A Who’s Who of Harlem – Notable Historic Figures
During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ‘30s, a veritable A to Z of African American artists, activists, and influencers made the neighborhood a star-studded one. But notable figures had made Harlem their home well before then, and have done so since.
Prior to the mid-19th century, the plains of Harlem were primarily farmland, cultivated first by the Lenape and then by the Dutch, who named the area after the Netherlands city of Haarlem. After the Revolutionary War, its bucolic charm attracted the likes of Alexander Hamilton, whose 32-acre estate gave Harlem’s Hamilton Heights neighborhood its name. Cornelius Van Wyck Lawrence, who in 1834 became New York’s first popularly elected mayor, also had an estate here. (Prior to 1834, councils appointed the mayor.)
Another famed Harlem resident of the 19th century, Thomas Nast, was not a statesman—but he was a bane of many of them. The political cartoonist helped bring down the corrupt Tammany Hall organization of Boss Tweed, though today he is probably best remembered for his illustrations of Santa Claus, which codified our modern image of jolly St. Nick. From 1864 till 1872 Nast lived at 24 West 125th Street. His estate was long since razed and replaced by apartments. In 1894 another acclaimed illustrator, Norman Rockwell, was born in Harlem, at 206 West 103rd Street.
By this time most of the grand estates had been replaced by row homes and tenements that housed the waves of Eastern European Jews and Italian immigrants who found Harlem more affordable than other parts of Manhattan. Fanny Brice, the performer whom “Funny Girl” is based on and the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Hungary and Austria, was born in Harlem in 1891 and grew up there. Moe Berg, Major League catcher and a spy for the precursor of the CIA during World War II, was born in Harlem in 1902 and lived there until he was eight. Born Milton Berlinger in 1908 in a five-story walkup at 68 West 118th Street, TV legend Milton Berle grew up in Harlem.
Some well-heeled residents remained. Escape artist Harry Houdini owned a brownstone at 278 West 113th Street from 1904, when he had already achieved global fame, until his death in 1926.
The Great Migration of African Americans in the early 20th century from the Jim Crow South led many of them to Harlem for much the same reason as Italian and Jewish immigrants had flocked here: affordability. This influx led to, after World War I, what was later called the Harlem Renaissance. When Zora Neale Hurston, author of “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” moved into an apartment in 108 West 131st Street in 1925, she was Barnard College’s first African American student. She was soon frequenting the literary salon held by novelist Wallace Thurman at his quarters in a rooming house at 267 West 136th Street, along with fellow writer Langston Hughes and others. From 1947 until his death 20 years later, Hughes worked and lived in the top floor of a brownstone at 30 East 127th Street; the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
The Dunbar Apartments (West 149th-West 150th Streets between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass Boulevards) were built in the 1920s specifically to provide affordable housing for African Americans. Writer/activist W.E.B. Du Bois and performer/activists Paul Robeson and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson were among its residents. Matthew Henson, who worked alongside Robert E. Peary during his expeditions to the North Pole, had an apartment in the Dunbar from 1929 until his death in 1955.
Du Bois later moved to the 13-story apartment building at 409 Edgecombe Avenue; other residents included classical singer and composer Julius Bledsoe, artist Aaron Douglas, activist Roy Wilkins, and future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.
James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, George Carlin, Sammy Davis Jr., Tito Puente, Ving Rhames, Sonny Rollins, J.D. Salinger, and Tupac Shakur are just a few of the luminaries who were born or grew up in Harlem. And while the neighborhood did decline after World War II, it is now undergoing something of a second Harlem Renaissance. Actor Neil Patrick Harris lives with his husband and kids near Morningside Park; chef Marcus Samuelsson lives just a few blocks from his acclaimed Red Rooster restaurant. Emmy winner S. Epatha Merkerson maintains a home in Harlem. Jonathan Franzen lived in a studio on 125th Street while writing “The Corrections,” which won the National Book Award in 2001, and fellow best-selling novelist Richard Price still lives in a Harlem brownstone. And Maya Angelou spent part of the last decade of her life in her five-story brownstone at 58 West 120th Street. The 5,640-square-foot home is said to be the neighborhood’s largest single-family dwelling; it sold in 2016 for $4 million.