Black Opals: Philadelphia and the Harlem Renaissance

We often think of the Harlem Renaissance as being a cultural and artistic movement confined to a single neighborhood on the island of Manhattan, but in fact this movement was influential across the nation, particularly in other major cities that were undergoing the same type of transformations as Harlem during the turn of the century. Cities like Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia all experienced their own offshoots of the Harlem Renaissance as their growing African-American communities searched for their unique voices.

Originally known as the New Negro Movement after the book The New Negro published by Alain Locke, the movement spread not only through America but also into the Caribbean and many francophone communities with black populations. Its work noting that Locke himself was not from Harlem but had grown up in Philadelphia. Locke wasn’t the first African-American writer to come out of Philadelphia and was far from the last. It was the spawning of the Harlem Renaissance and publications like Fire!! that inspired a movement known in Philadelphia as the Black Opals. Though their publication only produced three issues, its impact and the connections it brought together have had a lasting impact on both Philadelphia and literature at large. It is by understanding how the Harlem Renaissance affected Philadelphia and other cities across the globe that we can better understand the movement’s fuller impact on American history and world literature.

Historical Background

Established in 1682, Philadelphia was the brainchild of Quaker William Penn who had long been persecuted for his religious beliefs. He named his settlement for a Latin phrase meaning “city of brotherly love” and intended for it to be a place where people of all religions and walks of life could live together in harmony. The city became an important trading center and its religious tolerance attracted a variety of immigrants from England, Wales, Germany, Ireland, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, and the West Indies - which brought the first Africans to the area. Quakers, Mennonites, Pietists, Anglicans, Catholics, and Jews were all free to worship in the city, though religious connections often created political connections that led to riots in the city.

Seal of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, borrowed from the more masculine version often used by other anti-slavery societies and abolitionist groups.

Philadelphia still did its best to make itself first among the major American cities and it would have a major role in the American Revolution. After the war, Pennsylvania abolished slavery in 1780 and Philadelphia passed a law that any slaves who stayed in the city for at least six months were free. Groups like the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, Free African Society, Vigilant Association of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, and others soon became involved in networks through the Underground Railroad to bring slaves to Philadelphia and have them meet the residency requirements,

In 1796 alone, 500 slaves from Saint-Domingue gained their freedom because they had been sent there by French colonial refugees avoiding a revolution on the island. As a result of this residency law, Philadelphia’s black population began to grow. Life was still difficult for former slaves in the city, especially as working class whites and new immigrants to the city feared freed slaves would be taking their jobs and other opportunities within the city. Despite this, African-Americans found success. John Mckee was one such man who escaped slavery to Philadelphia where he became one of the richest men in the city through his property holdings. Artist Henry O. Tanner was the first African-American elected to the National Academy of Design while Philadelphia’s City Center is home to the oldest African American Episcopal Church congregation in the nation, established in 1794 with its current church built in 1890. The Philadelphia Tribune, published in the city since 1884, is the oldest continuously published African-American newspaper in the U.S. It was also the University of Philadelphia that commissioned W.E.B. Du Bois to study the African-American community in 1899.

W.E.B. Du Bois

Du Bois’ The Philadelphia Negro was one of the first sociological case studies of a black community in the U.S. and one of the first such studies that used social science based on statistics. Du Bois and his wife moved to Philadelphia while he undertook the survey and highlighted issues the community faced, such as being forced to pay higher rents than their white counterparts for inferior accommodations, exclusion from better industrial jobs, and the continuing impact of slavery and its forced separations on familial ties. He also disproved several stereotypes local leaders had developed about the community. It was on this foundation that Alain Leroy Locke would built his own work.

Not long after Du Bois completed his work, the Great Migration would again change the face of the African-American community and Philadelphia at large. Philadelphia was one of the eight major northern cities that attracted approximately two-thirds of the African-American population fleeing the South for better socioeconomic opportunities and status. Many of those who came to Philadelphia were originally from Virginia and arrived in the city to work in the jobs that had opened up as the result of U.S. involvement in World War I. Philadelphia’s black population doubled between 1900 and 1920, largely with migrants from the eastern seaboard. In addition to Philadelphia itself, suburbs of the major industrial area also saw growth in their black populations.

