by Joe Kovacs
It’s something of an oddity to mention writers and Washington DC, in the same sentence; one traditionally associates the city with the federal government and policy-making. But in the years immediately following World War I, one of the most significant social and cultural movements of the 20th century, the Harlem Renaissance, received substantial support from an artistic cadre within Washington, including the young poet Langston Hughes.
The Harlem Renaissance, ultimately centered in New York, was characterized during the 1920s and 1930s by an outpouring of literature and intellectual thought from black artists and activists who helped define black pride and identity in a society dominated by whites.
The seeds of the movement were planted in one respect through incidents of interracial tension and rioting that rippled through the United States during in the summer of 1919. The migration of unemployed blacks to northern cities was at an all-time high during the Great War, as servicemen left positions to fight overseas. In many cases, the racial flux of neighborhoods in already cramped cities led to deep anxieties once these servicemen returned from Europe. Discomfited from events witnessed on the global stage and restless from unemployment, many were drawn into the Red Summer riots, from June to September, as violence swept through 15 cities.
In Washington DC, it began with a rumored sexual attack on a white woman by a black predator, an event never confirmed but which incited inflammatory responses from the four daily newspapers. A mob of several hundred whites drew together from Murder Bay off Pennsylvania Avenue, an infamous neighborhood of ruffians and prostitution, and assaulted a black couple walking on 9th and D Streets, SW on July 19.
Over the next several days, as the politics of segregation made blacks the target of police action rather than its object of protection, the community would successfully gather together to resist future mobs. As whites headed confidently down the Seventh Street commercial corridor in Shaw, a neighborhood popular for Southern migrants, they were surprised to be met by an equally-organized group of black men who fended them off and countered with severe damage of their own. Four days of brutal street fighting resulted in 39 deaths and over 150 injuries, including the fatal shootings of two DC policemen.
The attitude of the white mobs particularly incensed black servicemen who hoped that by defending the United States overseas, they would return to a newly respected position in their own country. Instead, heightened Ku Klux Klan activities in the District of Columbia had resulted that year in 28 lynchings, including seven black war veterans who were hung in their uniforms. What many recognized most about the Red Summer riots in Washington DC, was how blacks responded with resistance to white mobs, setting a tone for organized action and racial pride not seen in the past.
But personal artistic expression would be the main thrust of the Harlem Renaissance, and Washington DC, was already beginning to experience the phenomenon of jazz music. Born only a few years earlier in New Orleans as black, Creole and European symphony bands played together for the first time, jazz creatively fused musical styles, achieved a form of its own, and ultimately became known as the revitalization of black culture in a new, original form of expression. The U Street Corridor in Northwest Washington, east of 16th Street, became one of the most famous national arenas for jazz’s first musicians during the 1920s. (In later years, it would play host to such rising musicians as Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway and Count Basie.)
Numerous theaters, including the renowned Howard Theater on 7th and T Street, and Crystal Caverns, or The Cave, on 11th and U Street, became popular for pulling in droves from both sides of the color line, though musicians were primarily black. And though not part of the U Street theater scene at the time, 23-year-old pianist Duke Ellington was just getting started, playing in parties and clubs around the District of Columbia with a band called the Washingtonians. After Ellington moved to New York City in 1924 and earned a regular gig at the just-opened Cotton Club his name would become well known. Moving into this complex, vibrant and racially conscious environment in November 1924 was 22-year-old aspiring writer Langston Hughes.
