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Historian Sheds Light on Harlem's Gay Past

 Historian Michael Henry Adams is posting photos of famous current and former gay residents of Harlem in a window of a flower shop on 122nd Street to showcase the neighborhood's rich gay history.
Michael Henry Adams
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HARLEM — The term "Harlem Renaissance," which captured the social, cultural and artistic tidal wave that catapulted the area to international recognition in the 1930s was coined by Alain LeRoy Locke, a gay man who was not only a professor at Howard University but became the first African-American to be named a Rhodes Scholar.

Yet, the sexual orientation of the area's cultural icons is often left out of the story — a fact that one historian is attempting to change with a collage in the window of a a flower boutique on Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 122nd Street.

“Black people are happy to accept black heroes but they don’t want to acknowledge the reality that some of these people were gay,” said historian Michael Henry Adams, whose "Homo-Harlem" collage in the window Harlem Flo Boutique on 2276 Frederick Douglass Blvd. features photos of famous gay men and women who have lived in the neighborhood.

Among the other gay literati and performers whose photos adorn the window include poet Langston Hughes, writer Dorothy Baker, gay club owner Clinton Moore and current-day Harlem resident actor Neil Patrick Harris, according to Adams, who is working on a book called “Homo-Harlem” on Harlem's gay history.

This is the third collage that Adams has posted on the window of the florist shop. The first featured famous Harlem lovers for Valentine’s Day and then famous Harlem mothers of Mother’s day.

Each collage is meant to showcase African-American history, he said.

“American life is so segregated and so exclusive of black people,” he said. “So I thought, ‘Ok, this is Harlem most of the people are still black. Wouldn’t it be great to see people like them and people who they know in these windows?’”

Louis Gagliano, the owner of Harlem Flo, welcomes the photos and even contributed a photo of his mother of the Spring collage and his own decorations for the display.

Since the photos have gone up, people stop to ask about them whenever they recognize someone on the window. They help bring the neighborhood a little closer, he said.

“People love seeing the pictures,” he said. “This is a big city, when people find themselves or someone they know it makes it a little smaller.”

This month, the flower boutique is having a historical trivia contest. The person who can identify the greatest number of pictures will win a free bouquet.

The contest, like the collage, is meant to get more people interested in Harlem’s gay history. Adams said that while people have a great deal of respect for African-American history they tend to ignore the gay aspects of it — a fact he hopes to change.

“The point of my book is to underscore how many of the most vital and vibrant and crucial people of Harlem history are people who were lesbian or gay,” he said.