Alfred University News

Students, professors study Harlem Renaissance up close

A group of Alfred University students and their professors traveled recently to New York City, touring the streets and intersections of Harlem, where African American artists in the early 20th century sparked one of the great movements in U.S. art, literature, and music.

Alfred University Professor of English Rob Reginio, one of the trip’s organizers, describes the Harlem Renaissance as a burst of creative energy in the literary, musical and visual arts in the African American community centered in Harlem. The artistic energy took off in the waning years of the First World War and soared through the 1920’s.

“It was largely the result of the Great Migration,” says Reginio, who teaches the Renaissance along with classes in Modernism, Samuel Becket, and Bob Dylan. “Harlem became an African American enclave and a place of ferment for African American artists and musicians from around the U.S. and the African-Caribbean Diaspora….They were trying to recover some of the history that had been erased or suppressed during the preceding years, and they worked to take their own sources of art and create new forms of artistic expression.”

Reginio joined History Professor Mallory Szymanski in escorting students from his Harlem Renaissance class and Szymanski’s African American History class. The trip was supported with funding from Alfred University’s Walrod Fund and Bernstein Fund for Student Travel.

Second-year student Sophia Carter, who had studied the Harlem Renaissance and African American history with both Reginio and Szymanski, said the experience of stepping into a part of New York City she had only read about was “amazing.”

“I’ve been to New York, but never to Harlem. As soon as you step onto the streets, there are so many people, such much music playing, so many buildings and structures from the Renaissance, it was like stepping back into time with a completely modern feel.”

First stop on the tour: A meal at Sylvia’s Restaurant, on Malcom X Boulevard. Additional stops included a visit to the National Jazz Museum, on West 129th Street, where founding Director Loren Schoenberg personally conducted a tour of the museum’s collection, which included the piano Duke Ellington kept in his sister’s New York apartment. Schoenberg, who grew up in Rochester and knows of Alfred University, treated the students to a rendition of “Take the ‘A’ Train.”

The group also visited The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, from where they departed on an organized tour of historic Harlem that included the building where music producer Jon Hammond discovered Billie Holiday in 1933.

Their final stop was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they toured the Museum’s new exhibition, “The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism. “

Carter said the visit brought history alive. “So many of the times we read about history, it feels so distant from us.  To be able to walk on the same streets and eat in the same places was truly very moving.

She added she hopes the trip can be repeated for future students.

“It’s one thing to learn about history. But to witness the history…You just won’t understand it until you walk down those same streets.”