The Joy of the Harlem Rent Party
In 1920’s Harlem, a card with a rhymed couplet announcing a “whist party” or “social dance,” (or a simple red, blue, or pink lightbulb in an apartment window) was a stealth invitation to a rent party. Follow these signs, and you’d enter a home or apartment that was turned into a modest party space, with refreshments and food for sale and parlor chairs moved against the walls, creating ample space for dancing and live music (usually a three-piece band). Faced with discriminatory high rents and low wages, Harlem renters opened up their homes for parties in order to make some extra cash to cover rent that month. In the process, they also created communion for African Americans fresh from the South, looking for a bit of home in the Northeast.
This Thursday, New York City’s Museum of Food and Drink will pay homage to Harlem rent parties (which ran well into the 1940’s) by hosting a virtual party with food, cocktails, music, and history. The evening will kick off with an optional add-on cooking demo by chef Omar Tate of Honeysuckle Pop-ups and a cocktail demo by historian and beverage expert Tonya Hopkins. Then the main event: Musical performances by actress and singer Marisha Wallace and a history lesson by James Beard Foundation lifetime achievement award winner, Dr. Jessica Harris. Tate, Hopkins, and Harris are all advisors on the committee for MoFaD’s upcoming exhibit, “African/American: Making the Nation’s Table,” an exhibit exploring the many contributions of both enslaved Africans and African Americans to America’s culinary landscape.
In order to get a sense of what Harlemites would eat at a rent party, Tate did plenty of research online. “Some of these parties were happening during the Second Great Migration,” he points out. From 1941 to the late 1970’s, an estimated five million African Americans migrated to points north and west, fleeing the American South and heading to cities like Oakland, California, Chicago, and New York City in search of opportunities for employment. It was common to see dishes like pork chops, stewed cabbage, black eyed peas with rice and potato salad for sale at rent parties. “It was classic southern fare,” Tate says, and the meals provided more than sustenance for partygoers. “It was a taste of the home they’d left.” For the MoFaD event, Tate will share his recipes for cabbage salad with buttermilk dressing, fried fish and grits, a classic southern dish featuring fried fish which is still a big part of Harlem’s culinary repertoire, and gingerbread cake. Hopkins will offer her recipe for a “Harlem Rent Party Red Drank” inspired by the time. Guests are invited to Dress to impress as though you were attending a 1920s, 1930s, or 1940s Harlem Rent Party” and “wear your dancing shoes” for music, celebration, and above all, communion.
The message of the evening is the same as it was then. Even as segregation and discrimination pressed upon partygoers in their day-to-day lives in a city that didn’t always feel like their home, they could come together for a brief moment to be in communion with one another. Tate hopes that virtual attendees of the event take that away too. “I hope that now in this moment we’re living in, people acknowledge that Black people loved and had joy and came together to pay rent,” he says. The medium may be different ,but gathering virtually or in real life gives the opportunity to celebrate being alive at this moment. “We take care of us and we have been forever,” Tate says.
You can purchase tickets for the event here.