by Sam Thozer

In the mid-1920s, the luminaries of the New Negro Renaissance placed public faith in Harlem as the unique reserve of intellectual, cultural, and financial power for Black America. They hailed the Upper Manhattan neighborhood as “the Mecca of the New Negro,” a place of pilgrimage for those who wished to be part of the cultural vanguard of this Renaissance, an interwar period marked by the flourishing of African American literature, theater, music, and scholarship. And this “city within a city” was further distinguished, they claimed, by its effective enclosure from the damaging outside influences that spurred the targeted devastation of Black neighborhoods in cities like Washington, D.C., in the “Red Summer” of 1919. It was not just “the land of plenty,” as Rudolph Fisher wrote in 1925. It felt like “the city of refuge.”

I argue here that Harlem appeared all the more exceptional in light of the misrepresentation of other parts of the country. Naturally, with its living legacies of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow segregation, the South was treated roughly in prominent texts of the Renaissance including Walter White’s The Fire in the Flint (1924). The Midwest, though, seems on the surface a less likely foil for the promise of Harlem. Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Cleveland were the destinations of many thousands of hopeful Black migrants in the 1920s. One might expect commentary on the region to have reflected this optimism. Yet, in the most high-profile Black writing of the time, the Midwest is often depicted as benighted and frightening, certainly no place to flourish. Even as these cities were booming as essential sites of industrial production, the vibrancy and variety of their cultural production was drowned out by the bright lights of Harlem. This was and remains a highly influential distortion. Selective and misleading depictions of the Midwest contributed to the long-standing scholarly fallacy of a strictly Harlem-centered Renaissance, constricting our understandings of the New Negro movement for decades.

Canonical fictions of the New Negro era typically ignore the expansive region between New York and Chicago. And even when it is considered, the Midwest is typically presented as bleak and inhospitable. This pattern is well illustrated by the eight short stories that feature in Part 1 of Alain Locke’s era-defining edited collection The New Negro (1925), a volume whose contents Locke suggested represented “the first fruits of the Negro Renaissance.” Several of these eight stories are set either in a vibrant Harlem, as in Rudolph Fisher’s “The City of Refuge,” or in a colorful South, as in pieces by Jean Toomer and Zora Neale Hurston. Only one story, however, is set in the Midwest.

“Fog,” by John Matheus (1887-1983), won the Opportunity short story prize for 1925 and was subsequently selected for Locke’s era-defining collection. Matheus, a language teacher, was born in Keyser, a small town on the border between West Virginia and Maryland—two states traditionally belonging to the Upper South. He sets the action in “Fog,” however, “on the bridge between Ohio and West Virginia,” at the cacophonous crossroads between North and South. This is a site of inherent tension, where the twin phenomena of mass migration and ever-escalating industrial production have generated a “modern Babel.” The scene on the bridge is rendered barely human by a mechanical frenzy: “the rumble of heavy trucks, the purr of high power engines in Cadillacs and Paiges, the rattle of Ford,” the “pounding” of a “thunderous” freight train, “a steamboat’s hoarse whistle,” the “swish, swish, chug, chug” of the boat’s “mammoth stern paddle wheel,” “the asthmatic popping of the pistons,” “a loud steam laundry,” and “the clank and clatter of a pottery.” Where humans enter the frame, they are a profane presence: the “raucous shouts of smutty speaking street boys” mingle with “the godless voices” of prostitutes. These noises are “common to all the towers of destruction erected by modern civilization.” This Midwestern terrain may be “modern” then, and full of the latest technology, but it is nevertheless disordered, not yet fit for respectable people to inhabit. According to Matheus, the Midwestern landscape may generate the raw materials necessary for cultural progress, but it is not where they are refined.

Beneath the cacophony, Matheus’ story also establishes the Midwest as a hinterland for migrants. A train carries a motley group of characters across the bridge between North and South. A dense fog, literal and metaphorical, blankets all of them equally, ensuring that each group’s perspective remains invisible to the others. The “red, rough men” on their way to a meeting to discuss the so-called immigrant problem, for instance, struggle to relate to the harried Italian mother who probably “can’t speak United States” and her job-stealing husband, “Tony Spaghetti.”

