A single red lightbulb illuminating the street from an apartment window meant attendees were in for a treat in 1920s Harlem. Inside, pork chops, stewed cabbage, black-eyed peas with rice, and potato salad spread across a table.
Parlor chairs lined the wall, so there was plenty of space to dance the night away to the three-piece live band. But our folks weren’t just partying for a good time.
They had a purpose.
Harlem rent parties looked like house parties from the outside, but behind the drapes, they were anything but. They were intentional, joyous celebrations where a host opened their apartment doors to the community for a night.
Harlemites paid 25 cents to listen to live music, dance, and socialize. Soul food, a taste of home that many newcomers from the South were missing, cost extra. The cash went towards paying the host’s rent.
Discriminatory rental rates and low salaries for Black workers often meant that folks were short on their rent. These parties were a creative way to bridge the gap that anti-Blackness created.
Acclaimed poet Langston Hughes had a collection of House Rent Party promotion cards he gathered over time. “When I first came to Harlem, as a poet I was intrigued by the little rhymes at the top of most House Rent Party cards, so I saved them. Now I have quite a collection,” he wrote in the Chicago Defender in 1957.
Harlem’s rent parties prove how our people refused to wait for things to change. Instead, they leaned on community and embraced creativity to improve their lives.
They remind us of the communal people we’ve always been. We are each other’s business, and caring for each other is fundamental to our liberation.