From 1658 when the Dutch settled in Harlem, they turned the surrounding areas into farmland that remained largely undeveloped for 200 years. However, with time, the population of New York began to grow necessitating commercial and residential expansion northward. There was no way that Harlem could be left out of the development train.
Harlem got its name from a place called Haarlem in the Netherlands. In fact, its initial name was Nieuw Haarlem. Harlem had hosted George Washington and his retreating troops during the American Revolution in 1776, long before the first elevated rail lines were extended here. After the extension of the railway in the 1880s, rows of houses and multi-family apartments began to spring up everywhere in Harlem.
After the completion of the Lenox Avenue IRT line in 1904, hundreds of apartments and tenements were constructed in Harlem to attract the then residents of Lower Manhattan. What followed was an over-supply of houses. Not knowing what to do with the houses, the landlords accepted a proposition by Phillip A. Payton to move black tenants into these houses. That’s how central Harlem became a home for many black families at that time.
From the American South, Lower Manhattan, and the Caribbean, blacks kept pouring into Harlem. After the start of World War I in 1915, lots of foreign immigrants returned to their homelands. They left a number of jobs opportunities that existed at that time in the war industries of the north. That led to an increased influx of blacks from the south to northern cities to take advantage of these opportunities that came with increased wages.
As soon as the First World War ended, Harlem transformed into a sort of black cultural Mecca. The Harlem Renaissance, as it was called, was defined by the flourishing of artistic expression by blacks who had poured into the area. Some of the top figures to emerge at that time were Aaron Douglas, Langston Hughes, Allan Locke, Zora Neal Hurston, and Louis Armstrong. They expressed themselves through art, poetry, and music as a way of proving to America and the world that black people were also artistic, intellectual and humane and deserve to be treated so.
Just like the rest of the country, the Great Depression of 1929 left the black community in Harlem greatly devastated. In 1935 and 1943, they participated the Harlem Riots which were against unemployment, high rents, and racist practices. They did not like the fact that the war industry discriminated them. Somehow, the militant activities of the 1940s was a precursor to what would happen in the 1960s. Reasons Why New York Is the Greatest City in the World.
It is, therefore, not surprising that Harlem would play an important role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. There arose a number of political and religious leaders who voiced the concerns of the black community on street corners as well as on pulpits. Take Malcolm X, Queen Mother Moore, Preston Wilcox, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. To them, Harlem was the place from which they agitated to the social, political, and economic empowerment of black people.