Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Langston Hughes: A few Harlem stops on his birthday
Dapper gentlemen: At a 1924 celebration in Langston's honor, at the home of Regina Andrews on 580 St. Nicholas Avenue. The author is to the far left, followed by future sociologists Charles S. Johnson and E. Franklin Frazier; novelist and future doctor Rudolph Fisher; and Hubert T. Delany, who would become a New York justice in 1942, appointed by Fiorello LaGuardia.
Since I was a teenager, I've had an affinity for writer Langston Hughes, the revolutionary jazz poet who was born 110 years ago today in 1902. I grew up about an hour away from Langston's birthplace in Joplin, Mo. One of the brightest lights of the Harlem Renaissance grew up here?, I frequently pondered in English class. In fact, Hughes is considered Joplin's most famous son.*
But you don't need to follow Langston's footprints back to the Ozarks. Celebrate his birthday with a mini-walking tour, four Manhattan addresses that were pivotal to Hughes' development as an iconic African-American voice and a star of the Harlem literary scene:
181 W. 135th Street (corrected, see note) -- Langston's first exposure to Harlem's creative energy was as a Columbia University student in 1921, wandering the street, hoping to see "Duke Ellington on the corner of 135th Street, or Bessie Smith passing by, or Bojangles Bill Robinson in front of the Lincoln Theatre, or maybe Paul Robeson or Bert Williams walking down the avenue." [source] Before moving into Columbia's Hartley Hall, however, Langston took a room here at the YMCA, known for its live drama productions and art shows. He didn't need to stroll around to find Robeson; he got his start acting in productions at the YMCA.
NOTE: Thanks to Stephen Robinson for the following correction to the information above: "I'm afraid you've got the wrong address for the YMCA at which Langston Hughes would have stayed. From 1919-1933, the YMCA was located across the street from the current building, at 181 West 135th Street. You can see the footprint of this building on the 1930 map we use on our site Digital Harlem: Everyday Life, 1915-1930 , and find more information about it by doing a search for Places, location type=YMCA."
634 St. Nicholas Avenue -- Although Langston would rent out a studio in 1938 down the street at 66 St. Nicholas Avenue, he frequently stayed at this address in the Sugar Hill area of Harlem, the home of his friends Toy and Emerson Harper. (He referred to them as 'aunt' and 'uncle'.) Hughes later moved with the couple to another address...
20 East 127th Street -- For 20 years, Hughes worked out of the top floor, by now an international phenomenon. He was residing here (his own 'ivory tower') when he died in 1967. The house was up for sale for most of the year, but was finally sold in December in a Sotheby's auction.
515 Malcolm X Boulevard (at W. 135th Street) -- The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a branch of the New York Public Library, is Hughes' final resting place. His ashes are contained underneath the foyer floor, beneath an inscription: "My soul has grown deep like the rivers." But the library always had a long association with Hughes. His 'poetry-play' 'Don't You Want To Be Free' played to sold-out crowds in the basement of the library in 1938. The play co-starred Robert Earl Jones, the father of James Earl Jones.
You can find a far more in-depth walking tour of 1920s Harlem here.
*Another African-American cultural icon, George Washington Carver, was born in the town of Diamond, Mo., fifteen minutes southeast of Joplin. If you're ever swinging through that area of the world, the George Washington Carver National Monument, where his home was located, is worth a stop.