From the Editors
Reigniting a renaissance
The 1920s were a watershed decade for African-Americans, as hundreds of thousands (of eventual millions) flowed northward for better opportunities than those that existed in the American South, where institutionalized racism was still strongly entrenched. Of course, there was still plenty of discrimination to go around in the Northeast and Midwest, but at least in major northern cities like Chicago, Detroit, and New York, there was hope.
In no place was optimism greater than in Manhattan's Harlem neighborhood, which became the cradle of African-American (and really all-American) reinvention. The Harlem Renaissance of a century ago was predicated on the idea that — like the flame in a hot air balloon — literature, art, and music could lift an entire race into a stratosphere previously unbroached. During this period, writers and poets such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston and jazz figures such as Duke Ellington and Fats Waller rose to prominence, leaving an indelible impression on American culture that transcended race. Harlem's Apollo Theater, which debuted in 1934, hosted the who's who of black popular music — spanning the genres of jazz, soul, R&B.
Now a distant memory, Erie's Pope Hotel hosted many of the same acts that graced the Apollo — stars such as Ellington, Aretha Franklin, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Ethel Waters, Pearl Bailey, Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Scatman Crothers, and Lionel Hampton. As Erie's African-American community continued to (and continues to) deal with discrimination, disempowerment, and disenfranchisement, the Pope Hotel was a place where its creative spirit could breathe and flourish. Jonathan Burdick examines the legacy of this bygone venue and the gradual improvement of black music's profile in Erie. The Gem City should consider itself blessed to be touched by such rich talents.
Today's African-American talents and visionaries are not "just passing through" — they live here. Impressive artists like Ceasar Westbrook (this issue's cover art contributor, interviewed in these pages by Nick Warren) represent Erie's black community strongly and proudly — but for a true 2020s renaissance, we need to get more of it involved. A good start for many would be a brick-and-mortar community college for a population that could greatly benefit — a cause Jim Wertz passionately argues for in his latest installment of Erie At Large.
This Erie belongs to all of us. Let's allow more voices to be heard, from our concert halls to our City Hall.