James Weldon Johnson's New York and Four Stops in Central Harlem

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), influential writer, activist, and diplomat, settled into life in Central Harlem in an attractive red Romanesque building near the corner of 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in 1925. He lived in the building, designated a National Landmark because of his presence, until his death in an automobile accident in Maine in 1938. The intersection of W. 135th and 7th Ave., known in contemporary life as Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, served as a major crossroads of African-American life, not just for New York but because of the lives and events lived there, for the larger course of history. On the southwest corner, where Thurgood Marshall Academy stands, now occupied on the first floor by an International House of Pancakes, once stood the former Small's Paradise nightclub, a legendary jazz club that opened in 1925, the same year as Johnson moved in across the street. Small's is also the nightclub where Malcolm X worked as a waiter after moving to New York in 1943. Across the street on the northwest corner stood the Big Apple, a smaller club that nevertheless helped popularize the nickname for the city. Down 135th, at 244, the NAACP had its headquarters, the largest chapter in the country. There, for twenty-five years W.E.B. Du Bois edited the Crisis, the organization's influential publication of news, fiction, and commentary.

Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson (Penguin Classics)A figure at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance, Johnson fused white and black literary traditions, functioning as "a linking agent for black America," as Sondra Kathryn Wilson describes him in her introduction to an edition of Along the Way: the autobiography of James Weldon Johnson. While many still know Johnson solely as the creator of "Life Every Voice and Sing," the song he wrote with his brother in 1900 and later was adopted as the Black National Anthem, he was a widely-published essayist. In a life of many "firsts" - he was the son of the first female, black teacher in Florida at a grammar school, he was the first African-American admitted to the Florida bar after Reconstruction, Johnson was appointed the first African-American professor at New York University and the first to teach African-American literature there.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored ManJohnson's 1912 book, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, recounts the story of a musician born of a black southern woman and a distant white man who struggles with his identity and is able to "pass." As an honest personal reckoning with the meaning of race, the work is historically specific but with a timeless message. New York figures importantly in the work as a beguiling, if dangerous, landscape in which to cast one's aspirations:

"New York City is the most fatally fascinating thing in America. She sits like a great witch at the gate of the country, showing her alluring white face and hiding her crooked hands and feet under the folds of her wide garments--constantly enticing thousands from far within, and tempting those who come from across the seas to go no farther. And all these become the victims of her caprice. Some she at once crushes beneath her cruel feet; others she condemns to a fate like that of galley slaves; a few she favors and fondles, riding them high on the bubbles of fortune; then with a sudden breath she blows the bubbles out and laughs mockingly as she watches them fall."

Johnson's somewhat sinister characterization of the city confirms a pronounced theme in New York's literary tradition - the city's alluring power to attract and then to whimsically crush its hopeful residents. Though part of a larger and older anti-urban theme in American literature, Johnson's articulation of the power of the city served as a cautionary tale for African-Americans seeking a better life at the outset of the Great Migration.

After stopping at this famous crossroads, walk to the nearby Mother AME Zion Church at 146 West 137th Street. The oldest black church in the state was founded in 1796 by African-American residents and later became known as a refuge in the Underground Railway. The church was originally located downtown at 158 Church Street, organized by James Varick and other members of a Methodist Church who wanted to worship on an equal footing. George W. Foster, Jr., one of the nation's first black architects, designed the current Neo-Gothic building (1923-25). The current pastor of Mother A.M.E. Zion Church, Reverend Gregory Robeson Smith, is an activist, businessman, and community leader. His uncle is the famous actor, singer, writer, and activist Paul Robeson (1898-1976). While not as famous as the Abyssinian Baptist Church just a block north (and will be part of a later self-guided walk here), the church is worth visiting during Sunday services.

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Nearby is the NYPL's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (515 Malcolm X Boulevard). Arthur Schomburg, another central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, was a native of Puerto Rico, the son of a freeborn black midwife and German merchant, who moved to Harlem in the 1890s and began collecting a wide range of materials about African-American and Afro-Caribbean history. His extensive collection formed the basis for the center. Look at the library's website for many public programs and online digital presentations.

Following a visit to the Schomburg Center, proceed to Astor Row, the block on 130th Street between Fifth Avenue and Lenox Avenue. A beautiful tree-lied block with well-preserved townhouses on the north side, the south side features an unusual long row of 28 semi-attached houses built between 1880 and 1883. The three-story semi-detached houses are set back from the street, with gardens in front, and all have identical wooden porches. The spacious homes became desirable in Harlem's recent boom, and their sales have become a bellwether for the city's real estate market in the current recession. Read more in this story from the NYT. Harlem's architectural treasures are so vast that they need to be explored on more walks.

Directions: Take to A train to W. 125h and transfer to the B,C to the 135th street stop and walk east.

Images: Photograph of James Weldon Johnson by Carl Van Vechten, 1932. Images of the corner of W. 135th St. and 7th Ave., looking east; Mother AME Zion Church; Schomburg Center; and Astor Row by Walking Off the Big Apple. September 24, 2009.


Tinky said...

I didn't know anything about Johnson. Thanks as always for your extremely literate tour of a new part of New York to me......

Teri Tynes said...

Thanks, Tinky,
The more I read about Johnson, the more I wish I had learned about him in school. Like in a particular program in American Studies, right? I look forward to future walks in Harlem and learning more.