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Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967)

Langston Hughes was a poet, writer, and playwright. He became a crucial voice during the Harlem Renaissance
Between the end of World War I in 1918 and the stock market crash of 1929, a national cultural movement formed in urban African American communities aimed at drawing attention to racial injustice and highlighting the positive aspects of African American culture. African Americans had created vibrant urban African American communities in large northern and Midwestern cities, such as St. Louis, Chicago, and New York City, in the early 1900s. The most famous of these communities was located in Harlem, an area of New York City, and it was from this community that the national movement took its name. African American artists, authors, poets, journalists, playwrights, politicians, and musicians worked to create a more positive national perception of black people and black culture, and to develop national awareness of the legal, social, and economic injustices suffered by African Americans in the United States. Jazz music, the soundtrack to the Harlem Renaissance, became nationally prominent, and many important poems, books, and works of art came out of this movement.
, an African American literary movement of the 1920s and 1930s. His work celebrates the lives of black people and speaks out against their struggles.

While born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902, James Mercer Langston Hughes did not live in Missouri very long. His father abandoned the family when he was young, and Langston moved to Lawrence, Kansas, to live with his grandmother. In 1914 he joined his mother and stepfather in Lincoln, Illinois, before they moved to Cleveland, Ohio. Hughes graduated from Central High School in Cleveland in 1920.

After high school, Hughes traveled to Mexico hoping to reconcile with his father who lived there, but his attempt was unsuccessful. While his father wanted him to pursue a practical career, Hughes was determined to become a writer. He wanted to move to Harlem, a black neighborhood in New York.

By the time he enrolled at Columbia University in New York in 1922, Hughes had already published his first poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Inspired by the Mississippi River
The Mississippi River runs south from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico and is considered the chief river in North America's largest drainage system. Bordering Missouri on the east, the river flows for 2,530 miles. Along with the Missouri River and several other tributaries such as the Ohio River, the Mississippi became part of the nation's first major transportation system in the early 1800s after the invention of the steamboat. Missouri has historically engaged in international trade by shipping and receiving goods along the Mississippi through the port of New Orleans, which lies at the river's mouth.
, he had written it just outside of St. Louis on the way to Mexico. Hughes left school after only a year and traveled to Africa and Europe as a seaman.

When Hughes returned to the United States in 1924, he continued to write. He published his first collection of poetry, The Weary Blues, in 1926. He also returned to college. This time Hughes attended the historically black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. After receiving a BA in 1929, Hughes continued to be a world traveler. He always maintained a connection to Harlem, living there off and on throughout his life.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Hughes’s work as a poet and playwright received much praise in literary circles. His art mixed blues and jazz with traditional forms, giving him a unique style. Many in the African American community did not like his focus on the hard life of common blacks. Hughes, however, saw beauty in these struggles, and he tried to capture the entire black experience in his writing, not just part of it.

Despite these criticisms, Hughes’s writings influenced many, and he soon became known as the “Poet Laureate of Harlem.” In the 1940s and 1950s, Hughes’s works such as Jim Crow’s Last Stand and Montage of a Dream Deferred inspired both artists and early civil rights
Civil Rights refers to rights that all individuals in a society are guaranteed by their government in order to protect them from unfair treatment. In the United States, a citizen's civil rights are outlined in the first ten amendments of the Constitution, which are called the Bill of Rights.

Langston Hughes died in New York City on May 22, 1967. He remains one of America’s most significant writers of the twentieth century.

Text and research by Elizabeth Engel


References and Resources

For more information about Langston Hughes' life and career, see the following resources:

Society Resources

The following is a selected list of books, articles, and manuscripts about Langston Hughes in the research centers of The State Historical Society of Missouri. The Society’s call numbers follow the citations in brackets. All links will open in a new tab.

  • Books
    • Christensen, Lawrence O., William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, eds. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 409-411. [REF F508 D561]
    • Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York: Knopf, 1940. [REF I H8734b]
    • _____. Montage of a Dream Deferred. New York: Holt, 1951. [REF I H8734mo]
    • _____. The Weary Blues. New York: Knopf, 1926. [REF I H8734w]
    • Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986-88. [REF F508.1 H8743r]

Outside Resources

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Historic Missourians: Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes, 1942Langston Hughes, 1942.

[Courtesy of the Library of Congress, photo by Jack Delano]

James Mercer Langston Hughes

Born: February 1, 1902
Died: May 22, 1967 (age 65)
Categories: African Americans, Writers
Region of Missouri: Southwest
Missouri Hometown: Joplin