Harlem, 1940: Dancing at the Renaissance

Palmer Hayden (1890-1973), <em>Jeunesse</em>, 1927. Watercolor on paper. Courtesy, Hayden Family Revocable Art Trust

Palmer Hayden (1890-1973), Jeunesse, 1927. Watercolor on paper. Courtesy, Hayden Family Revocable Art Trust

This is the 4th part of my series on the history of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina, an organization made up of black North Carolinians who had moved to New York and other northern cities in the century after the Civil War.

In the spring of 1940, the New York City chapter of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina held its annual dance at the Renaissance Ballroom and Casino in Harlem and apparently it was not to be missed.

“The hundreds present had a right good time talking over old times and when they were not doing this they swung out to the music of Vernon Andrade’s orchestra,” proclaimed the New York Age (18 May 1940).

Clyde Bernhardt, a jazz trumpeter and blues singer, was in Andrade’s orchestra. In his autobiography, he recalled the scene at “the Renny” back in those days, saying, “The place was the most famous ballroom in Harlem, at one time more popular for big-time society dances than the Savoy.”

Located on West 138th Street, next to the Abyssinian Baptist Church (another Harlem landmark), “The Renny” had a casino, a dance hall, a theater, a billiard parlor and restaurant.

It was the site of Joe Louis fights. Count Basie, Billie Holiday and a host of jazz greats performed there. The NAACP held anti-lynching meetings there, and its dance hall doubled as a basketball court.

A group of African American businessmen built the Renaissance Ballroom and Casino in Harlem in 1923. Courtesy, New York Times

A group of African American businessmen from the Caribbean built the Renaissance Ballroom and Casino in Harlem in 1923. This photograph is from the 1920s, before the building was expanded into the grand entertainment complex it later became. Courtesy, New York Times

The Renny’s dance hall/basketball court, in fact, was the home court for what many basketball fans consider one of the best teams in history, the Black Fives squad known as the Harlem Rens.

The Renaissance Ballroom and Casino was all that and more. But for at least one evening in 1940, the Renny was just a place where people of color from North Carolina’s tobacco hamlets, mill towns and fishing villages could come and get a little taste of home and dance the night away.

The romance of the Renaissance Ballroom and Casino is remembered in a 1949 poem by Langston Hughes. Courtesy, citylimits.org

The romance of the Renaissance Ballroom and Casino is remembered in a 1949 poem by Langston Hughes. Courtesy, citylimits.org

Being a member of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina was not, in short, all work and no play. We can see that in the New York Age’s coverage of the group’s New York City chapter especially well.

First organized in 1897, the New York City chapter was centered in Harlem by the 1920s and held a dance at the Renaissance or some other big Harlem ballroom every year, beginning in 1922.

But that was hardly all: by 1940 the chapter’s president, Addie P. Johnson, was overseeing a sprawling organization that was one of Harlem’s largest social organizations and held all kinds of social events.

Milton Bond, CT Savin Rock Amusement, ca. 1940? Reserve glass painting. Image from Westport River Gallery, Westport, Conn.

Milton Bond, CT Savin Rock Amusement, ca. 1940? Reserve glass painting. Image from Westport River Gallery, Westport, Conn.

Those social events ranged from a fundraiser at “beautiful Club Witoka,” a popular nightclub on West 145 Street, to a banquet for the chapter’s “Flower Club” at the Jewell Restaurant on Seventh Street (now Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard).

Every summer, the New York City and the Brooklyn chapters of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina even teamed up for a bus trip to Savin Rock, a big amusement park and beach resort in West Haven, Conn.

Here’s how the New York Age described their trip to Savin Rock in August of 1941:

The Sons and Daughters of North Carolina, Inc., held their annual bus outing to Savin Rock, Conn., last Sunday with five buses and many private cars in the party. It was a happy reunion of native North Carolinians who now are living in New York City and Brooklyn.

Postcard from a "Mr. and Mrs. Marshall Brown and friends" at Savin Rock, 1908. African Americans in Connecticut and New York had vacation at Savin Rock since at least the late 1800s. Courtesy, Connecticut Historical Society

Postcard from a “Mr. and Mrs. Marshall Brown and friends” at Savin Rock, 1908. African Americans in Connecticut and New York had vacation at Savin Rock since at least the late 1800s. Courtesy, Connecticut Historical Society

By that time, the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina in New York City seemed to be doing something all the time. And no wonder: there were black migrants from North Carolina everywhere.

I don’t know how many of them came from North Carolina, but between 1910 and 1940 alone, an estimated 1.5 million African Americans left the southern states and moved just to Harlem.

If even five percent of those black migrants came from North Carolina (and I have to assume far more than that did), then the city with the largest number of black North Carolinians in 1940 was not Raleigh or Charlotte. It was not Greensboro, Durham or any other city in the state of North Carolina either.

Instead, seen in that light, the center of African American life in North Carolina was 500 miles to the north. It was New York City, home to refugees, exiles and freedom seekers.

To be continued-

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