Langston Hughes is regarded as one of the most significant American authors of the twentieth century. Foremost a poet, he was the first African-American to earn a living solely from his writings after he became established. Over a forty-year career beginning in the 1920s until his death in 1967, Hughes produced poetry, plays, novels, and a variety of nonfiction. He is perhaps best known for his creation of the fictional character, Jesse B. Semple, which first appeared in a Chicago Defender newspaper column in 1943. Hughes writings focused mainly on the lives of plain black people and show their beauty, wisdom, and strength to overcome social and economic injustice.
Although Hughes traveled extensively and later called New York City home, this biographical sketch focuses on his stay in Washington, D.C. from November 1924 to January 1926. Black Washingtons middle class community experienced a literary rebirth during the 1920s. Eventually, some writers took their skills to Harlem, a section of New York City widely considered to be the "Mecca" of black culture in the 1920s.
Hughes was born on February 1, 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, but grew up in Lawrence, Kansas. His parents separated shortly after his birth, because his father disliked racism and moved to Mexico. Hughes' grandmother raised him. As a teenager, he joined his mother in Cleveland after she had remarried. From 1916 through 1923, Hughes visited his father in Mexico often.
During this period, he published his first prose, "Mexico Games" in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) periodical for children, the Brownies Book. When crossing the Mississippi River in route to Mexico in 1922, he also wrote his famous poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."
In late 1924, following travel abroad, Hughes returned to the United States with little money. He joined his mother and younger brother at the home of relatives in the premier black residential area of Washington, LeDroit Park. They stayed in the 1900 block of 3rd Street, NW and later moved to an apartment, located at 1749 S Street. There was another reason for Hughes' presence in Washington. Though he would earn a degree from Lincoln University (PA) in 1929, he really wanted to attend Howard University. Saving enough money for tuition became his goal.
Shortly after his arrival in the City, Hughes sought a position as a page at the Library of Congress, but Washingtons black leaders were unsuccessful in landing him this choice position. Hughes accepted an advertising job at the black weekly, the Washington Sentinel, but quit the paper shortly after because of poor pay. He then took a job at a laundromat. During his leisure hours, he spent time on 7th Street, NW where ordinary black people lived. Along the storefronts, he observed them eating barbecue and fish sandwiches. Seventh Street residents were poor but cherished life. They shot pool and told many tall tales. Here, Hughes saw something else of interest. People sang and played the blues. Although the songs were happy or sometimes sad, they often contained the theme of the underdog moving on despite social unrest.
Hughes also visited sanctified Churches on 7th Street and enjoyed the spirituals. He liked the blues and spirituals so much that he integrated them into his poetry. Hughes frequented other locations in the City too. On Saturday nights, he stopped by author Georgia Johnsons home at 1461 S Street to discuss literature, eat cake, and drink wine. Hughes also observed Jewish merchants on upper 7th Street plying their wares.
Following a bad cold that cost him his laundry job, Hughes landed a better one as Dr. Carter G. Woodson's assistant. At 1539 9th Street, NW, Woodson edited the Journal of Negro History, not far from the 12th Street YMCA where Hughes once stayed. At a salary of $55 per week, Hughes tasks included cleaning the office and reading proofs. Because reading proofs irritated his eyes, Hughes quit and began work as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel.
Working at the Hotel, located at 2660 Woodley Road, NW, resulted in a stroke of good luck for the money-strapped Hughes. Nicholas Vachel Lindsay, the famous white poet, stayed there. Due to the Citys segregated policy, Hughes could not attend the poet's reading in the auditorium. However, using the ingenuity characterized by his fictional creation, Jesse B. Semple, Hughes hatched a plan. After writing out three of his poems, "Jazzonia," "Negro Dancers," and "The Weary Blues," on a piece of paper, he placed them beside Lindsay's dinner plate one evening. As he picked up trays of dishes, Hughes saw Lindsay reading them. The next day, in local newspapers, Lindsay informed the world of his discovering a "Negro busboy poet."
Hughes gained nationwide fame when an interview by reporters appeared in The Associated Press.
Greater things were destined to come Hughes' way. He grew weary of Washington because of what he often saw as the "rigid class and color lines within the race against Negroes who worked with their hands, or who were dark in complexion and had no college degrees." In January 1926, his poem, "The Weary Blues," won first prize in a competition offered by the National Urban League's organ, Opportunity. This led the white writer Carl Van Vechten to ask him if he had enough poems for a book. Ultimately, Alfred A. Knopf published Hughes first collection of poetry, The Weary Blues. On one occasion, for an admission fee of $1.00, he read from it at the Playhouse, located at 1814 N Street, NW.
Although Hughes would move to Harlem in late January 1926, black life on Washington's 7th Street provided him with a rich cast of characters and indelible experiences. They not only flavored his first two books, The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), but also influenced his writings for decades to come.
Davis, Arthur P. "Langston Hughes." In Dictionary of American Biography, ed. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, 84. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994.
Emanuel, James A. Langston Hughes. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
Fitzpatrick, Sandra and Goodwin, Marva R. The Guide to Black Washington. New York: Hippocrene Brooks, 1990.
"Harlem." In Encyclopedia of Black America, ed. W. Augustus Low and Virgil A. Clift, 417-419. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.
Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1940.
__________________. I Wonder As I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey. New York: Rinehart, 1956.
"Langston Hughes." In Afro-American Biography, ed. Brenda Mitchell-Powell. Detroit: UXL, 1984.
"Langston Hughes." In Dictionary of Literary Biography: Twentieth Century American Dramatists, ed. John MacNicholas, Volume 7. New York: Gale, 1981.
Mikolyzk, Thomas A. Langston Hughes: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1970.
Miller, R. Baxter. "Langston Hughes." In Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Poets, 1880-1945. Volume 48, 220-235, ed. Peter Quartermain. New York: Gale, 1986.
Polks Washington City Directory. Washington, DC: R. L. Polk, 1925-1927.
Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes, Volume I: 1902-1941, I Too Sing America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Smith, Kathryn, ed. Washington at Home: An Illustrated History of Neighborhoods in the Nations Capital. Washington, DC: Oxford Press, 1986.
Tracy, Steven C. Langston Hughes and the Blues. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988.
The following collections include Langston Hughes material:
Photo Credit: Portrait of Langston Hughes, 1930. Photographer unknown. Reproduced with permission, Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.
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The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C., 1920-1930s
http://www.dclibrary.org/blkren/ | last updated June 20, 2003