A Black family of three, two grandparents and a young girl, head north as part of the Great Migration, seeking a city they can make their own. The grandmother is confident of approaching prosperity because she “done paid dat ‘ployment man an’ he said yo’ bound tuh lak de place,” even though she was never told exactly where to go. Any point North was as vaguely promising as another. Labor agents for industrial magnates toured the South in their hundreds at this time, wooing sharecroppers and farm workers with too-good-to-be-true tales of real wages and the middle-class lifestyles they could buy with “colorblind” cash in Northern cities they had hardly heard of. (This transaction has been vividly captured by the artist Jacob Lawrence and the novelist William Attaway). Such were the dreams sold to the Black grandmother in “Fog.” Their bright future is not guaranteed, however, and in the meantime the weather is worsening: “We all nevah had no such fog in Oklahoma,” the grandmother worries. It is soon revealed that the grandparents now look after their granddaughter because her parents died in the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. And yet, it seems, segregated, hostile Oklahoma at least provided the family a more clearly defined position than this fog-bound Midwestern train carriage, in which the attitudes of those around them are indecipherable.

This treatment of the Midwest as a cultureless nether zone was supported and given scholarly veneer by the leading intellectuals of the New Negro movement. In his essay “The New Frontage on American Life,” published in The New Negro alongside Matheus’ story, the prominent sociologist and editor Charles Johnson presents a thesis of industrial determinism to explain the nature of individual cities and their inhabitants. The locally predominant kind of labor, Johnson suggests, will “determine not only [cities’] respective characters, but the type of person they attract and hold.” Detroit was archetypal of this proposition because work in an automobile plant was of such technical intricacy that, “like the army intelligence tests,” the nature of the work itself “sift[ed] out the heavy-handed worked” better suited to “unskilled” labor in a steel mill in Pittsburgh. This pre-sifting of working-class migrants accounted for the variations between Black populations across different cities: “the furious striving after commercial glory in Chicago, and the chasing of the will-o’-the-wisp of culture in New York; the objective of an unshakable berth in a skilled job at $10 a day in Detroit, and a near future of benign comfort in Philadelphia.” Only in Harlem was a “diversity of employment” available to Black migrants. This befitted the “restlessness” of the Harlem migrant, for whom the “dull arduous routine” of a Black worker’s job in another city simply would not do. Harlem was the only place that could stimulate such active minds.

James Weldon Johnson (no relation to Charles) condemned the Midwest and its Black population even more thoroughly than his namesake, sharpening the contrast with Harlem. J. W. Johnson was Executive Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and therefore an extremely influential voice in the national civil rights conversation, when his social history of Harlem entitled Black Manhattan was released in 1930. In the book, industrial workers in Midwestern factories are presented not only as naïve, submissive gang laborers, but ignorant too. The author’s reasoning here resembles Charles Johnson’s deterministic thesis, except that a migrant’s destination is preordained by their place of origin and cultural preferences rather than their industrial skillset. During and immediately after World War One, when European migration all but ceased while industrial production surged, Black immigrants came north by the trainload to fill empty spots on assembly lines. According to Johnson, at that time, “industry was in no position to be fastidious; it was glad to take what it could get,” even though “many who came were ignorant, inefficient, and worthless” and “there was also a proportion of downright criminals.” New York, he argues, was able to effectively assimilate its immigrant Southerners, in large part because the city’s cultural reputation attracted a better sort of migrant from the coastal cities of Virginia and the Carolinas. The manufacturing cities of the Midwest, by contrast, “received migrants from the cotton-raising regions of the lower Mississippi Valley, from the rural, even the backwoods, districts, Negroes who were unused to city life or anything bearing a resemblance to modern industry.” Johnson presents this distinction clearly: “[a] thousand Negroes from Mississippi brought up and put to work in a Pittsburgh plant will for a long time remain a thousand Negroes from Mississippi,” but Harlem-bound migrants would “astonishingly soon […] become New Yorkers.” In this formulation, Harlem itself exercises powers of acculturation, enriching and emboldening its fortunate inhabitants, while Pittsburgh stands in for the Midwestern manufacturing cities that only drained migrants of their value as laborers. Harlem had integrated citizens–Pittsburgh had unfortunate denizens.

