My Great Migration to Harlem

“Living at the YMCA in Harlem dramatically broadened my view of the world.” -Constance Baker Motley- civil rights activist, lawyer, judge, New York state senator


I lived at the Harlem YMCA for a week this summer. I met some incredibly interesting people and learned a lot about Harlem and its history and culture. I followed in the footsteps of many of the participants of the Great Migration. I left from my hometown of Richmond early in the morning on a Greyhound bus. The hustle and bustle of a New York City afternoon rush hour was my welcoming. Carrying everything I brought for the week, I made it north to Harlem after getting lost several times on the subway trains. Modern art sculptures and elaborate graffiti were the first things I saw when I came out of the station in Harlem. When I arrived at the YMCA I found my room on the seventh floor of an early twentieth century building. The room was small, but the bed was comfortable. My first night there, I went to the Lincoln Center and I saw a jazz concert. The band, Etienne Charles, was a calypso jazz band from Trinidad, and that day was the Trinidadian Independence Day so the band and the audience were especially vibrant and exciting. Hearing the stories of the lead trumpeter in between the songs made me realize I had come to the right place to do my research. That night I heard about the mixing of Caribbean, African, and American cultures into a new identity that embraced each original identity. The music could not be categorized as either Caribbean, African, or American; instead it was its own new form of music and culture.

Etienne Charles


On my last night in New York, I headed down to Broadway to see Memphis. “Inspired by actual events, MEMPHIS is about a white radio DJ who wants to change the world and a black club singer who is ready for her big break. Come along on their incredible journey to the ends of the airwaves — filled with laughter, soaring emotion and roof-raising rock ‘n’ roll” ( The musical is a story of star-crossed lovers who find themselves battling racism and prejudice in the American society of the 1950s. I found it to be very useful as it relates to my project. Similarly to the way the music Etienne Charles was the product of different cultures, the story of Memphis combined popular white music and and underground race music to create a new musical identity that was universal, rock-and-roll.

Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll – Memphis The Musical