Harlem History

Throughout the 1920s, 30s and 40s, Harlem earned its reputation as the Mecca for Jazz and blues. Venues like the Cotton Club and Apollo Theater made stars out of entertainers such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, Michael Jackson, D'Angelo and Lauryn Hill. While the Cotton Club closed its doors years ago, The Apollo Theater still lights up with major headlining acts. Harlem has a unique history. Long before it became the diverse enclave it is today, Harlem was a haven for European immigrants and citizens of European descent. Attracted by its fertile soil and location, which presented military advantages, Dutch settlers founded Harlem in 1658. Governor Peter Stuyvesant named the town Nieuw Haarlem after a city in Holland—British immigrants renamed it Harlem.

Early Harlem’s economy centered on agriculture until the railroad and Manhattan street system brought industry to the area. A housing boom ensued; however over-zealous builders found their buildings empty and opened their doors to tenants of all colors. According to a 1910 Census, Harlem had a population of around 500,000; only 50,000 were African American and 75,000 were native-born whites, the rest were immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Hungary, Russia, England, Italy and Scandinavia. By 1930, the African American population grew to over 200,000.

Before the Great Depression, Harlem’s reputation as an economic and political powerhouse for the African American community was unrivaled in the US. After the stock market crash, Harlem went through hard times but in no way faded from public consciousness. In the 1950s and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, influential leaders like Malcolm X and Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (who helped move the Civil Rights Bill through Washington) motivated residents to take action.

Congressman Charles B. Rangel, who lives in Harlem, is now serving his 17th term as the Representative of the 15th Congressional District, comprising East and Central Harlem, the Upper West Side, and Washington Heights/Inwood. Congressman Rangel is the Ranking Member of the Committee on Ways and Means, Chairman of the Board of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Dean of the New York State Congressional Delegation. Congressman Rangel is the principal author of the $5 billion Federal Empowerment Zone demonstration project to revitalize urban neighborhoods throughout America.

The Committee on Racial Equality (CORE) opened offices on 125th Street, and acted as liaisons between Harlem residents and the City, particularly during racial unrest. Most notably, CORE urged civilian review boards to do something about police abuse. Harlem has seen heated political and social uprisings, including the 1968 riot following Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.

In 1989, Harlem gained political clout when David N. Dinkins was elected as the first black mayor of New York City. In the 1990s, during Harlem’s Renaissance, entrepreneurs, investors and forward-thinking residents renovated buildings, started businesses, while crime rates dropped. Today’s real estate frenzy and ever-evolving demographics characterize Harlem’s New Rush. Through its vibrant past, flourishing present and promising future, Harlem is diversity at its best.