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L'événement culturel de l'été à Bruxelles!    

Simply Heavenly


Musique: Margaret Martin
Paroles: Langston Hughes
Livret: Langston Hughes

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In 1637 a Dutchman called Hendrick de Forest established a village to the north of the island of Manhattan. He named it after the Dutch town of Haarlem.

During the seventeenth century, slaves to the West India Company built the first wagon road into Harlem. Over the next 200 years, African slaves worked the Dutch and then English farms in Harlem.

In 1644, eleven Black slaves, in service to the Dutch West India Company, were granted conditional freedom. They established a tiny community of free African Americans in what is now known as Greenwich Village, which became a Black enclave for over 200 years. Also in 1644, the English took over what was then known as New Amsterdam and re-named it New York.

In 1655 the first cargo of slaves imported directly from Africa arrived in Manhattan.

By the turn of the eighteenth century, there were so many slaves in New York that one fifth of the population was Black. Black people, both freed and slaves were completely segregated. They were forbidden to testify against a freeman, travel 40 miles north of Saratoga or congregate in groups of more than three.

In 1712 a group of slaves protested by setting fire to an outhouse and killing nine men. The authorities took two weeks to bring them under control. Before being captured six men committed suicide and twenty-one others were executed. Three men were identified as the ringleaders: one was broken on the wheel, one was hung in chains and the last was burned alive. The result of this uprising was to make the laws even more restrictive. A law was passed making whites pay £200 per year to any slave they freed for their life. This resulted in considerably less slaves being freed.

In 1741 a plot was discovered among Black slaves to burn the city.

The end of the War of Independence (1753-83) resulted in more freed slaves migrating to New York.

In 1785 the sale, but not ownership of slaves was prohibited in New York State.

In 1790, 115 slaves were listed for the ‘Harlem Division’ equal to one-third the population of the area.

In 1796, 30 African Americans formed a congregation. Many other Black churches were soon created.

In 1799 freedom was granted to the children of slaves.

In 1807 there were 4000 African Americans in New York, 2300 of them were free.

In 1808 the import of slaves was banned by Congress. Marriage between two Black people was legalised.

In 1817 a law was passed to abolish slavery in New York State in ten years, July 4 1827. Even after slavery is abolished, many Black men could not vote (no woman can). The ownership of property is required to qualify for the vote, most Black men did not meet these requirements. In 1813, 300 Black men vote but this number dropped in the years after.

In 1846 the discussion of the State Constitution led to a debate about the rights of African Americans in the state. One man present stated that "The Almighty had created the Black man inferior to the white man."

During the latter half of the Nineteenth century a huge influx of European migrants pushed African Americans out of their communities and north into other areas of the city. In 1790 Black people were 10% of the population. Fifty years later, although their number has grown they were only 5% of the population. Competition for jobs (mainly at the lower end of the wage-scale) caused friction between the Irish and Black communities. In 1854 street battles were fought over stevedoring jobs. In 1857 there were ‘panic’ riots as the city's unemployed demand work and bread. In 1857 Seneca Village, a prosperous Black community was demolished to make way for Central Park. In 1863 there was further Irish rioting against the Black community. They set fire to the Coloured Orphan Asylum. The influx of Italian immigrants causes Little Africa in Greenwich Village to be re-named Little Italy.

In 1880 the area known as Hell's Kitchen became a new Black enclave with 7th Avenue being re-named Black Broadway. A centre for neighbourhood arts and entertainment it becomes known as Black Bohemia.

Permission for a new subway line was given north of 125th St to an area currently full of marshes and garbage dumps. This resulted in a building boom which collapses beneath excessive real estate speculation in 1904 and 1905.

On August 12 1900 a police officer in civilian clothes arrested a Black woman for supposedly soliciting in Hell's Kitchen. Her husband, whom she was waiting for, came out of the shop were he was buying some tobacco and saw her being manhandled by a stranger. In the fight that ensues the police officer was killed. At the funeral gangs of Irish beat and club Black men and women in Hell's Kitchen. The riot resulted in a mass migration 5 miles north - to Harlem.

This migration coincided with the completion of the Lenox Avenue subway line to lower Manhattan, facilitating the settlement of African Americans migrating from the South and Caribbean in Harlem as well as greatly reduced housing prices due to the slump in Real estate. Philip Payton's African-Am Realty Company leased large numbers of Harlem apartment houses from white owners and rented them to Black tenants in neighbourhoods that began at 135th Street east of Eighth Avenue and over the decades expanded east-west from Park to Amsterdam avenues and north-south from 155th Street to Central Park. In 1910 the population of Harlem had increased from 300 to 4500.

Over the first few decades of the twentieth century, waves of southern African Americans from Carolina, Georgia and Virginia streamed into New York escaping the greater poverty, exploitation and persecution of the South. By 1930 the Black population of New York had more than tripled, to 328,000 persons, 180,000 of whom live in Harlem, - two thirds of all African Americans in New York City and 12% of the entire population. Between 1920 and 1930 the Black population of Harlem increased by nearly 100,000 persons, developing middle- and upper-middle class neighbourhoods such as Strider's Row on West 139th Street.