However, the issues the black population had faced in the past were still ongoing. Recent immigrants and poor whites still felt threatened by the competition for job and opportunities these new arrivals presented, leading to the lynching of a black steelworker in 1911 and a series of race riots that killed five people in 1918.

Groups like the Colored Protective Association were formed while local chapters of the NAACP and the Universal Negro Improvement Association - opened to help black workers fight for their rights. By the end of the 1920s, the city had a black population of 220,000 with an established community socially stratified between working class and prosperous business owners and social leaders. By the end of the 1920s, Philadelphia also had the second largest UNIA chapter in the nation and one of the largest NAACP chapters.

Alain Locke and The New Negro

Alain Leroy Locke was born in Philadelphia in 1885, the only child of two parents who were both descended from prominent free black families in the city. His father was the first black postal employee and his grandfather was a teacher at the Philadelphia Institute for Colored Youth. His mother was also a teacher and encouraged his education. He graduated from Central High School in 1902 as well as attended the Philadelphia School of Pedagogy. It was this upbringing and his own intellectual abilities that saw him graduate from Harvard in 1907 and then become the first African-American Rhodes scholar - possibly because some of the selection committee didn’t know he was African-American.

He used the scholarship to attend Oxford’s Hertford College where he studied literature, philosophy, Greek, and Latin. He also studied at the University of Berlin before returning back to the U.S. to teach at Howard University. It was Locke who first highlighted the Harlem Renaissance when he served as guest editor of the March 1925 issue of Survey Graphic, writing a piece titled “Harlem, Mecca of the New Negro.” In December, be published an expansion of that article into the book The New Negro, which included an anthology of writings by African American writers. Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Cladue McKay, Jean Toomer, and Eric Walrond were all featured in the text, which also highlighted how African-Americans perceived themselves as well as how they should perceive themselves. Locke highlighted a need to challenge stereotypes and replace them with a new concept of black identity. Particularly, he wanted people to see African-Americans as complex human beings rather than one-dimensional stereotypes.

While not everyone agreed with Locke’s idea, the book was widely supported because it showed how the African American community had advanced culturally, economically, socially, and intellectually. Those who were critical of the book often felt it painted too rosy a picture of life for African Americans, reflecting an ideal rather than a reality. There was also a concern that the book might make those outside the African-American community think that there weren’t still inequality issues impacting the community and that those who claimed there were had made it up. Still, the book served as an aspirational tome for many who saw it as a call to made strides for the community, dispel negative stereotypes, and accomplish great things.

Locke continued to serve as a mentor to many of the writers he included in the book - particularly Zora Neale Hurston - and also encouraged other educational and literary endeavors by black Americans. Philadelphia soon began adopting the philosophies laid out in Locke’s book, though it became known more as a musical center than a literary one at first. Josephine Baker, John Coltrane, Marian Anderson, Ethel Waters, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bessie Smith were all either born or passed through the city during formative portions of their career. Many of them performed at places like the Dunbar Theatre, opened in 1921 as a haven for black artistry. It would be later in the 1920s that many of Philadelphia’s black literati would come together for their own Harlem Renaissance.

The Black Opals

In 1927, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston were among the collaborators on a Harlem-based publication seen as a young person’s literary counter to the magazines published by more establishment groups like the NAACP. Fire!! was a short-lived publication that had an amazing impact of bringing several writers from the Harlem Renaissance together, publishing important works and making connections that continued to have an important impact for years to come. It was this publication that inspired several black writers in Philadelphia to try their own hand at a literary magazine to reach out to the young, emerging writers of the movement.

