The Harlem Renaissance evokes images of jazz clubs, literary salons, and urban style. It marked a flourishing of African American culture and artistic expression. Widely known artists from the period such as Duke Ellington and Aaron Douglas continue to be celebrated today. But what was life like for those outside of these noted creative and intellectual circles?
In 1926, five blocks away from the regular gatherings of Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and other Harlem Renaissance luminaries, Hortense Carter Saxon received a letter from her 8 year old son Howard:
"Dear mother, I am getting along all right and today I was promoted and I was put in the third grade . . . I thank you for my coat and it fit me alright, my rubbers fit me well."
Howard wrote from Hartford, Connecticut, where he lived with his grandmother Bessie Carter and his Virginian cousin Roland Ellis. Saxon had moved to New York City around 1925 to work as a domestic, sending money, clothing, and other items back home to support her family.
The Papers of Hortense Carter Saxon, now open for research at the Schlesinger Library, offer an intimate glimpse into the lives of working class African Americans in New York and Connecticut during the 1920s. Primarily consisting of letters addressed to Saxon, the collection tells an intricate story of familial support, financial hardship, romance, and friendships between black women.
Saxon was in her early 20s when she moved to Harlem, and she led an active social life. She attended parties, went on dates, and kept regular contact with her friends who also traveled across state lines to find work. Saxon's friend Natalie Jenkins had a hard time adjusting to social life in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, where she moved for a new job:
"Well kid, this place is a h--- [sic] of a place. No place to go, can't get a drink, no men, and only the beach. There are a few fellows and girls here working in the hotels but all of them are married or have girls so you know I must be lonesome."
Financial worries were a regular concern for Saxon and her associates. A friend of Saxon's wrote to her dejected about being cheated out of a fair wage, while Saxon's mother wrote her frequently wondering when rent money would be sent. Hortense Saxon's eventual husband Robert Saxon traveled as far south as Florida working in hotels and casinos as a porter. He had difficulty finding long term employment and had to borrow money to come visit her:
". . . You don't know how much I miss you . . . if you could help me to get away from here I will pay you back as soon as I can find some work."
For those interested in the African American experience during 1920s, the Papers of Hortense Carter Saxon provide a valuable individualized perspective on the everyday lives of working class African Americans through a collection of letters, receipts, and bank passbooks. For more information about this collection, see our finding aid: https://hollisarchives.lib.harvard.edu/repositories/8/resources/7291