At the beginning of the twentieth century, a homosexual subculture, uniquely Afro-American in substance, began to take shape in New York’s Harlem. Throughout the so- called Harlem Renaissance period, roughly 1920 to 1935, black lesbians and gay men were meeting each other. street corners, socializing in cabarets and rent parties, and worshiping in church on Sundays, creating a language, a social structure, and a complex network of institutions. Some were discreet about their sexual identities; others openly expressed their personal feelings. The community they built attracted white homosexuals as well as black, creating friendships between people of disparate ethnic and economic backgrounds and building alliances for progressive social change. But the prosperity of the 1920s was short-lived, and the Harlem gay subculture quickly declined following the Stock Market crash of 1929 and the repeal of Prohibition, soon becoming only a shadow of its earlier self. Nevertheless, the traditions and institutions created by Harlem lesbians and gay men during the Jazz Age continue to this day.The key historical factor in the development of the lesbian and gay subculture in Harlem was the massive migration of thousands of Afro-Americans to northern urban areas after the turn of the century. Since the beginning of American slavery, the vast majority of blacks had lived in rural southern states. American participation in World War I led to an increase in northern industrial production and brought an end to immigration, which resulted in thousands of openings in northern factories becoming available to blacks. Within two decades, large communities of black Americans had developed in most northern urban areas. So significant was this shift in population that it is now referred to as the “Great Migration.” Black communities developed in Chicago, Detroit, and Buffalo, but the largest and most spectacular was Harlem, which became the mecca for Afro-Americans from all over the world. Nowhere else could you find a geographic area so large, so concentrated, really a city within a city, populated entirely by blacks. There were black schoolteachers, black entrepreneurs, black police officers, and even black millionaires. A spirit was in the air-of hope, progress, and possibilities- which proved particularly alluring to the young and unmarried. Harlem’s streets soon filled with their music, their voices, and their laughter.
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