Thursday, October 21, 2010

Treasures from the Vertical Files: Harlem Uproar House Souvenir Booklet and Menu

The latest treasures from the vertical files include a souvenir booklet and menu from the Harlem Uproar House, which was once located on 51st Street at Broadway in New York City during the 1930s and 1940s. The menu details the food and beverage offerings of the establishment, which was open every night from 6pm to 4am. The souvenir booklet introduces the various performers employed, who took part in the four shows given each evening.

Harlem nightclubs were a well known fixture of the Harlem Renaissance, however the existence of black nightclubs in New York City dates back to the 1860s. As the popularity of nightclubs rapidly increased during the 1910s steps were taken to make them appear more respectable. This included the adoption of the French term “cabaret,” which sounded far more sophisticated than a mere club.

With the passage of Prohibition, Harlem cabarets also took on the identity of speakeasies, illicitly serving alcohol to their patrons. As white New Yorkers began showing interest in the “exoticism” of Harlem, some nightclubs became segregated, serving only whites and sometimes light skinned African Americans. However, these establishments remained exclusively staffed by black singers, musicians, performers, cooks, and wait staff. The white practice of venturing to Harlem in order to relax their class values and morals was known as “slumming.”

Despite furthering discrimination through the practice of segregation, Harlem cabarets are also renowned for the opportunities they gave African American musicians. The nightclubs allowed black singers and musicians a variety of venues to perform in, where jazz and blues prevailed. The smaller clubs typically featured a modest sized band and solo singer, while larger ones might also include entire musical numbers as well as an assortment of performers.

Harlem cabarets and nightclubs are recognized for the role they played in fostering the development of jazz and blues music, as well as the careers of African American musicians, such as Duke Ellington. However, these establishments also were targeted by politicians and police for allegedly violating vice laws and challenging prevailing social and sexual mores. Today, clubs like the Harlem Uproar hold the fascination of researchers for this blurring of racial, class, sexual, and cultural boundaries.


Mumford, Kevin. Interzones: Black/White Sex Districts in Chicago and New York in the Early Twentieth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Vogel, Shane. The Scene of Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Wintz, Cary D. and Paul Finkelman. Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. Volume 1 and 2. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Posted by Nicole Carmolingo, AARL Archives Intern

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