Hughes was in the midst of a turbulent traveling spree. In early 1921, he had been in Mexico visiting his father. Later that fall, he went to New York to enroll at Columbia University, which turned into a disappointing experience. Segregation and financial problems plagued him: the dorm halls were closed to blacks, he made few friends who weren’t minorities, and support from his father, who didn’t approve of college, was hard to come by. He was much more at home in the Harlem theaters and among the staff of Crisis, a magazine pioneered by Harvard-educated sociologist W.E.B. DuBois who had 18 years earlier authored The Souls of Black Folk, the seminal book on black self-consciousness and pride. Crisis, which DuBois believed would herald a revolution in black pride, consciousness and artistry in the country, and other periodicals established by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), had published early poetry by Hughes, including “Mexico Games” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
But even this wasn’t sufficient for the irritable Hughes who, after a year, wanted to leave New York and see the world. He hopped a ship across the Atlantic Ocean, where he worked odd jobs in Europe, drifted by whatever means became available, and observed the poor social conditions in colonial Africa. When he finally landed in Washington, Hughes moved into a house in LeDroit Park, a neighborhood of brick townhouses, with his mother and brother. (His uncle, who owned the house, expressed displeasure with the young man’s shabby appearance and bohemian lifestyle.)
LeDroit Park was quickly developing into one of the most concentrated black neighborhoods in Washington DC. But while Hughes lived east of 9th Street in the decidedly poorer section of the neighborhood, his relations provided contact with a slightly more upscale and upwardly mobile black middle-class, which Hughes was contemptuous of even as he occasionally sought their assistance.
Professionally, his 15-month stay in Washington would be marked by one failure after another. One acquaintance attempted to secure him an entry-level position in the Library of Congress. But Hughes’ socialist-leaning tendencies, already evident in his writing, made for an awkward match, and the job fell through. He found employment with a black weekly newspaper, the Washington Sentinel, but was annoyed when he was expected to sell advertising space rather than write. He lost a third job in a laundromat due to illness.
The neighborhood also placed Hughes within a few blocks from Georgia Avenue and Howard University, where Professor Alain Locke had joined DuBois to herald the rise of an artistic black consciousness in the United States. Locke hoped that a group of actors he had brought together, the Howard University Players, might one day become the vanguard of black American theater. His literary journal, The Stylus, would help launch the career of student contributor Zora Neale Hurston as a major novelist in coming years.
But without a doubt, the most important influence on the impressionable Hughes was the thriving 7th Street corridor in Shaw neighborhood, just south of LeDroit Park. Shaw–named for Robert Gould Shaw, a white colonel killed leading a black regiment during the Civil–was another predominantly black neighborhood framed by 15th and North Capitol Streets, with M Street to the south. Seventh Street, which had once been a traditional trading route between Virginia and Maryland, was now the social and commercial hub of southern migrant life, and was described by Harlem Renaissance poet novelist Jean Toomer as a crude-boned, soft-skinned wedge of nigger life.
Hughes absorbed the sights and sounds of 7th Street, which he believed were closer and truer to the black experience in America than the airs of social-ladder climbing blacks; he blended in with the down-to-earth lifestyle. Residents scoffed at the sight of the Capitol–a promise of nothing except prejudice–and casually ate barbecue sandwiches and watermelon as they watched life go by.
Amid bleating traffic, liquor stores, churches, the clipping of shears in any number of barber shops or the clacking of balls in a billiards hall, Hughes would overhear tales from those who’d come north during the Great War in search of employment. They passed on remembrances of the Red Summer riots, or spoke about a jazz performance at the Howard Theater. Hughes would hear about segregation under the Wilson administration and the lack of opportunities that prevented advancement by many honest blacks. Information on 7th Street was passed between friends and neighbors with a speed that might never reach the ink of a newspaper. The community’s faith in a higher justice was also powerful. The folk religious tradition of black slaves, aptly codified in Slave Songs of the United States in 1867, had become part of the 7th Street tradition as well, and Hughes would both hear the blues and sing them occasionally himself.
The title of his first poetry collection, Weary Blues, published the same month he left Washington, in January 1926, was a testament to the importance of traditional music in the community and to the significant impact the city had during his early years. Hughes would later write:
I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street–gay songs, because you had to be gay or die; sad songs, because you couldn’t help being sad sometimes. But gay or sad, you kept on living and kept on going.
