James Langston Hughes was born February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Mo., to Carolina and James Hughes. From 1903 to 1915, he lived mostly in Lawrence with his grandmother Mary Leary Langston, while his father left the United States for Mexico and his mother searched for well-paying jobs that were not available in Lawrence.
Hughes is connected to a well-known Kansas icon. His grandmother’s first husband, Lewis Leary, accompanied abolitionist John Brown at Harper’s Ferry when Brown attacked the federal arsenal. Leary died from wounds he suffered trying to escape. Hughes’ grandmother kept her dead husband’s blood-stained shawl, and she used it to cover her grandson while he slept. After his grandmother’s death, Hughes inherited the shawl. It was the only thing he salvaged years later when his Harlem apartment flooded.
Charles Langston, Hughes’ grandfather, was part-owner of a grocery store on Massachusetts Street and an editor for a local black paper, the Historic Times. He was active in state Republican politics, like his brother John Mercer Langston, who was a congressman from Virginia and represented the United States as minister to Haiti.
Hughes’s biographer Arnold Rampersad has said that people cannot understand Langston Hughes without understanding his Kansas roots. Hughes wrote about his Lawrence childhood in Not Without Laughter, a semi-autobiographical novel. Hughes wanted to write about a typical midwestern black family, unlike his own experience. Despite the differences between Hughes’s life and the one he created in Not without Laughter, the novel portrays African American life in Lawrence during the early 20th century.
Life for African Americans was not easy in segregated Lawrence. The old Lawrence Public Library (currently the Lawrence Arts Center at 9th and Vermont) was the only integrated public establishment. Hughes escaped his lonely life through books. He wrote in his autobiography The Big Sea, “Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books.”
Hughes attended Pinckney and New York elementary schools and Central School in Lawrence. To the younger blacks in the predominantly-white New York Elementary School, “Langston was their star — well bred, good looking, amiable if somewhat reserved and an excellent student,” Rampersad wrote.
Hughes’s grandmother died when he was twelve, and he went to live with James and Mary Reed, longtime family friends. While living with the Reeds, Hughes attended St. Luke AME Church. Hughes later wrote that the rhythms he heard in the black churches of Lawrence were critical to his poetry. In 1915, Hughes left Lawrence to live in Illinois with his mother.
Hughes returned to Lawrence three times — in 1932, 1958, and 1965 — to visit friends and give poetry readings at the University of Kansas. His connection to Lawrence has been strengthened as the community has recognized his contributions to African American and American literature. A bronze statue of Hughes is displayed in the Watkins Museum. The university has a professorship in his name. A mural at Central Junior High School includes his portrait. An annual creative writing contest celebrates his literary influence. Lawrence’s elementary school is named after Hughes.