The migration led to a political, cultural, and social community unprecedented in scope. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion, St Philips' Protestant Episcopal, and Abyssinian Baptist Church moved north to Harlem. The Amsterdam News is founded in Harlem in 1919. The community also supported a vital literary and political life: by 1920 the trade union newspaper the Messenger, edited by A Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, published in Harlem, as did the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's (NAACP)'s magazine Crisis, edited by W E B DuBois and Jessie Fauset, and the National Urban League's magazine Opportunity, edited by Charles S Johnson. Incipient political movements followed the establishment of an branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910 and Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1916. Flamboyant and charismatic, Garvey promoted both a back-to-Africa drive and the first, popular Black Nationalist movement. Harlem also nurtured a socialist movement led by H H Harrison, W A Domingo, and A Philip Randolph.

Especially in the 1920s Harlem nurtured pioneering Black intellectual and popular movements as well as a dynamic nightlife centred around nightclubs, impromptu apartment ‘buffet parties’, and speakeasies. Many of Harlem's cultural venues developed at this time, ranging from the Lincoln and Apollo theatres to the Cotton Club, Smalls Paradise, and Savoy Ballroom. In popular dance, Florence Mills was one of the most celebrated entertainers of the 1920s, while in tap, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson was called ‘The Mayor of Harlem’. In vaudeville, Bert Williams broke the colour line. In drama, Paul Robeson was an honored figure for both his acting and singing.

In 1925 Alain Locke filled an issue of the Survey Graphic magazine with Black literature, folklore, and art, declaring a ‘New Negro’ renaissance to be guided by "forces and motives of [cultural] self determination." Led by writers such as Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston, Harlem was the symbol of that renaissance. In art, Aaron Douglas, Richmond Barthe, and (later) Jacob Lawrence launched their careers. (See the Harlem Renaissance section below)

In music, Harlem pianists such as Fats Waller and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith began one of the most storied traditions of jazz in the world. In the 1920s it included big-bands led by Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and Chick Webb, and individual virtuosos such as Eubie Blake. Later, it included Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis.

In the 1920s Harlem gained some political power and institutions. Arthur Schomburg's renowned collection of Black literature and historical documents became a branch of the New York Public Library (see Schomburg Library). Three years later Charles Fillmore was elected the first Black district leader in New York City, and Black physicians were admitted to the permanent staff of Harlem Hospital.

But such advances were modest. Harlem’s African Americans owned less than 20 percent of Harlem's businesses in 1929, and the onset of the Depression quadrupled relief applications within two years. African Americans continued to be excluded from jobs, even in Harlem. The Communist Party and the Citizens' League for Fair Play organised a boycott of Harlem businesses that refused to hire African Americans, but it collapsed in 1934. A year later frustration erupted into a riot in which millions of dollars in property was damaged and 75 were arrested. By 1937 four African American district leaders were elected, and the Greater New York City Coordinating Committee for the Employment of Negroes was formed.

During World War II migration from the Southern states and the Caribbean increased enormously, the direct result of the opening of defence industry jobs to African Americans, for which the 1941 March on Washington, - organised by A Philip Randolph - was instrumental. But racism persisted, and an incident of police brutality in 1943 precipitated a riot in which six African Americans were killed and 180 were injured. In 1944, on the heels of widespread efforts at improving race relations, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr, was elected to the United.States Congress and Benjamin Davis replaced him on the city council.

The 1940s and 1950s brought further political cohesion and literary expression. Hulan Jack was elected the first Black borough president in 1953. Through the 1970s Harlem was home to heralded writers such as novelist Ralph Ellison, essayist James Baldwin, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and poets Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou, many of them associated with the Harlem Writers Guild. Yet by 1960 middle-class flight from Harlem produced a ghetto in large sections of the community. Half of all housing units were unsound, and the infant mortality rate was nearly double that in the rest of the city. Under the leadership of Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited (HARYOU), organised by Kenneth B Clark, Harlem tried to draw federal funding into the area to rebuild the community and create jobs. The effort was largely unsuccessful, and in 1964, when an off-duty police officer shot a Black youth, a riot ensued. Two people were killed and hundreds injured; stores were looted for several days.

In the 1950s Malcolm X arrived to head the Harlem Mosque and soon created an independent religious and Black Nationalist movement that declared itself ready to fight - "by any means necessary", - against white racism and violence toward African Americans. In 1965, however, Malcolm X was assassinated. His death made him a martyr for Black Nationalists even as his religious movement dissipated.

Percy Sutton was Manhattan borough president for 11 years beginning in 1966. In 1970 Charles Rangel was elected to the congressional seat vacated by Adam Clayton Powell. By the late 1970s, however, deindustrialisation and inflation led to widespread unemployment while poverty, drugs, crime, and a deteriorating school system plagued the community for the next decade.

Today, poverty and unemployment are still in evidence in Harlem, but regeneration is underway. Violent crime rates are down, federally-funded and community-led schemes have brought businesses (albeit largely white-owned) back to Harlem, affluent African Americans are moving back into the area and significantly, Bill Clinton has established his post-presidential offices on 125th Street. There is some distrust of these developments: (one activist called Clinton the "missionary of gentrification") as some see the changes to Harlem as white-owned businesses taking advantage of federal funding to make a subsidised land-grab. There are also fears that the unique cultural heritage of Harlem might be lost. However, the mood seems to be generally optimistic as a renewed sense of community and greater prosperity for the area are experienced. Some have even suggested that Harlem, ever the heart and soul of Black America, might be seeing a second renaissance.



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