What is Harlem and the Harlem Renaissance?

A walk in Harlem near the Harlem Hospital in New York City.

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 20th century. After World War I, as a result of the Great Migration, a period of artistic work without precedent in the American Black community took place in Harlem during the 1920’s and 1930’s. This period in time became known as the Harlem Renaissance and has been considered a golden age in Black culture, manifesting in literature, music, stage performance and art. Since that time, nearly every southern city of decent size prior to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, has claimed their largest historic Black neighborhood as being a “Harlem of the South.”

Richmond’s Jackson Ward is also known as a “Harlem of the South.”

Seven Harlems of the South

1. Belmont DeVilliers

Pensacola, Florida

Belmont DeVilliers is one of two Florida locations along the Mississippi Blues Trail.

A result of Florida’s Jim Crow laws mandating segregation in 1905, Belmont-DeVilliers is the historic cultural heart of Pensacola’s Black community. The neighborhood is associated with John Sunday, Jr. Sunday was a 19th century building contractor and philanthropist who constructed hundreds of homes throughout the city. At the time of his retirement, he was said to be the wealthiest Black man in Florida’s Panhandle.

Also known as “the Blocks,” the neighborhood’s jazz and blues era district is centered around the intersection of Belmont and DeVilliers Streets. Located just northwest of Downtown Pensacola, Belmont-Devilliers is the only Florida neighborhood included as a part of the Mississippi Blues Trail. Unlike most of the “Harlems of the South,” the neighborhood was not decimated by interstate highway construction during the 1950s and 1960s and it still retains much of its original density, architectural character and sense of place.

A historic photograph of the intersection of West Belmont and North DeVilliers streets.

The modern day intersection of West Belmont and North DeVilliers streets.

2. Central Park (The Scrub)

Tampa, Florida

Known as The Scrub, Central Park’s Central Avenue was considered to be Tampa’s version of the Harlem of the South. (Tampa Bay History Center)

Tampa’s first African-American neighborhood, The Scrub was settled shortly after the Civil War by freemen emancipated from the area. Significant growth came with the extension of Henry Plant’s railroad in 1883 and the introduction of the cigar industry two years later. From the 1890s through the first half of the 20th century, Central Avenue just north of Downtown Tampa, was the center of black life in the city and the Bay Area’s “Harlem of the South”.

Notable residents include Ray Charles, who recorded his first song, Found My Baby There, after living in the city briefly following his moves from Orlando, Jacksonville and St. Augustine during the late 1940s. Following World War II, the construction of public housing projects, Interstates 4 and 275 eliminated much of Central Park from existence.

Infill multifamily housing along Ray Charles Boulevard.

Built in 1913 at 510 E. Harrison Street, the historic St. Paul A.M.E. Church building has been restored into a clubhouse for the Metro 510 apartment complex next door. Metro 510 is a 120-unit affordable loft apartment building that was erected in 2011.

3. Church Street

Norfolk, Virginia

Much of the area along Church Street was razed for thousands of units of public housing as a form of urban renewal. Redevelopment of these sites is now underway.

Laid in 1680, Church Street is one of Norfolk’s original streets. Once an Eastern European immigrant district, African Americans began moving into the neighborhoods around the corridor during the 1920s. By the 1930s and 1940s, Church Street had become the cultural epicenter for the 44,000 African Americans residing in Norfolk’s boundaries. Famed for its live entertainment venues, performances and street music, it evolved to become known as Norfolk’s . Located at 1010 Church Street, the Attucks Theater was a well known destination on the Chitlin Circuit. Backed by the Navy, Norfolk was the first city in the country to have an urban renewal plan approved under the Federal Housing Act. Norfolk then proceeded to destroy much of its urban core, including the Church Street corridor.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in the middle of Church Street and Brambleton Avenue.

The historic First Baptist Church and new infill housing on East Bute Street, just west of Church Street.