The Harlem Renaissance ( 1919-1929 ) was honored with a bronze memorial plaque Oct. 15 at the sixth annual Legacy Walk dedication ceremony. The plaque is located between Melrose Street and Aldine Avenue on Halsted Street in Lake View, and celebrates the first urban LGBTQ community in the United States.
This milestone joins 37 other bronze memorial plaques commemorating the Stonewall Riot and the Pink Triangle as well as the lives of LGBTQ people from across history and around the world. Among these individuals are Jane Addams, Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Barbara Jordan, Frida Kahlo, Dr. Sally Ride, Sylvia Rivera, Bayard Rustin, Alan Turing and Walt Whitman.
Polish artist and illustrator Krzysztof Wasko provided the artwork while University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana History Professor Dr. Kevin Mumford consulted on the text for the plaque. A consortium of private individuals sponsored the plaque, which was spearheaded by Legacy Project Board Member Paul Highfield.
Legacy Project Board President Ralph Kennedy spoke about the almost one million dollars that has been raised from corporations, organizations and individuals over the past six years.
Highfield noted the friends and co-workers who have helped him raise funds for this year's plaque and 10 other plaques.
Chicago Commission on Human Relations Board Chair and Commissioner Mona Noriega explained Mumford's role in "calling out the realities and beautiful African-American queerness of the Harlem Renaissance."
Noriega said her job involves seeing the ugliness of discrimination and hate crimes ... "but an affirmative part of my work is about recognizing all communities and the diversity even within each of those communities, which for today means recognizing and holding up for all to see ... the queerness of the Harlem Renaissance."
Noriega spoke about reclaiming history because it saves lives. She said that in this moment, when many communities are feeling under attack with policies that are based on old stereotypes and lies it is important to be reminded of the people who have persevered despite the obstacles they faced.
"I love that the Harlem Renaissance is referred to as a cultural explosion and a literary, musical, cultural and political movement, but most often it is not recognized as begin shaped by LGBTQ people," said Noriega. "We all know that erasing, not recognizing or outright denial of the contributions of African-Americans, women, queer people and many others, is a part of the false narrative that gets weaved into history books that then becomes what we recognize as valid history. The Legacy Project challenges that erasure."
Legacy Project co-founder/Executive Director Victor Salvo noted that this endeavor is a labor of love and called the Legacy Walk a community garden due to the variety of individuals involved in making it come to life. He explained that the Legacy Walk is the only installation of its kind that honors the contributions of LGBTQ people and milestones in the world.
"The Harlem Renaissance was an African-American cultural watershed propelled by the LGBTQ people who were the main movers and shakers within that community, people like Gladys Bentley, Langston Hughes, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Wallace Thurman," said Salvo. "The neighborhood was the first gayborhood in the United States but it did not start out that way. African-American people from all over the country, and particularly the south, were escaping the epidemic of lynching and Jim Crow laws to come to the north [including to Harlem] and make a new beginning and in the midst of all that LGBTQ folks found each other and began to create, without even realizing it, the basic elements that would come to define that era."
Following Noriega's and Salvo's remarks, jazz chanteuse/recording artist Tovi Khali read the biography for the Harlem Renaissance ahead of the unveiling.
A reception followed at Sidetrack with Chicago television personality Wayne Johnson as emcee, and it featured a performance by Khali. About 75 people attended the afternoon dedication and celebration.
Johnson explained that due to talented and creative people and organizations, including the Legacy Project, there has been an increased visibility of the LGBTQ community over the years. He said it is great to hear men refer to their husbands and women refer to their wives as well as LGBTQ people succeeding in business and politics.
"As we know the job is not done," said Johnson. "We live in an amazing community here in Chicago, but there are many folks around the world and across the spectrum who still deal with great challenges from adolescents to adults. Education and awareness helps create comfort zones for more folks to emerge from the shadows and that includes the Legacy Walk. I am happy to be here and be a part of it all."
During the reception a video was shown featuring Salvo and Stoli Ambassador Patrik Gallineaux doing a tour of the walk. This is part of Stoli's year-long campaign, "Raising the Bar," featuring heroes of diversityone of many video series under the Raising the Bar umbrella.
An exhibit of museum artifacts from the Harlem Renaissance was on display at the reception as well as a mock-up of the plaque itself.
The reception featured a silent auction, raffle prizes, bar items by Stoli, food by J&L Catering and sponsorship courtesy of Levi Strauss & Co., Stoli Group USA, MillerCoors, Walgreens, Sidetrack and Center on Halsted.
See legacyprojectchicago.org/ and www.facebook.com/legacyprojectchicago/ for more information.
Note: Carrie Maxwell is a volunteer with the Legacy Project.