Philadelphia was a bit different than Harlem - a bit less experimental and often focused on temperance, moral uplift, cultural improvement, economic stability and other characteristics one might consider good, old-fashioned working-class values. Black Opals was designed somewhat more in this vein than Fire!! The magazine was about 16 pages per issue - about three issues total - containing poetry and short stories as well as essays and what we now might call thinkpieces. The name for the publication was taking from Nellie Rathbone Bright’s 1926 poem Symphonesque, published in FIRE!! and a future recipient of an O. Henry Award. Bright and Arthur Huff Fauset were the co-editors of the magazine. Its first issue included a poem by Langston Hughes and an article written by city native Locke.

Nellie Rathbone Bright

A public school teacher in Philadelphia, Bright had lived most of her life in the city though she had been born in Georgia. Her family was one of the many brought to the city through the Great Migration. She was part of the group of young black intellectuals who lived in Philadelphia in the 1920s, and was known by her students for teaching them about the achievements of black historical figures as well as encouraging their own accomplishments. She also wrote poems and texts for both young adults and adults about ethnic identity and minority history, sometimes with Fauset as a co-author.

Her co-editor Arthur Huff Fauset was also a longtime Philadelphia resident and, along with Locke, a graduate of Central High School. His sister, Jessie Redmon Fauset, was more of the family celebrity being the literary editor of the NAACP publication The Crisis. Arthur Fauset was interested in African-American folklore and used the Harlem Renaissance to bring attention to traditional tales, songs, jokes, and conundrums. He promoted the concept of letting African Americans speak for themselves rather than imposing his own theories in his anthropological stories. He also imbued a sense of pride in this cultural tales and used them to debunk stereotypes.

Arthur Huff Fauset

Together, Fauset and Bright brought together some of the best literary minds Philadelphia had to offer. Mae Virginia Cowdery - also known as Mae V. Cowdery - was a born and bred Philadelphian who was born into an upwardly mobile family. She had been a poet as a child and was accepted into the prestigious Philadelphia High School for Girls. She was still in high school when she was published in Black Opals. Countee Cullen was immensely interested in her poetry, praising her work and inviting her to submit to Opportunity, a larger Harlem-based journal he was editing. She would also go on to win a poetry contest in The Crisis and the Krigwa Prize. However, the only book of poetry she managed to publish was 1936’s We Lift Our Voices.

Idabelle Yeiser, another prominent member of Philadelphia’s black literary community, was another frequent contributor. Having traveled to Africa and France, she also worked as a school teacher in Philadelphia and published numerous academic papers, essays, poems, and short stories throughout the 1920s. Her essay “Letters” would win first prize in an Opportunity contest and was a travel article based on her experiences in Africa. She would go on to publish a poetry collection titled Moods: A Book of Verse in 1937 and another in 1947 titled Lyric and Legend.

Yeiser's first book of poetry, published in Philadelphia.

Other Harlem-based writers also lent their talents to the publication to help get it off the ground. Gwendolyn B. Bennett, a Texas native, is an often overlooked Harlem Renaissance figure who had worked for Fire!! and wrote a column titled “The Ebony Flute” for Opportunity. She had connections to Reading, Pa., and started a support group for many of her Harlem Peers that also saw the support of established scholars.

Marita Boner, a member of Washington’s Saturday Nighters Salon, wrote essays for the publication. Her friend and mentor Georgia Douglas Johnson, the founder of the Washington-based Salon on S Street, also contributed to the publication. Johnson was a playwright, poet, and leader of the anti-lynching movement. Another contributor was poet, playwright, and actor Lewis Grandison Alexander, who often split his time between D.C. and Harlem. He also published works in Boston’s Saturday Evening Quill. Despite being promoted in the Harlem-based magazines of the day, the quarterly Black Opals didn’t have enough subscribers to stay financially afloat and closed in 1928 after only three issues. Even though it's time was brief, the publication’s impact was lasting showing both that Harlem wasn’t the only community capable of producing top quality African American literature and that the movement seemingly begun in Harlem was much more far-reaching than many realize.

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