Harlem in the Great Depression: a snapshot.

Cold winds blow as flurries trickle down. A stiff frost bears down on Harlem.

In winter’s early sunset comes rise a nascent darkness, a still gloom offset by beams of bright city lights which glow over people wandering through walkways lined with makeshift wooden shack homes and around trash which litters city streets like leaves of fall in a quaint suburban New England neighborhood. These are the barren but not the few who are impacted by a furious Great Depression.

Life now in Harlem is not the one of a past bright day when there was a skip to a jaunt in a simple stroll through the art district, in a time when even on days fraught with frigid breezes from harsh winter days, smiles gleamed wide. Back then, some would say that Harlem was a modern-day Florence.

That was the 1920s when there was a glory to Harlem. A pride to a people who fled the South in reams as part of the Great Migration. Descendants of enslaved people who, for so many generations, lived at the mercy of masters’ whips and whims in systems of torture and greed. Harlem gave these men and women the freedom to flourish in the spirit of their dreams. And how they did. Ella Fitzgerald, and Langston Hughes, are just some of the names we know, with many more given the opportunity to thrive as artists. For many in the arts, Harlem in the ’20s was the center of America, maybe even the world.

But that time has passed. Now the city erupts in chaos, ripe with an uprising from a Great Depression in which racism roars. The time is difficult for most communities around America, but black communities suffer more. Already prone to “last hired, first fired” policies, close to 50 percent of people in Harlem live unemployed, double the overall rate in America of 25 percent. And while the government tries with New Deal assistance and even antidiscrimination provisions, agencies responsible for providing opportunities still choose to discriminate.

So tempers rage. Anger boils where smiles once flourished. But still, I love my dear Harlem, even if sweet Harlem is now gone.


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Click here to read a historical fiction short story that takes place in 1920s Harlem.