Leaders of the Harlem Renaissance

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Who were the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance?

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 The Harlem Renaissance was an artistic movement that began as a way to fight against racial injustice in the United States. Yet, it is remembered most for the fiery poetry of Claude McKay and Langston Hughes as well as the vernacular found in the fiction of Zora Neale Hurston. 

How did writers such as McKay, Hughes and Hurston find the outlets to publish their work? How did visual artists such as Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller and  Augusta Savage achieve fame and funding to travel? 

These artists found support leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Leroy Locke and Jessie Redmon Fauset. Read more to find out how these men and women provided support to artists of the Harlem Renaissance. 

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W. E. B. Du Bois: Architect of the Harlem Renaissance

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W.E.B. DuBois. Public Domain

Throughout his career as a sociologist, historian, educator, and sociopolitical activist, William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois argued for immediate racial equality for African-Americans. 

During the Progressive Era, Du Bois developed the idea of the “Talented Tenth,” arguing that educated African-Americans could lead the fight for racial equality in the United States. 

Du Bois’ ideas about the importance of education would be present again during the Harlem Renaissance. During the Harlem Renaissance, Du Bois argued that racial equality could be gained through the arts. Using his influence as editor of the Crisis, Du Bois promoted the work of many African-American visual artists and writers.

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Alain Leroy Locke: Advocate for Artists

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Painting of Alain Locke. National Archives and Records Administration

As one of the greatest supporters of the Harlem Renaissance, Alain Leroy Locke wanted African-Americans to understand that their contributions to American society and the world were great. Locke's work as an educator, advocate for artists and published works all provided upliftment for  African-Americans during this time in American history. 

Langston Hughes argued that Locke, Jessie Redmon Fauset and Charles Spurgeon Johnson should be considered the people “who midwifed the so-called New Negro literature into being. Kind and critical--but not too critical for the young--they nursed us along until our books were born.” 

In 1925, Locke edited a special issue of the magazine Survey Graphic. The issue was entitled, “Harlem: Mecca of the Negro.” The edition sold out two printings.

Following the success of  Survey Graphic's special edition, Locke published an expanded version of the magazine. Entitled The New Negro: An Interpretation,  Locke’s expanded edition included writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Arthur Schomburg and Claude McKay. Its pages featured historical and social essays, poetry, fiction, book reviews, photography and visual artistry of Aaron Douglas.

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Jessie Redmon Fauset: Literary Editor

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Jessie Redmon Fauset, literary editor of The Crisi. Public Domain

 Historian David Levering Lewis notes that Fauset's work as a critical player of the Harlem Renaissance was "probably unequalled" and he argues that "there is no telling what she would have done had she been a man, given her first-rate mind and formidable efficiency at any task."

Jessie Redmon Fauset played an integral role in building the Harlem Renaissance and its writers. Working with W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson, Fauset promoted the work of writers during this significant literary and artistic movement as literary editor of Crisis. 

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Marcus Garvey: Pan African Leader and Publisher

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Marcus Garvey, 1924. Public Domain

As the Harlem Renaissance was picking up steam, Marcus Garvey arrived from Jamaica. As leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), Garvey ignited the "Back to Africa" movement and published a weekly newspaper, Negro World.  Negro World published book reviews from writers of the Harlem Renaissance. 

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A. Philip Randolph

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 Asa Philip Randolph's career spanned through the Harlem Renaissance and the modern Civil Rights Movement. Randolph was a prominent leader in the American labor and socialist political parties who successfully organized the Brotherhood for Sleeping Car Porters in 1937. 

But 20 years earlier, Randolph began publishing the Messenger with Chandler Owen. With the  Great Migration in full swing and Jim Crow laws in effect in the South, there was much to publish in the paper.  

Soon after Randolph and Owen founded the Messenger,  they began featuring the work of Harlem Renaissance writers such as Claude McKay. 

Every month the pages of the Messenger would feature editorials and articles concerning the ongoing campaign against lynching, opposition to United States’ participation in World War I, and appeals to African-American workers to join radical socialist unions.

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James Weldon Johnson

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

 Literary critic Carl Van Doren once described  James Weldon Johnson as " …an alchemist—he transformed baser metals into gold”(X). Throughout his career as a writer and an activist, Johnson consistently proved his ability to uplift and support African-Americans in their quest for equality.

In the early 1920s, Johnson realized that an artistic movement was growing. Johnson published the anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry, with an Essay on the Negro’s Creative Genius in 1922. The anthology  featured work by writers such as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes and Claude McKay.

To document the importance of African-American music, Johnson worked with his brother to edit anthologies such as The Book of American Negro Spirituals in 1925 and The Second Book of Negro Spirituals in 1926.