radio and Hollywood movie music. Later, she became an alcoholic, but still managed to complete her singing assignments. Bessie was killed in a car crash in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

The glorious days of the Harlem Renaissance came to an end with the onset of the Great Depression. Organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League, which once funded the growth of art and literature, focused on economic and social issues which cropped up in the 1930s. The 1935 riot between the black community and white shop-owners in Harlem, brought the Harlem Renaissance to a standstill. The New Negro Movement ended gradually after most of the people who helped in the birth of the movement, either moved out of Harlem or stopped writing. The new talent which emerged did not correlate with the Harlem Renaissance.

The Harlem Renaissance gave a new identity, not only to the African-Americans, but also to the entire black community around the world. It made the world sit up and appreciate the talent of the African-Americans.