Oral History
A. Philip Randolph

"The Reminiscences of Dr. A. Philip Randolph," interview by Wendell Wray (New York: Columbia University Oral History Office, 18 July 1972), 104–9.
Courtesy of the A. Philip Randolph Institute and the Oral History Collection of Columbia University

Q: I guess where we want to start to day is about 1919. You know, when I asked you the question last weekend, we didn't get around to it—What were the conditions of black people in New York City at that time? Where were you living? How did you find conditions in Harlem, for instance? It was right after the war.

Randolph: Well, the Negro artistic and literary life in Harlem was developing rapidly. They had such people as J. Rosamund Johnson and the group from Howard, Lincoln University, and some of the smaller educational institutions in the South such as Cookman Institute, Edward Waters College, and of course Atlanta University, Fisk, and there was quite a bit of concern and feeling about the future of the Negro. Various and diverse ideas were cropping up. There was a strong wave of artistic interest, too, in the country, because they had plays on Broadway, you know, and Harlem, New York, was a place where for the first time Negroes got out into the mainstream of the dramatic world. You had extraordinarily large dramatic movements. I had once, you know, some dreams about becoming some sort of an actor, and I was active in developing a committee here in Harlem. It was located around the Salem Methodist Church, especially the Epsworth League group.

We gave "East Lynne" at the—I think it was the Lafayette Theatre. My wife and myself gave scenes from "Macbeth" and "Hamlet," "Julius Caesar" and so forth. In fact, we had quite a Shakesperian movement in the community. Of course, we had access to the plays, Shakesperian plays on Broadway, and there was what is known as "The Friends of Shakespeare" which was set up by some of the West Indian groups and my wife. They had some splendid developments of dramatic art, around Shakespeare. They didn't only give scenes, but they dealt with the history, too, the background of various plays, so that it was a very engaging and delightful period for me, because I liked the drama, and thought at one time I would spend a little time, you know, on the stage, but the events in my life and changes in the environment compelled me to seek the means of life, which couldn't come off the stage. But, at the same time, we kept up our interests. My wife and I gave scenes from "Romeo and Juliet," "Othello," and the youngsters in the churches were deeply concerned and interested in anything related to the stage. They wanted to get on there, you know, and see what they could do.

I enjoyed that period immensely. I knew most of the actors and actresses.

Q: Who were some of them?

Randolph: We had one brilliant Shakespearian personality—I've forgotten his name, but he was on the order of Robeson. Robeson was also within the Shakesperian group, that is, was part of plays. He was a powerful actor. He and another man—he and I gave "Damon and Pythias," this man who was very much older than I am, but he had been in the field of the drama, Negro plays, very a long, long time. I'll have to remember his name and give it to you because he was an important personality.

Then you had the Lafayette Players. The Lafayette Theatre, you know, was in its bloom at that time. You had various plays that were making money, because droves of people from Broadway and all around the city came here to look at Negro drama. The Lafayette Theatre made a tremendous amount of money out of it too.

We had this young woman who was a powerful actress. I've forgotten her name now, too, but I'll get it.

Q: Can you remember the plays she was in?

Randolph: Well, she was in a number of plays. She was at the Lafayette at times, and there was another little theater on 135th Street that was known as a troupe coming in and out, you know.

Q: The Suitcase Theatre, or was that much later? That was Langston Hughes.

Randolph: Langston Hughes—yes, that was, of course, later. I didn't have much contact with that, but I knew about it.

Q: Mr. Randolph, you actually lived through what was called the Harlem Renaissance. Would you—were you aware of this as being a Renaissance, or was it just an exciting time to be in Harlem, with all the literary and social life. What is your assessment of what's called the Negro Renaissance?

Randolph: Yes, it was an exciting time for people who had some basic interest in the theater and the place of the Negro on the stage. During that period, Negroes were well paid for what they were doing. You had this man who did the play representing the Negro life in the West Indies—what was that? And of course, [Paul] Robeson was on Broadway. There were a number of young women who were making an important mark on the theater at that time and were on Broadway. There was, you know, a period when most of the Negro actors were confined to Harlem practically, but then there developed this interest in the Negro play on Broadway, and the money was available for the development of that phase of Negro artistic life, and there was a tremendous amount of interest on the part of people coming to Harlem to see Negroes on the Lafayette Stage, because they knew of its work and so forth, and they wanted to see Negroes in the drama.

You had for instance the son of Reverend Bishop. He was one of the beacon lights. He was a great, well-known actor on the stage of the Lafayette Theatre.

Q: Is that some relation to Shelton Hale Bishop?

Randolph: Yes, that's right, same family but it was a different name, brother of Shelton.

Q: Did you know Shelton Hale Bishop?

Randolph: I knew him, yes, but not very close.

Q: What were some of the other places that these cultural events went on? You mentioned the churches, the Lafayette Theatre—were there others, was the "Y" going then?

Randolph: The "Y" was going then, it was active. They, however, didn't have the plays on the order of the ones that were being developed and produced in the Harlem Theatre, the Lafayette Theatre. As a matter of fact, I think the Lafayette Theatre is perhaps the major cultural, dramatic center of Negro life in the country. I've been all around, and I've not come across any other theater or any other place where Negroes were brought together on the stage, where they made it their life, and produced types of plays that people were willing to pay to see.

Now, of course, in Philadelphia you had some very encouraging groups of young Negroes, some of them on the stage of the theater they had there, but they didn't come up to the Lafayette Theatre. Of course, one of the reasons for the Lafayette Theatre progress, too, was that you had Negroes who were playing on Broadway.

Q: Who was the director? I don't seem to associate a name with the Lafayette Theatre. I never think of a director.

Randolph: That's right, You had one man who owned and controlled the Lafayette Theatre, and of course it was a business with him, and when youngsters, young men and women, could make a living appearing on the stage, as well as a name, which they could then go to Broadway and sell their talent, it became quite an institution.

Q: There's a great debate going on now: Some people think that the Harlem Renaissance was made by white people, that they were the ones that were the manipulators, Carl Van Vechten, Nancy Cunard, and those people. There's another group that says there was really an indigenous rebirth of the arts, that all the poets, the dancers, the singers and dramatists were very much . . . I'd like to know—

Randolph: The heart and spirit of that period were created and made by black people. As a matter of fact, there wouldn't have been a Lafayette Theatre without the Negro artists. It was patronized by hundreds of white people all over the city and out of the city that came to see the stage here, as developed by the Lafayette Negro writers and actors. Now, of course, the theater was owned by one of the Jewish theater people, you know, but he could not have had the theater had he not been able to get some talent. And the talent was then being developed.