The Harlem Renaissance was a monumentally significant period in our human history, when Black African Americans found a new and unprecedented freedom of expression. Rising out of New York’s Harlem district during the ‘roaring twenties’, the movement spanned across all art forms including music, literature, poetry, theatre and art. Women played a pivotal role during the Harlem Renaissance, breaking new ground as writers, singers, artists and performers. They often created powerful, searing commentaries on the experience of being a Black woman during the early 20th century. We pay tribute to just a handful of the leading women of the Harlem Renaissance who went on to have a profound influence on the arts and culture of the United States that followed.
1. Georgia Douglas Johnson
Georgia Douglas Johnson was a prominent playwright and poet during the 1920s and 1930s. She was also a leading activist who fought against lynching. Her role as an activist often informed her writing, and she wrote with brutal, sometimes bleak honesty about the plight of African Americans during this time. She published two collections of poetry, The Heart of a Woman, (1918), and Bronze, (1922). Johnson also wrote several plays including A Sunday Morning in the South (1925), and Blue-Eyed Black Boy, (1930) all of which were searing commentaries on Civil Rights issues.
2. Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith was a popular jazz and blues singer of the 1920s, who earned the moniker as “Empress of the Blues.” She worked with Columbia Records to produce 160 recordings, and went on to become one of their most popular and sought-after artists. In her recordings and performances she worked alongside leading musicians from the Harlem Renaissance including Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson. Smith sang about some of the most pressing, yet controversial issues of the day including poverty, discrimination and violence, and as such she became a vital spokesperson for Black African American women, and one of the leading women of the Harlem Renaissance.
3. Augusta Savage
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Augusta Savage was an artist who made sculpted portraits of prominent figures from the Harlem Renaissance including W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. She studied in Paris during the 1920s, earning several prestigious awards. On her return to Harlem, she established the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts, where she taught a wide range of art classes and became an influential teacher. During the New York World Fair of 1939, Savage made a colossal sculpture titled The Harp, featuring 12 Black singers, as a tribute to the musical contribution of the Harlem Renaissance, thus cementing her place as one of the most iconic women of the Harlem Renaissance.
4. Alice Dunbar-Nelson
Alice Dunbar Nelson was a prominent writer and activist during the Harlem Renaissance. She played a pivotal role in the women’s suffrage movement, and became a representative for the Women’s Committee of the Council of Defense in 1918. As a journalist, she wrote for an array of publications, producing articles, reviews, essays and more. Meanwhile, she wrote prolifically, publishing a wide range of novels that explored issues around race and gender, including Violets and Other Tales, (1895).
5. Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston was a writer, anthropologist and filmmaker who made her name during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. After graduating from Barnard College, she went on to produce a series of short stories, including the volume Mules and Men, (1935). She continued to write about the experiences of being a Black African American woman, creating the novels Their Eyes Were Watching God, (1937), Tell My Horse, (1938), Moses, Man of the Mountain, (1939), and Dust Tracks on a Road, (1942). Summing up the mindset in many women of the Harlem Renaissance, she wrote in a letter to a friend, “I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than climb upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions.”