The inter-war period saw significant changes worldwide, as nations focused on rebuilding themselves. There was a brief period of economic prosperity in countries such as the USA, UK and France that led to a social and cultural revolution, including art, music, literature and film.
Heralded as the Jazz Age, a music genre that originated in the African American communities of New Orleans, the 1920s saw Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith rise to fame. They performed at venues in Harlem, New York such as the Cotton Club, Savoy Ballroom and Connie’s Inn, with the latter two venues opening their doors to both Black and white patrons. This music revolution coincided with the migration of African American communities from the countryside of the south to the large urban centres of the north.
Alongside the music, was a flourishing dance scene, with the emergence of styles such as the Lindy Hop and Charleston, which were incorporated into Broadway revues, gaining mainstream appeal. Musicals such as Shuffle Along (1921) launched the careers of artists such as Paul Robeson, Florence Mills, Adelaide Hall and Josephine Baker, all of whom went on to achieve international success. Josephine Baker achieved fame in Paris, performing at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and in the silent film Siren of the Tropics (1927), as one of the first Black artists to achieve success in France.
Several Black writers also chose to live in Paris during this time such as Countee Cullen, Alain Locke and Claude McKay, cultivating parallel social, cultural and artistic movements within the USA and Europe. Dubbed the Harlem Renaissance (or the New Negro Movement), writers and poets such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston shaped the era with an unapologetic voice of Black identity.
The forerunner to Black History Month, The Negro History Week, was also established in 1926 by Carter G Woodson, who also founded the peer-reviewed Journal of Negro History and established the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH).
Thanks to new opportunities and relative freedoms, communities rich in artists, scholars and intellectuals were steadily becoming more visible worldwide.
In the UK, educational movements shaped the foundations for political and social change. The West African Students’ Union (WASU) was established in 1925 by Ladipo Solanke. Inspired by Sierra Leonean politician Herbert Bankole-Bright, the organisation grew to become a powerful British socio-political tool rooted in Pan-African ideals of unity, co-operation, and self-determination. WASU became one of the earliest examples of Black intellectuals in Britain, and one of the longest running. Members of WASU established their presence nationally by publishing a periodical circulated across Europe and Africa. It became a platform in which young African and Caribbean people could discuss issues of racism, discrimination, independence and colonisation.
British musical halls welcomed African American artists such as Florence Mills, who starred in the musical Plantation Revue, which toured to the London Pavilion in 1923. With cabaret acts gaining esteem, Florence Mills became an international star with Blackbirds, gaining fans amongst royalty with the Prince of Wales telling press he had seen the show 11 times. Under the influence of activism and art, Black identity and its incorporation and influence into social life was developing in contemporary British history.
The national and international fascination with cabaret was widespread and could be found in the music hall and theatre across the UK. Evelyn Dove, Britain’s very own groundbreaking Black cabaret star, performed at the Royal Opera House, in Silver Street, Leicester on 29 May 1925. Her performance would have been one of the earliest introductions of jazz and cabaret in the East Midlands region. Dove was the daughter of Francis Dove, a barrister from Sierra Leone and British-born Augusta Winchester. Although she was a trained contralto, it was almost impossible for a Black singer in Britain to have a career on the concert platform as she had hoped. After graduating at the Royal Academy of Music, she joined the famed Southern Syncopated Orchestra (SSO) in 1921, comprised of African, African Caribbean and African American musicians.
In 1925 Dove was invited to join the touring musical of all-Black American musical ensemble Chocolate Kiddies, starring Adelaide Hall, which toured Europe, as one of the first all-Black casts. Later Evelyn Dove gained esteem working with the BBC, becoming one of radio’s most popular singers.
Bourne, S., (2016) Evelyn Dove: Britain’s Black Cabaret Queen, London: Jacaranda Books
Costello, R., (2015) Black Tommies: British Soldiers of African Descent in the First World War, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press
Gates, H.L, Higginbotham, E.V., (2009) Harlem Renaissance Lives: From the African American National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Rye, H “Southern Syncopated Orchestra: The Roster”, Black Music Research Journal, Volume 30, Number 1, Spring 2010.
The establishment of ‘Aggrey House’. Available at: https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C4496182 (Accessed on 15 July 2019)
The WASU Project. Available at: https://wasuproject.org.uk/history-of-wasu/ (Accessed on 15 July 2019)
Breakthroughs 1920s. Available at https://www.uchicago.edu/breakthroughs/1920s/ (Accessed on 11 September 2019)