Hughes’ experiences on 7th Street greatly informed his writing while he lived in Washington and his continued correspondence with DuBois provided a forum for him to gain recognition as a rising talent. He was still publishing in a variety of New York publications, including Crisis, and the socialist publications Workers Monthly and Messenger.
His growing visibility in both cities led to two major literary coups in 1925. The first was his contribution of ten poems, at the behest of Professor Locke, to a book called The New Negro, a collection of essays, articles and other writings that heralded Harlem as the emerging mecca of black artistic expression and self-determination. The New Negro would be considered something of a doctrine for the Harlem Renaissance.
Hughes joined a circle of artists, performers, writers and thinkers who met for Saturday night discussions at the house of Georgia Douglas Johnson on 1461 S Street, NW. An energetic wife, mother of two, full-time employee at the Department of Labor, and an inimitable hostess with literary interests of her own, Johnson served her guests cake and wine, and gently encouraged her visitors to contribute or leave the group. Among the intellectuals and artists who gathered were DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, the first secretary of the NAACP, Professor Locke, novelists Claude McKay, Jessie Fauset and Jean Toomer, poet Angeline Grimke, poet Countee Cullen, and aspiring actor and painter Richard Bruce Nugent, who became a close ally to Hughes.
By this time, the Hughes family (minus Langston’s uncle) had moved out of LeDroit Park to a house only a few blocks away on 1749 S Street. But the change in residence was as meaningless to the young poet as was his change in jobs. The forum provided by Ms. Johnson was more engaging, and uncovered something of a difference in perspective between two groups of thinkers. A younger generation of black artists, represented by Hughes, Hurston and Sterling Brown, who were coming into their own in the 1920s, were somewhat less respectful of the integration of middle class values into their forging of a black identity. The Red Summer riots, which had left an impression in these emerging personalities, influenced their lack of interest in the middle class, which they associated with an aggressive white community. Many of the poems in Hughes first two collections, Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927) would shock socially-conscious blacks, who recoiled from carnal first-hand accounts by low-life narrators, many of whom had been inspired by personalities on 7th Street.
The second group of thinkers, represented by DuBois and James Weldon Johnson, hoped to correct the misperception by whites of the black community as lazy, emotional and unintelligent. They held that a middle-class lifestyle and education by blacks would validate their ability to share the same values and social principles as any other group and help earn them equal status in the eyes of the national population. To some, this represented a compromise. While the younger artists delved into the depth of personal experience to find the core of black identity, the older generation sought economic and social equality.
The emerging jazz scene on U Street–the black Connecticut Avenue–was discouraged by DuBois. While praising the talent and artistry of the young musicians, he believed jazz was an ephemeral form at best in its disregard for the tradition of the folk themes of a Judeo-Christian ethic, which he believed, would finally draw disparate races together. The music’s passion appeared soaked in the coarse elements of human nature and, while drawing audiences from across social and ethnic lines, it still held a connection with the lower elements of the black community.
Jazz appeared to invite one to carelessly flaunt basic human desires–drinking, smoking and sexuality–without social constraints. One of the first jazz recordings by Mamie Smith in 1920, It’s Right Here for You (If You Don’t Get It, T’ain’t No Fault of Mine) had obvious connotations. Hughes would delight in and explore similar themes in his early writings.
A second success (derived from Hughes’ contribution to The New Negro) was the expectation that he would fare well in a literary contest sponsored by Opportunity Magazine, the voice of the National Urban League in New York. His major rival as favorite to win was emerging Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, a contemporary of Hughes who had greater economic resources at his disposal, loved to dress up and had an easier social aplomb. Cullen was destined for an education at Harvard University, and he and Hughes shared an uneasy friendship based on both respect and envy. Hughes edged out Cullen to win first place in the contest, which earned him access to an even larger literary and artistic community in New York.
