“I wanted to share those memories, to give the community—and others just passing through—a glimpse of all the wonderful people who were part of Harlem. I wanted them to realize what Harlem has produced and inspired.”
—Faith Ringgold (1930–)
Faith Ringgold has accomplished exactly what she set out to do at the 125th Street station on the #2 and #3 line of the New York City subway system. Titled Flying Home: Harlem Heroes and Heroines the glass mosaic dates from 1996. The murals are composed of a total of 10 panels, featuring 28 Harlem-related personalities and institutions, 16 figures on the Downtown platform appearing in five panels, and 12 on the Uptown side featured in five other panels.
Ms. Ringgold took inspiration for the title of her mosaic from a Lionel Hampton song, Flying Home. First recorded by the Benny Goodman Sextet in 1939, the tune is based on one that Mr. Hampton hummed earlier. As a member of Mr. Goodman’s band, Mr. Hampton, along with the other band members, was waiting to board a flight from Los Angeles to Atlantic City to play an engagement. To calm his nerves, because he had never flew in an airplane, Mr. Hampton hummed a tune. When asked what it was by Mr. Goodman, Mr. Hampton said he did not know. The song was developed from those innocent beginnings. It would go on to become Mr. Hampton’s theme song.
The mural panels pictured here are on the Downtown platform wall, toward the rear of the train. The mosaics recall Harlem’s cultural zenith. The artist aimed to capture the period’s spirit; she does this by placing the historic personalities airborne. Primarily known as a children’s book author and illustrator, Ms. Ringgold uses the yearning for freedom, symbolized by flight, in her book illustrations.
Located at 253 West 125th Street, between Eighth Avenue, now Frederick Douglass Boulevard, and Seventh Avenue, now Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard, the Apollo Theater opened in 1914 as the New Burlesque Theater; African-Americans were not welcome as performers or patrons. When mayoral hopeful Fiorello La Guardia campaigned against burlesque venues in 1933, this one was shuttered. The following year it re-opened as the Apollo Theater.
At the Apollo’s inaugural show, Jazz à la Carte, on January 26th 1934 Ralph Cooper (1908–1992) served as master-of-ceremonies. Mr. Cooper would found the Apollo’s Amateur Hour, which launched the careers of many black performers. In 1935, at the age of 19, Billie Holiday (1915–1959) made her Apollo debut. Ten years later Dinah Washington (1924–1963) made her first appearance there.
The Apollo was the premiere showplace for music, dance, and comedy performed by African-Americans; and it was one of the first entertainment venues to welcome an interracial audience. Although she never performed at the Apollo, Florence Mills (1896–1927), an internationally-celebrated singer, born in Washington, D.C. a child of former slaves, was an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance.
The Ink Spots, a pop vocal quartet, would perform, with various members and at various times, on the Apollo’s stage from August 1934 to December 1952. The members taking to the air in Flying Home are Jerry Daniels, Deek Watson, Billy Bowen and Bill Kenny.
Built in 1889 by Oscar Hammerstein I (1846–1919, grandfather of the Broadway musical librettist), the Harlem Opera House, located at 211 West 125th Street, was demolished in December 1959.
Pictured flying above the Harlem Opera House are two world-renowned stage performers, Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson.
Although Marian Anderson (1897–1993) was beloved for her contralto singing voice, and she was offered roles by some of Europe’s top opera companies, she did not appear in a staged opera. She declined the offers because she did not believe she could act.
Baritone Paul Robeson (1898–1976) was celebrated for his singing and his acting. He starred in the 1928 London première of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s, Showboat. Also in London he took the title role in Shakespeare’s Othello to great acclaim. As a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance Mr. Robeson appeared in productions of The Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings.
The Cotton Club, patronized by New York’s elite, was dubbed “the Aristocrat of Harlem.” Located on the second floor of a two-story building at the corner of West 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue, now Malcolm X Boulevard, it began life as Club Deluxe in 1920. The name change came in 1923 when Owney Madden, a prominent bootlegger and gangster took ownership of the club. The performers and staff members were black; but only white customers were welcome.
The Cotton Club, a cornerstone of the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance, was renowned for the high quality of its floorshows. The Columbia Broadcasting System, CBS, broadcasted what was known as the Cotton Club Parade over the airwaves, presenting new and established talent to listeners across the United States.
