A Walking Tour of Harlem’s Literary History

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I didn’t always appreciate being born and raised in Harlem, New York. Growing up, I was often struck by the stereotypes and caricatures of what others thought of my home. I quickly learned I was from “that” neighborhood, that place you tell your friends not to walk around at night. I can remember funny stories about how one would never go north of 96th Street.

But times have changed. Today, I look at my neighborhood with a weak smile, a faint happiness when I see the new life being born in old haunts combined with a gloomy despair when I look at new luxury condos replacing the homes of those who built Harlem into what it is. Harlem has changed before my eyes, but I never forgot its history. As a writer, I’ve been inspired by the words of Langston Hughes, Claude McKay (author of Home to Harlem), and Richard Wright (author of Black Boy and Native Son), just to name a few. All of these writers made a home in Harlem and were inspired by the soul of their surroundings and its inhabitants.

The face of this thriving community may be changing, but the origins are a testament to the strength of those who made it what it is today. To walk in its street is to know and breathe black excellence—a visit couldn’t be complete without learning the history behind the neighborhood. To start, stroll between these literary spots to learn about Harlem’s past, present, and future.

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Langston Hughes House, 20 East 127th Street

“I can never put on paper the thrill of that underground ride to Harlem . . . . Hundreds of colored people; I wanted to shake hands with them, speak to them. I hadn’t seen any colored people for so long.” —Langston Hughes, The Big Sea

The famous poet came to Harlem in the early 1920s for a brief stint at Columbia University. He fell in love with the Harlem arts and social scene described in his autobiography, The Big Sea. He moved to this brownstone in 1947 and stayed until 1967, writing his autobiography and other works on the top floor.

Today the building still stands and remains an attraction for fans of the writer to visit. After a battle to preserve the home, the nonprofit collective I, Too signed a lease for the brownstone in October 2016. The main floor functions as a learning center for locals and tourists alike to explore the space, where visitors can learn more about the famous writer on select days of the week for limited hours. The center also hosts creative workshops, such as seminars and poetry salons dedicated to developing underrepresented creative voices and a community space for young artists.

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Harlem YMCA & James Weldon Johnson Building, 180 West 135th Street

“Yes, it was a rare sensation again to be just one black among many. It was good to be lost in the shadows of Harlem again.” —Claude McKay, A Long Way From Home

Famous writer and poet Claude McKay took residence in this building between 1941 and 1946. He was one of many notable figures who lived there, including fellow writers Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, for brief periods of time. Today, the Harlem YMCA serves the community with programs and activities for all ages.

Across the street is the James Weldon Johnson building, which was the residence of the late NAACP leader. He lived there between 1925 and1938, and it is where he published poetry and sociological studies.

The Countee Cullen New York Public Library Branch, 104 West 136th Street

“At her [home] Negro poets and Negro number bankers mingled with downtown poets . . . Countee Cullen would be there and Witter Bynner . . . ” —Langston Hughes, The Big Sea

A’Lelia Walker was the only surviving heir to businesswoman Madam C.J. Walker, popularly known as one of the first African-Americans to become a millionaire. In the early 1900s, before and during her time as president of her mother’s company, she became a fixture in Harlem’s social scene and a patron for many established figures in the arts. This public library branch was formerly her home, and she would host grand soirees and dinner parties with notable guests tied to the Harlem Renaissance, such as Hughes, Richard Bruce Nugent, Aaron Douglas, and many others.

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Schomburg Center for African-American Culture, 515 Malcolm X Boulevard

“Assembled from the rapidly growing collections of the leading Negro book collectors and research societies, there were in these cases, materials not only for the first true writing of Negro history, but for the rewriting of many important paragraphs of our common American history.” —Arthur A. Schomburg, The Negro Digs Up His Past

The original library was a prominent place during the Harlem Renaissance, servicing leading figures such as W.E.B. DuBois. It was also the home of the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project, a government program designed to support writers during the Great Depression, and to the American Negro Theater, known for hosting the debuts of famous actors Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. When librarian Regina M. Anderson saw that patrons were interested in work from black authors, she began to gather books that resulted in a collection of rare titles from numerous black writers. Today the research center preserves the library and a selection of Afrocentric artifacts.