In the 1920’s Harlem was a bustling neighborhood and hubspot for African American artistic excellence. It was home to writers, philosophers, actors, musicians, and the like who all helped contribute to an era of great growth for African American art, literature, and culture.
During this time, Harlem was often welcoming for LGBT people and they formed a community, hanging out at famous spots like Connie’s Inn and the lavish parties held in the home of A’Lelia Walker.
In celebration of Pride Month this Five You Should Know post identifies black cultural icons of the Harlem Renaissance who identified as LGBT, both publicly and privately.
A literary genius, James Baldwin explored the themes of race, sexuality, and class in his writing. A staunch supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin moved abroad in his early twenties to distance himself from American prejudice and would spend most of his life living away from the United States. One of his most famous works, “The Fire Next Time” is still used to illustrate and facilitate discussion around race today.
A celebrated writer and activist, Baldwin also maintained close relationships with other literary heavyweights like Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, and Maya Angelou.
More on Baldwin’s life and legacy in this New York Times Obituary.
Bessie Smith started her blues career singing on the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA) circuit that catered to African American audiences and performers. Her powerful voice caught the attention of Clarence Williams, a popular composer during the 1920s. Smith recorded her first single, “Down-hearted Blues” with Williams and became the most successful vaudeville blues singer of her time. She would go on to record with other jazz instrumentalists including: Louis Armstrong, Charlie Green, Joe Smith, Tommy Ladnier, and James P. Johnson.
Smith along with Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, and Gladys Bentley defied the common gender stereotypes of the times and they often sang lyrics hinting at their love for other women, although Bentley is the only one to have publicly confirmed her sexuality.
Listen to Smith’s voice.
Mabel Hampton was a writer, activist, and former dancer. She moved to New York City in her early twenties and first worked as a domestic.
Hampton was heavily involved in theater, dancing in cabarets like the Garden of Joy and even appeared in several all-black productions at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem. In the early 1920’s Hampton was arrested on trumped up prostitution charges and was incarcerated at Bedford Hills Reform School for Women.
Listen as Hampton discusses being “in the life” during the 1920’s in Harlem.
Richard Bruce Nugent was born and raised in Washington, DC to a family in DC’s high black society. He eventually met and befriend Langston Hughes at Georgia Douglas Johnson’s famous artistic salon and the two would go on to publish, Fire!!, a black revolutionary literary magazine. They later became prominent members of the Harlem Renaissance scene. Since Nugent was openly gay, he would draw and write under the pseudonym “Richard Bruce” to avoid igniting the disapproval of his family,
His most famous work, “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” was the first published African American literary work to feature a prominent gay theme.
Gladys Bentley began her blues career singing at rent parties and buffet flats in Harlem, New York. As her popularity grew, she began performing at Harry Hansberry’s Clam House, a notorious speakeasy in “Jungle Alley” that was frequented by LGBT people during the 1920s.
Openly lesbian, Bentley wore men’s formal wear during many of her performances and her powerful voice was backed by men dressed in drag. She would later denounce her lesbianism during the McCarthy era in a now famous piece published in Ebony Magazine entitled “I Am Woman Again.”
Post compiled by Lanae S., Digital Content Specialist, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.