Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: An African American History Month Celebration

Over the last two decades Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation has become synonymous with African American history celebrations. To fulfill our mission of preserving and sharing African American history our organization hosts unique “edutaining” (entertaining and educational) events. This year the foundation will celebrate African American History Month with “Harlem Renaissance Fair” an evening of glitz and glamour featuring live jazz music, dance, poetry, presentations, displays and performances by actors and costumed re-enactors portraying historical figures of the era. Guests are encouraged to wear attire of the 1920-30s. The affair will take place on Friday, February 19th, at the Richard J. Ernst Community Cultural Center on the Campus of Northern Virginia Community College.

The “Harlem Renaissance” was a period from the early to mid 20th century when African Americans experienced a cultural, social and artistic explosion of creativity. This “New Negro Movement” was fueled by the combination of a flourishing African American intellectual and elite class, an increasing black middle class, the influx of thousands of southern blacks migrating to northern industrial cities in search of jobs, opportunities and a better life, as well as the influence of many francophone black writers from African and Caribbean colonies who lived in Paris.

Harlem became the Mecca for New York but Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Newark, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, Memphis, Tulsa, Jacksonville, St. Louis and Baltimore all shared the rising tide of cultural achievements. Great strides were made in literature, music, art, theatre, education, athletics, political thought and leadership. The heavyweight champion of the world was Jack Johnson, an African American. The Negro Baseball League drew crowds equal to their white major league counterparts. African American artists, like Aaron Douglas, Lois Jones, Jacob Lawrence and Augusta Savage established a black arts movement. Black scholars and political leaders, such as W. E. B. DuBois, Carter G. Woodson, Marcus Garvey and Alain Locke wrote of a new identity for African Americans known as the “New Negro Movement,” emerging in Northern cities.

Whites audiences journeyed “Uptown” to Harlem and enjoyed performers like Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and dancers like Josephine Baker, Bill Bojangles, and the Nicholas Brothers. Some places like the Cotton Club catered to an all white audience with black performers, others like the Savoy had mixed audiences and performers.

Paul Lawrence Dunbar was a prolific poet and writer who inspired a new generation of writers. Langston Hughes, “The Shakespeare of Harlem,” was one of those so inspired. Another was Zora Neal Hurston, whose collection of Southern African American folklore and tales, led to her becoming the leading cultural anthropologist of African American life and culture. Her plays and literary works gave light to a new generation. For example, “The Color Purple” by writer Alice Walker was influenced by Hurston’s work.

African American musicians created blues and jazz music, which are the basis for popular music. Blues evolved into ragtime, swing, be-bop, do-wop, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, rock, funk and hip-hop. Bessie Smith, Lead Belly, Alberta Hunter and Robert Johnson, among others, laid the foundation for blues and rock and roll. Scott Joplin, Nobel Sissle, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and others laid the groundwork for the musical revolution of the American art form called jazz. Jazz became the theme music of the “Roaring 20’s.”

The Harlem Renaissance evening will include remarks by George Mason professor, Dr. Spencer Crew, a scholar on the “Great Migration” and “Harlem Renaissance.” The Thad Wilson Jazz Orchestra and vocalist Sharon Clark will perform music from the early Harlem Renaissance period. The Guardian Dance Company of Baltimore will perform dance moves like the jitterbug, lindy hop and swing. New York based actor, David Mills brings Harlem Renaissance icon Langston Hughes to life in an inspiring, entertaining one-man show that combines theatre, poetry, and song. The second half of the Thad Wilson Jazz Orchestra performance will feature pianist Johnny O’Neal performing jazz from the late Harlem Renaissance era through the WWII years.

During the reception and intermissions costumed interpreters portraying Paul Robeson, Zora Neal Hurston, Moms Mabley, and Josephine Baker will mix and mingle with attendees in the galleries. Guests will munch on delectable and elegant “Soul Food” hors d’oeuvres, prepared by Margaret’s Soul Food. A cash bar will be available. Tickets can be purchased at www.tinnerhill.org, and range from $50 for front orchestra to $20 for balcony. Period attire from the 1920s is encouraged

We’d like to thank our sponsors: Beyer Automotive Group, Diener and Associates, the Falls Church News-Press, Foxes Music, Griffin Owen Insurance Group, AAUW and Northern Virginia Community College Education Foundation, among others.

The Harlem Renaissance Fair promises to be both entertaining and educational. I hope that you will come out and enjoy what we know will be an entertaining and educating experience.


Edwin B. Henderson, II is president and founder of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation..