Harlem is a large neighborhood within the northern section of New York City’s Manhattan. Originally a Dutch village, Harlem was the world’s largest black neighborhood for much of the early 20th century.

Almost everyone has heard of The Harlem Renaissance, which was a period of artistic work without precedent in the American black community during the 1920’s and 1930’s. If you have not heard of it, at the very least you’re probably familiar with Harlem’s Apollo Theatre on 125th Street. Even today, several cities across the south, from Atlanta to Jacksonville and Tampa, are quick to label a formerly vibrant black neighborhood in their community as being the “Harlem of the South.” What most don’t know is that the Harlem Renaissance is largely a result of the first Great Migration. Roughly, between 1910 and 1930, 1.6 million migrants left mostly southern, oppressive urban communities, like Jacksonville, to migrate to northern, industrial cities in search of a better life and economic opportunity.

As early as 1870, Jacksonville’s LaVilla was having its own “renaissance” with a 70% black population attracted to jobs in the area’s booming hotel, lumber, port, building, and railroad industries. While Harlem was still a Jewish and Italian community, LaVilla had become the home to Excelsior Hall, the first black-owned theatre in the South, and a black owned streetcar company. In addition, during this time, Jaxon Pat Chappelle’s Rabbit’s Foot Company dominated the entertainment scene throughout the Southeast. LaVilla also served as a brief haven for Robichaux, a “legitimate” musician, during this period after the elimination of the relative privilege of the Creole racial distinction in New Orleans and just before the implementation of Florida’s most restrictive segregation laws.

In 1909, the Airdome Theatre opened on Ashley Street, becoming the largest theatre exclusively for black people in the South. A year later, the first published account of blues singing on a public stage took place at the Airdome (Central Harlem was about 10% black). By 1916, recruiters from two northern railroads, the Pennsylvania and the New York Central were successfully drawing black workers away from Jacksonville. Due to economic conditions, white militancy, and Jim Crow laws, 16,000 African-Americans left Jacksonville between 1916 and 1917 as a part of the first Great Migration.

By 1930, the end of the first Great Migration, African-Americans accounted for 70% of Harlem’s population and it had become associated with the New Negro movement. Jacksonville’s loss became Harlem’s gain. The zenith of this “flowering of Negro literature,” as Harlem resident and former Jaxon James Weldon Johnson preferred to call the Harlem Renaissance, took place between 1924 and 1929. However, the cultural activities that made the Harlem Renaissance had been common in places like Jacksonville’s LaVilla in previous decades. Being in Harlem, introduced the black experience within the corpus of American cultural history, redefining how the world viewed African-Americans.

With that in mind, Jacksonville’s ties with the Harlem Renaissance is pretty significant. Leading Jaxsons who moved to Harlem during the early 20th century included brothers James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson, A. Philip Randolph, “Ma” Rainey, and Zora Neale Hurston. Another Jaxson, Frankie Manning, moved with his mother to New York in 1917 and eventually became recognized as one of the founding fathers of the Lindy Hop and Swing Dancing, touring with other Harlem greats like Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. James Weldon Johnson’s impact on the New Negro movement was so impactful that 2,000 attended his funeral in Harlem when he passed in 1938.

Like many vibrant early 20th century urban communities, Harlem was hit hard by the Great Depression, riots, urban renewal and Desegregation during the racially turbulent mid-20th century. Luckily, unlike Jacksonville’s LaVilla, much of Harlem was still around when thing began to make a turn for the better. Between 1990 and 2006, the neighborhood’s population grew by 16.9%. By the 2010 Census, covering 3.87 square miles, Harlem’s population stood at 335,109.

While Harlem is still in the process of making a comeback, its vibrant commercial corridors, rehabilitation of former long abandoned properties and capitalization of its cultural history should serve as a role model to cities like Jacksonville that are still struggling to bring economic development and progress back to Northwest Jacksonville and the urban core. Today, Metro Jacksonville takes a stroll around the streets and Harlem and wonders… what if?










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Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com