Have you ever been unable to pay your rent? During the 1920’s, Harlem residents knew that life all too well. Learn more about the early days of “the struggle” and how the rent parties you may know and love came to be.
First of all, what is a rent party?
It’s exactly what it sounds like! A party that you throw to pay your rent. If you’ve never had to host such an event, consider it the equivalent of a house party, but without everyone pitching in to help you meet your monthly bills.
Origin of the Rent Party
During World War I, a large African American population moved their way up north in an effort to help supply the war effort and in turn, make money. In addition to a lack of work, living conditions weren’t exactly the best. Picture a typical slum, packed to the brim with tenants, often housing 4-5 people in a 1-2 bedroom apartment.
Unfortunately, discrimination was still largely at play during this Great Migration. When one African American moved into a building, Caucasian families would pack their things and move elsewhere. This left landlords in a tight spot and ultimately caused them to charge more simply due to race. Regardless of how much the African American community pitched in to help with the war, their rent rates were unfairly high.
Finding one job was hard enough for 200,000 African Americans, which made finding a second one almost impossible. With minimal pay and few places offering to rent them space, what could they do to make their rent each month? Thus, rent parties were born.
Roarin’ 20’s Rent Parties
Traditional rent parties required invitations that listed the location of the party. These invites were essentially your ticket in and had to be handed to the right person to access the party. This was an extra effort to keep the local authorities unaware of the illegal activity – prohibition was in effect, and producing and consuming alcohol was illegal, on top of hosting an “African American party.”
Close friends, family, and of course, neighbors, would attend such an event. A tight-knit community, these Harlemites were willing to do anything to help a friend out. Plus, who could pass up a night of drinking, dancing, and some of the nation’s most amazing musical talent?
Saturday night became Rent Party Night in Harlem. Most of the time, these events would last into Sunday morning, stopping just in time for church. Thursday nights were also a fairly popular time to host a rent party, mostly because domestic workers had that day off and they could spend the day resting, gearing up to spend the whole night dancing. Most often, though, Saturdays were the primary day for rent parties because that was pay day for most people, which left them with more to give.
Rent parties evolved into a celebration of jazz and blues music, hosting artists like Speckled Red, James P. Johnson, Willie “the Lion” Smith, and Fats Waller. In 1933, Prohibition was repealed, and the advent of throwing a rent party died with it. People would start to enjoy drinking and dancing around Harlem’s local hotspots, leaving those who could not afford to pay their rent forced to find other ways to make ends meet.
Rent Parties Today
You yourself can throw a rent party! It’s not unheard of to ask your friends and family to help with finances, particularly in the current rough economy. If you find yourself struggling to make ends meet, host a rent party at your apartment. Invite close friends and family over for a night of drinking, dancing, and jazz to commemorate the vibrant history of rent parties (and to scrape together enough cash before the end of the month)!