Who Were the 5 Most Famous Women of the Harlem Renaissance?

We look through the most significant women of the Harlem Renaissance, who played a pivotal role in the development of the movement.

Mar 3, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

most famous women of the harlem renaissance

 

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, cover photo of The Crisis, March 1919.
Georgia Douglas Johnson, cover photo of The Crisis, March 1920.

 

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 harlem renaissance
The signer Bessie Smith during the Harlem Renaissance

 

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

augusta savage harlem renaissance
Artist Augusta Savage during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance

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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

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American writer and activist Alice Dunbar-Nelson during the Harlem Renaissance

 

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
Writer, anthropologist and filmmaker Zora Neale Hurston during the Harlem Renaissance

 

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.”

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.