More than 100 publishers, magazine editors, artists and writers gathered at New York City’s Civic Club on March 21, 1924 to acknowledge and celebrate the emerging abundance of black creative talent. The event was the first of a number of interracial promotional events organized by Charles S. Johnson to draw attention to the young writers of the Harlem Renaissance. The idea for the dinner had been discussed among the members of a group that called itself the Writers’ Guild, it met in Harlem and included Johnson and a number of other writers. Reportedly, the dinner originally was conceived of as a “coming-out party” that would raise awareness of works such as Jessie Fauset’s novel There is Confusion. But as Johnson began to make the arrangements, he made it clear in a letter to Alain Locke that he wanted to include as many writers as possible rather than having an event focused exclusively on Fauset.
The site of the dinner, the Civic Club, had been established in 1917 by, among others, founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); it was one of the few places in New York City that welcomed both black and white members. The guest list was carefully interracial: It included scores of African American writers, many of the most influential white editors and publishers of the time, and key figures in a number of important organizations, such as the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the YMCA. In total, about 110 people attended, including such luminaries as Eugene O’Neill, Ridgely Torrence, Zona Gale, H.L. Mencken, and Clement Wood.
The attendees heard a number of speeches by editors and publishers, including Charles Johnson; Locke; Horace Liveright, whose company had purchased Jean Toomer’s book Cane in 1923, as well as There Is Confusion; W.E.B. Du Bois, the editor of the NAACP’s magazine, Crisis; James Weldon Johnson, who had just edited the Book of American Negro Poetry; and Carl Van Doren, editors of Century magazine. Albert Barnes also spoke, about his collection of African art. Fauset did speak, but so did Walter White, whose novel Fire in the Flint had recently been accepted for publication; Countee Cullen and Gwendolyn Bennett read poems. Montgomery Gregory, the chair of the drama department at Howard University, and poet Georgia Douglas Johnson were also recognized.
The appointed master of ceremonies for the affair was Alain Locke. The philosopher and scholar had already served as mentor to several of the writers recognized at the dinner, and many were looking to him to provide further intellectual leadership to the new generation of black writers and artists. Paul Kellogg, editor for Survey Graphic magazine wrote to Locke and expressed his vision of what he believed the growing movement in black culture cold achieve: “We are interpreting a racial and cultural revival in the new environment of the northern city; interpreting the affirmative genius of writers, thinkers, poets, artists, singers and musicians, which make for a new rapprochement between the races at the same time that they contribute to the common pot of civilization.”
As if to draw a very clear line between the past and the future, Locke used the dinner as an opportunity to thank such venerable veterans of African-American letters as W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson for the literary contributions they had made and upon which the younger writers hoped to build. Addressing the assembly in turn were Walter White, J. Montgomery Gregory, Jessie Fauset, and Carl Van Doren. As the editor of Century Magazine, Van Doren’s comments were particularly striking in his description of the African American condition as an aesthetic advantage to black artists. Concluding the occasion’s program were poetry readings by Countee Cullen and Gwendolyn Bennett. Of those writers later recognized as principal contributors to the Harlem Renaissance, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston were not present at the dinner. Toomer had been invited but elected not to attend. McKay and Hughes were out of the country, and Hurston had not yet made her inimitable entrance into New York.
Appreciative of all that had been seen and heard during the dinner, Paul Kellogg approached Charles Johnson to inform him that he would like to devote an entire issue of Survey Graphic to the work of the new writers. Johnson passed on to Alain Locke the task of actually collecting the work to appear in the magazine and reserved his own responsibility that of alerting black writers and artists throughout the country that a new black cultural movement was under way. The edition of Survey Graphic featuring the younger generation of black artists sold out two printings and garnered a readership of more than 40,000. It also laid the ground work for The New Negro, also edited by Alain Locke and destined to become the defining text of the Harlem Renaissance.
With the Civic Club dinner having set the stage, the movement advanced further with the establishment of literary prizes for plays, essays, poetry, and short stories published in Opportunity and Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races magazines. White publishers backing the works of black writers saw themselves both as assisting the cause of such writers and simultaneously providing American literature overall with a much-needed shot of new energy and inspiration.