One new acquaintance, a connected white patron named Carl Van Vechten, reviewed a manuscript of Hughes’ poetry, and personally handed it with his recommendation to publishing giant Alfred Knopf. The result would be Weary Blues.
But for all his literary achievements, Hughes still was having financial problems. Transportation between Washington and New York was economically taxing. He looked like a hobo beside Cullen and, with an ever-widening circle of acquaintances, he grew increasingly self-conscious about how he dressed and fared. Tensions at the new S Street house mounted: his mother, annoyed that her oldest son was bringing home little money, threatened not to feed him unless he found work. It must have been awkward for the young man. While star-struck fans including attractive young women were knocking on his door, asking Hughes for his autograph, his mother was demanding that he get a job.
Hughes moved briefly to the local YMCA with his typewriter, but that ended in failure when police barged into his room one day and carted away his roommate for theft. Hughes was dejected, he said, because his roommate knew how to dress well. Earlier in the year, Hughes had found decent work as assistant to the respected Dr. Carter Woodson, a founder of The Association for the Study of the Negro Life and History. But he didn’t like the work and quit. More likely it was Hughes’ growing literary accomplishments that were making unacceptable any other form of occupation no matter how commendable.
A stroke of luck came in late 1925 after Hughes secured yet another position at the Marriott Wardman Hotel in Woodley Park. At the time, wandering troubadour poet Vachel Lindsay was passing through town and preparing to give a dinner presentation of his verse at the Marriott. As a black busboy, Hughes would not have been allowed into the dining room. But in a brazen display of courage and self-confidence, Hughes slipped into the room before the event and left three poems near the famous Lindsay’s plate. The ploy was a success. In front of an audience of reporters the following morning, Lindsay read the poetry and announced that he had discovered a busboy poet. The story of Lindsay and Hughes was picked up by the Associated Press and ran in newspapers up and down the East Coast.
Hughes’ fame continued to spread, but it was becoming increasingly clear that New York City, in particular Harlem, was the raw nerve center where the cultural achievements of blacks could have a national impact. He was impatient with Washington, DC, which had become for him, a city of bad jobs and family pressures–a dead end. At the same time, the jazz scene, LeDroit Park, and most significantly, life in the 7th Street Corridor helped focus his literary ambitions even further on the struggle for black artistic and social expression.
Hughes was edgy about his failed education at Columbia University and when a poet friend announced that he would be attending Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the nation’s oldest black university, something clicked for Hughes and he decided to attend as well. Jessie Fauset, his earliest correspondent from Crisis, pleaded with him to consider universities such as Harvard, where Countee Cullen was about to enroll. But Hughes dismissively suggested that his friendly rival would get mixed up there with the kind of whites and uppity blacks who could compromise his writing.
Though Hughes was still in financial straits, the Vachel Lindsay incident and the publication of Weary Blues in January 1926 helped him find a patron for the $300 he needed for his first year at college. Professor Locke gained him exposure by staging readings at the Playhouse on 1814 N Street, and another in Baltimore.
Less than a month later, Langston Hughes left for Lincoln University. His poetic ambitions had led to a frenetic 15 months in the District of Columbia and his evident frustration there may have something to do with what we see now, looking back 80 years later. It is unfortunate that the Harlem Renaissance offers the mistaken impression that cultural icons thrived only in New York. In fact, this important period in Hughes’ life demonstrates this was not the case. His exposure to the black neighborhoods of Washington, which still suffered under institutional segregation, and meeting other itinerant artists, helped strengthen his resolve.
As Hughes’ star grew increasingly brighter, so too did his determination to articulate the raw experience of black America grow stronger. He left for college then with a deeper conviction in the voices of the Harlem Renaissance and the support of its leaders. He was destined to become, finally, one of the movement’s pre-eminent voices.
Joe Kovacs is a Washington, DC-based freelance writer. Much of his writing is inspired by travel and internationalism, and he is a regular contributor to WorldView magazine, the membership publication of the National Peace Corps Association.