There is good reason to be skeptical of these perspectives on the Midwest. Certainly, Black migrants were exploited by unscrupulous employment agents and captains of industry, whose interest lay in the bottom line. Of course, the labor expected of these migrants in factories and furnaces was grueling and often inhuman. But the common image presented of the country hick, wide-eyed and overawed at first sight of a smokestack upon exiting the boxcar in Pittsburgh or Detroit or Cleveland, is not true to life. To cite just one articulation of a now-established truism in the literature, historian Brian McCammack notes that “many if not most migrants [during the Great Migration] had significant urban experience before moving north, undertaking a step migration from the rural South to the urban South before making the leap to cities in the North” (p. 4). J. W. Johnson’s notion that Midwestern cities suffered from an overwhelming influx of “Negroes who were unused to city life or anything bearing a resemblance to modern industry” is simply not correct in many instances. Moreover, in cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh, established Black institutional presences and charitable organizations helped to generate strongly bound communities with well-understood mutual interests. Just as in Harlem, exceptional Black individuals in these cities distinguished themselves as fearless race leaders.

The Midwest’s vibrancy would have been especially well-known to J. W. Johnson, whose NAACP cooperated with Black communities nationwide in pursuing its civil rights agenda throughout the 1920s. These threads were drawn together in the case of Ossian Sweet’s infamous Detroit home defense in September 1925. Sweet, a respected Black doctor and migrant from Florida, stood accused of murder after offering armed resistance to a KKK-led crowd that gathered to run him and his family out of an otherwise all-white neighborhood. Sweet immediately became a martyr in Detroit, but in Harlem, too, his case made headlines. Sensing an opportunity to capitalize on a cause célebre, the central office of the NAACP sponsored Sweet’s legal defense and sent the doctor on a multi-city speaking tour to rally support for their larger battle against housing segregation. This meant that when the whole Sweet family were sensationally acquitted in early 1926, the triumph redounded to the credit of the Harlem high society, since their leaders could claim a share in this Detroit New Negro’s remarkable success. From its inception, whatever the name that stuck, the New Negro Renaissance was a diasporic movement.

Despite its falsehood, the fabled contrast between the cultured Harlemite and the aimless Midwest migrant persisted for decades across music, film, literature and scholarship. Only in the last three decades has the field of New Negro Studies ceased to look at Harlem as a solitary standing stone in a featureless plain and overlooked monuments close by have finally become the subject of serious study. Darlene Clark Hine, Davarian Baldwin, and many others have seriously considered other sites of great cultural significance to the New Negro Renaissance, most thoroughly (so far) Chicago. Just as importantly, the contemporary voices of men like Alain Locke and the Johnsons were those heard loudest on the subject of the New Negro ever since 1925. Scholars after Cheryl Wall have emphatically written women back into the center and foundations of the movement, and that work is ongoing. A broader frame for New Negro Studies has proven to be an essential remediation for the narrow, Harlem-centric attitude that obscured a nationwide cultural revolution. As this revaluation continues, the full extent of the New Negro legacy will become clearer and clearer, even in the Midwestern cities written off by James Weldon Johnson. We see, in fact, that the fog rolled in from Harlem but slowly it is burning away.

Sam Thozer is a PhD student at the University of Manchester whose work focuses on the New Negro Renaissance in Detroit. He is also Co-Communications and Outreach Editor for U.S. Studies Online.

Edited by Thomas Cryer

Featured image: A January 1940 painting by Jacob Lawrence, “During World War I There Was a Great Migration North by Southern Negroes,” Panel 1 from Migration of the Negro, National Archives at College Park, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.