Bessie Smith (1894–1937) and Josephine Baker (1906–1975) regularly sang at the Cotton Club, the place to see and be seen. Duke Ellington (1899–1974) led the Cotton Club band from 1927 to 1930, and sporadically over the eight years after that.
Although Yankee Stadium is not in Harlem, it was the setting for two well-known boxing matches involving black prize fighters, Joe Louis (1914–1981) and Sugar Ray Robinson (1921–1989).
Joe Louis fought Max Schmeling (1905–2005) for the heavyweight championship on the night of June 22, 1938 at Yankee Stadium with 70,043 customers looking on. The fight, lasting only 124 seconds, was a rematch of a fight that Louis, 24, lost to Schmeling exactly a year before. There were political implications to the match-up as well. Schmeling, 32, was touted as a representative of Adolph Hitler’s Aryan race; a Nazi party publicist, traveling with Schmeling, placed stories in the newspapers stating that a black man could not defeat Schmeling, who was born in the former Kingdom of Prussia.
On the night of June 25, 1952, Sugar Ray Robinson challenged Joey Maxim to win the light-heavyweight crown. In Yankee Stadium 48,000 fans witnessed the match, where the temperature in the ring was recorded to be 104 degrees. Mr. Robinson, who lost 16 pounds during the fight because of the weather, also lost the fight, and Mr. Maxim, who lost 10 pounds, retained his title. Mr. Robinson would fight Carmen Basilio (1927–2012) at Yankee Stadium on September 23, 1957; he lost that middleweight title bout too.
Opened in 1968 the Studio Museum in a rented loft. The goal was to create a space in Harlem that focused on art by contemporary African-American artists, and make it accessible to the neighborhood’s residents. It moved to its present location, 144 West 125th Street between Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard and Malcolm X Boulevard in 1977. One of the first artists to work in the museum’s top floor studio was Willie Birch (1942– ), whose “Harlem Timeline” is a featured work of art on our Subway Art Tour Four.
Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000), whose 2001 mural, “New York in Transit” is featured on our Subway Art Tour One, served on the Studio Museum’s curatorial council when it opened in 1968. Along with other artist and historian council members, Lawrence helped to guide the early years of the institution. In 1969 the museum held a solo exhibition of Mr. Lawrence’s work, featuring works from the “Toussaint L’Ouverture” of 1937 and 1938, a series of forty-one paintings chronicling the life of the Haitain revolutionary.
Mr. Lawrence and these artists soar over the Studio Museum in the fifth panel of Flying Home. Each of the following artists were major players in the Harlem Renaissance. Augusta Savage (1892–1962), a sculptress, she attended the Cooper Union School of Art. Upon returning from Paris, where she studied at Académie de la Grande Chaumière, she opened the Savage School of Arts and Crafts in Harlem in 1932. Jacob Lawrence was one of her pupils. Romare Bearden (1911–1988) was crucial in the establishment of the Studio Museum in Harlem; his artwork makes up the foundation of the museum’s collection. Aaron Douglas (1899–1979) was a portraitist, a muralist and an illustrator; following the suggestion of an early art teacher he used African themes in his artwork to create a connection between Africa and African-Americans.
“I think it’s going to take about 30 years, maybe 40, before people stop caring whether I’m black and just pay attention to the work.”
—Norman Lewis (1909–1979) a prediction he made to his family as he was dying from cancer in 1979
Marvel at the other half of Ms. Ringgold’s mosaic murals, those on the Uptown platform, when you are part of our Subway Art Tour Four. Other African-American artists have interpreted the history, personalities, and institutions of Harlem at other subway stops on this unique guided tour. Our Subway Art Tour Three also includes stops in Harlem and black artists’ works of art. Discover the museum at the core of the Big Apple. Take the Tour; Know More!
Read our other articles about works of art in the New York City subway. You can see them on our other Subway Art Tours.
Alice & Her Wonderland Pals as Subway Art
Subway Art for “City Dwellers”
Funky New Subway Art
ALL PHOTOS AND TEXT, EXCEPT CREDITED QUOTES, © THE AUTHOR 2018